Despite challenges and risks, through BYU–Hawaii’s Political Science Program, Morgan Smith, a senior from Georgia majoring in political science said she received opportunities usually only available to graduate students because of her research on the bias against transgender candidates in elections.
“It was scary to conduct research on transgender candidates,” explained Smith. “I didn’t want to be judged for doing something controversial, and I didn’t want that judgment placed on me. After I looked past the possibility of judgment, I realized if people are going to judge me for doing research, then they can judge me.” According to Smith, everyone should have a voice in democracy.
“I am not a transgender person, and I don’t know how it feels to wake up every morning in a female body and not feel I belong in it. I understand they have a real struggle as everyday humans, and I don’t have any right to … judge them,” said Smith.
“It hurts me that we come to a school where that is an accepted culture. The culture is ugly and takes away from who we feel we need to be inside, so we change, and we pass judgments.”
Because of the findings of Smith’s research, she explained she recognizes it would be difficult to be an LGBTQ student at a school like BYUH, where dating and marriage are a significant focus. She said she wishes the school changes its tone to be more inclusive.
The beginning of her research
Smith’s research started when she was invited to be in a special topics field study class taught by Dr. Randall Blimes, an associate political science professor. It was a course dedicated to conducting research in the political science field, as well as presenting the research at conferences.
At first, Smith admitted she did not know what topic to focus on for Dr. Blimes’s class. However, Danica Roem, a transgender woman, was elected as Virginia’s state legislator, Smith began to wonder how Roem was elected. After fasting and praying, Smith chose to investigate measuring and reducing the bias against transgender political candidates.
“[Smith’s research] shows her willingness to push boundaries,” said Jenny Young, a senior from Ohio studying political science.
Young said while she was a teaching assistant for the political science department along with Smith, she saw how dedicated Smith was. “[Her research] was hard to take on at a religious school. You could tell the amount of work she put into it to represent the school in the right light, as well as being fair to those who identify as transgender. I think she really shows if you take advantage of the opportunities at BYUH, you have a great voice and are able to touch the lives of other people.”
In order to obtain accurate data, Smith said she created a survey where individuals had to pick hypothetical candidates for governor positions. Some people were assigned no gender, some were assigned female candidate, and some were assigned a transgender candidate.
Presenting findings in Chicago
After sending the surveys around BYUH and to other schools, the data showed there was a negative bias against the transgender political candidate. Smith then took her research to the Annual Midwest Political Science Association Conference in Chicago.
Megan Russell, a junior from Utah majoring in political science, was one of the six political science students who represented BYUH at the Chicago conference. Russell said after Smith presented her work on the bias against transgender candidates, colleges approached her and explained they were interested in her pursuing their graduate programs.
“I think the reason Morgan is successful is because she always has an end goal in mind. She wants to change the world, and I have no doubts she will,” explained Russell.
After the Chicago conference, Smith’s work did not stop. Troy Smith, a political science professor, said she furthered her research and presented it to a panel at the American Political Science Association in Boston.
Recognition in Boston
“It is usual for an undergraduate to get accepted to present at these meetings,” stated Smith. He noted it had been close to a decade since a BYUH student presented at the American Political Science Association Conference. When she presented in Boston, Smith said people commended her research and were very interested in it.
Smith added she felt insecure presenting at Boston, because she was the only undergraduate on her panel. She explained how she remembered walking into the conference and thinking the people in the room with doctorate degrees would laugh at her. Instead of feeling insecure, Smith said she fit in well, and ironically, the first person she met on her panel asked her where she teaches.
While preparing for her presentation in Boston, Smith said she found if you are more religious, you have a more negative bias towards transgender candidates, which contrasts to the less religious you get or if you are not religious at all. There is a positive bias when someone is less religious, noted Smith, so the transgender candidate has the advantage with that demographic.
According to Smith, this information sometimes shows the culture associated with religious influences judgments. She continued explaining how these judgments can impact how others might feel they are as an individual, causing them to change.
Plans after Hawaii
After BYUH, Smith said she wants to earn a Ph.D. in political science and continue conducting research. She noted it is a risk and some don’t understand what she is doing, just as she faced with her study of transgender candidates, but she is prepared for the challenges.
“I come from this tiny town in Georgia where you [feel you] have to be one way ... I grew up in a single mother home, where I was taught being a strong and independent person who does what you believe in is how you make a difference,” said Smith.
Smith’s greatest dream, she added, is to work for the United States General Accountability Office, an agency in Washington DC specializing in evaluating governmental programs.
Even after presenting in Chicago and Boston, Dr. Blimes noted Smith’s work is not over. He said he is working with Smith to get her research on transgender candidates published in a professional journal, which is a big deal for an undergraduate student.
“She works well above the terms of an undergraduate student. I think she did well in Chicago and Boston because she had a good idea and worked hard.”