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New research in the Journal of Marriage and Family by Hui Liu and Lindsey Wilkinson reveals that married trans people (and particularly trans women) experience less discrimination than those who are unmarried. This doesn’t mean that marriage per se is what protects trans people from discrimination. As with other work examining the benefits of marriage, the issue of “selection into marriage” – or the idea that being well-off is a precursor to, rather than a result of marriage – seems to come up for trans women as well. “Transition stage,” or the extent of a respondent’s transgender visibility, as well as income and health insurance access, was linked to perceived discrimination more so than marital status. In the end, a few differences between married vs. cohabiting vs. previously-married trans people remained, but those who were never married at all perceived nearly the same (lower) amount of discrimination as married respondents.

The data come from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, a non-representative sample of 6,456 respondents collected between 2008 and 2009. The analyses are based on a sub-sample of 4,286 transgender (thus, excluding people who identify as non-binary) respondents who sufficiently answered questions about marital status and their perceptions of discrimination in the areas of work, family, public accommodations, and health care. In addition to analyzing the relationship between marital status and discrimination for the entire trans sample, the authors looked for differences by gender.

Initially, Hui and Wilkinson found the hypothesized differences by marital status: trans people who were married experienced significantly less discrimination than those who weren’t. This would make sense, according to some sociological theorizing on marriage. On the one hand, being in a “stigmatized category” generates negative effects, including discrimination (per the minority stress perspective). Yet, if one follows the marital advantage theory, that observes that there are distinct economic and social benefits to marriage, it appeared to be the case that marriage protects against transphobic discrimination. Before engaging this possibility, though, the authors accounted for other factors beyond marital status that could conceivably relate to discrimination against trans people.

Hui and Wilkinson understand that not all trans people are the same, and investigated the impact of transition stage on perceived discrimination, including how well the respondent “passed,” whether the respondent had medically transitioned, and whether they were out about their trans identity. Some of the power previously attributed to marital status was shifted after accounting for transition stage, because married people generally had characteristics that were less conducive to discrimination than those who weren’t married. Married trans women, for example, were less likely to live full-time as transgender or to be out about their trans identity than individuals in other categories, and rated their visual conformity higher than those who were never- or previously-married.  

 When taking transition stage into account, the “benefits” of marriage were still present, but they were reduced. Previously-married and cohabiting respondents still perceived more discrimination than married respondents in three out of the four areas each, but the disparities were less drastic. Never-married trans people reported nearly the same perception of discrimination as married trans respondents in all cases except for family discrimination. With family discrimination – indicated by relationship dissolution and family- and court-based restrictions on being with children – never-married respondents experienced more discrimination than those who were married. In other words, marriage for trans people was associated with also being more conventional; that conventionality—more so than marriage itself—explained the lower level of perceived discrimination, particularly for women.

There is also economics. Married trans men and women were better off, and this may have made a difference for perceptions of discrimination too. In the National Transgender Discrimination Survey sample, for example, the median family income for married trans women was at least $30,000 more than for unmarried respondents. More than 90 percent of married trans women had health insurance, compared to only 76 percent of those who weren’t married.  The greater economic and insurance advantages held by married trans women, Hui and Wilkinson found, helped to explain why they felt less discrimination. After considering economic resources, there were very few differences in discrimination by marital status. Still, cohabiters experienced more discrimination in family and public accommodations, and those who were previously married experienced more family discrimination, when compared to married trans people. There were no differences in perceived discrimination in work, family, public accommodations, or health care between never-married and married trans people.

The few remaining differences in discrimination by marital status were mostly confined to trans women. Even before considering transition stage and economic resources, there were fewer differences in discrimination by marital status for trans men, and these were mostly in the family. After accounting for socio-demographics, transition stage, and economic factors, married and unmarried trans men did not perceive differences in discrimination in work, health care, or public accommodations. In the final model, the only difference in perceived discrimination by marital status for trans men was that previously-married trans men experienced more family discrimination than married trans men. There are many possible explanations for why there were fewer differences in discrimination by marital status for trans men when compared to women. It could relate to findings that trans men generally experience less discrimination than trans women. It may also be because there were fewer differences by trans men’s marital status on other key explanatory variables. Unlike for women, for example, there were no differences for men in being out as transgender by marital status in any of the four areas studied by the researchers.

Hui and Wilkinson ask the question, “Does marriage matter?” In statistical models, and in predicting disadvantage, the answer is a qualified yes.  But it’s not quite clear, according to the authors, if marriage is responsible for reduced disadvantage, or if trans women with more disadvantage are simply less likely to marry in the first place. This means that, as with efforts to reduce disadvantage for cisgender couples, effective policy will likely require more than simply recommending marriage to trans individuals. By re-attributing much of the initial discrepancies in discrimination by marital status to economic factors, this research suggests that a fruitful avenue for reform will be addressing the economic injustices faced by trans people. In addition to transphobia, these economic injustices may actually contribute to the low ranking of trans people in the marriage market identified by the researchers.

Braxton Jones earned his MA in Sociology at the University of New Hampshire, and will begin a doctoral program at Boston University in the fall. He serves as a CCF Graduate Research and Public Affairs Scholar.