Like many Americans, Jill hadn't thought much about where transgender people go to the bathroom. A 60-year-old Trump voter who lives in Ohio, she generally supports LGBT rights but is hung up on the trans issue. She called it "confusing." Jean, also 60, agreed. She doesn't want "a male in [her] restroom." But when these voters had the opportunity to have their concerns addressed in a meaningful way and dialogue about these issues, a new study found that they were able to be flipped in favor of trans equality.
In May, Working America and Pride at Work surveyed 784 middle- and working-class voters in the Buckeye State about an LGBT nondiscrimination bill proposed in the state legislature earlier this year. Senate Bill 100 would ban anti-LGBT discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. According to these groups, more than a quarter of conservatives were willing to sign a petition supporting SB 100.
After putting down her signature, Lisa said, "Sometimes you just gotta go!"
"Except for the most conservative of voters, people were relatively consistent in their support levels," Matt Morrison, the deputy director of Working America, told The Advocate. "If you lined everyone up from 1 to 100 based on what their partisan inclination is -- 100 being the most progressive and 1 being the most conservative -- the top 80 percent of people were equally likely to be supportive. Even people within that 1-20 range, what we saw was that 27 percent of them were inclined to sign."
To tabulate the partisan leanings of those surveyed, the groups used Catalist's Vote Choice Index, which affixes a rating of 1 to 100 based on one's economic and social views. The survey found that voters with a VCI score over 20 "were as likely as those with a score of 70 and above to support the measure," showing broad support except among the staunchest conservatives.
Among the most ardent GOP voters, three patterns emerged. Those who were reluctant to sign a petition supporting LGBT rights were concerned that a nondiscrimination law would (1) violate their religious beliefs, (2) allow "men in dresses" to enter women's restrooms, and (3) permit these entrants to target women and children using the bathroom. One Republican respondent, Laura, told canvassers, "I have a granddaughter, so I'm a little worried about men in the women's room."
"The picture of a man in a dress is a very visceral thing for these folks," said Jerame Davis, executive director of Pride at Work. "As soon as you start talking about the issue in any way, that's immediately where a lot of [Republicans] go. It's because of the way the right is using their talking points and bringing that image up repeatedly."
Although there's never been a confirmed case of a trans person attacking someone else in a public bathroom, GOP campaigns opposed to equal rights for transgender people have frequently painted trans restroom users as dangerous predators intent on harming others. In the case of Houston's failed Equal Rights Ordinance, an advertising campaign paid for by local conservative groups depicted little girls being preyed on by an invisible threat. Another commercial portrayed trans people as hairy freaks -- a laughable and disgusting cartoon.
These tactics worked. The ordinance, which would have also prevented Houstonians fron being fired because of their gender identity or sexual orientation, was voted down by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent. And the Ohio survey shows that they have remained effective since -- thanks to disinformation campaigns like those around North Carolina's House Bill 2, passed last year.
But canvassers found that when they gave voters the correct information, many of them were willing to have their minds changed.
"My religion tells me no, but, hey, everyone has the right to pee," Laura said after a conversation in which canvassers debunked the widely disseminated bathroom myths. "Everyone has their own sins to deal with. I don't think Jesus was against peeing."
"We didn't want to correct their bad information," Davis said. "We wanted to help give them new information. The average voter has not thought about this issue very deeply. Our project shows that when we give them the opportunity to think about it in a nonjudgmental way and allow them to air their concerns and grievances and talk them through the issues they have, we can move them to a supportive stance. If we do that, we have the opportunity to make change."
In addition to the more than a quarter of conservatives who signed the petition, Working America and Pride at Work found that about half of all voters were supportive of trans rights. Overall, 41 percent of registered voters the organizations spoke with were willing to sign a petition supporting SB 100. Fifty-six percent of SB 100 supporters were female, and 74 percent lived in a household that earns over $75,000 a year.
Some of the findings confirmed what LGBT advocates already know: Younger people were more likely to support nondiscrimination legislation, as were voters who self-identify as Democrats. Voters under the age of 50 were more than twice as likely as those over 50 to sign the petition in favor of SB 100. While 54 percent of Democrats offered their support for the bill, just 29 percent of Republicans did. Many of these voters were concerned about the perceived "threat" of allowing transgender people to use women's bathrooms.
"Folks, by and large, disagree with discrimination," Morrison said. "They know that it's a bad thing. They don't want to be on the wrong side of the issue."
Officials with the National Center for Transgender Equality see these results as further evidence that the more people know about trans lives, the less likely they are to support laws targeting their rights. According to a poll the Human Rights Campaign conducted in 2016, around 35 percent of Americans have a friend, neighbor, or coworker who is transgender. This group is statistically more likely to support LGBT equality, including the right of trans people to use public bathrooms consistent with their gender identity.
"The more voters have the opportunity to put themselves in their trans neighbors shoes, the more supportive they are," said Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for NCTE. "As with other minorities, there are fears and misconceptions that come from simply not having the chance to get to know a transgender person."
The survey is just the latest to show that Americans are widely supportive of LGBT rights, even in the face of national and state attempts to roll back progress. A 2016 poll from the Harris Foundation found that 67 percent of respondents were in favor of laws that would prevent LGBT people from being terminated from their job or denied housing because of who they are. Over 70 percent said that they were more likely to support or even work for companies viewed as supportive of queer and trans people.
Despite popular support for pro-LGBT initiatives, the GOP continues to push legislation targeting the community. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that over 200 bills of this nature will be introduced in state legislatures this year, a record number. A federal appeals court just allowed a "religious discrimination" bill in Mississippi to go into effect, which will allow businesses, individuals, and nonprofit to deny service to LGBT people and others because of the individual or institution's religious beliefs.
Next month the Texas legislature will hold a special session to debate a bathroom bill similar to North Carolina's HB 2. Senate Bill 6 would force trans people to use the public restroom that corresponds with their "biological sex" in schools and buildings operated by the state. That legislation would have a disastrous impact on trans students -- and could lead to lower test scores, higher rates of bullying, and higher dropout rates.
Despite SB 6 being a "top priority" for the governor, a majority of voters in a Texas Tribune poll say the bill isn't important. That tally includes 41 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans.
The Texas special session begins July 18.