Americans are still divided on transgender rights and identity. In a new study from Pew Research Center, 46 percent of respondents said transgender people should be required, presumably by law, to “use the public restrooms of the gender they were born into.” Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said the opposite—that transgender people should be allowed to use the restroom of their choice.
These poll results underscore just how unsettled issues of gender identity are in American culture. This spring, North Carolina passed a law that, in effect, requires transgender people to use public bathrooms that correspond to the biological sex stated on their birth certificate. As a result, the state has faced protests and boycotts from citizens, businesses, and sports teams.
While these voices of opposition have been loud, it’s not clear that they’re representative of how people in the state think about this issue, and they certainly don’t fully capture opinions nationwide. For many Americans, fluid gender identity might be a relatively new concept—the North Carolina controversy might have been their first introduction to the issue. In the Pew survey, less than a third of respondents said they personally know someone who is transgender. That’s compared to 87 percent who know a gay or lesbian person.
As more Americans learn about what it means to be transgender, or meet people who identify that way, it’s possible they’ll become more comfortable with the idea of transgender people using the bathroom that corresponds with their current gender identity. It’s also possible that this shift is already happening: Two years ago, 59 percent of respondents in another CBS survey said people should use bathrooms that match “the gender they were born as,” while only 26 percent supported bathroom choice. If this trend of acceptance continues, it will mirror the pattern of support for same-sex marriage, which went from 27 to 61 percent between 1996 and 2016, according to Gallup.
But it’s also a mistake to think that a putative pattern in a handful of polls means this issue is headed toward some sort of inevitable conclusion. For one thing, same-sex marriage may now be legally established, but culturally, America is still divided: Nearly a third of Americans believe homosexuality should be discouraged by society, according to a 2015 Pew poll, and even the Gallup poll showing high rates of acceptance for same-sex marriage found that 37 percent of the country still opposes the unions. The cultural backlash from those who are opposed to same-sex marriage has been strong: State legislators with these views have tried to pass laws that would exempt business owners with religious objections to same-sex marriage from having to provide goods or services at these wedding ceremonies. In the Pew poll released Wednesday, respondents were split nearly evenly on this issue, with 49 percent saying all businesses should be legally required to provide these services, and 48 percent saying they should not.
For all their usefulness, polls also aren’t great measures of public opinion. While this is the first time Pew has asked about transgender bathroom use in a survey, other polls have taken up this issue before—finding wildly different results. In a CBS and New York Times poll from May, 46 percent of people also thought transgender people should have to “use the public bathrooms of the gender they were born as,” yet only 41 percent said transgender people should be able to use the bathroom of their choice, compared to 51 percent in Pew’s new poll. Fifty percent of people in a May Gallup poll opposed transgender bathroom choice, but as the firm pointed out, its results were very different from those of a CNN poll from around the same time, which found 57 percent of respondents opposing laws that restrict transgender people’s bathroom use. Gallup argued that this difference was a matter of question phrasing, which can have a significant effect on polling outcomes—particularly on an issue that can be confusing and novel for a lot of people. But the deeper suggestion is that polls provide a loose sketch of public opinion, at best—they can be revealing, but they’re not authoritative, by any means.
Most importantly, gender identity might not follow the path of sexual orientation as an issue—as Rogers Brubaker, a University of California, Los Angeles professor of sociology, writes in his new book, Trans, “Opposition to strong version of transgender rights … may be deeper than opposition to gay marriage.” Sexual orientation is fundamentally private—the sex people have, and who they have it with, largely happens out of the public eye. The experience of being trans, by contrast, is public. If people feel threatened by it, their fear may get channeled on ballot initiatives like the one in Houston in 2015, in which opponents of public-accommodations protections for transgender people rallied against the prospect of letting “men in women’s bathrooms.”
The Obama administration has called North Carolina’s bathroom bill “state-sponsored discrimination,” but barely half of the country agrees. No matter what the federal government may declare, transgender rights are not a foregone conclusion in America. It may take quite some time for the issue to settle, if it settles at all.