Mellman: Changing views of transgender rights

Mellman: Changing views of transgender rights
© Stefani Reynolds

As I’ve noted here before, opinions on gay rights generally have changed faster than those on almost any subject in the history of polling.

While views on transgender rights took off later, and haven’t reached the same point yet, the trajectory of the changes in those attitudes is similar.

Americans are quickly adopting positions in support of transgender rights.

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Sixty-two percent of Americans say they have become more supportive of transgender rights in the last five years, according to a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) poll last month. 

While such self-reports of change have to be regarded with suspicion, the data on the underlying issues seem to be largely consonant with these self-assessments.

Polls show President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump campaign buys full page ads in Miami newspapers ahead of Dem debates Trump administration's 'forced diplomacy' with Iran isn't working Roy Moore trails Republican field in Alabama MORE, who banned transgender people from serving in the military, is in a distinct minority. Fewer than a third of Americans back Trump’s prohibition.

By contrast, depending on the exact question wording and the pollster, 63 percent to 73 percent of Americans favor allowing transgender individuals to serve in the U.S. armed forces.

Majorities of almost every segment of the population back transgender military service, except white evangelical Protestants and Republicans. 

But these two groups are rather evenly divided on the issue and certainly not overwhelmingly opposed. 

Nonetheless, in recent years, Republicans have sought to use so-called bathroom bills as a wedge issue. Their ability to do so seems to be fading.

Mark PennMark PennMellman: Changing views of transgender rights Poll: Majority oppose Trump impeachment, but most Democrats support it Poll: Majority support law allowing transgender people to use bathrooms that align with their identity MORE’s Harvard/Harris poll this month found 54 percent favoring “a law to require public institutions and accommodations to allow transgender people to use the bathrooms that best aligns with their gender identity and stated sex.”

As recently as 2016, just 19 percent backed such a law in a differently worded question on an NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll.

Beneath this change in views on public policy issues seems to be a change in social attitudes.

The PRRI poll found nearly two-thirds of Americans saying they would be comfortable having a close friend tell them they are transgender. Over half say they would feel comfortable learning that a local elementary school teacher is transgender and 48 percent would feel comfortable having their own child tell them they are transgender.

None of this is to say that transgender Americans have an easy time of it. A 2011 survey by National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found almost half — 47 percent — had faced discrimination on the job and 78 percent experienced at least one form of harassment or mistreatment at work because of their gender identity. Other forms of discrimination remain rampant, while violence against transgender people remains a serious problem.

Nearly four in 10 Americans recognize that transgender people face “a lot” of “stigma or negative social judgment.” 

As I’ve noted in previous columns on this topic, personal relationships have helped reshape attitudes on these subjects. 

As people realized that it’s their brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues who are LGBT, their prejudices often begin to melt.

Today almost 70 percent of Americans have a close friend or family member who is gay.

By contrast, fewer than a quarter report having a close friend or family member who is transgender. 

But that number has more than doubled since 2011. 

Attitudes toward transgender people are improving, fueled, in part, by a broader rethinking of sexual identity in society, and also, in part, by increased awareness of those we know and love having different kinds of gender identities.

Neither trend shows any sign of abating. Indeed, the fact that younger people have more liberal attitudes on these matters than their elders and the inexorable forces of generational replacement (older people are dying and younger people are taking their place) suggest the trends are likely to intensify. 

In the not too distant future, trying to make political hay out of bathroom bills and bans on transgender people in the military will seem crazy, even to reprobate politicians like Donald Trump.

In the meantime, there are still battles to be won and minds to change.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.