How Americans feel about recent debates over transgender children and schools

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
February 10, 2023, 8:37 PM GMT+0

As debates surrounding transgender rights continue, state lawmakers have proposed a number of bills regulating the lives of transgender Americans. Some of the most recent proposals include limiting the rights of transgender K-12 students and placing greater control in the hands of their parents or teachers. In Florida and Alabama, state governments have passed laws requiring school staff to report a child's transgender identity to their parents. A bill in Arizona would allow teachers not to use a transgender student's preferred pronoun.

New polling by YouGov explores how Americans feel about these and other issues relating to transgender children. The results from a series of recent polls show that Americans are evenly divided on the question of whether teachers have an obligation to disclose a child's transgender identity to their parents in cases where the child feels unsafe doing so, a situation frequently described in interviews with the people involved. They also are split on whether a teacher in the same scenario should address the child by their preferred pronouns — with or without their parent's permission.

But there is consensus on one question tied to transgender students and education: 70% of people think it's at least somewhat important for schools to have trained counselors available to provide support for students who are transgender. Additionally, the data shows that Americans believe that transgender children often face social isolation, bullying, and physical abuse, and that few receive a lot of support from either their parents or schools. Americans are more likely than not to say they wouldn't be among the sources of adversity for their own children: Half say they personally would be very supportive if their own child came out to them as transgender.

One question that has arisen in debates over transgender children is whether parents or schools provide a more supportive environment? Slightly more Americans (15%) say public schools would be "very supportive" in their response to a transgender student than say the same of parents (9%). When asked how they personally would respond to their own hypothetical child coming out as transgender, far more — 32% — say they would be very supportive. Half (51%) say they would be somewhat or very supportive of their own child, while 42% say schools are at least somewhat supportive and 39% say parents in general are.

There is a marked difference in perceptions of support for transgender children among Democrats and Republicans. Republicans (28%) are more likely than Democrats (6%) to believe that public schools are very supportive. Democrats, on the other hand, are far more likely to say they'd be very supportive of their own hypothetical child (48%) than Republicans are (14%). Republicans are more likely to say they would be somewhat or very unsupportive of their own child (46%) than to say they would be somewhat or very supportive (33%).

In education, there are tradeoffs between protecting the rights of students, parents, and teachers. One key question at the center of the debate over transgender students is whether they ought to have two rights: a right to privacy in choosing to disclose their identity to their parents, and a right to have their gender identity affirmed by teachers.

Generally speaking, Americans are divided as to whether children should, under some circumstances, have a right to privacy from their parents: 41% say they should and 43% say they shouldn't. Democrats and adults under 30 are twice as likely to say children should have a right to privacy as they are to say they shouldn't. Among Republicans and people who are 65 and older, about half or fewer say children should have a right to privacy from their parents under some circumstances than say they shouldn't.

To understand how Americans think teachers should respond to transgender students in real-life situations, the survey presented respondents with a hypothetical scenario. Half were given a scenario involving an elementary school student and half were given a scenario involving a high school student. Other than the age and grade range, the scenario was the same:

"A student in [elementary school / high school] confides in their teacher that they are transgender, and asks to be referred to by pronouns that reflect the gender they identify with. The student tells the teacher that they don't feel safe coming out to their parents, and asks the teacher to refrain from sharing this information with them."


When asked whether the teacher should tell the elementary student's parents, whom the child felt unsafe telling, the responses are split: 36% said they should, 38% said they shouldn't, and 26% were unsure. Democrats are more likely to believe that the teacher should not tell the parents (54% to 24%), while Republicans are more likely to believe that they should (20% said they should not, 56% said they should). Responses are similar for the high school student scenario.

Views on the teacher using the elementary-school student's preferred pronouns are similarly divided: 31% believe that the teacher should use their desired pronouns without the parent's permission, 24% believe they should only do so with parental permission, 23% believe they shouldn't use them at all, and 23% are unsure. Among Democrats, 51% say the elementary-school teacher should use the pronouns without permission, 20% say they should with permission, and 10% say they shouldn't at all. Among Republicans, these figures are 8%, 33%, and 42%, respectively. As with the prior question, similar responses were found for the high school student scenario — the age of the student involved doesn't seem to have much effect on what people want schools to do.

When asked whose rights should be protected more in decisions about a child's gender, slightly more Americans say they'd prefer for lawmakers in their state to prioritize the rights of parents (35%) over children (28%); 20% say they don't want lawmakers to focus on either and 17% are not sure. People who believe society hasn't gone far enough in accepting people who are transgender are especially likely to believe that children's rights should be prioritized over parents when it comes to lawmakers' decisions about their gender (53% vs. 21%). Few people who think society has gone too far in accepting people who are transgender think the rights of children should be prioritized (11%); far more say the rights of parents should be (51%).

Past studies have shown that transgender high school students are bullied disproportionately and attempt suicide at much higher rates than other children their age. Most Americans are aware of these disparities to at least some extent. Majorities say transgender youth experience each of the following either very or somewhat often: depression and anxiety (75%), bullying from other children (73%), verbal harassment (73%), social isolation (70%), parental disapproval (68%), physical abuse (55%), and disapproval from teachers (51%).

Other findings on transgender issues

  • While 29% of people think that the phenomenon of feeling like a different gender than the one assigned at birth is something that is relatively new, about half of people — 52% — think it is something that has occurred in various cultures and time periods.
  • Americans have mixed opinions on what causes a person to be transgender, though more say it is rooted in social causes (29%) than in biological ones (15%). One in three (35%) think it is a mix of both social and biological factors and 21% are not sure.
  • How many transgender children still identify as transgender when they are adults? While 27% of Americans aren't sure, 31% believe all or most transgender children still identify as transgender when they are adults, while 16% say about half do, and 25% say a few or none do.
  • While just 9% say that they personally attended K-12 school with a child who was transgender at the time, 24% of parents today who have at least one child in a K-12 school say at least one of their children currently attends school with a child who identifies as transgender.
  • More Americans say their state's lawmakers are focusing too much on issues relating to gender identity in schools (31%) than say they are focusing on these issues too little (19%) or the right amount (23%).
  • More believe that transgender "conversion therapy" should be illegal for children (45%) than believe it should be legal (27%); 28% are not sure.

— Carl Bialik and Linley Sanders contributed to this article


See the results for these YouGov polls:

Methodology: This article includes findings from two polls conducted online on January 23 - 26, 2023 and February 3 - 6, 2023, each among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 3%.

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