As federal, state, and local governments across the United States debate who should regulate sex-segregated restrooms, spawning controversies over alleged violations of transgender rights, most Americans don't really know the people whose rights are being debated.
Less than a third of Americans polled in a Pew Research Center study released Wednesday say they personally know someone who is transgender. And those without transgender people in their lives were more likely to support requiring everyone to use only those public restrooms that match the sex they were assigned at birth.
Among the 30 percent of respondents who reported knowing transgender people, a significant majority (60 percent) favored letting people choose for themselves what public restrooms to use based on their gender identities. Among the 68 percent who reported not knowing transgender people, less than half (47 percent) favored this self-selecting approach. Another 2 percent of respondents declined to answer.
An estimated 1.4 million American adults, or 0.6 percent of the population, identifies as transgender, according to the Williams Institute at the U.C.L.A. School of Law, which focuses on law and policy issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
Pew, which regularly conducts public opinion polling, asked questions specifically about transgender people for the first time in this study, which was conducted online and by mail from Aug. 16 through Sept. 12. The findings align roughly with numbers published earlier this year by LGBT advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign, which found that 35 percent of likely voters report personally knowing transgender people – a one-year increase of 14 percentage points.
"It's a little bit depressing to see that only a third of Americans know trans folks, but it is heartening to notice that it's at least grown that fast in that short amount of time," Austen Hartke tells The Christian Science Monitor.
Mr. Hartke, a transgender writer and speaker based in St. Paul, Minn., says people typically do not know he is transgender until he tells them. Once he does, they are often more willing to listen to his concerns.
"I find that people are much more willing to open up and consider possibilities that they may not have before just because they know somebody now personally," Hartke says. "I think it helps a lot to have friends and to have people who are part of a marginalized group to see that they're just human and they need to use the bathroom like everyone else."
While the controversies over public restrooms have raged from Virginia and North Carolina to the US Department of Justice and the front steps of the Supreme Court, some public school districts have sought a quieter, more compassionate route to accommodate transgender students, as the Monitor's Patrik Jonsson wrote in June:
The struggle comes amid legal and political wrangling over an Obama administration directive that interpreted transgender bathroom choice as covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars sex discrimination. Thirteen states, including Georgia, have sued, saying the interpretation is 'overreach' of federal power. It’s a once obscure issue that’s now challenging America’s nearly 100,000 public schools.
The questions alluding to so-called bathroom bills were among three categories that Pew posed on the topic of religious liberty versus nondiscrimination. The other two dealt with requirements that employers pay for their employees' contraception and expectations of discretion to refuse services related to a same-sex marriage.
"What doesn’t surprise me – but is I think the biggest news in terms of the value of the research – is the deep divide in this country is more basically theological than anything else,” the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Religion News Service.
Pew's findings on religious liberty "have almost everything to do" with whether a respondent regularly attends church, Reverend Mohler said.
With regard to transgender bathroom usage, those who attend religious services regularly "lean somewhat more strongly toward the conservative position," the report states. Of those, 60 percent said people should be required to use public restrooms for the gender into which they were born.
"Compared with those who attend religious services at least once a week, those who go less often – especially religious 'nones' – are more inclined to say transgender people should be allowed to use the restroom that matches their gender identity," the report adds.