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date: 20 January 2020

Contact Theory and the Distinct Case of LGBT People and Rights

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Gordon Allport’s Intergroup Contact Theory predicts that coming into contact with a member of an outgroup will, under the right conditions, lead to reduced intergroup prejudice. Scholars have found significant evidence that contact with gay men and lesbians does typically lead to reductions in explicit prejudice, even when Allport’s specific conditions are not met. People who report that they personally know someone who is gay or lesbian are more supportive of gay and lesbian rights and relationships and people who report contact with same-sex couples in committed relationships are more supportive of legal recognition of those relationships. There is also evidence that mediated contact, also known as paracontact, can reduce prejudice—in other words, that exposure to positively portrayed gay men and lesbians via the media, including television shows, can shift attitudes. Less is known about how contact affects attitudes toward bisexuals, but initial evidence suggests similar effects. Contact with transgender people is more mixed, with some evidence that interpersonal contact is not as effective due to the negative reactions that many individuals have to transgender people, and some evidence that mediated contact may be more effective, although this is also limited due to the small (but growing) number of positively portrayed transgender characters in the media. A final complication is self-selection bias, in that members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community are more likely to come out to individuals whom they believe will respond positively but both observational and experimental evidence suggests that this does not completely explain the power of contact to reduce prejudice against LGBT people.

Keywords: contact theory, interpersonal contact, mediated contact, parasocial contact, self-selection bias, prejudice, public opinion, LGBT politics

People often fear what they don’t know or understand, particularly outgroups they perceive as different from them in some fundamental way. Scholars focused on social psychology, political communication, identity, and prejudice have developed many explanations of attitudes toward marginalized groups and efforts to change these attitudes. One of the most common explanations for reduced levels of intolerance and prejudice involves having contact with a member of an outgroup. That contact can come in one of three ways: (a) by having a deep interpersonal relationship; (b) by having a fleeting instance of interpersonal contact; or (c) by having mediated contact via television or movies, also known as parasocial contact.

The first form of intergroup contact occurs when the outgroup member is a known part of an established social network (e.g., a colleague, friend, or family member). Until the early 1990s, only 20–30% of Americans reported that they personally knew someone who was gay or lesbian. Studies conducted during the 1980s and 1990s found that knowing someone who is gay—that is, having a deeper, connected relationship with a gay person—had a positive influence on acceptance of gay people (Gentry, 1987; Herek, 1988; Herek & Glunt, 1993; Millham, San Miguel, & Kellogg, 1976; Schneider & Lewis, 1984; Weis & Dain, 1979). In particular, attitudes were more favorable as relationships with a LGBT person were more frequent and when the relationships were described as close (Herek & Capitanio, 1996; Herek & Glunt, 1993).

Rosenstiel (2007) examined the 27 surveys between 1983 and 1994 that asked respondents about their contact with gay and lesbian people. Survey wording varied; limiting the focus to those asking about close friends and family, the proportion reporting contact with gay and lesbian people was only 22% in February 1993, increasing to 32% by June 1993 and then 41% in October 1998. Starting in the mid-1990s, an increasing number of gay people came out to their families and friends as LGBT (Garretson, 2018). By March 2004, almost half of American adults were telling pollsters that they had a close friend or family member who was gay or lesbian; that proportion has remained fairly stable since then (Rosenstiel, 2007; “Support for Same-Sex Marriage,” 2015).

The second method of contact, one that has received significant attention from scholars, involves coming into contact with outgroup members via more fleeting interpersonal contact. Many of these studies have focused on ethnoracial outgroups, not LGBT people. Several studies, however, investigate the effects and limits of interpersonal outgroup contact between members of the LGBT community and those who do not identify that way. Scholars have found evidence that this type of contact, including both interpersonal contact and a kind of mediated contact known as parasocial contact (contact via characters on television and in movies), can significantly decrease prejudice against gay men and lesbians. Less well understood is the effect of contact on prejudice toward bisexuals, where research is quite limited, and toward transgender people. Complicating all of this scholarship is the self-selection bias inherent in most studies of contact in ways that are unique to LGBT people: for contact theory to be most effective, a person has to feel comfortable making the very personal disclosure about their own sexual orientation and/or gender identity with the other.

