Cultural Change Science

| Apr 25, 2016
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protest_0416As we fight the good fight over laws and discrimination, let us remember that we also need to change the culture. We may obtain tolerance through laws but acceptance is also needed to encourage people to follow and enforce the laws and ultimately to make the laws unnecessary. There actually is a science of sorts about cultural change, or at least bits and pieces. Corporations and countries succeed in changing their culture all of the time. The organization, Out and Equal has been working at it for GLBT employees within corporations for several years. There are some bits and pieces from social science that we can also use to accomplish cultural change among the population. Cultural change is a process and here are the top 10 elements (according only to Bevan):

  1. Be the Zen Warrior
  2. Be Visible
  3. Be a Friend to Non-Transgender People
  4. Be an Educator
  5. Form Local Groups Including Allies and Champions
  6. Develop a Shared Vision of the New Culture
  7. Take Aim at Small, Measurable Behavioral Changes]
  8. Champions and Allies Model Behavior
  9. Celebrate Successes and Models of Success
  10. Continue

buddhist_warriorFirst, be the Zen Warrior who maintains a calm mental inside while working hard outside in the fight. It does not do any good for advocates to behave directly out of anger; it usually makes things worse. Develop that inner calm through yoga and relaxation exercises if you need to. The Buddhist Zen Warriors of the Japan did. Tell yourself that your enemies are just not informed and are acting against their own real interests. As soon as they get informed they will no longer be enemies. I would not say that you should forgive and forget because maintain cultural change is even more of a challenge. The forces promoting the old ways keep reappearing in different guises. I have seen this happen in the Civil Rights struggle in my lifetime. We thought it was all settled until more subtle forms of discrimination appeared, like voter ID laws. So remember the lessons of the past but be calm about it as you work to effect and maintain change.

Second, be visible. The gays and lesbians only managed to changed culture when they started to come out of the closet in the early 1990s. Even now, cultural change for their acceptance is not complete. With respect to those transgender people still in the closet, hiding is perceived by the outside world that transgender people somehow feel guilty about being transgender. There are practical reasons why many remain in the closet or only partially out, like taking care of families and earning a living. We may be afraid at times, but persisting in the face of fear is the essence of courage. I do not intend to mean that transgender people should risk their health and happiness in the process of being visible. We should be visible in safe places and times.

The scientific reason behind being visible is that many of us do not fit perfectly into our preferred gender behavior category and people just have to get used to that. We do not fit neatly into their experience. Getting used to it means, desensitization in psychology. Just as psychologists desensitize people with various fears (fear of flying, fear of spiders, etc.) by gradually increasing exposure, transgender people must gradually expose the public to our existence. It may make some people mad or fearful for a time but gradually they will get used to us and their emotions should subside.

Third, be a friend to non-transgender people. Social science tells us that people are more likely to accept us if they know us on a personal level. It is no wonder that such an archconservative as Dick Cheney now supports same sex marriage. His daughter just had one. It is hard to hate or fear someone that you know. During the same sex marriage campaign, lesbian couples would invite legislators and executives to dinner at their homes to reach out on a personal level. Recent studies show that even taking a few minutes to talk to and gain rapport with people changes attitudes towards being transgender. Again, don’t take unnecessary risks, start with the people who are safe and gradually the rest of the population will follow.

Fourth, be an educator. I have an “AAA” policy of providing education about being transgender Anywhere, Anytime to Anyone. But make sure you know what you are talking about. No one should expect all transgender people to be experts on the genetics and neuroanatomy of being transgender. That’s my job. But every transgender person can certainly tell about their own experience which is probably more interesting to most people, anyway.

Fifth, form local groups that include allies and champions. The anthropologist Margaret Mead is quoted as saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Seems like the best allies are those who have transgender children or family members but there are others who want to help as well. Champions are people higher up in local leadership either in government, commerce or local community affairs who will give visibility to pursuing cultural change. We hope that more church leaders will become champions but many are held back by the subcultures of their congregations.

