Negative Media Depictions of Trans People Harms the Community’s Mental Health, Study Finds


Researchers have found a link between negative media representations of transgender people and adverse mental health outcomes among members of the community.

A recent report published in the peer-reviewed academic journal LGBT Health revealed that damaging media coverage of trans and gender nonconforming people was significantly correlated with clinical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in transgender people, along with increases in anxiety, depression, and psychological distress.

According to researchers with Brown University and the LGBTQ+ community-based health organization Fenway Institute, 97.6{b5d304c96e94113bdfc523ff4218a1efff4746200bdb9eeb3214a56a1302f2e4} of respondents said that within the past 12 months, they had seen transgender people be negatively depicted in at least one form of media. Exposure to such defamatory portrayals was associated with a 28{b5d304c96e94113bdfc523ff4218a1efff4746200bdb9eeb3214a56a1302f2e4} elevated risk of experiencing psychological distress. This includes a 26{b5d304c96e94113bdfc523ff4218a1efff4746200bdb9eeb3214a56a1302f2e4} higher rate of anxiety, a 25{b5d304c96e94113bdfc523ff4218a1efff4746200bdb9eeb3214a56a1302f2e4} higher rate of PTSD, and 18{b5d304c96e94113bdfc523ff4218a1efff4746200bdb9eeb3214a56a1302f2e4} higher rate of depression.

In a press release, the study’s lead author, Jaclyn White Hughto, said that “campaigns designed to encourage accurate, non-stigmatizing depictions of transgender people across all media could serve to mitigate” these harms.

“Given the prevalence of systemic discrimination against transgender people in employment, health care settings, schools, and housing, we have long known that structural interventions are required to target stigma at its source,” said Hughto, an assistant professor at Brown University School of Public Health, adding that “clinical interventions can also help transgender people cope with the stress of being exposed to negative transgender-related media.”

The study, which is believed to be the first of its kind, sampled 545 transgender participants between March and August 2019 about their experiences with anti-trans media. Most of the negative representations occurred in print and on television, with nearly 94{b5d304c96e94113bdfc523ff4218a1efff4746200bdb9eeb3214a56a1302f2e4} of respondents claiming they had seen trans people harshly portrayed in these forms of media. Advertisements and signs, meanwhile, made up 83.1{b5d304c96e94113bdfc523ff4218a1efff4746200bdb9eeb3214a56a1302f2e4} of formats where transgender people in the study saw stigmatizing depictions of people like themselves.


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These findings reinforce recent analysis from advocacy groups about the impact of dehumanizing depictions of transgender people. A July study from Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog group, found that 65{b5d304c96e94113bdfc523ff4218a1efff4746200bdb9eeb3214a56a1302f2e4} traffic to trans news stories came from right-wing sites like The Daily Caller and LifeSiteNews. Websites like these are infamous for mocking and misgendering transgender people, in additioning to questioning the validity of trans identities. Stories that are affirming of LGBTQ+ people didn’t get nearly as much traffic, and only accounted for 19{b5d304c96e94113bdfc523ff4218a1efff4746200bdb9eeb3214a56a1302f2e4} of all interactions surveyed.

While the study didn’t draw any conclusions about the mental health effects of these unflattering depictions, the study’s authors noted that the hateful discourse about trans people from such news sources has “undoubtedly led to the online harassment and abuse of trans people.”

In addition, there remains a dearth of trans depictions, whether positive or negative, in mainstream films, even as television shows like Pose have elevated positive portrayals of trans people. The 2020 Studio Responsibility Index (SRI), released by the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization GLAAD, found that there were no transgender characters in Hollywood movies for the third year in a row. Although GLAAD said they were “pleased” that several transgender actors played in roles that weren’t explicitly depicting a trans person, the organization said trans representation on screen could help shift the public’s understanding about the community.

“Polls show that approximately 20 percent of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender, compared to nearly 90 percent who know someone who is lesbian, gay, or bisexual,” GLAAD said in the survey. “There is incredible opportunity for storytellers to lead change and to accelerate acceptance by sharing and uplifting the experiences of trans people.”

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