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Recently, Ben Blankenship, P.D., an Assistant Professor of Psychology at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA, published a piece of empirical research with Dr. Abigail J. Stewart on LGBTQ identity in The European Journal of Social Psychology, as a part of a larger special issue on the social psychology of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The research article, titled The best little kid in the world: Internalized sexual stigma and extrinsic contingencies of self-worth, work values, and life aspirations among men and womenexplores how many lesbians and gay men develop a drive to be successful in extrinsic pursuits (e.g. money, status, appearance, etc.), as a result of a defensive strategy that they likely learned at a young age.

Since they learn that others may reject them at any point as a result of coming out, they learn to not rely on the acceptance of others as a way to feel good about themselves (what we called “contingencies of self-worth” in psychology), instead learning to rely on aspects that are seen as within their own control, such as their achievement in their career, their ability to gain high status, or their drive to earn financial resources, as a way to feel good about themselves.

This tendency was found to be driven by internalized stigma, or the tendency for some gay men and lesbians to feel negatively about their sexual orientation, as a result of the larger society’s negative attitudes toward their marginalized group.

Dr. Benjamin T. Blankenship

Drs. Blankenship and Stewart explore how internalized sexual stigma and extrinsic contingencies affect the path gays, lesbians, and bisexuals take in their lives. “The study looked at how LGB folks identify with their sexual minority identity, and then how that translates it to their values and things that they want to get out of their work, their life, etc.,” says Blankenship.

The findings lined up with a previous study by the name of “The Best Little Boy in the World Hypothesis” looked at gay men and why they felt driven to excel in achievement related areas of life that others could not take away from them; for example of this individual success, wealth, education, and appearance are all things that they may strive to exceed expectations in. 

What Dr. Blankenship wanted to explore was twofold; the first aspect looked at if this phenomenon was true for anyone in the LGB community, not just gay men, and the second was the mechanism in which this psychological process happens. To do so, he looked at domains of internalized stigma or “the extent to which sexual minorities feel negatively about their sexual orientation status.” Through this he found that this was true not only for gay men, but lesbians and especially bisexuals. He theorizes this might be because, “bisexual people kind of have this dual stigma. In mainstream society, they get marginalized for their  same sex orientation, and same sex attraction. But within the LGBT community, they get marginalized for their opposite sex attraction.”

But further research needs to be done because there are many bidirectional influences that play a role in why this could be. Furthermore, he discusses the need for transgender inclusive research. While he does not comment on a hypothesis for what might be found within this community, he does stress the need for inclusivity in all aspects of research. While he did not have the scope to attain data for anyone outside of the binary, when participants that did not identify as a man or woman were included in the original data, there were no differences found in the results. 

When asked about his own research team and how that played a role throughout the process he talks about how important inclusion is: “ I legitimately think if I don't have certain experiences on the team, I'm going to miss something important.”

Dr. Blankenship stresses how vital it is for research and for representation to be present for all of the communities being looked at. Additionally he talks about the effect discussing this with his students has had. The students really like the approach of the study. And they like some of the more nuanced things where they have discussions in the lab and they disagree. Is it something that's a problem? Or is it something that needs to be evaluated?

And these questions carry outside of the current research leading into new ideas of interest that can then be explored more in-depth. So this research is really important, not just from a psychological perspective to better understand how these things work but for learning and life experience. Blankenship shares an experience he had after a presentation at a conference where people engage how “that makes total sense. Like it clicked for me, you know, that's why I'm pursuing a PhD.” 

And for a lot of people LBTQ+ this sentiment probably resonates close to home. It’s something that is almost never at the forefront of the mind, but an unconscious pattern a lot of us share. It’s comforting knowledge knowing that it is a commonality but it also begs the question of why is it that society does this or is allowed to do so to an entire marginalized group of people. But perhaps that’s another study to be done another day.

How to talk about transgender issues

So how do we talk about transgender issues (even if you're not transgender)? There are three main things to remember when discussing transgender issues today, so before getting into the meat and potatoes of it all, let's keep these things in mind:

  1. It is not a political discussion, it is a human rights discussion.
  2. There is a rich history rooted in transgender rights that must be considered when discussing these issues.
  3. Humanization should always be at the forefront of the conversation.

