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.