Sixth, develop a shared vision of future culture in which transgender people are accepted. The people in the group do not have to agree on all the details but they must be in “alignment” with the vision. It is said that if you have a group of 5 transgender people, that their will be at least 7 viewpoints. This just indicates that the “transgender community” is diverse. There is nothing about being transgender that compels transgender people to agree on anything and everything.

Seventh, take aim at small, measurable behavioral changes. Changes could take the form of pursuing a local city non-discrimination ordinance, or just having transgender people be invited to talk to community groups or churches. City non-discrimination ordinances may not be valid in hostile state courts but the idea is to take small steps. Having local non-discrimination ordinances are valuable because when the issue comes up at the county or state level, the experience of a locality is valuable evidence. How did the ordinance work? How many court cases developed? And very few people want to violate the law even if it can be successfully appealed. It is bad for business and its bad for reputations.

Eighth, get the allies and champions to model the correct behavior. Just as transgender people need to be visible, their allies and champions need to be visible and display behaviors that indicate acceptance for transgender people. Allies need to testify in support of non-discrimination laws. Allies in local community organizations should arrange for transgender people or themselves to talk to them on being transgender. Business champions need to urge adoption of non-discrimination policies in their business, even if there is no such law that covers it.

Ninth, celebrate successes and models of success. Such celebrations call attention to the cultural change enterprise. Celebrations are a feature of human behavior that should not be ignored even though they seem a little corny sometimes. Celebrations are newsworthy on local or any level. They are often a springboard to the next iteration of cultural change activity.

Tenth, continue. As the saying goes “wash, rinse, repeat” until cultural change and acceptance have been accomplished. The process is an iterative one in which we get better with each cycle. With each cycle the local organizations may work together to form larger state and ultimately national organizations. Although California already has extensive laws to protect transgender people, six days ago the mayor of Los Angeles announced the formation of Transform California. This statewide organization was formed by 30 organizations to conduct “a statewide public education campaign to raise awareness, understanding and acceptance of transgender and gender non-conforming Californians.” Seems like California, at least, wants to move from legal tolerance to increased acceptance of transgender people.

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Category: Transgender Body & Soul, Transgender How To, Transgender Opinion, Transgender Politics


About the Author ()

Dana Jennett Bevan holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and a Bachelors degree from Dartmouth College both in experimental psychology. She is the author of The Transsexual Scientist which combines biology with autobiography as she came to learn about transgenderism throughout her life. Her second book The Psychobiology of Transsexualism and Transgenderism is a comprehensive analysis of TSTG research and was published in 2014 by Praeger under the pen name Thomas E. Bevan. Her third book Being Transgender was released by Praeger in November 2016. She can be reached at

Comments (4)

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  1. CateOMalley CateOMalley says:

    Hello Dana,

    I wanted to write and thank you for, not only this article, but all of your work. I find myself revisiting your posts and trying to absorb your work. I really enjoyed this current posting. My work is primarily with older members of our community and especially those who have recently come out. I came out later in life and I’m happy to share what land mines I’ve stepped on along the way in hopes they will be avoided.

    Your ten steps are elegant and well within the abilities of almost all of us. I do have to admit I’ve fallen down on Step One on more than one occasion. I also agree with you that it is hard to hate someone up close. We’ve all experienced five people and seven points of view. We are indeed a diverse group. Step Nine is the one that caught me off guard. Whenever I have a measure of success, there always seems to another challenge to take its place. I don’t always celebrate the milestones or successes, no matter how small. We all need to relax and recharge to continue our work. Something I must remember.

    Please accept my thanks for all you have shared in the past. I look forward to seeing your posts wherever I find them.

    Cate O’Malley

    • danabevan danabevan says:

      Thank you.
      I am glad you appreciate my work.
      I just finished writing a new book and I included about 2 paragraphs about senior transgender people which is about my limit of knowledge. I am vitally interested, however, because I am in that category and need to plan ahead.
      After I finish my current book, I intend to be more active in the blogosphere.
      I am a bit frustrated because I want to take on Keith Ablo for his recent comments but I cannot take time out to do so.

  2. Perfect! Thanks Dana.