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In-depth conversation can reduce anti-transgender prejudice, researchers say

On average the people who had experiences that made them relate to being treated differently held more positive views toward transgender people. About 1 in 10 voters' attitudes toward transgender people changed, the study found. 

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Two protesters hold up signs against passage of legislation in North Carolina, which limits the bathroom options for transgender people, during a rally in Charlotte, N.C.

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Eighty-one percent of Americans say they believe that transgender people deserve the same rights and protections as other Americans, according to a 2015 poll by researchers at the University of Illinois Springfield. Yet transgender people still face rampant discrimination, including a shockingly high homicide rate.

But a 10-to-15-minute in-depth conversation could have significant impacts on these biases, according to a study published Thursday in journal Science.

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The study comes on the heels of a heated debate surrounding the rights of transgender people after several states, including North Carolina and Mississippi, approved measures that have been decried as discriminatory towards transgender people. Several other states including Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, and Missouri are considering similar measures, which will likely fuel the debate.

The two researchers, UC Berkeley political science graduate students David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, decided to try out "deep canvassing," a method similar to that used to campaign for candidates and other political causes. But their method was more intimate than the typical canvassing. The canvassers engaged the voters in in-depth conversations about transgender people, asking the respondents to reflect on experiences that made them feel they were treated unfairly because they were seen as different.

The study employed 56 trained canvassers, mostly volunteers from SAVE, an LGBT advocacy organization based in Florida – some were transgender and others were not – who, through engaging 501 voters, found that deep canvassing was successful across many demographics including political affiliation, age, race, and gender. The decline in prejudice also held up over time, even after the canvasses showed the voters anti-transgender ads six weeks after the initial canvassing visit.

"I ask people to think back to when somebody judged them or someone they love," David Fleischer, the director of the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Leadership LAB told the Huffington Post. " 'Do you see a connection between how those people are making you feel and how you might be making a transgender person feel when you're worried about just being at the next sink or the next stall?' We help voters remember and then speak aloud their own real lived experience that is most analogous to the experience at hand."

Following up after canvassing, the study participants answered the same questions that they had answered before the study, including how positively or negatively they felt toward transgender people on a scale of 0 to 100. On average the people who had experiences that made them relate to being treated differently held more positive view toward transgender people – about 1 in 10 voters' attitudes toward transgender people changed, a fact the researchers note, was "greater than Americans' average decrease in homophobia from 1998 to 2012."

The study commissioned by Fleischer served as a vindication, experts say, for the canvass outreach methods that the Los Angeles LGBT Center had developed, which later came under scrutiny following allegations that researchers of a previous study that used the same canvass methods and found similar outcomes had fabricated their results. That study, published in journal Science in 2014, was later retracted after Mr. Broockman and Mr. Kalla discovered inconsistencies while analyzing the effectiveness of the study. Mr. Fleischer had commissioned the initial study intending to personalize the issue of same-sex marriage, following California’s passage of the Prop 8 amendment, dealing a blow to efforts seeking to legalize same gay marriage. The decision was later overturned by the Supreme Court in 2013.

But this most recent study shouldn't be viewed as a solution to fight the measures that have stirred controversy over the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in a number of US states, Broockman tells The Washington Post.

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"The message is not that there's a silver bullet," he tells the Post. "This is [a canvassing technique] that took the Leadership LAB a long time to develop, and I don’t think anyone should be under the illusion that they can just go out this afternoon and employ this technique."


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