Factors Affecting Attitudes Toward Transgender Bathroom Use

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Principal investigators:

Brian Powell

Indiana University

Email: powell@indiana.edu

Homepage: https://sociology.indiana.edu/about/faculty/powell-brian.html

Long Doan

University of Maryland

Email: longdoan@umd.edu

Homepage: https://www.longdoan.net/

Natasha Quadlin

University of California, Los Angeles

Email: quadlin@soc.ucla.edu

Homepage: https://www.natashaquadlin.com/

Sample size: 2007

Field period: 11/19/2016-09/01/2017

The project examine Americans’ views regarding transgender bathroom use and perceptions of transgender people’s sex, as well the factors that underlie these views and perceptions. The authors randomly assigned respondents to a vignette condition describing a transgender person whose self-identified gender (i.e., identifies as a man or a woman), age (i.e., adult or teenager), and gender conformity in physical appearance (i.e., conforming, nonconforming, ambiguous, or unspecified) had been experimentally manipulated. Then, respondents were asked how they would personally classify that person’s sex and which bathroom the person should use.

Self-identified gender: Do assessments of public bathroom use and perceptions of the transgender person's sex vary by whether the person is a trans woman or a trans man?

Age: Do assessments of public bathroom use and perceptions of the transgender person’s sex vary by whether the person is a teenager or an adult the age of the transgender person?

Appearance: Do assessments of public bathroom use and perceptions of the transgender person’s sex vary by the extent to which the transgender person’s physical appearance conforms with their gender identity?

Experimental Manipulations

Self-identified gender: We varied whether Casey (the name of the person in the vignette) was born female but now identifies as a man (i.e., trans man) or was born male but now identifies as a woman (i.e., trans woman).

Age: We described Casey as either 16 or 36 years old. These are ages that clearly indicate that Casey is either a teenager or an adult.

Appearance: We varied what “most people” assume about Casey’s gender when meeting Casey for the first time: gender conforming (i.e., consistent with Casey’s gender identity), gender nonconforming (i.e., consistent with Casey’s sex assigned at birth), ambiguous (i.e., most people are unsure whether Casey is a man or a woman), or unspecified (i.e., no information provided about Casey’s physical appearance).


Perceived sex/gender: We asked whether the respondent personally considered Casey to be a male or a female?” The response options were “male,” “female,” or “other.”

Bathroom: We asked which bathroom Casey should use while in public. The response options was "men’s," "women’s," or “other.”

Summary of Results

The findings suggest that Americans are more likely to perceive a transgender person’s sex as consistent with their sex assigned at birth than with their gender identity. Furthermore, of the experimental manipulations included in the experiment, only the transgender person’s level of gender conformity—not their self-identified gender or age—affects public perceptions of sex. The authors also find distinct cleavages along sociodemographic lines, including politics, sexual orientation, and interpersonal contact with transgender people. Implications for research on sex and gender are discussed.

Most of the time, when respondents perceived a transgender person’s sex consistent with their sex assigned at birth, they also indicated the person should use a bathroom consistent with their sex assigned at birth (79 percent). A parallel pattern emerges for those who perceived transgender people’s sex consistent with their gender identity (75 percent). Those who perceived Casey’s sex as “other” had more heterogeneous attitudes toward bathroom access, although the modal choice for these respondents was “other” (53 percent), so the general consistency between perceptions of sex and attitudes toward bathroom access holds here. Overall, the consistency between these two items suggests that perceptions of sex are a major factor that underlies attitudes toward transgender rights more broadly.

Doan, Long, Natasha Quadlin, and Brian Powell. 2019. “Americans’ Perceptions of Transgender People’s Sex: Evidence from a National Survey Experiment.” Socius https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023119852015.