Pew Research Center has studied U.S. public attitudes about gender identity and transgender issues for years. A new survey, conducted May 16 to 22, 2022, dives deeper into some of these attitudes, from the fundamental question of whether sex at birth determines a person’s gender to whether the public thinks society is moving too quickly or not quickly enough on these issues.

We spoke with Anna Brown, a research associate at the Center, about why and how we conducted this study and what we learned from it.

What are some of the biggest takeaways from this survey?

A headshot of Anna Brown, a research associate at the Center
Anna Brown, a research associate at the Center

Americans’ views on gender identity and transgender issues are complex and nuanced. A majority of U.S. adults say that whether someone is a man or woman is determined by the sex they were assigned at birth, and this share has been rising. There is also a fair amount of support for restricting medical care for gender transitions among minors and requiring trans athletes to compete on teams that match their sex assigned at birth. At the same time, there’s wide support for laws and policies that would protect trans people from discrimination. The public is divided on whether our society still has work to do when it comes to accepting people who are transgender or if society has gone too far in this regard.

One interesting takeaway is that there is a diversity of opinion even among those who think someone’s gender is determined by sex assigned at birth. For example, half of adults in this group say they would favor laws that would protect trans people from discrimination, and about one-in-four say forms and online profiles should include options other than “male” or “female” for people who don’t identify as either.

Why did you decide to conduct this survey? And why now?

This report is part of a larger project that included measuring the share of U.S. adults who identify as a gender that is different from their sex assigned at birth. We also spoke to trans and nonbinary adults in a series of focus groups to learn more about their experiences.

These new findings come at a time when some long-standing, fundamental assumptions about gender are being challenged. A rising share of adults say they personally know someone who is transgender. A large majority say they’ve heard at least a little about people who don’t identify as a man or a woman and who may instead describe themselves as not having a gender or use terms such as “nonbinary” or “gender fluid” to describe their gender.

Our mission is to inform the public about the trends shaping our society today. By measuring public attitudes on these topics, we can provide objective data and contribute to the national conversation.

How did you define “transgender” and “nonbinary” in this report?

When asking respondents about transgender people, our survey questionnaire defined them as people whose gender is different from the sex they were assigned at birth, such as a person assigned male at birth who identifies as a woman. We also asked respondents about people who don’t identify as a man or a woman and instead may describe themselves as not having a gender or describe their gender using terms such as “nonbinary” or “gender fluid.” In this report, we use “nonbinary” as a shorthand to describe this group of people.

In estimating the share of U.S. adults who are trans or nonbinary, we classified respondents based on their answers to two separate questions: the sex they were assigned at birth and how they describe their gender.

Why don’t you include the survey responses of transgender and nonbinary adults in this new report?

Trans and nonbinary adults are among our survey respondents, and their responses are included in the figures for the general population that are cited throughout the report. But even with the relatively large size of our survey panel, they make up such a small share of the U.S. population that we aren’t able to provide reliable data on their views. Instead, the focus groups we conducted allowed us to dive more deeply into the views and experiences of 27 trans and nonbinary adults, even though their views are not representative of the entire trans and nonbinary U.S. adult population.

Why does Pew Research Center refer to someone’s “sex assigned at birth” instead of their “biological sex”? What made you choose this language?

Many government surveys use this language in their questionnaires, and we modeled our approach after those. We used this language both when asking about the public’s attitudes on whether gender and sex assigned at birth can be different and when asking respondents about their own gender and sex.

This language acknowledges that some transgender people take steps to medically transition to a sex that is different from the one they were assigned at birth, as well as the fact that some people are born with ambiguous sex characteristics but are assigned either “male” or “female” on their birth certificate.

Do views on gender identity and transgender issues differ along demographic lines or by party affiliation?

These topics are extremely polarized by party. For example, Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic Party are more than four times as likely as Republicans and Republican leaners to say that whether a person is a man or a woman can be different from their sex assigned at birth. There are also wide party gaps on each of the policies or laws we asked about in the survey.

Age is another dividing line on many of these issues. For example, while about half of adults younger than 30 say government documents that ask about gender should offer options other than “male” and “female” for people who do not identify as either, that share falls to just a third among those 65 and older.

Can you provide any additional details about how the survey was conducted?

We surveyed 10,188 U.S. adults who are all members of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel. Panelists were selected through random sampling of residential addresses, which ensures that nearly all adults living in the U.S. have a chance of being selected. The data is then weighted to be representative of the overall adult population. These questions were part of a larger survey conducted May 16 to 22 of this year.

Kiley Hurst  is a research analyst focusing on social and demographic research at Pew Research Center.