Does the American Public Think There Are More Than Two Genders?

by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

It all started with a flag placed by Representative Marie Newman (D-IL) outside her office that supported the rights of transgender Americans. Newman has a daughter who is transgender and she hung the pink and blue flag as a sign of support for the cause. Newman’s office lies directly across the hall from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) – who is by any account one of the most conservative members of the United States Congress. 

A few hours later Rep. Greene had her staff capture a video of her affixing a sign to the wall outside her office that read: “There are TWO genders: MALE & FEMALE…Trust the Science!” It immediately caused a firestorm on social media. I’ve written a fair amount about gay marriage and how quickly public opinion has shifted on that topic. But the issue of transgender rights has only begun showing up in public opinion data. 

I wanted to use this piece to get in on the ground floor and establish a foundation of how partisanship and religion impacts views on transgender issues. Does the public support Rep. Greene? Is it a polarized issue?

Nationscape (a large scale survey sponsored by the Democracy Fund) asked, “How much do you agree with this statement: there are only two genders – male and female.” This very closely tracks the sentiment expressed on Rep. Greene’s sign. Let’s start the conversation with partisanship. 

In the entire sample, 67.8% of Americans agree that there are only two genders, with 50% strongly agreeing with that sentiment. When broken down by partisanship, a divide appears but only a small one. Just over 85% of Republicans agree that there are only two genders, while the same is true for a slim majority of Democrats – 52%. 

Was there any shifting during the survey period on this question, however? The media has been discussing the topic with some regularity over the last few years. 

In the overall sample – the shift is toward greater recognition of more than two genders. Dropping from 70% to 66% from September 2019 to June of 2020. For Republicans, the shift is minor – just about two percentage points in nine months. For Democrats, it’s larger – from 55% in September to 47% in June. 

How does that divide break on religious lines? I broke the sample into sixteen religious groups and sorted the results based on the most opposition to transgender identities to the least resistance. 

It’s no surprise that white evangelicals express the least support for the existence of more than two genders. Three quarters strongly agree that “male and female” are the only acceptable identities. This is followed by non-white evangelicals at 68%. Catholics in general are much more supportive of transgender identities than evangelicals. About 30% of white Catholics and 35% of non-white Catholics agree or strongly agree that there are more than two genders. 

The most accepting religious community for individuals who identify as transgender is atheists, followed closely by agnostics and Hindus. But, it’s important to note that their support is not overwhelming. Even among the most progressive group, 40% of them still agree that there are only two genders. 

Do viewpoints on this issue hinge on other demographic factors? Presumably age would play a large role here in addition to partisanship and an evangelical identity. To test that I estimated a simple regression model with some basic controls for age, gender, race, education, and income, in addition to partisanship and religion. 

Clearly evangelicals are more supportive of a belief that there are only two genders. Even among evangelical Democrats under the age of 30, over seven in ten indicate that only two genders exist. Age does have a modest impact on these views, increasing support for the “only two genders” statement by about ten percentage points from the youngest to the oldest respondents. 

For non-evangelicals, partisanship matters a lot more. For non-evangelical Republicans, agreement with this statement is at about 84% and is not affected by age in any meaningful way. Among non-evangelical Democrats there is quite a bit more support for the belief in more than two genders. For instance, support for transgenderism is about 50% among non-evangelical Democrats who are under the age of 50. But that support is narrow, with 45% of the youngest Democrats still indicating that there are only two genders. 
It’s easy to get into a bubble on social media. It’s fairly well known that the loudest voices on Twitter are those who are very conservative or very liberal. The sentiment regarding transgenderism in these venues is strongly polarized – but the loudest voices seem to be in favor of more support for Americans who identify as transgender. This is just another piece of evidence that American public opinion does not look like Twitter. The belief that only two genders exist is held by two-thirds of Americans. Clearly, it’s a rallying cry for Republicans, but it’s not necessarily a winning issue for Democrats as their party is evenly divided.

If I were to guess, this is an issue that will move like gay marriage did, except the timeline will be accelerated due to the proliferation of messaging through social media. It’s easy to imagine a future in ten years when three quarters of Democrats support the idea of more than two genders alongside half of Republicans. Yet, for many, this change cannot come fast enough.

Ryan P. Burge teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. Syntax for this post can be found here.

2 comments

  1. Very informative post. Perhaps, if the general public was made aware more often of the difference that exists between the cisgender and transgender brains (i.e., number of neurons present in the BSTc section of the brain), it would be more willing to accept transgenderism as a neurobiological reality rather than interpreting it as a “choice” or a symptom of a “confused mind.”

    Like

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