Believing Is Seeing: The Influence of a Transgender Label on Visual Perception and Attitudes

Writer: Samantha Bruno

Date: Spring 2016

Citation: Bruno, S, Howansky, K. M., Albuja, A. F., & Cole, S. (2016). Believing Is Seeing: The Influence of a Transgender Label on Visual Perception and Attitudes. Rutgers Research Review, 1(1).

I am a third-year student pursuing a major in Psychology and minors in Education and Sociology. I have recently been accepted to the dual certification program in elementary and special education at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. My growing interest in the problems our society faces, such as gender discrimination and racial tensions, has led to my research with the Regulation, Action, and Motivated Perception Lab. As an aspiring teacher and an advocate for a better education system, I have always felt passionate about making a difference in the lives of American youth. By exploring the relationship between perceptions of transgender individuals and prejudicial attitudes, I hope my research will bring light to important issues that many LGBTQ students face today, and will help in creating preventive measures in the future.

"She looks like Rita Hayworth, so glamorous!" "What is Bruce going to do about his giant man hands and giant feet?" This past summer, these very different Twitter comments were made about the same person, Caitlyn Jenner. After Jenner spoke publicly about her new identity as a woman, public reactions ranged from angry to accepting. With images of Jenner appearing on every magazine cover and talk show across the country, many of the negative reactions to her new appearance seemed to focus on her sustained masculine features. Many people commented that no matter what clothes or how much make-up, Jenner still looked like a man. In the present work, we wondered whether knowing that she was transgender changed the way many people visually perceived Jenner. Would people who perceived Jenner as masculine have perceived her the same way if they never knew she was once a man?

The current work aimed to explore visual perception of transgender individuals. Social psychological research regarding perceptions of transgender individuals is still in its infancy. Some previous research has examined transgender bullying (Russell et al., 2011) and hate crimes (Lombardi et al., 2001). No published work has yet systematically explored differences in how people visually perceive the masculinity and femininity of an individual when they learn about the person's transgender identity, nor has prior work examined the consequences of different gender perceptions on attitudes toward transgender individuals.

The primary aim of this study is to determine if individuals visually represent faces differently when they know the target is transgender vs. cisgender. We used facial morphing software to vary the masculine and feminine features of real transgender individuals' faces. We predicted that participants who learned a woman was transgender would perceive the woman as more masculine compared to those who saw the same face without the transgender label. Further, we expected these representations to influence attitudes towards the target individual.

In exchange for monetary compensation ($0.50), 125 heterosexual American men participated in an online study on Amazon Mechanical Turk (Mage=29.69, SD = 5.63). Participants were informed that they would evaluate dating profiles.

Participants were randomly assigned to review a dating profile, in which the target either identified herself as a "female" (n = 62) or as a "transgender female" (n = 63). All other information in the profile was relatively neutral (e.g., hometown, occupation) and remained consistent across conditions.

Participants then completed a visual matching task to measure perceptions of the target’s masculinity/femininity. Specifically, we morphed the target's photograph with masculine and feminine exemplars to produce 11 variants that ranged in masculinity. Participants saw the 11 faces on the screen and indicated which face matched the target from the array of morphs. We later coded these faces from -5 (very masculine) to 5 (very feminine) with 0 representing the true target face. Finally, participants reported their attitudes towards the target on a feelings thermometer from 1 (cold) to 100 (warm).

We first examined whether the transgender label influenced perceptions of the target's face. Individuals who evaluated the transgender female, perceived the target face as more masculine (M = -0.62, SD = 2.23) than those who evaluated the same face without a transgender label (M = 0.34, SD = 2.81), t(123) = 2.11, p = .04. Moreover, we compared participants’ choices on the visual matching task to zero (i.e., the target's true face). Participants in the transgender condition perceived the face as more masculine than the actual face, t(62) = -2.20, p = .03.

Next, we examined whether the transgender label influenced attitudes toward the individual. Participants reported significantly more negative attitudes towards the target when she was labeled as a transgender female (M = 55.86, SD = 19.18) compared to a female (M = 65.90, SD = 18.53), t(123) = 2.68, p = .01.

Figure 1: Unstandardized regression coefficients for the relationship between the transgender label and attitudes towards the target as mediated by perceptions of masculinity. Targets labeled as transgender were coded as -1 while cisgender targets were coded as 1. The total effect is represented in parentheses. *p<.05.

To explore the role of visual perception in the relationship between the transgender label and attitudes, we tested a mediation model to see whether experimental condition affected people's perceptions, which in turn influenced their attitudes towards the target. This mediation was significant, 95% CI: [-1.63, -0.02], suggesting that learning the target was transgender led her to be perceived as more masculine which resulted in more negative attitudes towards her (Fig. 1). The consequences of anti-transgender attitudes are far-reaching. In one sample, nearly 60% of transgender people reported experiencing violence or harassment because of their gender identification. Moreover, a third of transgender people reported having attempted suicide (Clements-Nolle et al., 2006). While the role of visual attention in quickly activating stereotypes and perpetuating discrimination against stigmatized social groups is well-documented (e.g., Eberhardt et al., 2006; Eberhardt et al., 2004), the present study is the first to explore the influence of the transgender label on visual perception and to link this perception to attitudes. Understanding the sources and consequences of biased perceptions is critical to generating a more favorable climate for the transgender community. Once people become aware of their negative attitudes towards transgender individuals, they can begin to work towards preventing themselves from acting on their prejudices, and eventually towards being more accepting of diverse populations. The little steps that are taken towards acceptance can help reduce high rates of suicide and harassment, intimidation, and bullying found in the transgender population.


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