A new set of Public Religion Research Institute surveys have found that a majority of Americans from across political and religious divides believe transgender people should be given the same legal protections against discrimination as other Americans. Perhaps even more interestingly for trans rights advocates, respondents in the survey said they had a good level of understanding about transgender identity and issues.
Americans Starting to Understand Trans Identity?
The August and September Religion and Politics Tracking Surveys were conducted by Public Religion Research Institute and released amid increased attention on transgender issues following Chaz Bono’s appearance on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. In the surveys around two-thirds of Americans said they felt well informed about transgender persons and issues. But what did they thing it meant to be trans? This is an important question so we’ll examine that first.
According to the survey’s methodology information two surveys were carried out, the first to asses support for trans rights and the second to gauge understanding of what it means to be transgender in its most basic sense:
Results of the August survey were based on random digit dial telephone survey of 1,006 adults conducted between August 11, 2011 and August 14, 2011. Results of the September survey were based on random digit dial telephone survey of 1,013 adults (301 were reached by cell phone) conducted between September 14, 2011 and September 18, 2011. The margin of error for both surveys is +/- 3.0 percentage points.
In order to test the effects of knowledge levels about the term “transgender,” half of the sample was given a basic definition of the term before answering a battery of questions, while the other half of the sample was not given a definition. The supplied definition read as follows: “The term ‘transgender’ applies to people who live out their gender in a way that does not match the sex listed on their original birth certificate, or who physically change their sex.”
When for the September survey respondents were asked what trans identity is, a majority in the half of the sample who were not given a definition of trans identity offered responses that were functionally similar to the definition given to the other half of the sample, indicating that Americans have a basic understanding of trans identity.
In order to determine whether Americans understood the term “transgender,” PRRI conducted a follow-up survey in September 2011 that asked respondents to report what the term “transgender” meant to them in their own words.
Among the 91% of Americans who report that they have heard of the term transgender, 76% give an essentially accurate definition.
Thus, overall, more than two-thirds (69%) of Americans are able to identify what the term “transgender” means without any assistance.
Forty-six percent define a transgender person as someone who switches from one gender to another, either generally (39%) or through a medical procedure (7%).
Eleven percent define a transgender person as someone who lives like the opposite gender (6%) or identifies more with the opposite gender (5%).
Ten percent describe a transgender person as someone who is born the wrong sex or born in the wrong body.
Nine percent define a transgender person as someone who has identified with both genders.
The following are examples of verbatim responses:
– “A person who feels like they are more like the other sex”
– “It’s someone born one sex, and they think they’re another”
– “Generally someone who thinks they are in the wrong body”
Reducing any varied group to a single definition and then judging knowledge of that group based on how closely respondents mirror that definition will, by design, only yield a narrow set of results. That said, given the sparsity of data regarding national support for trans rights one must have a starting point, and for the purpose of assessing support for trans employment, housing and credit rights this seems an acceptable if admittedly not perfect conceit.
Next Page: Majority Supports Trans People Having Equal Rights
Approximately 9 out of 10 Americans (89%) said that transgender people deserve equal rights under the law
Data from the August and September Religion and Politics Tracking Surveys demonstrated high levels of support for legislative action on protecting transgender citizens from discrimination, with 89% of Americans saying that trans people deserve equal rights.
This majority spanned religious divides with 83% of white evangelical Protestants, 93% Catholics, and 95% of religious but unaffiliated people saying they support such rights.
The breakdown of data by political affiliation had 86% of Republicans, 94% Independents, and 92% of Democrats saying trans people deserve the same rights as other Americans.
The overall figure of support dipped slightly but remained strong at 81% when respondents were asked if legal protections for gay and lesbian people should be extended to include transgender citizens.
Still, the results suggest that strong majorities from every religious group would like to see Congress pass laws to protect transgender people from job discrimination. Noteworthy, perhaps, that among white evangelical Protestants, a demographic that has traditionally demonstrated a hostility toward LGBT rights, 65% reported favoring such action.
The political breakdown of responses to this question was similarly illuminating, with 55% of Republicans agreeing that Congress should pass job protections for trans people, while 79% of Independents and 86% of Democrats also favored the move.
Next Page: No Time for Complacency on Transgender Protections
No Time for Complacency on Transgender Protections
Gauging support for trans rights has been very difficult given how limited national data currently is. Therefore these findings, while limited as all such studies of this nature are, are a welcome indicator of a strong level of support.
In case the surveys reported here might breed complacency regarding trans issues — that a reader might think that broad and swift progress on trans rights must be within immediate reach and therefore trans rights issues should not be a matter for particular concern — it is worth referring to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (.pdf), a landmark release by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
The 2009 survey found that among a national sample of 6, 450 trans respondents a pervasive level of discrimination existed; that the sample was nearly four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000/year compared to the general population; and that a staggering 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population, with rates rising for those who lost a job due to bias (55%), were harassed/bullied in school (51%), had low household income, or were the victim of physical assault (61%) or sexual assault (64%).
Yet, despite these devastating issues, affirmation of trans rights remains difficult at the state and federal level.
New York, for instance, has this year been the subject of much praise for its legalization of marriage equality, yet legislation enshrining trans-inclusive employment protections still has not passed in the state despite a lengthy battle, and this is the case in most other states including Massachusetts which has long been thought of as a bastion of LGBT rights but where a trans equal rights bill is still the subject of much friction. The same can be said for legislation at the federal level. A trans-inclusive Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA) languishes in Congress even after more than a decade of legislative maneuvering.
So while the high levels of support documented in the August and September Religion and Politics Tracking Surveys are of course welcome, unless that public support translates to meaningful action it means little, and at the moment there seems a disconnect between the opinions shown in these surveys and actual political will that, as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s National Transgender Discrimination Survey suggests, is costing livelihoods and even lives.