Many Americans say they don’t have a very good understanding of what it means to be transgender



Two recent YouGov polls on transgender issues in the United States find that while some issues are highly polarizing, such as how gender should be defined and how accepting society should be of transgender people, others generate a relatively high degree of consensus. Most Americans believe that transgender people face at least some discrimination in society. A majority of Democrats and Republicans oppose allowing discrimination against transgender people in employment and healthcare. Half support allowing transgender Americans to serve in the military.  

Before delving into specific issues, we first asked Americans how well they felt they understood what it means to be transgender. Just 38% say they understand very or extremely well what it means for someone to be transgender. Compared to when we asked this question seven years ago, in 2015, there has been a slight increase in understanding; then, 31% said they understood being transgender very or extremely well. However, when it was asked again in 2018, slightly more people (45%) said they had a very or extremely good understanding compared to today.

Americans 65 and older are particularly unlikely to say they have a good understanding. Unlike other questions we asked on transgender issues, responses to this question do not have a strong partisan split; a majority of both Democrats and Republicans say they don’t have a very good understanding of transgender identity. Among groups who reported the greatest understanding were Americans who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual; over half said they understand what it means to be transgender very or extremely well. 

After asking respondents how well they understood what it means to be transgender, we asked them to write in a response to the question “What do you think it means to be transgender?” About nine in ten survey takers responded; their unweighted responses are displayed below in a word cloud. People who said in the prior question that they understood the concept of being transgender well were slightly more likely to provide a response to the open-ended question that followed. 

Many people mentioned being “born,” “assigned to,” or “trapped in” a “wrong,” “different,” or “opposite” gender or sex than the one a person is assigned at birth. Some people alluded to a “feeling,” “emotion,” or sense of “identity.” Others mentioned changes in the way someone dresses and a handful referred to medical treatments such as taking hormones or getting surgery. Some mistook being transgender as being “gay” or associated it with being “confused about their sexuality.”

Uncertainty regarding what it means to be transgender may partially reflect a lack of personal connection to people who are transgender. Less than one-third of Americans (31%) report knowing someone who is transgender, including themselves, a family member, a close friend, or an acquaintance. This is slightly higher than the share who reported knowing someone on similar polls conducted in 2021 (27%), 2020 (27%), and 2015 (19%).

Some groups are more likely than others to know someone who is transgender. Americans who personally know a transgender person are more likely than people who don’t to say they have a good understanding of what it means to be transgender. Americans under 45 are more likely than older Americans to either say they identify as transgender or have a close friend who does. Nearly one in four Americans who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual also say they have a close friend who is transgender, a far higher share than the public overall.

There is division among the public on the validity of a person identifying as transgender. When asked which comes closer to their views, even if neither is exactly right, 56% of Americans say that “whether someone is a man or a woman is determined by the sex they were assigned at birth”; 44%, say “someone can be a man or a woman even if that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth.”

Women, adults under 45, liberals, Democrats, non-church goers, and city dwellers are more accepting than American adults overall; among groups that are less accepting: Southerners, adults 45 and over, Republicans, and the highly religious. Most adults under 30 say that a person’s gender can at times differ from sex at birth. The vast majority (72%) of those who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual selected the more flexible definition of gender. 

Americans are also divided on how far society has come in its acceptance of transgender people, and opinions on this topic have not shifted much since we last asked four years ago in 2018. One in three Americans say that society has not gone far enough in accepting people who are transgender, while slightly fewer say society has gone too far. Most people who say that gender is determined by sex at birth say society has gone too far in accepting transgender people, while those who hold a more flexible view on gender mostly say that society still has a ways to go in terms of acceptance. A majority of Democrats say society has not gone far enough, while the majority of Republicans say it has gone too far. 

One thing that the vast majority of Americans do agree on is that transgender people face at least some discrimination in the U.S.: 74% say that people who are transgender face at least some discrimination and only 10% say they face no discrimination at all. A majority of both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge discrimination, though Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to say there is “a lot” rather than “a little” discrimination. There is little difference by age on perceptions of extent of discrimination against people who are transgender. Those who know someone who is transgender are more likely to say there is a lot of discrimination than those who don’t. 

Most Americans oppose certain kinds of discrimination against people who are transgender, but are divided on access to bathrooms and locker rooms. Two in three Americans oppose allowing doctors or other healthcare providers to refuse to treat people because they are transgender, including a majority of Democrats (80%) and Republicans (60%). 

Two in three Americans also oppose allowing employers to fire or refuse to hire someone for being transgender, including a majority of Democrats (76%) and Republicans (56%). The share who oppose firing allowing employees to be fired for this reason has increased slightly since we asked a similar question in 2019

And 58% of Americans — including 71% of Democrats but just 48% of Republicans – oppose allowing health-insurance companies to refuse to pay for healthcare services for people who are transgender.

Half of Americans support allowing transgender people to serve in the military, while one in three oppose their service. A comparable share supported the ban when YouGov posed this question in a similar way in 2017 and 2019. Democrats and Republicans remain highly polarized on this issue, with the majority of Democrats in favor of allowing transgender people to serve and the majority of Republicans opposed. 

One notable finding: A majority of Americans who say there is currently no societal discrimination against transgender people also say they personally oppose letting transgender people in the military and about two in five support allowing employers to fire people for being transgender.

Americans are divided on allowing people who are transgender to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match the gender they identify with, rather than the one they were assigned at birth. Six in 10 Democrats support allowing transgender people to use the facility that matches their gender identity, while seven in 10 Republicans oppose doing so. 

– Carl Bialik and Linley Sanders contributed to this article

See the toplines and crosstabs from this Economist/YouGov Poll

See the toplines and crosstabs from this U.S. News Poll

Economist/YouGov Methodology: The Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 U.S. adult citizens interviewed online between March 12 – 15, 2022. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the 2018 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as 2016 and 2020 Presidential votes (or non-votes). Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. citizens. The margin of error is approximately 3% for the overall sample. 

U.S. News Methodology: This U.S. News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,000 U.S. adult citizens interviewed online between March 11 – 15, 2022. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the 2018 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as news interest and 2020 Presidential votes (or non-votes). Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. citizens. The margin of error is approximately 4% for the entire sample. 

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