As one who greedily and geekily consumes public opinion data, I'm rarely truly surprised by polling results. However, the ice-cold reaction of the American public to President Trump's directive to ban transgender individuals from service in the armed forces, evidenced by recent polls, is startling indeed. It suggests fundamental shifts are underway on opinion regarding one of the most vibrant civil rights issues of our time.
A Quinnipiac University national survey released last week showed that over two-thirds of Americans support allowing transgender soldiers to serve in the military. This strong majority is in direct conflict with Trump's announcement of a policy reversal via a series of tweets two weeks ago. An analysis, reported in The Washington Post, by a group of political scientists who have done work on the topic shows the breadth of this pro-transgender-rights view across the country. Their analysis of recent polling suggests that support for allowing military service by transgender individuals is a majority perspective in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Only in five culturally conservative states does support fall below 60 percent of the electorate, according to this analysis (Arkansas, naturally at the more conservative end of the spectrum, shows right at 60 percent support for transgender service).
Several dynamics are likely driving these results, which indicate dramatic shifts on attitudes toward protections for transgender Americans. (As recently as 2005, the average "feeling thermometer" rating of transgender individuals in a national survey — with 0 equaling absolute negativity toward the group and 100 the most positive rating — was a mere 32.)
One force behind the striking opposition to the policy change may well be the man who proposed it and how he announced it. The growing toxicity of President Trump as a political leader bleeds over onto the policy stances with which he is connected. The Quinnipiac survey in which the question regarding Trump's policy proposal on military service was included also found that 55 percent of the national sample "strongly" disapprove of the president's job performance. Polling from a variety of outlets is showing how deeply personal this negativity toward the president has become.
In addition, the fact that Trump's announcement on this policy shift came via a flurry of tweets on a Wednesday morning while Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who would have to implement the policy change, was on summer vacation showed the impulsiveness of the action. Several days later, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who like Mattis was caught off guard by the sudden announcement, wrote that there would be "no modifications" to the standing policy unless and until the White House developed a formal directive for a policy change. Americans have grown tired of the president's Twitter habits in general and haphazardly making policy change via tweet serves Trump even more poorly.
However, this growing support for the rights of transgender Americans is not just about the rash behavior of Trump on the topic. As has been the case with other sexual minorities, we know that interpersonal contact matters enormously in creating changes in attitudes. While the sheer number of transgender persons is smaller than those who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, they represent an increasingly visibly population. Second, generational change is also a key part of the story. Those who are under 30 are most likely to have persons in their life who identify as trans.
Finally, it's also important to recognize that transgender individuals are now thought of as being part of the broader LGBTQ community in a way that was not the case a decade ago. As late as 2007, even gay, lesbian and bisexual activists showed a problematic willingness to throw the less understood transgender community overboard in the heat of political battles. When the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was being considered by Congress in 2007, certain groups — led by the large Human Rights Campaign — were willing to exclude gender identity from the legislation's coverage if it meant successful passage of the legislation. Soon thereafter, however, the LGBTQ movement determined it would only operate as a transgender-inclusive movement. The Quinnipiac survey shows — by an overwhelming 89 percent to 8 percent margin — that Americans believe workers should be protected from job discrimination based on sexual orientation. Over time, transgender rights has come to benefit from the national consensus that emerged regarding civil rights protections for their LGB political allies.
Cynically, an anonymous Trump administration official said on the day of the transgender policy change announcement: "This forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin to take complete ownership of this issue. How will the blue collar voters in these states respond when senators up for re-election in 2018 ... are forced to make their opposition to this a key plank of their campaigns?" Like many politicos, this operative failed to recognize the continued movement of society on transgender issues. While at the highest levels of elective office, we may be living in a very conservative moment, at the mass level America continues to move in a decidedly different direction.