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Public opinion on “bathroom bills”
Let’s take a step: whether laws should require transgender people to use toilets that match their sex assigned at birth, not their current gender identity. In 2016, only 35% of all Americans favored such “bathroom bills,” the first of which was offered that year in North Carolina. In 2022, after many other states proposed similar laws, the number of Americans supporting them jumped to 52%.
The jump was particularly pronounced for white evangelicals and Republicans. In 2016, only 41% of white evangelicals and 44% of Republicans supported the requirement that transgender people use a bathroom that matches the sex they were assigned at birth. By 2022, that number has doubled to 86% and 87%, respectively.
Other groups have also increased their opposition to transgender rights, but the uptick has been less dramatic for Democrats and non-religious Americans. Only 27% of Democrats supported toilet bills in 2016, down from 31% in 2022. Among non-religious respondents, support for requiring transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their assigned sex to birth increased from 21% in 2016 to 34% in 2022.
These numbers suggest that transgender issues are increasingly experienced in polarizing ways among Americans — in other words, that the “culture wars” narrative is true. As sociologists, we have sought to dig deeper than quantitative findings to understand why Americans hold such divergent beliefs.
Trans activists work locally. The Conservatives are fighting back nationwide.
Using Nebraska as a case study, we asked residents to explain their views on transgender bathroom use in their own words.
The random sample of 938 mostly cisgender Nebraska residents who responded to the mail-in survey was evenly split on this issue, with a slight majority (51%) saying that transgender people should be required to use bathrooms corresponding to the sex assigned to them at birth. Like the latest national PRRI data, our respondents who were politically conservative and white evangelical were more likely to oppose transgender rights to toilet use.
By analyzing the 623 respondents who answered open-ended questions about “bathroom bills”, we found that support or opposition depends on beliefs about the nature of the genre itself. Sociologists have described them as believing in “static gender” (assigned at birth and unchangeable) or “fluid gender” (can change over the course of life and can manifest differently in different people).
Transgender rights advocates believe in gender fluidity and take the experiences of transgender people seriously. These respondents felt that “people should live their lives as they identify with themselves.” They argued that denying transgender people the ability to use the bathroom in accordance with their gender identity is “disrespectful”, “discriminatory” and “exposes them to unnecessary humiliation”. Some supporters have questioned why social life is organized around gender and have suggested inclusive toilets as an option that would allow everyone, transgender or cisgender, to “pee in peace”, as one wrote. of our respondents.
In contrast, opponents of transgender rights view gender reassignment as illegitimate and privilege the experiences of cisgender people. Respondents explain that “you cannot choose gender” and that “society should not be forced to recognize categories other than men and women”. Opponents also take it for granted that social life should be organized by gender and position transgender people as threats both to the status quo and to cisgender people, especially women and children. Allowing transgender people to use the bathroom in accordance with their gender identity is “dangerous to our children” and “an invasion of our privacy”, wrote two interviewees.
Why are Republicans so focused on restricting trans lives?
The PRRI survey finds that Americans overall are more likely to view gender as static than fluid (59% of American adults surveyed), dividing strongly along political and religious lines. In 2022, 87% of white evangelical Protestants say they believe there are only two sexes, male or female, compared to 68% of mainline white Protestants, 76% of black Protestants, 70% of white Catholics, 51 % of Hispanic Catholics and 45 percent of non-religious respondents. Eighty-eight percent of Republicans think there are only two genders, male or female, compared to 66% of independents and 36% of Democrats. This data reflects the broader political landscape, with white Protestant Republicans pushing anti-trans legislation.
The stakes of the culture wars
While these findings obviously relate to transgender people, they also implicate cisgender people. The culture war over transgender rights is part of a war over competing notions of gender and sexuality, and how these should be regulated in the social world. So in 2022 we have seen simultaneous political attacks on transgender people, reproductive freedoms and sex education. Americans are divided because we have fundamentally different views on which identities are worth protecting and which experiences should be prioritized and believed.
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Kelsy Burk is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and a 2022-2023 Public Fellow of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).
Emilie Kazyak is an associate professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.