The debate on Trans rights in the UK has been increasingly polarised in recent years, leading to a fragmentation of public opinion on the issue.
This has lead some organisations to try to narrow the chasm, with the idea that more nuanced positions are needed in order to sway large segments of the UK public towards positive sentiments for the Trans communities.
This article explores one such initiative, implemented by the research organisation More in Common*. More in Common is an international initiative set up in 2017 to build societies and communities that are stronger, more united, and more resilient to the increasing threats of polarisation and social division.
In pursuit of a more evidence-based understanding of how society finds common ground on polarising issues, More in Common launched the Britain’s Choice project in 2020.
Segmentation of audiences
A fundamental step in any campaign is to segment public opinion along the lines of how they relate to the campaign issue. The campaign then makes choices on which segment(s) to focus on: the opposition, the “moveables”, the “low hanging fruits”, the supporters, or any nuances of these.
But this segmentation is not easy to conduct. More in Common fortunately had already conducted much research in order to segment the UK population according to 7 large segments based on their core beliefs, through a combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods that was deployed over several years through surveys, focus groups and one-on-one interviews.
“We developed the British Seven segments through a cluster analysis exercise. Cluster analysis allows us to identify patterns in people’s responses that are not captured by doing more standard demographic and political analysis afforded by polling” the report writes.
- Progressive Activists – A passionate and vocal group for whom politics is at the core of their identity and who seek to correct the historic marginalisation of groups based on their race, gender, sexuality, and wealth. They are politically engaged, critical, opinionated, frustrated, cosmopolitan and environmentally conscious. They see the world through a lens of care and fairness and have much lower reliance on the moral foundations of purity, loyalty, and authority. They feel less threatened in the world and in their community.
- Civic Pragmatists – A group that cares about others, at home or abroad, and who are turned off by the divisiveness of politics. They are charitable, concerned, community-minded, open to compromise and socially liberal.
- Disengaged Battlers – A group that feels that they are just about keeping their heads above water and who blame the system for this unfairness. They are tolerant, insecure, disillusioned, disconnected, overlooked and socially liberal.
- Established Liberals – A group that has done well and means well towards others, but also sees a lot of good in the status quo. They are comfortable, privileged, cosmopolitan, trusting, confident and pro-market. They have low levels of authoritarianism and the lowest perception of threat of any segment – which is reflected in their broad support for diversity, multi-culturalism, and sense that their local community is neither dangerous nor neglected.
- Loyal Nationals – A group that is anxious about the threats facing Britain and themselves. They are proud, patriotic, tribal, protective, threatened, aggrieved, and frustrated about the gap between the haves and the have-nots. They feel the ‘care’ and ‘fairness’ moral foundations more strongly than other groups.
- Disengaged Traditionalists – A group that values a well-ordered society, takes pride in hard work, and wants strong leadership that keeps people in line. They are self-reliant, ordered, patriotic, tough-minded, suspicious, and disconnected. They place a strong emphasis on personal responsibility.
- Backbone Conservatives – A group who are proud of their country, optimistic about Britain’s future outside of Europe, and who keenly follow the news, mostly via traditional media sources. They are nostalgic, patriotic, stalwart, proud, secure, confident, and relatively engaged with politics.
The second phase of the research consisted in analysing each segment’s position on Trans issues. More in Common convened a series of focus group discussions focusing on issues of sex and gender-based rights. Participants were recruited from across the British Seven segments.
Listen to some extracts of these consultations
To put this into perspective, it has to be noted that the research revealed that no matter the segment, Britons ranked ‘the debate about transgender people’ as the least important issue facing the country today, from a list of sixteen options.
Progressive Activists are more likely to see the debate on trans equality as a battle against injustice and are by far the group most likely to support full trans inclusion. However, there is also a significant minority of Progressive Activists who believe the real injustice is the erosion of sex-based rights. They are the only segment that is actively posting about the debate online.
Civic Pragmatists start from a position of kindness and compassion which means that their initial instincts will be to understand the challenges faced and struggles endured by trans people. They are turned off by the divisiveness and anger of the media and elite debate on gender identity.
