How research is helping win the fight for trans rights

For the LGBTQ community, this year’s Pride celebration is hopeful, with a return to some in-person events and some optimistic news nationwide: 70 percent of Americans now support same-sex marriage (the highest number ever recorded by Gallup) and gay and transgender officials hold significant posts in the federal government.

Yet these gains come amid a flurry of anti-trans legislation around the country. On June 1, the start of Pride Month, Florida became the latest state to ban transgender girls and women from participating in female sports at public schools and colleges.

Anti-trans legislation is taking aim at more than sports, targeting issues as diverse as bathroom use, gender-affirming health care, and even the ability to obtain goods and services. Stores in Tennessee, for example, must now provide signage as to whether they allow transgender customers to use the bathrooms of their choosing.

While the intense backlash on trans rights appears new, the fight for LGBTQ equality is not.

For legal experts at UCLA’s Williams Institute, the key to fighting back is the same as it has always been: Data.

Using data to combat stereotypes

The Williams Institute is the leading research center on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy in the United States. Now in its 20th year, the institute has focused on ensuring that facts, rather than stereotypes, inform the laws, policies and judicial decisions affecting the LGBTQ community.

Brad Sears

Brad Sears, interim executive director and David Sanders Distinguished Scholar of Law & Policy at the Williams Institute.

By collecting and analyzing demographic data about LGBTQ people, the Williams Institute is able to paint a scientifically-driven picture of queer life, rather than the negative stereotypes that drive much discriminatory legislation. The results have been extraordinary: Their work on same-sex couples raising children was cited by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in upholding the right to marriage for same-sex couples in Obergefell vs. Hodges; and their studies about the impacts of so-called “bathroom bills” have helped overturn prohibitions against using restrooms that match one’s gender identity.

Founding executive director Brad Sears and legal director Christy Mallory, like many others, have now trained their attention on the legal rights of the trans community.

“You have this focus in state legislatures on trans people, particularly on bathroom usage, athletic participation and access to gender-affirming care,” Sears said. “The same kind of arguments we are seeing against the trans community have been made against LGBTQ people in the past: That they are dangerous and harmful to children, and that their rights would somehow infringe on other people's rights.”

It’s familiar territory for the Williams Institute. Before same-sex marriage became the law of the land, judicial decisions upholding marriage discrimination were largely built on negative stereotypes — that gay couples were incapable of long-term relationships, that they had no interest in raising children, and that they made bad parents when they did. But studies by the Williams Institute using census and survey data debunked these myths and more, showing, for example, that the children of LGBTQ parents are as well-adjusted as those with straight parents.

Informing public policy

The Williams Institute continues to produce studies exploring the impacts of policy on LGBTQ lives. Just in the past year, their research has examined current research on violence against LGBTQ people in the U.S. and the use of the gay and trans panic defenses over the last six decades; the impact of prohibiting gender-affirming medical care for youth; and adverse mental health impacts on sexual minorities. Work on trans athletes is in development; though trans athletes are of interest to conservative legislators, there are very few competing in sports overall, and their competitive impact is challenging to study. But a glance at the women’s sports landscape paints a different picture than the one portrayed by supporters of anti-trans bills. Only one transgender woman has qualified for the Olympics, for instance, which have had their doors open to transgender athletes since 2004. Three cisgender girls’ families filed a lawsuit in 2020 against Connecticut’s transgender-inclusive law, suggesting it provided an unfair advantage to transgender girls in track and field events; one of the plaintiffs defeated one of the transgender athletes named in the suit in a state championship two days later. The case was thrown out.

Christy Mallory

Christy Mallory, Renberg Senior Scholar and the legal director at the Williams Institute.

The impact of this recent spurt of legislation targeting trans athletes goes beyond the small population of transgender women who wish to compete in school sports, Mallory said. Bills targeting trans athletes, or denying gender-affirming care to minors, or attempting to enforce cisnormative bathroom use send a message to LGBTQ kids everywhere. “Hearing themselves villainized in the news is extremely harmful, including these messages that their doctors don't know what's right for them, their parents don't know what's right for them,” Mallory said. “Trans athletes hearing that tomorrow they might not be able to compete on the soccer team with their friends alienates them from their peers.”

