Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Transgender controversies can lead to 'gender panic'

November 4, 2013
University of Chicago
When New York City moved in 2006 to make it easier for transgender people to revise the gender on their birth certificates, the proposal was widely expected to pass. But the anti-discrimination measure failed. An analysis of mainstream news coverage examines why.

When New York City moved in 2006 to make it easier for transgender people to revise the gender on their birth certificates, the proposal was widely expected to pass.

Related Articles

But the anti-discrimination measure failed, in part because of public opposition to removing the requirement that individuals have genital surgery before claiming a different gender.

"The backlash was intense," said Kristen Schilt, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. "There was such a fervor over taking the surgery requirement out, a sense of, 'Absolutely not. There's going to be chaos.'"

Schilt calls this public reaction "gender panic," a concept that she and co-author Laurel Westbrook explore in their study, "Doing Gender, Determining Gender," published in the October issue of the journal Gender and Society. The authors examined mainstream news coverage of transgender-related news and policy issues, and found trends that reflect entrenched views about transgender people and broader gender issues. Like the terms "moral panic" and "sex panic," Schilt describes gender panic as a deep, cultural fear, set off in this case when the "naturalness" of a male-female gender binary is challenged. When such challenges affect public policy, Schilt said, "that's when the panic starts to get really hot."

Perceived threats to women's spaces spur panic

Since the 1960s, American society has tended to uphold values of autonomy and equality, including gender self-identity, Schilt said. Transgender people typically are accepted in "non-sexual" spaces like the workplace. But acceptance hits a wall when it comes to places reserved for women. In the case of New York birth certificates, the "panic" centered on how such a policy could lead to granting access to women's bathrooms and locker rooms for individuals who identify as women but have male anatomies.

In these women-only spaces, many people regard the mere assertion of a person's gender identity as insufficient -- it must be accompanied by anatomical change. "We found that what calms down the panic is having a very clear policy about who's in your bathroom," Schilt said, "and that policy relates very distinctly to genitalia." She pointed out that the world of transgender athletics elicits far less panic because the Olympics and all sports teams subscribe to the Stockholm Consensus, a rigidly detailed policy governing athletes' bodies, from hormone levels to genitalia. For example, people with male genitalia are forbidden from competing in the Olympics as women, though a man without a penis could compete in men's events.

The authors contend that gender panic is often unfounded, based not on evidence but on an imagined threat. "There's an opposition that's asking, 'But what if?'" Schilt said. Public outcry against the birth certificate case centered on the potential dangers of encountering a transgender person in a woman's bathroom -- opponents invoked scenarios of sexual predators pretending to be transgender in order to violate women and children in these settings. Even without data to support them, such arguments are powerful enough to sway policy. New York City, for example, swiftly abandoned its proposal.

Trend mirrors views on violent crime

Instances of gender panic almost never centered on potential violation of male spaces, such as transgender men in male bathrooms, the study found. Westbrook, an assistant professor of sociology at Grand Valley State University, attributed the focus on women's spaces to underlying social beliefs about gender, particularly the notion that women are weak and vulnerable and men are strong and dangerous. "Women have been taught that someone is always looking to attack us," she said. "We have to be extra cautious or that attack will be successful." Men don't have that sense, she added, even though they are far more likely to be victims of violent crime.

Despite these deep-seated beliefs, there are signs of change. In August 2013, California became the first state to pass a law allowing transgender public school children to choose a sports team -- or a bathroom -- based on their own perception of their gender. The law does not include a requirement that the children be anatomically male or female.

That could signal things to come. While previous cases caused concerns about crimes by adults, Schilt said, "It's harder to have a really negative reaction to a child."

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Chicago. The original article was written by Mary Abowd. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. L. Westbrook, K. Schilt. Doing Gender, Determining Gender: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System. Gender & Society, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0891243213503203

Cite This Page:

University of Chicago. "Transgender controversies can lead to 'gender panic'." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 November 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131104192237.htm>.
University of Chicago. (2013, November 4). Transgender controversies can lead to 'gender panic'. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 29, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131104192237.htm
University of Chicago. "Transgender controversies can lead to 'gender panic'." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131104192237.htm (accessed January 29, 2015).

Share This

More From ScienceDaily

More Mind & Brain News

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Signs You Might Be The Passive Aggressive Friend

Signs You Might Be The Passive Aggressive Friend

BuzzFeed (Jan. 28, 2015) "No, I&apos;m not mad. Why, are you mad?" Video provided by BuzzFeed
Powered by NewsLook.com
City Divided: A Look at Model Schools in the TDSB

City Divided: A Look at Model Schools in the TDSB

The Toronto Star (Jan. 27, 2015) Model schools are rethinking how they engage with the community to help enhance the lives of the students and their parents. Video provided by The Toronto Star
Powered by NewsLook.com
Man Saves Pennies For 65 Years

Man Saves Pennies For 65 Years

Rooftop Comedy (Jan. 26, 2015) A man in Texas saved every penny he found for 65 years, and this week he finally cashed them in. Bank tellers at Prosperity Bank in Slaton, Texas were shocked when Ira Keys arrived at their bank with over 500 pounds of loose pennies stored in coffee cans. After more than an hour of sorting and counting, it turned out the 81 year-old was in possession of 81,600 pennies, or $816. And he&apos;s got more at home! Video provided by Rooftop Comedy
Powered by NewsLook.com
How Technology Is Ruining Snow Days For Students

How Technology Is Ruining Snow Days For Students

Newsy (Jan. 25, 2015) More schools are using online classes to keep from losing time to snow days, but it only works if students have Internet access at home. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.


Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories

Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News


Free Subscriptions

Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile

Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?

Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins