How many cisgender people are open to the idea of dating a transgender partner? A new study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships offers the first-ever scientific answer to this question, and the results are disappointing.
A team of Canadian scientists conducted an online survey of 958 adults, 98 percent of whom identified as cisgender, meaning their gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth. The participants were age 26 on average and roughly three-quarters of them were from Canada.
The key question on this survey asked participants to indicate which genders they would consider dating in the future via a checklist that included the following options: cisgender man, cisgender woman, trans man, trans woman, and gender queer. (Participants were provided with a definition of cisgender in case the term was unfamiliar to them.)
The results? Overall, 87.5 percent of participants said they would not be open to dating someone who is trans. In other words, just one in eight people expressed willingness to date a trans man, trans woman, or both.
Whether people were open to dating a trans person depended on several factors, including their age, education level, religiosity, and gender identity. Specifically, those who were older, had graduated from college, and were not religious were more open to having a trans partner. The same was true for people who were trans themselves or who identified as non-binary.
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Participants’ sexual orientation mattered a lot, too. Whereas just 3 percent of heterosexual men and women were open to dating a trans person, 24 percent of gay men and women were. Put another way, gays and lesbians were eight times more likely to say they’d have a relationship with someone who is trans. Even so, the overwhelming majority of cis people just weren’t willing to do so regardless of their sexual orientation.
Cis people may be more open to the idea of having sex with someone who is trans, however. I surveyed more than 4,000 Americans about their sexual fantasies for my new book, Tell Me What You Want, and found that about one in three men and one in four women (most of whom identified as heterosexual and cisgender) said they had fantasized about sex with a trans partner before.
The fact that notably more people seem interested in the idea of sex with a trans person than dating someone who is trans tells us that cis people tend to view trans people through a sexualized lens. This is similar to the way that straight and gay people tend to view bisexuals: Research finds that they’re more willing to have sex with someone who is bi than to date them. Trans and bisexual persons alike, it seems, are widely viewed as more suitable sexual partners than relationship partners.
With all of that said, it’s worth pointing out that the research in this area is based on hypotheticals. As a result, it may underestimate cis people's true openness to dating trans partners, perhaps because they don’t personally know anyone who is trans and they’re basing their responses on stereotypes. If they were to meet someone who is trans, maybe they would change their mind. After all, if research on the contact hypothesis has taught us anything, it’s that getting to know people who are different from you is one of the keys to reducing prejudice because it breaks down stereotypes and increases empathy.
More research would therefore be useful, especially research that explores whether increased contact with trans people does indeed make cis people more open to the idea of trans dating. We also need more research looking at the specific reasons behind cis people's low willingness to become romantically involved with trans people.
Prejudice or transphobia is obviously one big contributor. However, it’s not clear to what extent reproductive concerns or perceived fertility status might also factor into the equation. This reproductive issue might partially explain why gays and lesbians were so much more open to the idea of dating a trans person—but it’s not the whole story.
Although more research is clearly needed into the underlying reasons for these findings, this study does tell us a few important things. One is that trans people—like bisexual people—face a lot of difficulty when it comes to dating because a large percentage of the population views them as more acceptable sexual partners than romantic ones.
Another is that these dating difficulties may help to explain, in part, some of the health disparities experienced by the trans community. Romantic relationships are vital to physical and psychological wellbeing because they serve as the primary source of social and emotional support in most people’s lives, trans or otherwise. And when people have difficulty establishing the kinds of relationships they want, their health tends to suffer.
Justin Lehmiller is a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.
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