The impact of denying gender-affirming care is even more dire. “We know there's a link between access to gender-affirming care and positive mental health outcomes for trans people, including fewer suicidal thoughts and ideation,” Mallory added.

Families are affected too, often in less obvious ways. “LGBTQ kids are treated differently based on where they live,” Mallory said. “This can force families to move, which is another negative impact of these anti-trans bills. Oftentimes, parents testify that if this bill passes, they have to look for a job in a different state just so their kid can have medical treatment that their doctor thinks is appropriate for them. I want to highlight how broad the impacts are — there's a huge ripple effect from these bills.”

The disparity in access and rights experienced by transgender youth and their families makes a strong case that they are being treated separately and unequally, which is unlawful. Arguments in favor of transgender rights have begun to win support; the Supreme Court decision in Bostock vs. Clayton County last year, for example, saw Justice Neil Gorsuch support trans rights in the workplace.

In fact, despite the proliferation of anti-trans bills, there is some good news: “Some of these bills are passing,” Mallory conceded, “But many are not passing. They have been defeated in a lot of states, whether due to early advocacy and efforts around getting a legislator to not even introduce a bill in the first place, killing it while it's in the legislature, a veto later down the road or success through litigation.”

Sears gives us another silver lining, despite the devastation of these bills.

“In the long term, these national discussions, while difficult to go through, actually change public opinion. One of the principal ways that LGBTQ people have been oppressed is through invisibility and silencing and because of that, most people historically have not thought about these issues. What we saw with these ballot initiative campaigns against same-sex marriage in the mid-2000s is that they would bring the issue to everyone’s attention and force them to have an opinion.

“The more there is a national discussion, the more support LGBTQ people receive. We’ve seen the same thing with trans rights, except even more accelerated. With people discussing the visibility of trans people, there’s been a meteoric rise in support.

“As [gay rights activist] Evan Wolfson said, in fighting for same-sex marriage, if we’re going to lose, let’s lose forward, and do a lot of education, and win support.”

Trans rights attract strong, broad support

The Equality Act, which would ban discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity, is presently stalled in Congress, but Sears and Mallory have found that it would likely earn broad support. Asked what bill they would be most able to rally around, moderate Democrats named the Equality Act, even over the Recovery Act or Jobs Act, as one their constituents, even in more conservative areas, can support. “That's just a sea change from even a few years ago,” Sears said.

In the meantime, combating anti-trans legislation with facts and education can hold a lot of promise. Research from the Williams Institute helped turn back anti-trans laws on bathroom access several years ago; as the research on athletics and disproportionate impacts on trans mental health and families comes in, it is likely to do the same. “Anti-LGBTQ groups are stunningly bad when it comes to basing their initiatives on research or facts,” Sears said. “And I think it’s because they know the research and facts don't support what they're doing.” Nor do the populations from which these groups claim to draw support substantially support them. Religion is often cited as a reason to deny LGBTQ rights, for instance, but more than six in 10 Americans of any religious denomination support nondiscrimination protections for gay and trans Americans, including 62 percent of white evangelical protestants, more than 70 percent of Catholics, and nearly 80 percent of Mormons. Younger religious people in particular show strong support. “I think ideally, LGBTQ rights should be a nonpartisan issue,” Sears said. “And for younger people, this isn’t really a partisan issue.”

As a final silver lining, Mallory points to changed federal policies, now more trans-inclusive than those of any administration prior. Recognizing queer and nonbinary people in federal government is new, and provides more visibility than ever for the diversity of LGBTQ identity. Trans-inclusive policies and interpretations of law can make a difference across housing, health care, consumer protection and yes, sports, as the Biden administration interprets Title IX as inclusive of transgender athletes.

There is still much work to be done, in courts and legislatures across the country. But the Williams Institute, along with advocates and organizers across the country, remain steadfastly committed to doing it — something to be proud about.

Cover photo courtesy the Williams Institute/Dreamstime