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Americans aren’t asking for transgender sports bans. So why pass them?

Conservative Republicans are pushing a policy agenda.

In March, the Republican-controlled Utah legislature overrode a veto by the state’s Republican governor on legislation banning transgender athletes from participating in girls’ sports. In a public letter about his veto, Gov. Spencer Cox wrote that he worried about the safety of transgender youths and noted that the number of transgender athletes is very small.

The Utah law was part of a spike in policy proposals banning transgender girls from participating in K-12 athletics. Bills were introduced in 36 state legislatures. Fifteen states have codified these bans in law, though some are being challenged in court. For example, Alabama’s HB391 stipulated that “no public K-12 school may participate in, sponsor, or provide coaching staff for interscholastic athletics events at which athletes are allowed to participate in competition against athletes who are of a different biological gender.”

Some scholars have asked whether these policies are relevant. Others have examined their deeper connections to racism. But what do Americans at large think about these bans?

How we did our research

We fielded a survey that reached 1,000 American adults from May 6-9, 2022, on the SSRS omnibus panel. Of these, 970 respondents were polled via web and 30 by telephone. All interviews were administered in English. The data were weighted for the probability of selection and to demographic targets of the adult population in the United States.

Of the 1,000 people interviewed, we find that 59 percent said they opposed or strongly opposed banning transgender girls from participating in K-12 athletics, with 29 percent opposed and 30 percent strongly opposed. Forty-one percent favored or strongly favored a ban, with 18 percent in favor and 23 percent strongly in favor. That’s a difference of 18 percentage points.

In other words, these policies don’t seem to really represent American attitudes. Why?

Socially conservative views tend to be overrepresented in public discussions of LGBTQ issues

Recent political science research suggests that policies like these are enacted not because of public attitudes about LGBTQ rights, but because conservative leaders are pushing a policy agenda. Prominent conservative figures tend to mobilize Republicans to propose and sometimes pass policies that cut against the grain of public opinion. What’s more, as each party’s elected officials stake out profoundly opposing positions on transgender rights, rank-and-file voters tend to follow their lead and adopt those positions themselves.

That’s what we found in our survey: Ordinary Republicans and Democrats had taken opposing positions on transgender rights, with independents’ opinions closer to that of Democrats, making Republicans the outliers. Republicans’ opinions are far away from both Democrats and independents on these bans. As you can see in the figure below, Republicans’ opinions are 20 percentage points away from those of Democrats and 18 percentage points away from those of independents. Even so, Republicans are practically evenly divided on these issues. Clearly, these proposals are backed by a faction within the Republican Party. They may be connected to prominent social conservatives who are influencing parts of the Republican Party.

These public attitudes may explain why some Republican governors — not just Cox but also Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb — feel that they can reject these outright bans.

Cox went further; he didn’t just veto the bill, but also attempted to negotiate a compromise somewhere between outright bans and full inclusion. The proposed compromise, detailed in Cox’s letter describing why he vetoed the legislation, would have involved medical experts in transgender health and sports, having them examine each transgender girl’s case individually to see if she could compete. Rules put forward by competitive sports bodies such as the International Olympic Committee include such compromises, given the tension between principles of nondiscrimination, inclusion, and the concerns about fair competition in sports in which strength is an important attribute.

But advocates both for and against these bans don’t seem interested in finding compromises. Instead of compromising, Republican legislators in Utah overrode the governor’s veto.

Americans don’t really favor a compromise on transgender sports bans

It’s not just advocates who don’t want to compromise; neither do Americans at large. As you can see in the figure below, 65 percent of Americans oppose policies seeking a middle ground, and only 35 percent support them.

However, Democrats are far more willing to compromise than either independents or Republicans, with 48 percent saying they’d favor a compromise proposal. This may be because some think the issue raises legitimate fairness concerns, or at least see the topic as too complex to be reduced to simple right or wrong. What’s more, conservatives dislike the idea of compromise more than liberals, particularly on issues they view as about fundamental ideas of right and wrong. Seventy-one percent of very conservative adults in our sample strongly opposed compromise in transgender girls in K-12 sports, compared with only 16 percent of very liberal adults.

Those who strongly support or strongly oppose these bans are the most unwilling to compromise. These advocates are making profound claims for either broad exclusion or broad inclusion.

The policy fight continues

In other words, political leaders’ positions are being echoed by the American public. But the Republicans who hold majorities in state legislatures overrepresent a minority viewpoint. This mismatch between public opinion and public policy further reveals that legislatures, which in theory represent their constituents’ views, instead enact more conservative policies than their voters actually want.

Andrew R. Flores (@DrAndrewFlores) is an assistant professor of government at American University and visiting scholar at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

Donald P. Haider-Markel (@dhmarkel) is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

Daniel C. Lewis is an associate professor and chair of political science at Siena College.

Patrick R. Miller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

Jami K. Taylor is a professor of political science and director of the master of public administration program at the University of Toledo.