How to Talk about Transgender Youth
The past four years have seen a tsunami of attacks against LGBT people, specifically transgender youth. In 2019, no states had enacted bans on transgender youth playing sports consistent with their gender identity. In 2020, one state, Idaho, enacted a ban. As of July 6, 2023, 22 states have passed trans sports bans, with several states still considering similar legislation.
We saw a similar proliferation of legislation restricting access to gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth. In 2019, no states had passed such legislation. As of today, 20 states have, with some going as far as to make it a felony for physicians to provide such care to transgender youth. While some of these bans have recently been blocked in the federal courts, anti-LGBT groups will continue to push for a rollback of transgender rights. And they’ll continue to use inflammatory language to stoke anti-LGBT hate, especially leading into 2024 elections.
State lawmakers have introduced more than 650 anti-LGBT bills so far this year, with many targeting transgender youth. Pro-LGBT candidates and policymakers need to be prepared to push back against these attacks in elections and, ideally, influence public opinion to support transgender young people.
In conjunction with Impact Research, Third Way conducted three rounds of qualitative and quantitative research to better understand Democratic and swing voters’ views around issues related to transgender Americans. We conducted two in-person ethnographic focus groups among Democratic base voters in the Philadelphia area: one group of Black mothers ages 30-50 from Philadelphia and one group of white men ages 50-70 from suburban collar counties. We also conducted four focus groups among swing voters: white men ages 40-65 with college degrees, Hispanic men ages 25-50, white women ages 40-65 without college degrees, and white women ages 25-50 with college degrees. Finally, we conducted a nationwide online poll from April 6-13 of 1,000 likely 2024 voters with an oversample of 400 battleground congressional district voters.
We found that voters have become much more understanding and accepting of transgender people over recent years, but most are still conflicted when it comes to issues like medical care for minors and sports participation. But these are new issues to many voters, which gives us an opening to win the battle of reasonableness, rebut political attacks, and sway public opinion our way.
The Landscape for Transgender Youth
Voters are much more accepting of transgender people than they were a decade ago, but we still have a ways to go. Focus group participants were able to accurately describe what it means to be transgender, and most voiced empathy for the struggles transgender people face. Many had a “live and let live” mindset when it comes to adult transgender people. Three-quarters of voters said they would support a national policy protecting transgender people from discrimination. Despite this, voters were split on specific issues like bathroom use, health care access, and sports participation.
Voters feel they are being inundated with information about transgender people, and they aren’t sure why. A whopping 89% of voters reported recently reading or hearing a lot or some about transgender issues. Five years ago, that number probably would’ve been much lower.
"It almost seems like it's daily between the news, the media print, the social media. There's always something, so you don't escape it, it's always there." - 40-65 y/o white woman from PA
Focus group participants said they were hearing from Republicans and Democrats equally on the issue, and they thought both were trying to use the issue to their political advantage. And a majority (54%) say they are less likely to vote for a candidate who supports banning transgender student-athletes from participating in sports that align with their gender identity or say it has no impact on their vote.
Transgender Youth and Gender-Affirming Care
Most voters aren’t particularly familiar with gender-affirming care, and those who are strongly associate it with sex reassignment surgery. This lack of understanding of gender-affirming care negatively affects public opinion on the issue. Our poll found that 55% of voters support banning health care professionals from providing gender-affirming care to youth at first blush. Only 40% of voters say they would oppose such a ban, a sharp divergence from voters’ opinions on abortion bans.
However, when we framed the issue around parents instead of health care professionals, only 44% of voters thought the parents of a 15-year-old transgender child shouldn’t be allowed to help their child receive gender-affirming care. While this message included a specific age (and therefore can’t be directly compared), it’s still important to note the 11-point drop in support.
When we took this same policy and framed it as banning parents from getting their child gender-affirming care, support dropped even more. Only 40% of voters support such a ban, while 47% oppose one (the first time we saw opposition outweighing support around this issue). Ban language was especially salient with voters in battleground Congressional districts, 53% of whom opposed a ban when phrased that way, 7 points higher than the overall electorate.
Age was a very important factor to voters when thinking about gender-affirming care. While some focus group participants voiced support for access to care at the age of 16, the majority said that transgender youth should wait until they’re 18 to make these “life-changing decisions.”