Attitudes Toward LGBT People

Extant research suggests that many Americans have prejudicial attitudes toward sexual and gender minorities (Cragun & Sumereau, 2015). Norton and Herek (2013) found that attitudes toward transgender people are more negative among heterosexual men; political conservatives; those who subscribe a binary conceptualization of gender; individuals higher on psychological scales for authoritarianism and lower on scales for egalitarianism; women who are more strongly religious; and those who do not have frequent personal contact with sexual and gender minorities.

Despite those trends, attitudes toward LGBT people have changed across almost every major demographic group since the 1970s. They changed slowly at first and at times even moved backward such as during the AIDS crisis. After decades of struggle, discrimination, violence, and heartache, however, attitudes have changed and continue to do so. Gallup has tracked attitudes toward same-sex relationships since 1977, when only 43% of the American public believed that gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults should be legal. By 2016, 68% of the public agreed—a shift of 25 percentage points over just a few decades. This sort of rapid attitudinal shift is, as many have noted, quite unusual. Attitudes have also shifted dramatically on other issues relevant to the LGBT community. Large majorities of the public also now support the rights of same-sex couples to marry; legally adopt children; and have equal protections against discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations like parks, restrooms, and restaurants (“Gay and Lesbian Rights,” 2018; Lang, 2016).

Much of the seismic shift in attitudes toward gay and lesbian individuals has occurred since the mid-1990s: majority support for same-sex relationships between consenting adults was first recorded in 2001 and for same-sex marriage in 2011. In 2018, 70% of Americans said that homosexuality should be accepted, including a majority (54%) of Republicans and 83% of Democrats. While attitudes toward gay and lesbian people have shifted quickly since the 1990s, discrimination against transgender people persists and in some instances has become more severe. In part, this reflects the new polarization of the Trump era and the accompanying atmosphere of emboldened bigotry. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Masterpiece Cakeshop (2018) case that a baker could legally refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, other Americans were encouraged to wear their anti-gay bias on their sleeves, including a Tennessee hardware store owner who posted a “No Gays Allowed” sign in his shop’s front window (Robinson, 2018).

Most of the shifts in attitudes that we have seen since the mid-1990s and most public imagining of the community they relate to are about gay men and lesbians. Bisexual people are often forgotten; transgender individuals have often deliberately been excluded from both public debate and the public imagination. Why have some attitudes toward some members of the LGBT community changed while others have not? Application of Contact Theory may provide some answer to that question. This chapter details how contact theory might apply to outgroup individuals in different ways; for more information, read “Contact With Gay Men and Lesbians.”

Contact With Gay Men and Lesbians

Scholars focused on social psychology, political communication, identity, and prejudice have developed many explanations of attitudes toward marginalized groups and efforts to change these attitudes. One of the most common strategies to combat intolerance and prejudice involves coming into contact with a member of an outgroup (Allport, 1954; Festinger, 1957; Harrison & Michelson, 2017; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986; Zaller, 1992). Gordon Allport introduced Intergroup Contact Theory in The Nature of Prejudice in 1954, building off observations in the 1940s and 1950s of decreased prejudice among White sailors and police officers serving with Black colleagues, and among White housewives living in integrated housing projects. Allport argued that contact between members of majority and minority groups, under the right conditions, could lead to reduced intergroup prejudice. The absence of contact breeds ignorance; contact allows for negative stereotypes about the unknown to be replaced with updated, positive attitudes.

Allport’s original understanding of the power of interpersonal contact, however, was premised on a very specific type of managed contact meant to mitigate conflict and anxiety; it also had to last long enough for members of the two groups to feel comfortable with each other. Specifically, he believed the meeting should include the following components: members of both groups should have similar status and characteristics; the groups should be working together on a common goal that requires them to work together and not compete; they should have support of laws or authorities to manage the contact; and the contact should involve informal, personal interaction that leads to cross-group friendships. Hundreds of scholars have since tested Contact Theory across a variety of groups, situations, and societies. While originally understood as a method of decreasing prejudice against members of the Black community, its effectiveness has been tested for a variety of target groups including other racial and ethnic groups; the physically and mentally disabled; the mentally ill; the elderly; and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.

