Americans deeply divided on issues involving queer children, poll shows

Carrie Howell, who lives in rural Georgia, is the mother of a bisexual 13-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old boy whose car seat is his favorite color: pink.

If either child comes out as transgender some day, she will not be upset in the slightest.

“I would get on the phone and start looking for doctors” to support them, said Howell, a 33-year-old automotive technician. “I don’t think there should be any laws restricting gender-affirming care for any age. I don’t. If there were more protections in place, then children would feel more confident about reaching out.”

Darcy Quimby, 56, a political independent from the Palm Desert area, sees the question as more complicated.

Quimby said she previously identified as bisexual but today is in a monogamous relationship with a man and thinks the LGBTQ+ community has become too vocal, too prominent, too pushy and too obsessed with sexuality as an identity.

There’s now a new queer character “every time you turn on the TV,” she said, and kids are being swept up into thinking that being LGBTQ+ — and transgender in particular — is “just a great new fad.”

“I find it hard to believe there’s that many transgenders in the world — you know, true transgenders,” Quimby said.

“There are probably some kids who are truly transgender, but I think it’s more of a phase, and unfortunately this phase has dire consequences with some people who really just realize — ‘Wait, no, I really wasn’t’ — and now it’s irreversible,” Quimby said, referring to bodily changes that can come from things like hormone treatments, which she opposes for children.

Americans are deeply divided on issues involving queer children, especially kids who identify as transgender or nonbinary, according to a nationwide poll conducted for The Times by NORC at the University of Chicago. Howell and Quimby were among the poll respondents who agreed to follow-up interviews with reporters.

Fifty-four percent of U.S. adults favor laws to prevent transgender children younger than 18 from receiving gender-affirming care such as surgery or puberty blockers, the survey shows. Forty-four percent oppose such laws.

The share who would block such treatment for children is roughly twice as large as the share favoring a similar ban for adults, the poll found.

The divide is even closer when the poll asked if people would be upset if a child of theirs said they were transgender: 48% said they would be very or somewhat upset; 51% said they would not be.

People over 60 are more likely than other age groups to be upset about a child being transgender, and Republicans are twice as likely to feel that way as Democrats.

The public is split on whether school personnel should tell a parent if their teenager identifies as transgender or nonbinary: 54% said that in all or nearly all cases, schools should respect the wishes of a student who does not want their parents to know; 44% said the school should always or almost always tell parents, regardless of the student’s wishes.

Among adults who identify as LGBTQ+, however, 82% said schools should respect a student’s wishes.

The poll found more widespread opposition toward transgender people — especially women — playing on sports teams. About two-thirds of adults said transgender girls and women should never or only rarely be allowed to participate on girls or women’s teams.

The poll, paid for by the California Endowment, comes at a time when LGBTQ+ rights are center stage in the U.S. culture wars.

In 1985, The Times conducted a nationwide poll that gauged attitudes toward gay men and lesbians during the height of the AIDS crisis. The survey was among the first by a major news organization to systemically study public opinion on same-sex relationship and related issues.

The current poll was designed to repeat some of the questions asked then and to ask new questions, especially about attitudes toward transgender and nonbinary people.

The Times back in 1985 did not ask about transgender children, whose concerns were not the political lightning rod they are today.

“Transgender people have always been a part of our society, but only recently are we gaining more acceptance and being more visible. Due to this, we are seeing an increase in backlash from those who don’t want us to be here,” Ash Orr, a spokesperson for the National Center for Transgender Equality, told The Times in a statement.

Most Americans, Orr said, still do not personally know someone who is transgender or nonbinary.

“Anti-trans extremists are taking advantage of that fact,” Orr said.

The poll showed that 42% of adults believe that, for young children, being transgender or nonbinary is always or mostly just a phase. Nineteen percent said it is their true identity, and 38% said it is sometimes their true identity and sometimes a phase.

Respondents were more likely to believe a person is truly transgender or nonbinary if they are older. Twenty-six percent said they believe that when teenagers identify as trans or nonbinary, that is their true identity. And 52% said that about transgender or nonbinary adults.

The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, which researches public policy around sexual orientation and gender identity, estimates that about 1.4% of American teenagers ages 13-17 — about 300,000 individuals — identify as transgender.

Cisgender lesbian, gay or bisexual teens are estimated to make up about 10% of high schoolers.

Asked about the poll’s finding that more parents would be upset to have a transgender child than a lesbian or gay child, Kerith Conron, research director of the Williams Institute, said that does not necessarily reflect discriminatory attitudes and likely “reflects a degree of fear or concern for a child’s safety and opportunities in life.”

Transgender kids are more likely than cisgender children to report suicide attempts and being bullied in school, she noted, adding that “parents of trans kids are very aware of the risks.”

Marie Bagwell, a 37-year-old poll respondent from Norman, Okla., said she and many of her friends closely followed the news about Nex Benedict, a nonbinary Oklahoma teenager who died in February, the day after a fight in a high school girls’ bathroom.

The state medical examiner said Nex died by suicide. Their death drew national headlines, a statement from the White House, and concern from LGBTQ+ rights groups over rhetoric from Oklahoma’s state superintendent, who has said he believes there are only two genders and that transgender and nonbinary people do not exist.

Bagwell, who is a lesbian, said she has young-adult stepchildren from a previous relationship and that if she were to ever have a child who came out as transgender, “it wouldn’t be an issue to me because I’d trust my kids to know themselves.”

“You should love your children unconditionally,” she said.

Howell, the Georgia automotive tech, said she has a transgender brother who lives in a big city but that in her rural, conservative county, she does not know any adults who are openly transgender.

She sees a big generational difference, though. Her teenage daughter — whom she calls “a safe space for other kids” — has lots of friends who are gay, transgender, or change their pronouns. Her daughter has dated girls and boys, she said, and does not care what other people think.

About two years ago, Howell was driving her daughter home from school, and she asked Howell how she identified. Howell said she was demisexual, meaning she only feels attracted to someone after she forms a strong emotional bond with them.

The pre-teen seemed a little nervous. She said she thought she might be pansexual, which means having an attraction to any person regardless of gender.

“I didn’t let her get too far before I was like, ‘It’s fine. I’m glad you told me, but I don’t want you to feel like you have to tell me or feel nervous telling me,’” Howell said. “She was figuring it out.”

A few weeks later, her daughter said she was actually bisexual. She asked for a sweatshirt that said “Bisexual Dragon,” and Howell happily bought it for her. The teenager recently outgrew it, and Howell, admittedly a little nostalgic, saved it as a reminder of her daughter’s boldness.

She hopes that, some day, kids will have no qualms about being who they are.

“I’m waiting for the day, she said, “when it’s not a thing and nobody has to worry about it.”

Times staff writer Kevin Rector contributed to this report.

NORC conducted this poll in January using its AmeriSpeak panel, a probability-based panel designed to reflect U.S. households overall. The poll surveyed 1,624 adults — including 775 Californians and 313 LGBTQ+ people — and was weighted to match benchmarks for age, gender, census division, race and ethnicity, and education. It had an estimated margin of error of 3.8 percentage points for the full sample.

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