When transgender youth or workers in Montana need support coming out to their employers or schools, Paxton McCausland is often there to help.

A program coordinator at the Montana Gender Alliance, McCausland leads training and educational sessions for how to support transgender people at schools, businesses and nonprofits throughout the state.

Those training sessions are often sparked by parents who reach out because their trans child is being discriminated against by teachers or administrators who, for instance, address them by their deadname. Other times, it is in support of a trans person who is coming out at work or being harassed by a co-worker.

Speaking from personal experience, he explains what it means to be trans and breaks down myths and thought patterns that can create hatred toward the community. Building support for trans people requires a mix of education, exposure and visibility, he said.

“Knowing someone within the community and having a personal relationship 1,000 percent I would say changes someone’s ability to empathize with the community and support policies that are beneficial to trans people,” McCausland said.

Indeed, these relationships can have larger implications, according to an analysis that found the visibility of trans people and the connections they foster with others could determine the trajectory of support for trans rights in the future.

The survey, conducted by Gallup, found that about 3 in 10 Americans report having a friend, relative or colleague who is transgender. (Half of those younger than 30 have a transgender person in their lives, but the rate falls with each older age cohort.) It also addressed hot-button political issues and found that people are slightly more accepting of trans-affirming policies when they personally know someone who is trans — but that there’s no significant difference in support among different age groups.

According to the poll, 66 percent of more than 1,000 adults surveyed in May supported allowing trans people to openly serve in the military. Support among those who personally knew a trans person was at 74 percent, vs. 62 percent among those who didn’t. In January, President Biden signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity and reversing Trump-era restrictions on trans people serving in the military.

Nationwide, only 34 percent of all Americans support policies that allow trans athletes to play on sports teams that match their gender identity. However, 40 percent of people who personally knew someone who is trans are more supportive of trans-affirming sports policies compared to 31 percent of those who aren’t.

In 2009 — as nationwide support for same-sex marriage stood at 40 percent, still at the precipice of widespread support — Gallup polling found that nearly half of those who knew someone who was gay or lesbian supported it, vs. 27 percent among those who did not.

Based on the polling, personally knowing someone who is trans did not have the same level of impact on a person’s support for trans-inclusive policies that knowing gays or lesbians had on support for same-sex marriage more than a decade ago.

But trans activists say personal connections are more impactful than polls suggest. Trans people coming out publicly and telling their stories have helped trans rights move as far as they have over the past 20 years, according to Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

“We know from a lot of studies in the past that knowing particular kinds of people makes one more accepting of them and positive towards policies that would help them,” Keisling said. “We frequently say that the most important thing that a trans person or a family member of a trans person can do for trans rights is tell their story and educate the people around them.”

Keisling compared this moment to 2004, when voters in 11 states banned same-sex marriage at the polls. Gallup polling showed that support for same-sex marriage at the time was about 42 percent. That year became a turning point for gay rights advocacy, and she is expecting the same for transgender rights as well.

People don’t often talk about transgender people in many small town conservative communities, McCausland said: They may have not been educated or introduced to the topic. McCausland is hopeful that it’s entirely possible to change hearts and minds when the issue is humanized.

The Montana Gender Alliance has seen a number of parents affirm their child’s gender identity after researching it, he said. In some cases, the Montana Gender Alliance’s education efforts fail and the organization needs to threaten legal action against some employers or schools that refuse to provide affirming support, he said. But in most cases, once he explains it as a human rights issue, those schools or employers often become more accepting.

As McCausland put it: “Exposure and visibility definitely changes the way people think.”

The issue of trans athletes being able to compete in schools has, over the past year, remained a political flash point. Legislators from more than 30 states have introduced bills banning trans youth from playing sports on teams consistent with their gender identity. Several states, including Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia, have passed such measures into law.

The latest and perhaps largest round of anti-trans legislation in history has received support from conservative groups across the country. The groups, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, have argued that a person’s biological sex cannot be changed and that trans girls and women hold a physiological advantage in sports, even after suppressing testosterone. Former president Donald Trump has also taken the issue head-on, claiming during the Conservative Political Action Conference this year that young girls and women are “incensed” that they are now being forced to compete against biological males.

“It’s not good for women. It’s not good for women’s sports, which worked so long and so hard to get to where they are,” Trump said. “If this is not changed, women’s sports as we know it will die.”

A recent investigation by the Associated Press found that the sponsors of those bills widely cannot name a single trans high school athlete in their home state or region. But the latest polling results show support for trans-inclusive policies can change as more Americans meet trans people.

The lack of support for trans people playing sports on teams that match their gender identity could be explained because people see it as an issue that could have an adverse effect on other people, said Jeffrey Jones, a senior editor at Gallup. It may also have to do with the fact that few people personally know a trans youth athlete, considering they make up a tiny fraction of the already small trans population.

Other recent pollsters have placed support for trans-inclusive sports policies as high as 73 percent and as low as 29 percent. A recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll reported that more than 65 percent of adults opposed laws that prevented athletes from joining sports teams that match their gender identity and prohibited gender-transition-related medical care for minors. But opposition to legislation did not necessarily translate to acceptance of trans-inclusive policies: Only 47 percent supported trans high-schoolers playing on teams matching their gender identity.

Jones said many people have not yet formed an opinion on trans sports policies, and responses could vary based on how the question is asked.

As more people get to know trans people in the context of their own lives, they will have an easier time seeing past misinformation surrounding trans-affirming health care and trans rights that are used to push anti-trans policies, said transgender advocate Gillian Branstetter, spokeswoman for the National Women’s Law Center.

But public support on its own will not translate into law and policy, because support does not always decide whether a person decides to vote for a particular politician, she said. Support for marriage equality was won only after decades of organizing. What’s more, trans people cannot be expected to carry the entire weight of advocacy and education, according to Branstetter.

Trans people, like other marginalized groups, take on added risk when they are put in a position of self-advocacy, Branstetter said. Trans people, including children, and their family members who speak up against anti-trans legislation sometimes receive death threats.

And increased visibility can also add to the elevated risks of being trans, Branstetter said. Trans adolescents attempt suicide at a much higher rate than their cisgender peers and are more likely to be living in poverty. Trans people, especially trans women of color, also face higher rates of violence: So far this year, at least 27 trans people have been killed through gunshots or violence, while hate crimes motivated by gender-identity bias surged between 2018 and 2019.

“My hope is that we are as big a priority for our friends as we clearly are for our enemies,” Branstetter said. “I think that will be the leading measure of what the next decade or several decades of trans rights will look like.”

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