Support for those protections hasn’t actually grown all that much in the past year—just one percentage point, up to 72 percent. (Non-discrimination laws have always been more popular than marriage equality, Jones said; it’s a historical accident that the tougher fight was won first.) But it appears that personal friendships are driving a new awareness of trans issues. In 2015, a Human Rights Campaign survey found 17 percent of Americans knew a transgender person. This year, that figure jumped to 35 percent. Trans rights seem to be following the path of marriage equality—as people came to know the gay people in their own lives, support for same-sex marriages went up.
But—and not to be a party-pooper—hasn’t it also been a bit of a bad year? March saw the passage of North Carolina’s infamous HB 2, which banned local non-discrimination laws and required trans people to use the bathroom matching their birth gender. (The legislation, in a bit of conservative kitchen-sink-throwing, also barred local communities from passing a higher minimum wage or adopting stricter child labor rules.) Last year, Houston voters struck down the city’s non-discrimination ordinance, ending protections for gay residents amid a flurry of “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms” signs. And just this week, Scottsdale, Arizona, killed its own non-discrimination proposal after a city councilor demanded a small-business provision that would exempt three-quarters of the city’s establishments.
Perhaps Americans are eager to support gay rights in theory, but more reticent when an actual proposal lands in their community. But Jones doesn’t think so. Respondents are usually more willing to cop to an unpopular opinion in an online poll versus a live-caller survey, but PRRI didn’t see any disparity between the two methods on questions about gay issues. Support is probably genuine, he concluded; it’s the Republican elites who haven’t caught up with the electorate, starting battles that many voters don’t want to fight.
Indeed, a rising number of folks on both sides of the aisle believe it’s unacceptable to oppose same-sex marriage: Forty-four percent of Americans now say they wouldn’t vote for a presidential candidate who is against gay unions. Though Republicans are less likely than Democrats to think gay and transgender people face discrimination, 62 percent of GOP voters support workplace and housing protections. (They’re a bit more split on bathroom accommodations—44 percent support restrictions, 44 percent don’t.)
“For elected officials, there is everything to gain and nothing to lose by supporting employee discrimination protections,” said Brandon Lorenz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. “In a political climate where so much is polarized, the issue of LGBT equality is one issue where both sides are coming together.”