September 28, 2016

Where the Public Stands on Religious Liberty vs. Nondiscrimination

3. Public split over bathroom use by transgender people

Americans overall are closely divided on the question of which public restrooms transgender individuals should be using. But similar to the other issues addressed in the survey, those who attend religious services on a regular basis lean somewhat more strongly toward the conservative position – in this case, that transgender people should be required to use public restrooms for the gender they were born into. Six-in-ten of those who attend religious services weekly take this stance, while a similar share of those who attend church less frequently say transgender people should be allowed to use the restrooms matching the gender with which they identify.3

Three-quarters of churchgoing white evangelicals (76%) say transgender people should be required to use the restroom of the gender they were born into, along with 60% of Mass-attending Catholics and 55% of black Protestants who attend church regularly. Roughly half of churchgoing white mainline Protestants (53%) take the more liberal position.

Compared with those who attend religious services at least once a week, those who go less often – especially religious “nones” – are more inclined to say transgender people should be allowed to use the restroom that matches their gender identity. However, six-in-ten white evangelicals who do not attend church regularly still take the opposite view, saying that transgender people should have to use the restroom matching the gender they were assigned at birth.

The survey finds strong indications that the youngest generation of U.S. adults has a different perspective on bathroom use by transgender people. Two-thirds of adults under 30 say transgender people should be free to use restrooms that match their gender identity. Adults in their 30s and 40s are evenly split on this question, while the prevailing opinion among adults over 50 is that transgender adults should use restrooms corresponding to their birth gender.

The survey also shows that women are somewhat more likely than men to say transgender people should be allowed to use the restroom that matches their gender identity.

Relatively few Americans say they sympathize with both points of view on the question of public bathroom use by transgender people. Instead, most people express sympathy with only one side of this issue, including 32% who say they sympathize “a lot” or “some” only with those who argue that transgender people should have to use the bathroom corresponding to their birth gender, and 30% who sympathize only with the opposite viewpoint (that transgender people should be allowed to use restrooms corresponding to their gender identity). About one-in-five adults (18%) say they sympathize at least “some” with both perspectives, while another 19% express sympathy with neither side in the debate.

This pattern is seen among all religious, political and demographic groups analyzed in the survey. Some groups tend to favor one side (e.g., evangelicals tend to sympathize only with the view that transgender people should use the bathrooms matching their birth gender) or the other (e.g., about half of Jews and religious “nones” sympathize only with the view that transgender people should be able to use the restrooms that match their gender identity). But relatively few people in any group express sympathy with both sides in the debate.

And neither side has much claim to tolerance of the opposing point of view. Just 23% of those who generally think transgender people should be able to use the restrooms of their current gender identity also sympathize with the view of those who express the opposite opinion, and just 13% of those who would require transgender people to use the bathrooms of their birth gender sympathize with both sides.

Defining ‘transgender’


In this study, Pew Research Center for the first time asked Americans about their views on whether transgender people should be allowed to use the public restrooms of the gender with which they currently identify, or required to use the public restrooms corresponding to the gender they were born into. To be sure respondents knew what was meant by the term “transgender,” the text of the question included an example defining the term. (The survey was administered to a nationally representative sample online and by mail.) Half of respondents were randomly assigned questions mentioning “transgender individuals – such as people who now identify and live as females but were born male.” The other half received the opposite example; they were asked about “transgender individuals – such as people who now identify and live as males but were born female.”

Did the example respondents received affect their responses? Not really. Those asked about the male-to-female example were about as likely as those who received the female-to-male example to say they sympathize at least “some” with the view that transgender people should be allowed to use public restrooms corresponding to their gender identity (49% and 48%, respectively). And roughly half of respondents in each scenario say that if forced to choose, they would allow transgender people to use public restrooms of the gender with which they currently identify (51% in the male-to-female scenario, 50% in the female-to-male scenario).

This suggests that people’s attitudes about transgender rights have little to do with whether a transgender person identifies and lives as female but was born male, or vice versa. Instead, Americans’ opinions are tied to other factors highlighted in the report, such as religious affiliation, frequency of religious service attendance and other demographic factors.

  1. There are many different terms associated with transgender identity and gender identity more broadly, and this terminology continues to change over time and is also dependent on personal preference and identification. In designing this survey and writing this report, in order to prevent confusion among respondents and improve the accuracy of results, Pew Research Center sought to use terms that the general public, including those who are not well-versed in this topic, would understand, even if those might not be the terms preferred by those in the transgender community.