As previously mentioned, the Contact Hypothesis has proven especially central to attitudes toward gay and lesbian people (Skipworth, Garner, & Dettry, 2010; Smith, Axelton, & Saucier, 2009). In a meta-analysis of 515 studies including 713 independent samples, Pettigrew and Tropp (2006) found that interpersonal contact did indeed reduce prejudice in groups other than racial and ethnic minorities and even found that the specific conditions set out by Allport were not necessary to achieve prejudice reduction, although contact under those conditions did typically lead to larger reductions in prejudice. Most strikingly, perhaps, was the finding that the effect was strongest when it came to contact with gay men and lesbians. Pettigrew and Tropp (2006, p. 763) note, “The largest effects emerge for samples involving contact between heterosexuals and gay men and lesbians. These effects are significantly larger than are those for the other samples combined.”

Contact with same-sex couples in committed relationships was a particularly strong predictor of increased support for legal recognition of same-sex relationships and other public policies that benefit the community (Barth, Overby, & Huffmon, 2009; Overby & Barth, 2002). This was supported by work that demonstrated that contact with gay men and lesbians also increased support for public policies favored by the gay and lesbian community. For example, Barth and Parry (2009) found that contact with gay men and lesbians increased support for policies such as rights for gay men and lesbians to adopt children, to serve openly in the military, and to be included in employment antidiscrimination laws.

Limitations of Contact Theory and Prejudice Against Gay Men and Lesbians

Despite these findings, there are reasons to question the depth and breadth of applicability of Contact Theory when it comes to issue domains like LGBT rights. Contemporary research has found there are, in fact, constraints to what was once the dominant theory of social change. Skipworth et al. (2010) find considerable variability in the contact effect with gay and lesbian people, based on factors like ideology, race, culture, religion, and region. They conclude that there are very real implications for these factors in how they inhibit attitude change toward LGBT people and rights in the United States, suggesting there are, in fact, constraints to how effective interpersonal contact can be. Of particular interest is the idea that certain groups of people are unable to be persuaded (or at least are more difficult to persuade) based on existing biases and their own in-group identity memberships.

Hewstone and Brown (1986) and Brown, Vivian, and Hewstone (1999) note that the ability to generalize depends on contact being perceived as an intergroup encounter rather than as an interpersonal encounter. Contact perceived as interpersonal may result in warmer feelings toward the contacted individual but may not also produce warmer feelings for the group that individual is purported to represent. Miller, Brewer, and Edwards (1985) raise a note of caution, noting that to maximize generalization, the psychological linkage between subjects and their respective groups cannot be too salient during the interaction. Scarberry et al. (1997) asked participants to interact with and then evaluate gay confederates trained to use either personal analogies (e.g., “Like when I squeeze every bit of toothpaste out of the tube”) or impersonal analogies (e.g., “Like when someone squeezes every bit of toothpaste out of the tube”) during the contact session. Although participants reported liking each confederate equally, those who interacted with the one who used personal analogies were less likely to generalize those feelings to gay people more generally. Generalization also depends on the degree to which an outgroup representative is seen as typical according to an individual’s prior attitudes (Skipworth et al., 2010).

Scarberry et al. (1997) found that personalizing the analogies used by a gay confederate led to decreases in the contact effect because of the suppression of generalization. Previous work finds that in the absence of personal knowledge about a speaker, individuals will use the heuristic of the group with which they are affiliated to help them determine whether the speaker can be trusted. Similarly, efforts to personalize fundraising that involved a coming-out message from gay and lesbian individuals making appeals on behalf of an LGBT advocacy organization made their efforts less effective (Harrison & Michelson, 2012). In this situation, personalization may have decreased the credibility of the persuader and the organization in that the appeal may now have been perceived as one motivated by personal self-interest. In addition, personalized messaging may have framed the conversation in terms of the individual canvasser (e.g., sexual orientation) rather than the larger issue (e.g., LGBT rights).

Contact Theory and Bisexual People

Considerably less research focuses on attitudes toward bisexuals than on attitudes toward the larger gay and lesbian community. Although attitudes toward bisexuals are highly correlated with attitudes toward gay and lesbian people, there is some reason to expect attitudes to move separately, including stereotypes of bisexuals as more likely to be promiscuous or non-monogamous. Using data from a 1999 national telephone survey, Herek (2002) finds that individuals who report at least one gay or lesbian friend or relative have much more positive attitudes toward bisexuals. In a survey explicitly asking respondents about contact with bisexual individuals, de Bruin and Arndt (2010) find that reported contact is a strong predictor of more positive attitudes toward bisexual men and women. However, more research needs to be conducted to definitively link contact and perceptions and acceptance of bisexual people.

