In his concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that he views not only abortion precedent as wrong but also precedents involving LGBTQ rights. Public opinion, however, is largely against restricting LGBTQ rights. Over the past few decades, these rights have steadily gained backing from the American public — for example, support for same-sex marriage has doubled since the late 1990s. And laws intended to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing garners the support of about 8 in 10 Americans, including majorities of Republicans and white evangelicals.
At the same time, however, policies curbing certain aspects of LGBTQ rights — particularly those pertaining to transgender people — have gained traction in state legislatures across the nation. A number of states have already implemented policies affecting transgender Americans, and more states are introducing similar measures. And despite widespread support for general nondiscrimination policies, many Americans actually do support restricting rights for transgender people.
For example, the Public Religion Research Institute, where I’m the research director, found last year that 47 percent of Americans favored “bathroom bills” that would require transgender people to use the bathroom of their sex assigned at birth, not their gender identity.1 Meanwhile, 52 percent of Americans said they were opposed to transgender boys’ participating in high school sports for their gender identity; 61 percent said the same of transgender girls.
For some Americans — especially members of the LGBTQ community — supporting restrictive bathroom bills and opposing participation in sports of one’s gender identity are forms of discrimination and should be incompatible with broader support for nondiscrimination protections. Yet in that same survey from PRRI, we found that a considerable share of Americans held seemingly opposing views. Forty-six percent of Americans, for instance, said they both supported general nondiscrimination protections and opposed allowing transgender girls to participate in girls’ sports. Meanwhile, 37 percent supported nondiscrimination protections and opposed allowing transgender boys to participate in boys’ sports. Finally, 36 percent supported nondiscrimination protections and supported bathroom bills requiring transgender people to use the bathroom of their sex assigned at birth.
Who are these Americans with mixed views?
In short, a little bit of everyone. By partisanship, Republicans and independents are much more likely than Democrats to hold opposing views, or be “cross-pressured,” on this issue, but at least one-quarter of Democrats also fall into this cross-pressured category in each of the three situations described above.
Cross-pressured opinions were most prominent among Americans age 50 to 64, with those 65 and older and those 30 to 49 being somewhat less likely to fall into this category. Americans age 18 to 29 were the least likely to be cross-pressured — although at least 30 percent of this age group fell into that category across all three situations. Americans with a college education were also less likely than those without a college education to be cross-pressured on the bathroom-use question, as were women compared with men on the issue of transgender girls participating in girls’ high school sports. Those who said they knew someone who is LGBTQ were also less likely to be cross-pressured on the bathroom-use question compared with those who do not know an LGBTQ person.
With the exception of Hispanic Catholics, most Christian groups were considerably more likely than non-Christians or religiously affiliated Americans to be cross-pressured on nondiscrimination protections and transgender participation in sports. On nondiscrimination protections and bathroom restrictions, however, all Christian groups we surveyed, including Hispanic Catholics, were more cross-pressured than those who weren’t Christian or religiously affiliated at all.
In general, those who are less likely to be cross-pressured are more likely to support all three pro-LGBTQ-rights positions we asked about. That includes Democrats and young people across all three situations, and those with a college education or higher and women on some of the questions — although, notably, at least one-fourth of each of these groups were still cross-pressured.
These same patterns hold for just about every demographic and attitudinal comparison that analysts typically use to explain differences in opinion — many people remain cross-pressured, even those who are typically on the progressive end of the political spectrum. The policies and questions surrounding transgender rights are clearly not tapping into the same sense of fairness and anti-discrimination sentiment as the nondiscrimination-laws question. So, what is it tapping into?
The clearest picture emerges when we look at beliefs about gender. As with abortion, the true dividing line seems to have more to do with how people think about gender. Among those who feel strongly that there is a range of many genders (versus only two — a man and a woman),2 just 20 percent are cross-pressured when it comes to transgender girls’ participation in sports, and that share drops to 13 percent for transgender boys’ participation. Meanwhile, 25 percent support general nondiscrimination laws and bathroom restrictions. These are relatively low rates of cross-pressured responses compared with those who think there are only two genders, regardless of whether they feel strongly about that belief. And among those who feel strongly that there are only two genders, more than half are cross-pressured on these questions.
It’s important to remember that opinions on these issues can be complex — and genuinely cross-pressured. Sometimes people haven’t thought much about how these issues connect — meaning, it does not occur to them that bathroom bills or rules about sports participation could be discriminatory. Other times people have thought about these issues and still believe they are not discriminatory at their core. Either way, opinion on LGBTQ rights — as with everything — is more nuanced and complex than a single general survey question can show.