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How the Republican Party has shifted against transgender rights

As acceptance of trans people has declined in the GOP, support for restrictions and criminalization has risen

Anti-trans demonstrators target a Drag Story Hour event on April 8 at Crazy Aunt Helen's restaurant in D.C. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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The Republican Party and conservative media have made it abundantly clear that transgender issues will play a central role in their efforts to mobilize the base for the foreseeable future.

And new polling shows that the base is obliging. Increasingly, Republicans say that society has gone too far in accepting transgender people and that certain rights should be restricted.

Polling on transgender issues is relatively new, leaving little in the way of historical comparisons. But perhaps the best gauge is perceptions of society’s treatment of transgender people.

In Pew Research Center polling in 2017, 57 percent of Republicans said society had gone “too far.” In 2020, KFF polling showed that number at 30 percent. In August 2021, NBC News polling showed it at 46 percent. (Each of these polls, while from different pollsters, asked the same question.)

But more recent polling indicates a significant rise in the percentage of Republicans who say that there is too much acceptance of transgender people. Last May, NBC showed those saying we had gone “too far” rising to 56 percent, and Pew showed it up to 66 percent. In March of this year, Wall Street Journal-NORC polling pegged it at 75 percent. And this weekend, an NBC poll showed 79 percent of Republicans saying that society had gone “too far” in accepting transgender people — 30 points higher than in NBC’s poll just two years earlier.

Among Democrats, too, there has been a slight increase in views that society has gone “too far” — but not as much. In the 2017 and 2020 polls, about 1 in 10 Democrats said society had gone too far, but that number was almost 2 in 10 in the most recent NBC poll.

Polls also suggest that Republicans are increasingly concerned about schools going too far to accommodate transgender students — though the movement hasn’t been as significant. Fox News polling in October 2021 showed that 62 percent of Republicans said “overly accommodating transgender policies” was a major problem; by last week, that was up to 72 percent.

A logical question from there is whether this is responsive to actual changes in society. Transgender people are increasingly visible on social media, in pop culture and in marketing campaigns, for example, and some blue states have moved to expand protections for transgender people. But other polls suggest it’s not just that.

6 key takeaways from the Post-KFF survey of transgender Americans

As GOP legislatures across the country have increasingly moved toward restrictions, polls also suggest that Republicans have moved substantially on key issues of transgender rights and identity.

An April 2021 poll from NPR, PBS and Marist College showed that Republicans opposed criminalizing gender transition-related care for minors, 55 percent to 38 percent. But in March of this year, that ratio flipped: Just 35 percent opposed criminalization, while 63 percent supported it. In another March poll, Republicans favored banning transition-related care, 68 percent to 28 percent.

Republicans have also moved in favor of restricting transgender people to bathrooms for the gender they were assigned at birth. Polling from the Public Religion Research Institute showed 44 percent favored this in 2016, compared with 74 percent last year. In both polls, around 3 in 10 Democrats favored this.

Last, perhaps the most fundamental shift of all: While polls show that Democrats have moved toward thinking that someone can be a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth, Republicans have moved in the opposite direction. In the 2017 Pew poll, Republicans said gender is determined by sex at birth rather than that it can be different by a 61-point margin; that rose to a 73-point margin last year.

The fact that this question has been as lopsided on the right for as long as it has speaks to how receptive an audience there was for this political strategy. If you don’t think someone can be a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth, it’s not that difficult to talk you into opposing transition-related medical care and bathroom restrictions.

And as a spotlight has been cast on these issues, Republicans have indeed moved in that direction.