Contact Theory and Transgender People

In the 2010s, as the national conversation on same-sex marriage drew to a close, the nation’s attention shifted to the rights of members of the transgender community. Until recently, public opinion surveys did not differentiate between attitudes toward transgender people specifically and the broader LGBT community. There is also much less scholarship on the effect of interpersonal contact with transgender people on attitudes toward the transgender community or policies related to transgender people.

Allport’s main hypothesis is that interpersonal contact can reduce antagonism by the majority toward members of unpopular subgroups, possibly leading to reduced prejudice and bias, because negative stereotypes about the unknown are replaced with positive ones generated from contact. Extended to transgender people, however, there has been fairly heated debate about whether Contact Theory applies, given the negative reactions that many individuals have to transgender people, including disgust and fear. It is also relatively difficult to isolate the effect of contact with transgender people from contact with gay and lesbian people, given that most individuals who report contact with the former also report contact with the latter, which muddies the statistical waters.

A team in Hong Kong found evidence in 2005 that knowing a transgender person reduces prejudice toward transgender people (King, Winter, & Webster, 2009), whereas Flores (2015), examining evidence from a 2011 survey of American adults, finds no evidence that contact improves attitudes toward transgender people. More recently, surveys from July and October 2015 find that mere exposure to images of transgender people is enough to reduce prejudice and increase support for transgender rights (Flores et al., 2018; Tadlock et al., 2017) whereas a national survey from November 2015 finds no effect of contact (Jones et al., 2017).

Does contact work or not? As contact becomes more frequent and widespread—as more transgender people come out to their friends and family and as more positive transgender characters are portrayed in the media—scholars will be better able to test whether that contact is changing minds. In the July 2015 survey, 6.7% of respondents reported a close friend or family member who is transgender. In the October 2015 study, 2.8% of respondents said they had a transgender family member, and 3.5% reported a close friend was transgender. A much higher (but still fairly small) number of respondents to the November 2015 study, 11%, reported a transgender close friend or family member. Asked in a much broader way—whether they “personally know anyone who is transgender”—an August–September 2016 Pew Research Survey found that 30% of respondents said that they knew someone transgender compared to 87% who reported that they know someone who is gay or lesbian.

Limitations of Contact Theory and Prejudice Against Transgender People

Despite these reports of increasing contact, “substantial proportions of the American public hold negative stereotypes about transgender people’s trustworthiness, morality, and happiness” (Jones et al., 2017). One common barrier to attitude change toward transgender people is interpersonal discomfort. Interpersonal tension caused by uncertainty in how to interact with stigmatized others is undesirable and uncomfortable; thus, non-stigmatized individuals might distance themselves from stigmatized individuals in order to avoid these tensions (see Albrecht, Walker, & Levy, 1982; Hebl & Kleck, 2002). Coming into contact with a transgender person may increase discomfort and lead to attitudinal backlash. Readily apparent stigmas can cause interpersonal ambiguity and tension (Jones, 1984) because it is not always clear how to interact with the stigmatized individual. For instance, an interviewer faced with an applicant who relies on the assistance of a wheelchair for mobility can be distracted by non-job-related thoughts (e.g., “How do I interact with this person?”).1

Extrapolating from that research to the case of transgender individuals, uncomfortable ambiguity may be lessened if contact with a transgender person is not face-to-face but is mediated. On the other hand, “the effectiveness of strategies may depend on the particular stigma” (Singletary & Hebl, 2009, p. 804). Hebl and Kleck (2002) note that bringing attention to certain stigmas that are taboo, such as obesity, may actually increase negative reactions. Levi and Klein (2006, p. 89) note, “Being transgender is a quintessentially stigmatic condition that has engendered fear and discomfort in others.” Thus, bringing attention to a transgender identity may be less successful at reducing negative reactions than has been found to be true for acknowledging other identities. A contact effect for transgender people may depend, for example, on whether the target individuals believe that transgender identity is a choice. Hebl and Kleck (2002) found that when perceivers thought that a stigmatizing characteristic (either physical disability or obesity) was controllable, they rated targets lower than when it was thought to be uncontrollable.2

