The rights of transgender Americans has been a growing topic of debate on sports fields, in state capitols and in Congress. The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, says more than 30 state legislatures have proposed more than 115 bills that would limit transgender rights, from participation on sports teams to access to medical care.
But two-thirds of Americans are against laws that would limit transgender rights, a new PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll found. That opposition includes majorities of every political ideology from liberal to conservative and every age group.
These proposed bills have emerged as a new culture war, with Republican state legislators introducing and voting for them amid Democratic opposition, while a majority of Americans who identify as Republicans are against such laws, according to the poll.
“The parties are speaking to their base people,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducts the poll. “The Democratic coalition is more diverse. It’s broader. The Republicans are speaking to a much narrower base, and that can put you against the overall public opinion within those jurisdictions.”
About one half of one percent of U.S. adults are transgender, according to a recent Gallup survey. In the PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll, more than half of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender. That includes 53 percent of Democrats, 39 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of independents.
People under the age of 40 are more than twice as likely as older Americans to personally know someone who is transgender. Sixty-three percent of Gen Z and millennial voters said they do, while just 28 percent of people over 74 years old said the same.
Five years ago, less than a third of Americans said they knew someone who was transgender, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
“It’s really hard once you’re informed or you know a trans person to support one of these bills because it really strikes at the humanity of a trans person,” said Kate Sosin, who reports on LGBTQ+ issues at The 19th. “More than half of people do know transgender people and that number is only going to go up…and if that is the case, this is inevitably going to be a losing issue for lawmakers trying to make this a wedge issue, because even if you don’t support transgender rights, you don’t want to be the lawmaker pushing something that is seen as bigoted.”
The most far-reaching bills introduced this year would limit transgender youth from accessing gender-affirming medical care. Twenty-one state legislatures have considered such bills this year, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA, which also estimates more than 45,000 youth could be affected, including nearly 1,500 kids in Arkansas who will lose medical care after the state became the first in the country to enact such a law just last week.
Fewer than three in ten people support state laws that prohibit gender-affirming care for minors or that criminalize providers of that care. Among Republicans, 26 percent support bills that prohibit this medical care, while 70 percent are opposed. That’s on par with where Democrats landed on the issue, with 26 percent in favor of such bills and 69 percent opposed.
Republican support for criminalizing providing gender transition-related care for minors was markedly higher, at 38 percent, while only 19 percent of Democrats were in agreement. Forty-two percent of people who supported former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election said they support criminalization.
“People aren’t eager to victimize the individual,” Miringoff said, comparing Republican support on these bills to similar shifts in opinion on abortion services. “Tolerance for the individual and not wanting to discriminate against the individual is different than providers for some of the services.”
Dr. Robert Garofalo, a pediatrician who treats transgender youth at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, said gender-affirming care, which can include puberty blockers and hormones like testosterone for transgender boys and estrogen for transgender girls, is considered best practice by most medical experts.
“Who would want anything less for their child than the ability to live their lives with an element of authenticity? That’s what gender-affirming care is,” Garofalo said. “There’s no evidence to suggest that these treatments are experimental…There’s a common understanding within most mainstream medical organizations that access to gender-affirming care for these young people saves lives.”
Bills that affect access to medical care might have serious health implications, but the legislation that is getting the most attention seeks to bar transgender people from competing on sports teams that align with their gender identity. More than half of the proposed legislation around transgender rights this year is about limiting sports participation, and governors in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee have all signed bills into law.
But nationally, these proposed laws are unpopular. Only 28 percent of Americans overall support bills to bar transgender youth from competing on teams that align with their gender, while two-thirds oppose the bills. Opposition is consistent across the political spectrum with two-thirds of Democrats, Republicans and independents all in agreement. People who know someone who is transgender are five-points more likely to oppose these efforts than people who do not.
But while Americans across the political spectrum overwhelmingly agree that states shouldn’t pass laws regulating trans participation in sports, they are more evenly divided on whether transgender athletes should be allowed to compete on teams that match their gender identity. For grade school, 50 percent of people said transgender children should be allowed to play on teams that match their gender identity, while 44 percent said they should not. In middle school, the split was 49 percent for, and 47 percent against. In high school, 47 percent were for and 48 percent against. And in college, 49 percent were in favor and 45 percent opposed.
Support for transgender participation in sports is where American are more sharply divided along party lines. Seventy-five percent of Democrats say transgender high school athletes should be allowed to play on teams where they identify with their team mates, while more than 80 percent of Republicans say they should not. Independents are more closely divided with 44 percent in favor and 50 percent opposed.
The statewide bans were tested last year when Idaho became the first state in the country to enact a ban on transgender women joining women’s teams. A judge temporarily stopped the law from going into effect.
At the center of the lawsuit was Lindsay Hecox, a 20-year-old student at Boise State University and a transgender athlete. She was a track and cross-country runner in high school and hopes to one day join her university team.
“The legislation is basically being used as fear mongering against trans people, and I think trans athletes were an easy target,” Hecox told PBS NewsHour. “They word it so that I’m othered and made different when it doesn’t need to be that way.”
The National Collegiate Athletic Association and state athletic associations don’t track the number of transgender athletes competing, but a recent Associated Press analysis found only a handful of instances where such participation has led to a complaint, out of hundreds of thousands of high school athletes. Some of the lawmakers supporting the bans say they know of no transgender athletes competing in their states, but that they consider the bills to be proactive.
Advocates for the sports bans say transgender girls and women have an unfair competitive advantage, but medical experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, say there’s no evidence to support those claims.
“There is nothing in these pieces of legislation that I think are supported by any element of truth or any element of science,” Dr. Garofalo said. “We’re not legislating sports participation based on the size of your shoe or based upon your height or other sort of immutable characteristics.”
The International Olympic Committee first outlined its guidelines for participation of trans athletes in 2003. The NCAA has allowed transgender athletes to compete for nearly a decade, and in order to play college sports, transgender women must first complete a full year of testosterone suppression treatment, because after that time, medical experts generally agree any advantage in strength or endurance from previous testosterone levels would have disappeared.
The efforts in Republican-controlled state legislatures to limit transgender rights are in sharp contrast with the Democrat-controlled Congress and White House, which are pushing to expand protections for LGBTQ people. On his first day in the Oval Office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to combat discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. Last month, three Republicans joined House Democrats to pass the Equality Act, which would extend those protections in employment and housing discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Senate has not voted on the measure.
Sixty-three percent of Americans in this latest poll support the Equality Act, but that support is sharply divided along party lines. While 90 percent of Democrats support the bill, just 32 percent of Republicans say the same. Support also drops significantly among older populations. Nearly eight in ten adults under the age of 40 support the Equality Act. Less than half of Americans aged 75 and older agree.
Hecox said she hopes public opinion will continue to shift in favor of transgender rights as more people hear stories like hers. In the meantime, she said she’ll continue to fight anti-LGBTQ laws in the courts.
“Things will get better, and this legislation is just a momentary setback for trans acceptance,” Hecox said. “I don’t want to just fade from the world and not have any impact on it.”
Matt Loffman is the PBS NewsHour's Deputy Senior Politics Producer
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