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updated 8/22/2012 12:20:00 PM ET 2012-08-22T16:20:00

DENVER — Even amidst emotional fights over same-sex marriage, anti-gay political advertisements have grown increasingly civil since the 1970s, new research finds. For transgender people, however, the media landscape is looking increasingly brutal.

Political attacks against transgender people increasingly portray them as predatory and dangerous, even as ads by conservative groups depicting gay people as pedophiles or sexual predators have dropped nearly off the map, said Amy Stone, a sociologist at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

"Awareness has really been focused on same sex-marriage," Stone told LiveScience. "We haven't been paying attention to the ways that transgender rights are so easily targeted by the [political] right on a local level."

Stone does note, however, that the civility of anti-gay ads does not mean that socially conservative groups are any more accepting of gay rights. Even more, these ads can be hard for gay-rights activists to combat.

Targeting the transgendered

Transgender individuals are people whose gender identity does not match their biological sex at birth. A trans man, for example, is a person born biologically female who identifies as male. Some, but not all, transgender people seek surgery and hormonal treatments to transition their biological sex to match their perceived gender. Transgender people are at high risk of experiencing prejudice and mental health problems, including a staggering 41 percent rate of suicide attempts.

Gender identity and the issue of transgender rights often come up on a local level when cities and municipalities consider nondiscrimination laws. For example, in 2008, the city commission of Gainesville, Fla., added a gender identity provision to the town's anti-discrimination ordinance. Social conservatives organized a ballot referendum, seeking to overthrow the new provision with the specter of men invading women's restrooms. (The referendum did not pass and the anti-discrimination ordinance stands.)

This April, a similar anti-discrimination proposition failed to pass in Anchorage, Alaska. In the run-up to the vote, an opposition group called "Protect Your Rights – Vote No On Prop. 5" put out a cartoon ad depicting a burly man in a dress applying for a job as a daycare worker. A voiceover then warned that under the new proposition, it would be illegal for the daycare "to refuse a job to a transvestite who wants to work with toddlers." [ 5 Myths About Gay People Debunked ]

Political ads and same-sex marriage

These "think of the children" scare tactics were common in the early days of the gay rights movements, when anti-gay activists such as singer Anita Bryant stoked fears of gay pedophilia or recruitment of children, Stone said Sunday (Aug. 19) here at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. Over time, though, messages put out by the Religious Right against gay rights have become more civil, Stone said.

Stone details her findings in a new book, "Gay Rights at the Ballot Box" (University of Michigan Press, 2012).

During California's 2008 battle over Proposition 8, which proposed to amend the California constitution to forbid gay marriage, anti-gay-marriage ads did not often attack gays as deviant or dangerous, Stone has found. Instead, opponents focused on what children might be taught in schools about gay marriage, focusing more on control of education by parents instead of direct homophobic fears.

In one ad, a straight couple named Jan and Tom debate voting for same-sex marriage, thinking of the impact on their gay neighbors Dan and Michael. The couple likes Dan and Michael and considers them friends, but after learning that California has a domestic partnership law, they decide to vote to prohibit same-sex marriage. 

The tactic is a "real difference from 'Oh my god, the gays are going to molest your children,'" messages in the past, Stone said. 

The shift has likely happened because acceptance of gays and lesbians has grown, Stone said. Homosexual couples are presented positively in the media, and many people know gay and lesbian people personally. That makes scaremongering tactics less effective. 

At the same time, portrayals of transgender individuals have not kept up.

"If we look at how transgender individuals are represented in the media it's often in a very negative way," Stone said. "So they're on 'Law & Order' as a sex worker and they're portrayed in a negative way in that fashion, or they are a victim of a crime or they're a murderer, a killer."

Likewise, people are less likely to know a transgender person in real life than they are a gay or lesbian person, Stone said. That leaves a knowledge gap and a lot of misinformation about what it means to be transgender. [ 10 Most Stigmatizing Health Conditions ]

Fighting back

Gay and transgender rights activists have started fighting back against fear-mongering portrayals of trans people, Stone said, attempting to educate the public about what "transgendered" means and why equal rights matter.

But the sort of increased civility that now permeates anti-gay-marriage ads can actually be tougher to combat than the straight-out demonization that dominates ads about gender identity. For example, one pro-Proposition 8 ad showed a little girl coming home from school and saying she'd learned that she could marry a princess one day, much to the chagrin of her mother.

'It's saying, 'We're really concerned about kids learning about being gay because your kid might grow up to be gay, and honestly, you probably prefer that they're straight,'" Stone said. "So it's insidious, and in a way, it's much harder to address directly."

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas  or LiveScience@livescience. We're also on Facebook  &Google+

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

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