PULLMAN, Wash. – With the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that workers cannot be fired for being gay or transgender, policies and opinions about the LGBTQ community are receiving worldwide attention. Research by a Washington State University professor examined the effects of TV portrayals of transgender individuals on peoples’ attitudes toward the transgender community.

Traci Gillig, an assistant professor at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, and a team of researchers at the Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, found that exposure to transgender characters on television influences viewers’ attitudes and behavior toward transgender individuals as outlined in their 2018 research, “More than a Media Moment: the Influence of Televised Storylines on Viewers’ Attitudes toward Transgender People and Policies”.

Gillig and her team specifically examined the impact of exposure to a TV storyline in June 2015 on USA Network’s show Royal Pains, where the episode featured a transgender teen experiencing health complications as she transitioned from male to female.

In the study, researchers analyzed survey responses of nearly 500 people who had seen the specific Royal Pains episode. Participants answered questions related to attitudes towards transgender individuals along with revealing emotions experienced while watching the episode. They also surveyed a control group who had not seen the episode about their attitudes toward the transgender community.

Results showed that respondents who saw the Royal Pains episode featuring a transgender adolescent had more positive attitudes toward transgender people and policies compared to Royal Pains’ viewers who did not see this particular storyline. Similarly, those exposed to media coverage of transgender individuals in the months prior to the Royal Pains’ episode had more supportive attitudes.

“These findings illustrate the importance of transgender media portrayals, even more minor ones, in influencing media consumers’ attitudes toward transgender people and related policies,” Gillig said.

Gillig and her team also found that emotions, such as hope, played an influential role in affecting viewers’ attitudes toward transgender people. Those who could sympathize with the transgender character tended to report more positive attitudes towards the transgender community.

These results demonstrate the power of the media to influence attitudes toward transgender people and policy issues. It can also reflect that recent media visibility of transgender individuals, even if it’s brief, could have a far-reaching impact, such as affecting public perception of groups within the LGBTQ community.

“As many people in the U.S. may not personally know someone who is transgender or nonbinary, media can increase understanding of gender identities beyond cisgender male and female,” Gillig said.

Although this study focused specifically on transgender portrayals, similar effects may occur for other LGBTQ portrayals. The results highlight the potential for narratives evoking positive emotions to foster change in attitudes toward people from marginalized groups, along with policies affecting them. Gillig hopes that continued transgender representation in the media can affect public perception.