Where Is the Public on the Transgender Bathroom Controversy? Depends How You Ask!

Polls paint an ambiguous picture.


Restroom sign
Sam Howzit / Flickr

Don't believe everything you read, including bold claims about the percentage of Americans who do or don't support laws requiring transgender people to use one bathroom or another. There is very strong evidence that poll responses can vary dramatically depending on how a question is worded, such that the "hard data" people love to share can start to look pretty squishy.

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) is circulating numbers from January showing that "most (71 percent) Americans, including more than six in ten (64 percent) North Carolina residents, favor general LGBT nondiscrimination laws."

At the same time, the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll finds a bare plurality of respondents answering that "people should use public restrooms according to their biological sex" rather than "according to the gender with which they identify."

Can both those things be true? 

I could parse the different methodologies, observing, for instance, that PRRI aggregated interviews taken over the course of a full year, while Reuters looks at a five-day rolling average. But the more important thing to understand here is how much question wording matters.

Back in 2014 I pointed out that just adding a reference to "religious or moral objections" could flip people from supporting to opposing Obamacare's contraception mandate (the provision requiring even faith-based employers to provide birth control coverage to their workers). I hypothesized that the same would be true on what we at Reason have come to refer to as the gay cake question. I wrote:

It's one thing for a respondent to be against letting businesses "refuse to serve same-sex couples." It's another thing to say people shouldn't be allowed to "decline to participate in a same-sex wedding." The former evokes the image of a restauranteur or shopkeeper throwing gay people out of his business, while the latter sounds more like he's politely reserving the right not to take someone on as a new client. The end result might be the same, but the connotations are worlds apart.

On the transgender bathroom issue, too, it's very likely that people are responding more to the way the specific question they've been asked makes them feel than they are revealing any deep-seated beliefs about how this controversy ought to be resolved.

To prove my point, I direct your attention to a third survey, this one conducted by ORC on behalf of CNN.

When that poll asked people what they thought of laws "that require transgender individuals to use facilities that correspond to their gender at birth rather than their gender identity," 57 percent held the "liberal" position of strongly or somewhat opposing such legislation (compared to 38 percent who held the "conservative" position of strongly or somewhat supporting it). But when the same poll asked the same people about "laws that guarantee equal protection for transgender people in jobs, housing and public accommodations," an overwhelming three out of four took the liberal position of saying they were in favor.

The lesson here is that when you frame an issue in terms of "equal protection" and "guaranteeing rights," you can get a different picture than when you bring up specific policy questions. Note that PRRI asked about non-discrimination laws generally while Reuters queried people on bathroom use by people whose gender identity differs from their biological sex, a potentially more fraught topic.

Likewise, the Reuters question, which had to do with people's opinion about which bathroom others should ideally use, returned a more conservative result than did CNN's, which asked about support for a law that would impose a legal requirement on them. Even if a significant chunk of the population isn't totally comfortable with biological men using a women's public restroom (or vice versa!), fewer seem to want to get the state involved to stop it.