It is possible that the effect of contact is evolving over time as more Americans know that they are in contact with members of the community and as understanding of the term transgender has increased. Lewis et al. (2017) note, however, that contact has a weaker effect for transgender people than for gay and lesbian people, and that many individuals do not feel a need to be ideologically consistent in their support for rights for different subsets of the LGBT community (especially Republicans, who have become more supportive of gay and lesbian rights over the past decade). This meshes well with work by Garretson (2018), who notes that contact works differently based on prior attitudes and political ideology: individuals with set negative opinions or those who are strongly conservative sometimes become even less supportive of transgender people as reported contact increases, even if that contact is with close friends or family members.

Interactions Between Gay and Lesbian Contact and Transgender Contact

Knowing a gay or lesbian person is consistently a predictor of more favorable attitudes toward transgender people (Flores, 2015; Norton & Herek, 2013; Tee & Hegarty, 2006; but see King et al., 2009). Flores (2015) explains this finding by arguing that most people who know a transgender person also know a gay or lesbian person and that their pro-gay attitudes often transfer or translate to pro-transgender attitudes. There is some evidence that interpersonal contact that encourages active perspective taking can have a positive effect on attitudes toward transgender people and rights (e.g., Broockman & Kalla, 2016); other work argues that perspective taking can actually increase prejudice (Mooijman & Stern, 2016). Thus, it is possible that the effect of contact, both interpersonal and mediated, is evolving over time as more Americans know that they are in contact with members of the community and as understanding of the term transgender has increased. Existing inconsistencies in survey data may resolve themselves over time.

Contact with transgender people has not been found to be effective at producing positive attitude change or reducing anti-transgender bias when controlling for other factors. According to the 2017 PRRI report, 21% of Americans report having a close friend or family member who is transgender, nearly double (11%) of those who reported having such a connection in 2011 (Cox & Jones, 2017). Casey (2016) shows that when some respondents report knowing a transgender person, however, they are more likely to be referring to acquaintances or even celebrities (e.g., Caitlyn Jenner) rather than close friends or family. In other words, a growing number of people know of transgender people but many fewer personally know a transgender person. In addition, contact is not evenly distributed throughout the population, with younger Americans largely driving the increase in reports of social contact with transgender people. The lack of information and truly personal contact is likely an important influence on people’s attitudes. Compounding this lack of truly personal contact is the lack of positive mediated contact.

Mediated Contact

Allport (1954) specifies several necessary conditions for contact to successfully reduce intergroup antagonism, including equal status, common goals, intergroup coordination, and the support of authorities, law, or customs. Pettigrew and Tropp’s meta-analysis suggests, however, that although meeting these optimal contact conditions leads to even greater reduction in prejudice, contact effects are still effective under less than optimal conditions. They provide clear evidence that mere contact is enough to reduce bias, even if Allport’s original conditions are not met. Similar debates surround the issue of mode of contact (e.g., face-to-face, mediated interaction, etc.). Amichai-Hamburger and McKenna (2006, p. 754) argue for the use of the Internet as more practical and less likely to generate anxiety, rejecting Pettigrew & Tropp’s condition that contact must involve “actual face-to-face interaction.” Although Amichai-Hamburger and McKenna’s contribution is purely theoretical, the ability of computer-based communications to generate meaningful social interactions is supported by communications scholars (Spears, Postman, Martin, & Wolbert, 2002). Hopper (1998) investigated the differences between face-to-face and telephone conversations, finding they are essentially similar. Face-to-face speech and sound-alone speech are almost indistinguishable despite the absence in the latter of visual cues. Contact via mediated communication (i.e., telephone, video, and/or Internet) is a particularly attractive possibility for testing contact theory as it surmounts the practicality obstacle and allows for increased physical distance and lower levels of anxiety.