"I think 18 is kind of the magical age for me. I think you're an adult, you can vote, you can go into the military, then you can make those decisions. But 13 and 16, even if your have your parent of guardians sign off on it, I just think it's too young to be making those kinds of decisions for yourself."- 25-50 y/o Hispanic man from AZ
Participants didn’t budge on this opinion even after the moderator explained the wide range of services that make up gender-affirming care (therapy, puberty blockers, hormone therapy, etc.), though participants did support access to mental health services. Despite their opposition to youth access to gender-affirming care, most agreed that banning care should not be a priority for politicians. Clearly, more research needs to be conducted to develop persuasive messages around transgender youth and access to gender-affirming care.
Transgender Youth and Sports
Voters were much more familiar with the issue of transgender youth participation in sports than they were with gender-affirming care. Many focus group participants, especially men, brought the topic up unprompted when asked what issues they’d heard of related to transgender people. Our poll found that 63% of voters support requiring transgender student-athletes to compete on teams that match their biological sex. Most focus group participants agreed, bringing up issues of fairness, physical advantage, and safety.
"I feel like it puts the person at an advantage if they're biologically a male or a male at birth, and playing on a woman's team." - 25-50 y/o white woman from MD
When we asked the question a different way, whether voters would support a ban on transgender youth competing on teams that match their gender identity, support dropped by 8 points but still remained high at 55%. Further conversation complicated the issue: despite majority support for a sports ban in focus groups, when participants were asked what they would do if they were the parent of a transgender child, many became conflicted and even changed their position. Personalizing the issue for parents and asking them to put themselves in those shoes was powerful, especially among women participants in the qualitative rounds.
"I think when you asked us as the perspective of a parent [of a trans child], and how we would feel with our child, that made me look at it differently."- 25-50 y/o white woman from MD
We also asked voters specifically about the House Republicans’ “Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act,” which would ban transgender people from playing on girls’ sports teams at any age or level. The margin of support for this specific bill clocked in at 6 points, compared to double digits for the generic ask around sports participation. And once voters were given more information, they expressed concerns about certain parts of the bill and how it would need to be enforced:
- Seventy-eight percent were bothered a great deal or some at the prospect of requiring girls to undergo genital inspections to prove they aren’t transgender.
- Seventy-one percent were bothered about requiring young girls to answer questions about puberty and how their bodies were changing.
- Seventy percent were bothered about requiring girls to provide up-to-date information about how often and when they are having their period.
Both support and opposition messages resonated with voters on this topic. Pro-LGBT messages that scored highest emphasized how invasive these bans are, how they will harm all women and girls, and how politicians should be focusing on more pressing issues like the economy or health care.
"We just talked about there's a lot more fish to fry with this country and not to say we shouldn't address it, but...I don't think we need to make this on top of the political platform right now with other things going on in the country."- 40-65 y/o white man from PA
After hearing this messaging, support for a sports ban dropped from 55% to 49% (though still beat out opposition). Arguments focusing on fairness and safety were most persuasive in the other direction; after reading those messages, support for a ban went back up to 56%. Pro-LGBT policymakers and candidates should not engage in a prolonged debate on this issue. But they should not ignore these attacks either. Rather, they should:
- Emphasize the harm these bans will cause to all women and girls by talking about how these invasive policies would require young girls undergo genital inspections, submit up-to-date information on their menstrual cycle, and undergo physical examinations in order to play sports.
- Make it personal to parents by highlighting that these bans won’t just affect transgender children—their children will be affected as well.
- Pivot to another solution. This issue is complicated, and we need to trust the people closest to these situations—parents, schools, and doctors—to make these decisions, not politicians.
- Hit politicians who are pushing these laws for having the wrong priorities. They should be focusing on addressing inflation and the economy instead of passing invasive laws that target young girls.
Attacks on transgender youth will continue and only escalate as we get closer to 2024. In an electoral context, pro-LGBT candidates should push back on the harm these bans will cause to young people but avoid engaging in a prolonged debate. For many voters, this is not a make-or-break issue—they’re far more likely to vote for a candidate based on their views on the economy, crime, immigration, or other issues of higher salience. We cannot ignore these attacks, but we can parry them by winning the battle of reasonableness and then refocusing on topics that related more directly to most voters’ everyday lives.