The last day of March is the International Transgender Day of Visibility, celebrated each year to honor transgender people around the world and the courage it takes to live authentically and openly. It is also an opportunity to raise awareness about the severe, ongoing discrimination and violence that transgender people often face every day. Estimates suggest that 331 transgender and gender diverse people were killed worldwide in 2019. In the United States, at least 26 transgender or gender non-conforming people were fatally shot or killed by violent means. The majority of those murdered were people of color.
Allies and activists working to mitigate transphobia have often turned to classic social movement tools including street activism and community events. The challenge remains that people often fear those they perceive as different. Most people don’t know anyone who is transgender but many have been exposed to harmful, false stereotypes that depict transgender people as mentally ill and as a threat to children.
How do we push back against this fear and help others treat transgender people with equality and respect? Remind us all that we have a superpower. When we speak up, we can change people’s perspectives, change public opinion, and change public policy. Every one of us can play a part in improving the lives and treatment of transgender people.
The key is to appeal to people’s existing values and feelings, boosting their existing identities and reassuring folks who feel uncomfortable that they are good people. Here is our actionable, evidence-based advice—grounded in empirical data—on how to help folks be more comfortable with transgender people and more supportive of their rights:
First, start the conversation. Changing minds sooner rather than later means making it a social priority and making it the topic of frequent discussion. It’s okay to not know the perfect thing to say; what matters more is showing that the issue is important enough for you to want to talk about it.
When your mom says something at the dinner table about how scared she was when a man dressed as a woman came into the women’s bathroom at her office, don’t just look down at your plate. Don’t berate her but ask why she felt that way and then share your own perspective. Don’t leave that intolerance hanging there. Start the conversation.
Second, share your own journey story or that of others to provide a model of how one can become more supportive of members of outgroups. In our research, when we told folks the story of Kimberley Shappley, a mom who changed her attitude about transgender people after her daughter came out as transgender, people were more than 9% more likely to say they felt comfortable around transgender people and 18% less likely to think that transgender people were mentally ill.
Knowing that others have changed their minds makes it easier for people to allow themselves to do the same.
Third, emphasize humanity and morality in people and how good they feel when they’re acting in a way that’s consistent with their core values. There’s a powerful emotional response called moral elevation. That’s that the warm fuzzy feeling you get when you see those viral videos of firefighters rescuing ducklings stuck in a sewer or a man jumping onto the subway tracks to rescue a stranger who has fallen off of the platform.
When people see a short uplifting video that makes them think about how good people can be to one another, they want to model that sort of behavior. Their levels of transphobia drop and they are 17% more likely to sign a petition giving transgender people access to the public restroom of their choice. When you feel good about yourself, it’s easier to be more open to accepting others.
And finally, strengthen your appeal with famous backup. You can increase the likelihood of openness to persuasion by bringing in celebrities and attitude leaders who agree with you. When people learn that Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, supports transgender people like Staff Sergeant Logan Ireland serving openly in the US military, they become more likely to agree with him.
These strategies work because people in your ingroups want your approval. If you make it clear that you think a certain way, then they will listen to what you have to say because they know and trust you. They might not change their perspective right away. Think of it like launching a boat across a body of water, sailing from prejudice to inclusion. You’re giving that boat a little nudge toward the other shore.
It doesn’t mean you have to convince people to be completely comfortable with everyone who is different. It is entirely possible to support fair treatment for all while still being uncomfortable with transgender people. It won’t work on everyone: Some people are so committed to their opinions that they aren’t able to shift their perspective.
Sometimes, though, you can get them to see things a different way. It can’t hurt to try. The only way that change is impossible is if we don’t try.
Being an ally for social justice means having difficult conversations with people you know and opening them up to treating members of outgroups with respect.