Some evidence also supports the idea that mediated contact can shift attitudes toward members of the LGBTQ community. One type of mediated contact known as parasocial contact suggests that contact via exposure to mass media such as movies and television shows can have a significant effect on attitudes toward outgroups. Schiappa, Gregg, and Hewes (2005) note that if the targets of a persuasive effort are threatened or feel uncomfortable by interpersonal contact, prejudice can instead be reduced through contact that is mediated. This type of contact generates the same positive effect of increased familiarity without triggering the negative responses (such as anxiety or disgust) that might accompany face-to-face contact. Garretson (2018) finds robust evidence of positive parasocial contact for gay and lesbian people; Jones et al. (2017) find similar media exposure effects for transgender people. As Garretson notes, the ability of gay and lesbian characters in television and media to create positive affect toward gay and lesbian individuals more broadly is predicated on positive, reinforced exposure to those characters: “Fictional characters that are recurring and positive are more likely to result in successful contact, as these factors foster an emotional attachment to the character in the viewer” (Garretson, 2018, p. 155).

Limits of Mediated Contact With Transgender Characters

Transgender characters, however, tend to be portrayed differently. The media tend to assume that all transgender people are transgender women, while ignoring transgender men (Serano, 2013). Media depictions of transgender women usually fall under one of two main archetypes: the “deceptive transsexual” or the “pathetic transsexual,” both of whom “are designed to validate the popular assumption that trans women are truly men” (Serano, 2013, p. 228). This “persistent stereotype of transpeople as deceivers” plays a significant role in the recurrent violence against transgender people, especially transgender women of color (Bettcher, 2013, p. 280). This “fear of fraud” is also used in arguments against allowing transgender people to update their government identity documents. As Currah and Moore (2013, p. 611) note, “It is precisely because some transsexual women and men can pass in their new gender, can traverse many social, economic, even intimate landscapes as ‘the other sex,’ that authorities believe ‘the public’ must be protected from fraud.”

Until a few years ago, transgender characters portrayed in media were frequently cartoonish in nature, often depicted as deviant, predatory, and/or mentally ill. In 2012, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) documented 102 episodes and non-recurring storylines of scripted television from the previous decade that contained transgender characters and investigated trends in their depictions. Among their findings, they characterized 54% of the storylines as “containing negative representations at the time of their airing,” with an additional 35% ranging from problematic to good. Only 12% were considered fair and accurate (“Victims or Villains,” 2012). They also found that 40% of transgender characters were cast in a “victim role;” 21% of transgender characters were either killers or villains; and the most common profession of transgender characters was sex workers (20% of the sample). Finally, anti-transgender slurs, language, and dialogue were present in roughly 60% of the episodes and storylines categorized by GLAAD. In 2014, GLAAD issued an updated report, finding that although depictions of transgender characters had improved, nearly half (45%) were defamatory (Townsend, 2014).

Transgender characters have historically been played by cisgender actors as well. For example, in one of the earliest portrayals, Tim Curry (a cisgender man) famously played the character Dr. Frank N. Furter in the 1975 The Rocky Horror Picture Show, an over-the-top, self-proclaimed “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.” In 1992, Jaye Davidson (also a cisgender male) played the character Dil, a transgender woman, who hid her gender identity in the film The Crying Game. Later portrayals that attempted to accurately tell the stories of transgender people have also fallen short. For example, the 1999 movie Boys Don’t Cry was a dramatization of real-life events surrounding the murder of Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was sexually assaulted and murdered. Teena was portrayed by Hilary Swank, a cisgender female. Similarly, cisgender actors like Jared Leto in The Dallas Buyers Club and Jeffrey Tambor on Transparent have increased visibility of the transgender population, though with backlash by those who would have preferred casting of transgender actors.

