Gender essentialism and benevolent sexism in anti-trans rhetoric

S. Atwood, Thekla Morgenroth, Kristina R. Olson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The past half-decade has seen an exponential rise in proposed and debated anti-trans legislation in the United States. These bills are often positioned at the center of divisive political debates between Republicans (who typically support these laws) and Democrats (who typically do not). In the process of discussing these debates, there has been widespread dissemination of anti-trans rhetoric that has the potential to impact public opinion. In this review, we approach this rhetoric through the lens of social psychology with a specific focus on instances where anti-trans legislation is portrayed as beneficial for the rights of other vulnerable groups of people, such as cisgender women and children. We identify psychological constructs reflected in anti-trans rhetoric and then review existing literature on the consequences and beliefs associated with these constructs. Based upon this review, we argue that the kind of reasoning used to promote anti-trans laws—specifically, essentialist beliefs and benevolent sexism—is actually associated with outcomes that are detrimental to the very groups these laws purport to protect. Given these potentially adverse effects of essentialism and benevolent sexism, we reflect on ways to reduce the impact of these psychological constructs in everyday life and suggest some alternatives to these laws that would improve the lives of both cisgender and transgender individuals. Next, we briefly discuss other forms of anti-trans rhetoric and suggest ways that social psychology can be used to positively reframe rhetoric and policy to promote the welfare of transgender and gender-diverse individuals. We close our paper with a brief discussion of limitations and summary of our ideas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)171-193
Number of pages23
JournalSocial Issues and Policy Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Psychology
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Applied Psychology


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