Before going into any conversation, no matter who it's with, try to keep these things in mind before you say something that may be inappropriate, misguided, or just plain wrong. Even those with the best intentions can mess up; remember that it is always ok to admit when you do not know something or when you are wrong. That being said, let's get into it.

sign with a 'friendly for all genders' image showing a person in a wheelchair, and a person with half a dress and pants on.

Transgender bathroom bills


So whether you choose to become a transgender activist or if you just want to be a better ally, this easy talking point will generally keep you in line and on the safe side of conversations while still putting forth the effort to encourage and better represent transgender rights.

Easy, all-around approach: This will work for almost all transgender issues and expand on the previous three rules; firstly, trans issues are not a debate. When discussing with someone, do not indulge in hypotheticals and always remember that transgender people are the exact same as anyone else, with the exact same feelings. Keeping this in mind, let's use the bathroom bill as an example. When discussing this issue, one should humanize, de-politicize, and normalize the conversation. How does one employ this, though? Here is an example of how the conversation may go.

Person 1: I don't want men in the women's restroom, they will rape my daughters.

So this statement is clearly based on reactionary conversation perpetuated by anti-transgender ideals. This means that the person probably has a misconception of the history and oppression of transgender people. They also show concern for their family, which is a step towards humanization, despite the misconception. Here would be an appropriate response that helps to humanize, de-politicize, and normalize the conversation.

Person 2: I don't want men in the women's restroom, either, which is why we need to make sure people who identify as women are using the women's restroom. There has never been a documented case where a transgender person has raped either a man or woman in a public restroom. And by forcing people to use a restroom that does not match their gender identity, it is promoting violence, as there is a strong history of physical violence against transgender people.

By only saying about three sentences, you are able to do the previous steps while discussing the issue in a civil manner without opening it up to debate. The key to this is to keep it short and sweet, stating both the truth and an ally's stance to support the transgender community. It's critical to make sure that what you say is backed with confidence, though, which is why this second approach is more encouraged as it gives the person speaking more confidence in their opinion.

gif of a man in a suit talking about number 1. Number 1 GIF by PragerU Giphy

The second approach: backed by facts and history, is the exact same as before, but this approach leaves the other person with more questions about their stance and gives them something to consider. Before going into this approach, however, it is important to keep in mind that you are not debating the existence of trans people, nor are you trying to change someone's mind. That is not the goal; the goal is simply to get your opinion across in a way that honors both the trans community and their ideas. Let's take the same example as before but add the new sentiments.

Person 1: I don't want men in the women's restrooms, they will rape my daughters.

Person 2: There has never been a documented case of a transgender person raping anyone in a public restroom, and the only published cases of such were proven to be false. Further, when people say things like this, they are perpetuating violence against transgender people, which has historically (and still does) oppressed and insight further physical violence against them. And honestly, the most common reason there is this stance is because the person typically does not know a trans person and may not even know a person who does know a trans person. But the truth is, they probably do. The probability is more likely that the transgender people around them are just not comfortable enough in the environment to come out and speak up about their gender identity. And yes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but it is quite sad that some people's opinion does not invite civil discussion but instead incites violence.

This approach is more confrontational, which requires more confidence when using it in a conversation, but it still holds true to all of the previous rules and sentiments. It adds truth based on history, which is an important aspect of trans rights as it reminds people of where we were/ where we are currently with human rights. These ideas can be transferred to most all trans issues and will honor the transgender movement and your allyship. The last thing to keep in mind is the person or reason you are standing up for/with trans rights. The passion -the compassion will shine through in conversation if you keep your reasoning close to heart. Whether it is because of a transgender friend, family member, or just because of your moral values, if you put your emotions into your reasoning, it will create more compelling statements, especially if the statement is well versed with the facts.

Tips to Remember When Discussing Transgender Issues

  1. Transgender issues are not political, they are human rights issues
  2. There is a rich history behind transgender issues
  3. Humanize transgender people through our words and ideas and don't forget to include:
    • 3(b). The facts
    • 3(c).The confidence
    • 3(d). The inspiration behind the support for transgender rights

Transgender Sign in Pride Parade

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