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LGBTQ issues are at center stage. What does the public think?

What polls say on Florida’s ’Don’t Say Gay’ law, transgender athletes and other issues

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill on March 28 that would limit instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for many young students. (Video: Reuters)
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In the years after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, the Republican Party seemed to gradually conclude that it had lost the battle over LGBTQ rights — and that it wasn’t really worth fighting anymore.

Some conflicts played out in the courts — such as that of a baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple, or of Catholic Social Services suing Philadelphia to renew its contract — but these were framed in terms of private entities’ freedom of religion. But the party largely abandoned any real resistance to same-sex marriage. It even tried to pitch itself as an ally of the LGBTQ community.

It was never an easy fit, though, as The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler wrote in 2020. Donald Trump promised to chart a new course for his party, and then banned transgender troops from the military. His Justice Department fought to exclude sexual orientation from federal anti-discrimination law. And he undercut the Barack Obama administration’s protections for LGBTQ workers in other ways.

But it’s possible that, in the years since Obergefell v. Hodges, LGBTQ rights have never been as front-and-center in political discourse as they are now. Conservatives have launched high-profile culture wars over transgender athletes and, more recently, a Florida law restricting teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity, and Democrats are particularly incensed about the latter.

We have had a very limited — and often unclear and even contradictory — picture of where Americans stand on these issues, thanks to a paucity of public polling. That is beginning to change, though. Below are some takeaways from, and analysis of, the recent polling.

1. The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

’Don’t Say Gay’ Is Popular? You Don’t Say,” read the headline from the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board last week. Despite Democrats crying foul over Florida’s new law, which they’ve dubbed “Don’t Say Gay,” a Republican pollster read from the law’s language and found people supported it more than 2-to-1, 61 percent to 26 percent.

Even that piece, though, acknowledged the poll wasn’t “dispositive.” A prior poll for ABC News found the reverse — Americans opposed the law 62-37. Rather than reading the bill’s language, it distilled it down to whether people supported “legislation that would prohibit classroom lessons about sexual orientation or gender identity in elementary school.”

Still another poll released this week, from YouGov and Yahoo News, found nearly half said discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity should be illegal in classrooms in kindergarten through third grade, while 27 percent said it should be legal.

That last survey is instructive. It focused on what is probably a more popular portion of the law (which only 52 percent of Democrats opposed). But it didn’t address the next portion: more broadly prohibiting instruction on those subjects “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards." Nor did these polls mention that the law empowers parents to sue school districts for violations.

These portions, all key to the law’s effects, might not be readily apparent to people asked about its language or presented with a brief summary. It might not be clear, for instance, that the latter provision applies to high-schoolers. And critics of the law warn about its practical and legal implications.

Who, after all, would oppose a ban on instruction “that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students”? Yet even some conservatives have noted that the standard is very broad and undefined, which could convince teachers not to broach these subjects or even mention a gay spouse — especially if they face a possible lawsuit.

2. Transgender athletes

If polling on Florida’s bill is murky, polling is often irreconcilable on allowing transgender athletes to compete on teams aligning with their gender identity.

Marist College surveyed this a year ago for NPR and PBS, asking about bills in state legislatures that would prohibit “transgender student athletes from joining sports teams that match their gender identity.” Just 28 percent supported such bans, while 67 percent opposed them.

When the poll took this question out of the legislative realm, though, Americans were more evenly split. In fact, they were divided nearly 50-50 on whether transgender athletes should be allowed to compete on teams matching their gender identity in both middle school and high school.

Similarly, a poll for an LGBTQ rights group showed 38 percent of Americans supported allowing transgender youths to play on such teams, while 34 percent said they should have to compete on teams consistent with their gender assigned at birth.

Just a couple of months later, though, a Gallup survey found Americans preferred restricting participation to one’s gender at birth, 62 to 34. And a much-newer YouGov poll from March echoed that: 49 percent opposed allowing transgender children to play on teams of their gender identity, while 29 percent supported it.

That last poll was conducted after transgender swimmer Lia Thomas’s collegiate success began making national news, putting a face on a debate that had largely taken place in the abstract.

The totality of the polling affirms that this is a difficult question for Americans, even if they might not support lawmakers getting involved. And because the wording of the question is often very similar, it’s difficult to account for the differences between the polls that show a split, and those that show more opposition to transgender athletes competing according to their gender identity. Oftentimes, that’s evidence that people haven’t truly made up their minds.

3. The broad picture

Apart from these specific issues, there’s the matter of how people view transgender rights more broadly.

Among recent findings:

  • In 2020, 49 percent of Americans thought society hadn’t gone far enough in accepting transgender people, while 15 percent said it had gone too far, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
  • They were more evenly divided in the latest YouGov poll specifically asking about transgender youths, with 33 percent saying society hadn’t gone far enough in accepting transgender youths, and 28 percent saying society had gone too far.
  • Last year, Americans said, 38 to 32, that greater acceptance of transgender people is generally good for our society, rather than bad, per a Pew Research Center poll.

It’s also worth considering who regards these issues as a priority.

A Republican poll conducted last summer asked people to rank the importance of issues, and “transgender issues related to women’s sports” came in last — behind 15 others.

But a Fox News poll in November showed 44 percent of people — including 62 percent of Republicans — said schools having “overly accommodating transgender policies” was a “major problem." These numbers outpaced both the numbers of Americans overall (26 percent) and Democrats (41 percent) who said this was “not a problem.”

The country may give divided (and in some cases contradictory) answers when called by a pollster, but these issues clearly animate vocal portions of the two parties’ bases — especially Republicans.

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