Anti-Trans Bills Are Wildly Unpopular. But Here’s Why the GOP Keeps Passing Them.

A new poll shows the majority of Republicans don’t support bills targeting trans student athletes. But dig a little deeper, and the story gets more complex.
April 16, 2021, 5:56pm
Advocates for transgender people march from the South Dakota governor's mansion to the Capitol in Pierre, S.D., on Thursday March 11, 2021, to protest a proposed ban on transgender girls and women from female sports leagues. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves)

Even though lawmakers across the country are throwing their weight behind legislation to block transgender athletes from participating on the teams that match their gender identity, the presumptive audience for these bills—Republicans—are less than enthused.

Only 29 percent of Republicans said they “support a bill that prohibits transgender student athletes from joining sports teams that match their gender identity,” a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found Friday.

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These kinds of bills are similarly unpopular among Democrats and Independents: Only a quarter of Democrats said they support the measures, while 28 percent of Independents said the same. Sixty-seven percent of all adults oppose the bills.

But while the existence of this legislation is unpopular, the ideas behind them are not. The poll found that 81 percent of Republicans still said trans athletes in high school shouldn’t be allowed to play on teams that match their gender identity—which may signal that these conservatives may be fine with kicking trans kids out of sports, just as long as it’s not the government doing it.

Republicans have framed these anti-trans bills as the latest front in their “culture war” against so-called liberal values—a label that once applied to the fight over same-sex marriage and, more recently, to bills that would’ve block trans people from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. Now that they’ve effectively lost those battles, conservatives are betting that their base will be more energized by the fights over trans people’s participation in sports. 

The Friday poll’s nuanced findings show that Republicans who champion anti-trans legislation may not have to pay any price at the ballot box. With names like “Save Women’s Sports Act” and “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” many of the state-level anti-trans sports bills specifically cloak themselves as “protecting” cis women and girls. 

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Don Haider-Markel, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas, linked the new conservative crusade to go after trans girls and women in sports to the decade-long, deeply successful push to curtail abortion rights and access. That campaign, often portrayed as a quest to protect women’s health and safety, has invigorated the GOP’s most fervent factions.

“Here again, they’re saying, ‘Oh what we’re trying to do is protect female athletes,’” Haider-Markel, who co-authored the book Transgender Rights and Politics: Groups, Issue Framing, and Policy Adoption, told VICE News earlier this year. “You really expect me to believe you care about female athletes? This is not an area where, traditionally, conservatives have stood up for anything that represents women outside of traditional gender roles.” 

Legislators in at least 30 states have introduced bills that would block trans girls and women from playing on the sports teams that match their gender. And this is a rapidly moving issue: Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee have all already passed such legislation; on Thursday, both Alabama and North Dakota sent their own measures to their Republican governors to be signed. 

One governor, Republican Kristi Noem of South Dakota, refused to sign her state’s version of this ban—but instead signed a pair of executive orders requiring that “only females, based on their biological sex” could play sports on women’s teams at public high schools and colleges. Athletes may have to provide birth certificates or affidavits to play. (The term “biological sex” is deeply disputed.)

Other states are racing to pass legislation that would require athletes to pony up so-called proof of their gender. The Florida House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would require athletes to undergo a “physical examination” if someone disputes their gender.

Arkansas has also passed a bill to ban gender-affirming care for trans minors, overriding its own Republican governor’ veto in the process. Lawmakers in dozens of other states have introduced similar measures. Several of the introduced versions of those bills would not only ban this kind of health care, but criminalize performing it. At least one bill, in Texas, has proposed making providing gender-affirming health care tantamount to child abuse, meaning that parents who help their kids get care could lose custody of them.

The NPR poll also found that there’s relatively little support for prohibiting gender-affirming health care: 66 percent of adults oppose a bill that would do that.