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Americans are deeply divided on transgender rights, a poll shows

University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas at the 2022 Ivy League Women's Swimming and Diving Championships in February. Thomas, a transgender woman, has been at the center of the debate around transgender athletes.
Kathryn Riley
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Getty Images
University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas at the 2022 Ivy League Women's Swimming and Diving Championships in February. Thomas, a transgender woman, has been at the center of the debate around transgender athletes.

Americans are widely opposed to allowing transgender female athletes to compete on women's and girls' sports teams, and, according to a new NPR/Ipsos poll, are deeply split along partisan lines on questions of transgender rights.

The NPR/Ipsos poll shows that nearly two-thirds of Americans (63%) are opposed to allowing transgender women and girls to compete on teams that align with their gender identity, while 24% overall support that.

Among Democrats, opinion is fairly split: a plurality, 46%, support trans female athletes' right to compete on women's and girls sports teams, while 41% oppose it.

Independent voters oppose trans female athletes right to compete by 3:1 (21% support; 63% oppose).

Among Republicans, support plummets to just 4%, while 88% oppose.

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According to Ipsos Vice President Mallory Newall, that tiny percentage of Republican support demonstrates how potent messaging on this issue has proved to be.

"For leaders in the Republican Party, [trans women and sports] has become a very powerful talking point," Newall says, "and what our polling's showing is that it's resonating with a significant majority of their base."

Rights of trans female athletes have become a political wedge issue

The message is clearly resonating with people like Paul Bjork, 68, a semiretired contractor in Fort Smith, Ark., who tells NPR his views are shaped by conservative podcasts and guided by the Bible.

"Any law that will support transgender, I will be against," Bjork says. "Biologically," he says, "there's only a male/female, and to have a male compete in a female sport, it doesn't work. I mean, it's not fair for the woman."

Many, including scientists, reject that view of a gender binary.

Nearly 20 states have passed laws that prohibit transgender youth from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity.

Transgender advocate Chris Mosier, the founder of transathlete.com, calls the results of the NPR/Ipsos poll "deeply disappointing," but no surprise. The results, he says, reflect how politicized these issues have become.

Chris Mosier at the men's 50 km race walk in Santee, Calif., on Jan. 25, 2020, where he made history as the first transgender man to compete in the U.S. men's Olympic trials.
Zhen Heinemann / Chris Mosier
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Chris Mosier
Chris Mosier at the men's 50 km race walk in Santee, Calif., on Jan. 25, 2020, where he made history as the first transgender man to compete in the U.S. men's Olympic trials.

"What is important for people to remember," Mosier says, "is that my identity as a trans person is not political. It has become politicized."

Mosier is also dismayed by this month's decision by FINA, the world governing body for swimming, that effectively bans transgender women from elite, international women's competitions.

"The truth of the matter is trans women are not dominating in sports," Mosier says. "They have never dominated in sports. And a lot of this has just been a scare tactic by the right to create a political wedge in an election year."

Danielle Provencher, 49, a Democrat and retired freelance journalist from Boynton Beach, Fla., responded "somewhat opposed" on the polling question of trans women in sports. In an interview with NPR, Provencher said she's "conflicted."

"I don't want to be discriminatory," she says, "but I recognize that there are differences in men and women's bodies, and you can't get around that, especially when it comes to competition. ... There is that physicality that you can't escape."

But Rebekah Goldstein, 33, a data manager and Democrat from Newton, Mass., is among those who support trans female athletes on this question.

"I just have a strong conviction that if someone's a woman, wants to compete as a woman, they should be the ones who can make the decision," she says. "No one else should be able to decide that for other people."

Goldstein considers the trend of anti-transgender legislation being passed around the country "alarming." "I feel anger and frustration," she says, "that the country is moving in this direction."

Gender-affirming medical care for trans youth reveals a stark political split

The NPR/Ipsos poll also asked about state laws that prevent transgender youth from accessing gender transition medical care, such as hormone therapy.

The responses show a stark partisan split.

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Just 14% of Democrats support such laws, while 55% of Republicans do.

Republican Stephen Petit, 58, a retired deputy sheriff from Denver, Colo., is among those who believe youth under 18 should not have access to such medical care.

"Let 'em mature a few more years till they are 18," he says. "Then they can make that choice."

Neena Van Camp, 76, of Knoxville, Tenn., is registered as a Republican but calls herself "totally disenchanted" with her party and, specifically, with former President Donald Trump.

"Quite honestly," she tells NPR, "with the behavior of some idiot that used to live in Washington, I refuse to be associated with it. ... When I get solicitations from the Republican Party, I put a little note and send it back to 'em instead of sending them money, and say, 'As long as he's up there at the top, you ain't gettin' diddly squat from me.'"

Van Camp also bucks the majority of the Republican Party on the question of laws that ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth: She strongly opposes those laws.

"This is what the child wants," Van Camp says, "and they should be able to follow up on what they feel that they need. ... Government gets involved in too much, in my opinion, that is none of their daggone business."

In a related question, the NPR/Ipsos poll asked whether people agree with state laws or policies that classify gender-transition medical care for youth as child abuse.

"Uhhhhhh, that question makes me want to vomit!" says Provencher, the Florida Democrat, who explains that it's not the question itself she finds nauseating, but the policy it's asking about.

The question stems from a directive in Texas, where some families of children receiving gender transition medical care have been investigated by child protective services.

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Again, the poll shows a sharp partisan divide on this question.

Nearly half of Republicans (48%) support policies that consider providing trans medical care for youth to be child abuse; 28% oppose those policies.

Meanwhile, Democrats overwhelmingly oppose those policies, by nearly 5:1 (58% to 13%).

Provencher calls it "ludicrous" to equate gender-affirming medical care for youth with child abuse.

"I think it's a caring and helpful thing for a parent to be able to do this," she says. "It's the opposite of child abuse."

The sharp divisions between Democrats and Republicans on questions of transgender rights, says pollster Mallory Newall of Ipsos, mirror the intense partisan splits seen on social issues across the board.

"It just one of the myriad examples in our society right now of how our partisan affiliation is truly the lens at which we look at all issues," Newall says.

The NPR/Ipsos poll was conducted from June 10-12, 2022, with a sample of 1,028 adults online. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points for all respondents.

NPR's Joel Rose contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.