Ending the Hate -- "Deep Canvassing" as the Solution to Persistent Transphobia

Deep canvassing - what I love to do while campaigning for office. Ten, twenty, thirty minutes with a voter (and sometimes as much as two hours, but I wouldn't report that to my campaign manager) were the highlights of all my campaigns. That's when you get to know people, and secondarily, are more likely to win their vote. They may even be more likely to get out and vote come election day.

The problem is such engagement is very time-intensive. The resources in a political campaign are generally insufficient to mount such a canvass, and we willfully fool ourselves that cutting corners will not have a negative effect on the outcome.

While I know from personal experience that such deep canvassing has worked for me, there was no scientific proof until now. And not only is there proof, but that proof comes in the form of deep canvassing to combat transphobia.

I've written about the silence of our national community around transphobia, and the unwillingness to engage directly on the bathroom predator libel. Unlike the sporadic focus groups mounted in the past, which showed no positive change from engaging with voters, the LA LGBT Center Leadership LAB study provides conclusive evidence that a minimum 10 minute dialogue at the door will lead to lasting improvement in the attitudes of voters towards the trans community.

Leadership LAB (formerly known as "Vote for Equality"), is one of the departments of the LA LGBT Center, is run by Dave Fleischer, and functions as the political organizing arm of the Center. It uses the deep canvassing technique it developed, and this study was performed by David Broockman, assistant professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Joshua Kalla, PhD student at University of California at Berkeley. There was a hitch in getting this research out, as the study done on the issue of marriage equality was found to have been produced in a fraudulent manner. Broockman and Kalla, along with Peter Aronow of Yale, uncovered the fraud, and subsequently won the Leamer-Rosenthal Prize for Open Social Science for their efforts. Broockman and Kalla then proceeded to do this research on transphobia.

Here is the abstract of the study, published in the journal, Science, one of the two most prestigious science journals in the world (Nature being the other):

Existing research depicts intergroup prejudices as deeply ingrained, requiring intense intervention to lastingly reduce. Here, we show that a single approximately 10-minute conversation encouraging actively taking the perspective of others can markedly reduce prejudice for at least 3 months. We illustrate this potential with a door-to-door canvassing intervention in South Florida targeting anti-transgender prejudice. Despite declines in homophobia, transphobia remains pervasive. For the intervention, 56 canvassers went door to door encouraging active perspective-taking with 501 voters at voters' doorsteps. A randomized trial found that these conversations substantially reduced transphobia, with decreases greater than Americans' average decrease in homophobia from 1998 to 2012. These effects persisted for 3 months, and both transgender and non-transgender canvassers were effective. The intervention also increased support for a nondiscrimination law, even after exposing voters to counterarguments.

The most important conclusion was that the positive effect was persistent for at least three months, and persisted in spite of the voter having been shown hateful videos put out by the opposition. We know from prior experience that when it comes to referenda, the group whose message is heard last by the voter wins. Lobby someone with a positive anti-discrimination message and you get their support (often 2/3 of those polled). When the opposition comes in with the male predator libel, that support drops to 1/3. Respond with the positive message, and you're back to 2/3. In those cases, without resources and, therefore, without the benefit of deep canvassing, it ends up being a game of musical chairs - the last message seated wins. With deep canvassing, the positive message is shown to survive the hate, at least for three months.

Another important conclusion was that there was no statistical difference between the message being delivered by a trans person or a cis person. That's important from a manpower perspective, as there are never enough trans persons to mount any kind of effective campaign beyond the very local level. It is also clear, however, that the cis campaigners must be empathetic and on message, because you can't persuade someone else about a community of people toward whom you personally feel some degree of discomfort.

I sense the cis LGB community is becoming more comfortable discussing trans issues, and this study proves that cis allies can be very effective spokespersons in the all-important one-on-one conversations that are necessary to bring real equality. We must remember that while only 35% of Americans know a trans person today (and 66% of those who personally know a trans person support trans equality, compared to 13% who do not know a trans person), 90% know a gay one, and it is that statistic of overwhelming interaction with the LGB community which reflects the underlying forces at work in expanding support for marriage equality over the past five years.

My political take-away from this study is that it's time for silence on these issues to end. The national trans community, along with our cis gay allies, must confront the libel head-on, and by doing so in a positive, thoughtful, logical and intensive manner we will eventually prevail.