Why are Republicans so focused on restricting trans lives?

Texas Governor Greg Abbott Photo Google

Thinking about gender identity pushes American men to identify as Republican, research finds

By: Dan Cassino/WashingtonPost

Last month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ordered state health agencies to investigate parents for child abuse if they provide gender-affirming medical care for their transgender children. Since then, some Idaho legislators have moved to make providing such treatment for minors punishable by life in prison. Meanwhile, Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country have been trying to limit classroom discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation, and recently passed laws  in nine states ban trans women from participating in women’s high school or college sports teams.

Why are Republicans focusing on legislation restricting trans people? While many more people identify as trans now than in the past, their numbers are relatively small, about 1 in every 250 people, concentrated among younger cohorts. The emphasis seems disproportionate, given, for instance, the vanishingly small number of trans women competing in athletics.

My research finds that when cisgender men consider variations in gender identity, they become more likely to identify as Republican. Republicans may be emphasizing laws and rhetoric targeting trans people to reinforce wavering Republicans and even bring in some men who otherwise might not support Republican candidates.

Measuring sex and gender

Scholars have long recognized that gender and sex are distinct concepts  and that gender is really important  to the way we understand politics. However, the way social scientists use gender in discussing politics hasn’t really kept pace. For instance, both scholars and pundits often talk about a “gender gap ” in voting, meaning the gap between how men and women vote. The problem is that we’re talking about gender without actually measuring gender: If such gaps are driven by differences in gendered traits and identities rather than sex, it makes sense to measure those traits and identities directly.

Historically, survey research has not done a great job of measuring gender. For instance, it’s common even now for telephone surveys to measure what they call “gender” by asking the interviewer to decide if the person on the phone sounds like a man or a woman. Approaches like this confuse sex and gender and ignore variation within those groups.

I’ve been working on questions that ask respondents to place themselves on a continuum between masculinity and femininity, enabling them to identify as being completely, mostly or slightly masculine or feminine, with variants allowing people to rate themselves on a continuum, or on separate masculinity and femininity scales. Because people aren’t familiar with questions like this, the question includes an explanation  that gender is different from sex, that the traits a society thinks of as masculine or feminine can change over time, and that most people have a mixture of masculine and feminine traits. The goal was to make people feel comfortable placing themselves somewhere other than “completely masculine” or “completely feminine.”



Nonbinary conceptions of gender affect male political identity

However, even asking this question — suggesting that gender is not necessarily either/or and that the relationship between sex and gendered traits can change over time — affects how people answer later questions in the survey.

In research published in 2021, my co-author and I used three survey experiments, carried out between 2016 and 2019, with a combined sample size of 3,300, to understand how this affected Americans. One was a probability-based population sample that we repurposed for our study, one non-probability online study and one a lab experiment. These surveys asked a variety of questions about political views, voting habits and other demographics, but we were mostly interested in looking at the relationship between gender and partisanship. To do so, we switched around the order in which respondents answered the questions, and in each survey included a control group that was not asked about gender at all.

In the first study, using an online non-probability sample, asking about gender while using the masculinity-femininity scales increased the likelihood that men — but not women — would identify as strong Republicans from about 9 percent to about 18 percent. Similarly, first asking people whether they’re Republicans or Democrats made Republican men 16 percentage points more likely to respond that they’re at the extreme end of the masculinity scale (100 out of 100), rejecting the idea that their gender could be anything other than binary. The other studies had similar results, with men becoming more likely to identify as Republicans when they were first asked a question about nonbinary gender. We even had equivalent results from the portion of the study carried out in Mexico.

Identities based on class or education or race certainly matter in politics, but they do not appear to affect an individual’s identification with a party. A binary conception of gender, on the other hand, seems to be tied to men’s understanding of what it means to be a Republican — and even considering the possibility of variation is incompatible with being a Republican. When Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, released his 11-point “plan to rescue America” last month, the statement that there are only “two genders” was given equal standing with tougher criminal sentencing rules, building a border wall and making the income tax less progressive.

For Republicans, laws targeting trans people may be good politics

No wonder Republicans are targeting trans people: They embody the idea that sex is not fixed at birth, nor tied inexorably to biology, that gender and sex can be complicated, rather than dichotomous. Simply considering that possibility can threaten anyone who sees gender as divided neatly into male and female.

This means attacking trans people is good politics for Republican politicians trying to secure their base. If the security of a firm, unchanging, binary view of gender is linked to identifying as a Republican, attacking any other gender identity can ­­build support among their partisans.

Dan Cassino is a professor of government and politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University whose most recent book, with Yasemin Besen-Cassino, is “Gender Threat: American Masculinity in the Face of Change” (Stanford University Press, 2021).