The Politics of Being “Cait”: Caitlyn Jenner, Transphobia, and Parasocial Contact Effects on Transgender-Related Political Attitudes

Date01 September 2020
AuthorBarry Tadlock,Andrew R. Flores,Daniel C. Lewis,Jami K. Taylor,Donald P. Haider-Markel,Patrick R. Miller
Published date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(5) 622 –634
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20906460
Caitlyn Jenner is one of the best known openly transgender
celebrities in the United States (Lovelock, 2017). By 2015,
when she publicly confirmed that she was a transgender
woman, Jenner had enjoyed over 40 years of prominence
as an athlete, product spokesperson, and television star.
This disclosure was a high-profile story when, after sig-
nificant tabloid speculation, Jenner discussed her gender
identity with journalist Diane Sawyer, and appeared on the
cover of Vanity Fair under the headline “Call me Caitlyn”
(Bissinger, 2015).
Celebrities like Jenner are important in politics, both in
campaigns and issue advocacy (Harvey, 2017; West & Orman,
2003). However, Jenner’s political relevance differs from
more common forms of celebrity activism in that her mere act
of “coming out” could be seen as political. Identifying as a
member of a marginalized community increases its visibility,
and indeed the term transgender itself “refers to a collective
political identity” (Currah et al., 2006, p. xv). Her revelation
coincided with rising attention to transgender rights, includ-
ing several local referendums that year on nondiscrimination
ordinances that received substantial national media coverage
(Taylor et al., 2018). By coming out in that environment, cou-
pled with the fact that relatively few Americans report know-
ing a transgender person (Tadlock et al., 2017), Jenner was
positioned to be a familiar face representing a group whose
rights were increasingly salient but with whom most
Americans have limited personal experience.
In this research, we treat Jenner’s story as a case of para-
social contact—individuals forming “beliefs and attitudes
about people they know only through” mass media (Schiappa
et al., 2006, p. 20)—that may influence group-relevant atti-
tudes. Based on extant literature, we focus on the direct and
conditional effects of age and transphobia in predicting per-
ceptions of the Jenner story and how those perceptions
affected transgender rights policy attitudes. Counterintuitively,
we find that older respondents who were also more transpho-
bic were less likely to see her story as representing negative
social trends if they followed the story more closely and
were more likely to translate that evaluation into support for
pro-transgender policies.
906460APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20906460American Politics ResearchMiller et al.
1University of Kansas, Lawrence, USA
2American University, Washington, D.C., CA, USA
3Siena College, Loudonville, LA, USA
4Ohio University, Athens, USA
5University of Toledo, Toledo, USA
Corresponding Author:
Patrick R. Miller, University of Kansas, 1541 Lilac Lane, Lawrence, KS
66045-3177, USA.
The Politics of Being “Cait”: Caitlyn
Jenner, Transphobia, and Parasocial
Contact Effects on Transgender-Related
Political Attitudes
Patrick R. Miller1, Andrew R. Flores2, Donald P. Haider-Markel1,
Daniel C. Lewis3, Barry Tadlock4, and Jami K. Taylor5
Celebrities saturate American culture and often become relevant in politics, yet political science has largely left unstudied
how celebrities affect mass political behavior. We focus on the 2015 story of Caitlyn Jenner revealing her transgender
identity. Using an original nationally representative survey from that summer, we examine whether following the Jenner story
and evaluations of its social significance affected attitudes toward transgender rights policies. Specifically, we examine how
age and transphobia interacted with engagement with the Jenner story to shape attitudes toward transgender rights. We
find, counterintuitively, that older respondents who were more transphobic were less likely to see her story as representing
negative social trends if they followed it in the media. Furthermore, more transphobic older respondents were more likely
to support pro-transgender policies if they viewed Jenner’s story less negatively. We then discuss the implications of our
findings for research on celebrity effects on politics and transgender rights.
celebrities, Caitlyn Jenner, parasocial contact, transgender, transgender rights, transphobia

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