'Bathroom bill' debate continues in politics. But what do Americans think?

While politicians have been at the center of the debate over transgender rights and bathroom use, a new study offers insight into what the public thinks.

Jonathan Drake/Reuters
A sign protesting a recent North Carolina law restricting transgender bathroom access adorns the bathroom stalls at the 21C Museum Hotel in Durham, N.C., last week.

As the bathroom battle rages on, politicians and corporations have taken very public sides on the issue, but little has been said about what the American people actually think. Now, a new poll offers insight into Americans opinions on the matter.

A narrow majority of Americans oppose laws, like the North Carolina bill, that require people to use facilities according to the sex listed on their birth certificates rather than their gender identity, according to the new poll conducted by ORC International for CNN. The poll, which consisted of telephone interviews of 1,001 American adults, found that 57 percent of those asked said they oppose those laws, while just 38 percent support them. 

Strong opposition to bathroom laws also outweighs strong support in the poll results, with 39 percent saying they are strongly against such laws and 25 percent strongly in favor.

Three-quarters of those surveyed also said they were in support of legislation for equal protection for transgender people in jobs, housing, and public accommodations. In comparison, 80 percent favor such equal protections for gays and lesbians. 

A poll Reuters/Ipsos conducted last month suggested that age was a factor in opposition to bathroom laws. According to that poll, nearly twice as many adults age 29 and under think people should be able to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender identity as those who don't. The same poll found that ratio is flipped among older Americans, as more support legislation like North Carolina's bill.

But the new CNN/ORC poll does not show quite the same trend. Of those polled between 18 and 34 years old, 36 percent were in favor of such laws while 62 percent were opposed. Among age group of 55 and older, 40 percent was in support of, and 52 percent against, bathroom-related laws.

Interestingly, 85 percent of those polled report that they don't have a family member or close friend that is transgender. In contrast, 58 percent said they have a family member or close friend who is gay. 

"Gender identity is a pretty new term for a lot of people," Paisley Currah, a political science professor at Brooklyn College who writes on transgender issues, told Reuters in April. "The gay rights movement in the last few years moved very quickly and I feel like the transgender movement is moving at even greater speed."

As the political controversy around transgender issues might suggest, the CNN/ORC poll found a political divide. But it wasn't exactly straightforward.

Democrats and Independents opposed bathroom legislation like North Carolina's, by 62 percent and 58 percent respectively. But Republicans weren't all in agreement, with 48 percent supporting such laws and 48 percent against them. 

The poll suggests the divide may be more ideological than partisan. Liberals polled overwhelmingly opposed such bathroom legislation, by 75 percent. Moderates came in at 57 percent, and conservatives at 44 percent opposition to those laws.

The bathroom debate has moved to the national stage, as the federal government has stepped in. Last week, the US Department of Justice sent a letter to North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) informing him that the legislation violated federal law: a result of compliance with and implementation of North Carolina House Bill 2 ("H.B. 2"), both you and the State of North Carolina (the 'State') are in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ... Specifically, the State is engaging in a pattern or practice of discrimination against transgender state employees and both you, in your official capacity, and the State are engaging in a pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of Title VII rights by transgender employees of public agencies.

Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating against an individual on the basis of sex and from otherwise resisting the full enjoyment of Title VII rights.

The letter goes on to note that North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina also would receive letters. The Justice Department said they found those entities were violating Title VII, Title IX, and the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 in enacting this legislation. Title VII applies to government employees, while Title IX similarly blocks discrimination based on sex in education.

Governor McCrory responded Monday with a statement asking for clarification on the federal law. 

"This is now a national issue that applies to every state and it needs to be resolved at the federal level," he said in the statement.

The CNN/ORC poll was conducted before the federal government's involvement.

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