Disengaged Battlers are much less likely to follow the gender identity debate or to spend much time thinking about it. They are however, in general, (unlike Disengaged Traditionalists) more likely to think that the concerns of minorities should be taken into consideration – even if this goes against the wishes of the majority.
Established Liberals are more likely to be aware of the gender identity debate, and their optimistic outlook on life means that they are proud of the progress made on minority rights in recent decades – occasionally that outlook makes it difficult for them to relate to the struggles minority groups can face. They are more likely to be informed about the elite gender identity debate and more likely to have more developed views on its different issues.
The strong moral foundations of care and fairness among Loyal Nationals lead them to think that trans people should be able to live their lives happily, but they also have strong views about the unfairness of trans women competing in women-only sports. An all-or-nothing approach which demands inclusion of all trans women in elite women-only sports will likely lead to a weakening of their broader desire to support trans people in other areas.
The key lens for Disengaged Traditionalists is that of order. They are less engaged in the gender identity debate than other segments but are likely to feel threatened by concepts like ‘non-binary’ which they consider to be messy and anarchic. On many issues, Disengaged Traditionalists are more likely to take a ‘live and let live’ approach as long as that does not affect the lives of others. More than any other segment, Disengaged Traditionalists’ support for trans inclusion is more likely to be predicated on there being clear rules on when someone is considered to have transitioned (as opposed to something like self-ID) and having their practical concerns being addressed.
Backbone Conservatives are the most likely to consider gender identity to be fixed and to think gender reassignment is unnatural. That said, while they disagree with some aspects of trans advocacy, they fundamentally believe that life should be lived as ‘each to their own’ as long as that does not require too many accommodations on their part as a result.
Analysis of items of convergence and divergence
The next step of the process was to look at areas of synergies and dissent.
Unsurprisingly, areas of dissent were easily identified as being around
- Trans Athletes in high level sports
- Children’s access to gender affirming healthcare
More surprisingly, the researchers analysed that the opposition in these areas is not centred on philosophical debates about what it means to be a man or a woman, but instead reflect very practical questions about how sex- and gender-based rights interact with issues of fairness, as in limiting Trans women’s access to high level sports, and children’s maturity, with access to irreversible change thought to be acceptable only after the age of 18. The opposition in some cases also boiled down to even more down-to-earth considerations like hygiene: in the case of bathroom, opposition is often not expressed in terms of security or privacy, but with the argument that “men make toilets dirty”.
Based on the analysis, the report gave key recommendations to improve inclusive practices.
- Engage people over practical considerations, not theoretical (e.g. the difference between gender identity and gender expression). Focus on everyday life. This also helps to focus on concrete subjects that people can relate to more easily.
- Focus on the commonalities, not the divisions. Don’t feed the polarisation, social media does it for you. Refrain from communicating on divisive issues and concentrate on areas where consensus is easy. This will stop you fanning the flames of the opposition’s fires.
- Magnify the experiences of people who find solutions. Even if they are not perfect, people tend to look for solutions, especially in places of care (health, education, social work). Make these experiences visible and contribute to a virtuous circle of initiatives. Acknowledging progress also contributes to galvanise energies.
- Creating spaces for dialogues (not mud-slinging) is a hugely efficient and even necessary part of persuasion tactics. An absence of these spaces, or if these spaces are not perceived as genuinely welcoming debates, will stop people from engaging and therefore thwart any chance of change. These discussions are also invaluable in providing you with feedback; they act as a permanent focus group discussion, for free!
* While this article provides a summary of content, a lot more information is detailed in the report, which includes the details of the research frameworks and results. We highly recommend reading the full report, which is written in accessible and engaging language.
In this research, More in Common found that levels of agreement on the Trans debate are consistent across groups, and that they are based on similar values of care, safety or fairness i.a.
The consequence for messaging is that values-based messaging aimed at one particular segment might actually also be conducive for other segments. In campaigning, we normally recommend to focus on one very special group and not try to “kill two birds with one stone”. But this might be taken to extremes, with campaigns only focusing on a very narrow group, without looking at how the campaign could, maybe by widening the frame a bit, reach wider groups.
Identifying the common ground does not mean looking for the smallest common denominator, but for the values that are likely to move different segments, rather than for the values that are likely to increase the polarisation.