There has been some progress, however, as some transgender characters have become more multidimensional and, at least in some ways, more realistic. For example, Laverne Cox, in her character Sophia Burset on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black (2013), has depicted a transgender woman of color who is navigating the criminal justice system in the United States. GLAAD has recognized episodes of shows like Grey’s Anatomy (ABC), Cold Case (CBS), and Two and a Half Men (CBS) with GLAAD Media Award nominations for their realistic and positive depictions of transgender people, also mentioning groundbreaking storylines on shows like The Education of Max Bickford (CBS), Degrassi (Teen Nick), The Riches (FX), and Ugly Betty (ABC) for their “fully-formed and complex representations of transgender people” (“Victims or Villains,” 2012). In the second season of Sabrina (Netflix), released in 2019, non-binary actor Lachlan Watson’s plays the character Theo Putnam. Theo was classified at birth as female and in the course of the show, struggles with his identity and identifies as gender non-binary before coming out as a transgender boy. The show details Theo’s journey, the victories and the struggles, and not only includes him coming out as transgender but also takes viewers along as Theo transitions. As more positive transgender characters are portrayed in the media, opinion might continue to improve as well. Again, additional scholarship is necessary to test whether mediated contact is changing minds in a durable way. What is clear is that increased exposure to positive transgender characters and celebrities is making an impact on public opinion in that many individuals, when asked if they know anyone who is transgender, respond affirmatively and specify that the transgender person they know is, in fact, an actor or celebrity such as Laverne Cox (Casey, 2016).

Self-Selection Bias and Interpersonal Contact

Self-selection bias can also complicate scholarship on the effect of contact with members of the LGBT community. Sometimes individuals do not realize that they personally know someone who identifies as LGBT; the decision to come out and share one’s sexual and/or gender identity with another person is often dependent on the assessment about how the information will be received. In other words, people are more likely to realize that they know a member of the LGBT person if they are the sort of individual with whom LGBT people feel safe sharing that information whereas those predisposed to be hostile are less likely to be given that information. Thus, at least some of the effect of interpersonal contact is likely inflated because of the choices made by LGBT people about to whom they choose to come out. Indeed, as Hoffarth and Hodson (2018) note, transgender people are likely to try to pass rather than reveal their gender identity because of existing levels of stigma and the very real risk of violence if they do come out to others.

Several studies have controlled for as many factors as possible to investigate whether there is a true contact effect independent of people who self-select into social networks based on their existing beliefs toward gay people and rights (e.g., Barth & Parry, 2009; Lewis, 2006; Overby & Barth, 2002). A common concern is whether there is an endogeneity problem such that it is unclear whether contact leads to increased tolerance or if preexisting increased tolerance leads to increased contact with LGBT people. Several studies find that although some self-selection may occur, the causal path of contact to tolerance is greater than the other way around (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006; Powers & Ellison, 1995; Van Dick et al., 2004). Lewis (2006, p. 12) finds that “even when we control for as many factors as possible that might influence both people’s attitudes toward homosexuality and gay rights and their likelihood to know LGBs [lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people], actually knowing a gay man or lesbian has a noticeable impact on their support for gay rights.”

This finding makes observational (e.g., survey-based) explorations of the topic less robust than experimental efforts. That said, experiments continue to support the power of interpersonal contact, including mediated contact, as a powerful means of shifting public attitudes. The bias is likely responsible for the larger size of the contact effect found in Pettigrew and Tropp’s meta-analysis; the true power of contact, controlling for self-selection bias, is likely smaller and continues to be an important question for future studies of the relationship between contact and attitudes toward LGBT people. Experimentally manipulated episodic contact, as when transgender and cisgender canvassers went door-to-door in Los Angeles in an effort to generate increased support for transgender rights, found that transgender messengers were no more persuasive than cisgender messengers (Broockman & Kalla, 2016). This finding suggests that randomized contact with transgender people is not more effective at reducing prejudice against transgender people than is contact with an ally, but more work on the topic is necessary.


Attitudes toward LGBT people have changed significantly since the mid-1990s, with substantial change in attitudes coming toward gay men and women, marriage equality, and anti-discrimination legislation. One prominent reason likely relates to the visibility and proximity of LGBT people, both in terms of closer relationships with members of existing social groups and social circles and because of increasing contact with LGBT people both interpersonally and through mediated contact as well as increasingly positive media portrayals over time. These changes have not happened to the same degree for attitudes toward bisexual people or transgender people, however. Better understanding the differential effects of contact with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students can help scholars and advocates pursue strategies and tactics to continue to expand rights for the LGBT community.


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(1.) Worth noting is the historical link between transgender rights and disability rights; multiple courts have found that civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability can also be used to secure legal protections for transgender people (Levi & Klein, 2006).

(2.) The authors of this article echo those scholars in noting that stigmatized individuals should not bear the sole responsibility for reducing discrimination against them. However, the authors also support any low-cost approaches that can reduce discrimination and improve the lives of members of stigmatized groups.