Why Transgender Politics are So Irresistible to Republicans in the 88th Texas Legislature

Any issue that finds partisans on one side in overwhelming agreement over the fundamentals of an issue pitted against a divided opposition is one that provides major political advantages for the unified side.

Legislating the lives of transgender people is one of those issues. Republicans in the Texas Legislature serve a GOP electorate in overwhelming agreement about the relationship between biological sex and gender, while significant disagreements divide Democrats – creating challenges for their own elected officials.

This natural political advantage in the issue space is further magnified by two related factors.

First, while legislating the rights of people who are transgender is not new in Texas (see the 2017 legislative session), the politics raised by attempts to regulate the lives of transgender people brings about discussions related to the relationship between biological sex and gender expression that are relatively new to most voters.

Second, the GOP’s majority status gives its leadership total control over framing these issues using legislative vehicles, and they have chosen what they see as the most advantageous frame they can: an assertion that transgender people’s very existence threatens children. Thus, the present session has seen a rash of legislation and messaging that presents children in the role of either a misled transgender person (by their parents, and/or medical and psychological professionals) or as objects of threat from the existence of a transgender identity itself. The imputed rationale for banning gender affirming care for minors is to protect children from parents and doctors. Prohibiting discussion of gender expression in schools, strict, sex-based enforcement of school sports participation, and prohibiting “drag” shows in front of minors are all intended to protect children and others from various alleged threats posed by the public presence of transgender people or other evidence of non-traditional gender expression.

Loading chart...
Don’t know/Unsure8%

Because the issues as raised by Republicans in the current session are new to most voters, the degree of alignment between a voter’s response to the political framing of the “issue” as currently constructed and more deeply held ideological or cultural beliefs are likely to impact partisans in different ways. This means that voters’ reactions to the current debates taking place in the Texas Legislature over the lives of transgender people are likely responses to both the political framing of these “issues” and other, more deeply-held beliefs about gender and politics. These views are not necessarily the result of a deep examination of the relationship between biological sex and gender, or widespread direct experience with transgender people, which should come as no surprise given the small size of the transgender population. (Different estimates suggest somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million adults in the United States who identify as transgender — about .6% of the total adult population.)

University of Texas/Texas Politics Project polling confirms the reasonable expectation that responses to the strategic constructions dominating the current political discussions of policies related to transgender people fall along distinctly partisan lines. However, these distinctions are not quite as sharp as one might expect based on other seemingly similar issues thought of as activating the same cultural divisions — such as the consistent, widespread support for same-sex marriage rights expressed by Texas Democrats

Loading chart...
Yes, should be legal68%44%23%
No, should not be legal22%30%62%
Don't know/No opinion10%26%15%

Based on these partisan patterns in attitudes related to sexuality and gender-identity, we would expect that laws aimed at codifying a traditional conception of gender identity defined by biological sex and traditional gender roles, while attempting to mute the expression and influence of different conceptions around children (the term of art being used by Republicans in the legislature is “social contagion”) could be expected to earn lopsided support from Republicans. Public opinion data confirms this expectation.

Asked in April 2023 UT / TXPP polling whether the only way to define gender should be the sex assigned on a person’s original birth certificate, 89% of Texas Republicans agreed. Asked about specific policies being considered by the legislature this year, 90% supported requiring athletic participation to be based on biological sex in K-12 and higher education institutions (79% strongly); 86% supported prohibiting doctors from providing gender affirming care to minors (75% strongly); 82% supported prohibiting “drag” performances in the presence of a minor (69% strongly); while 73% said limiting the extent to which public school teachers can talk about gender identity and/or sexual orientation would improve public education in Texas. (In terms of the alignment of these views with the broader universe of  “traditional” views of gender identity and roles, the same poll found that less than a quarter of Republicans — 23% — thought same-sex marriage should be legal in Texas, while 62% thought it shouldn’t be legal, and 15% were unsure.)

Loading chart...

Democrats experience significantly more coalitional and individual cross-pressures. As a group, for example, polling reveals differences between younger and older Democrats who report different levels of exposure to transgender people. Individually, the data suggests a potential conflict between progressive ideology that includes broad commitments to inclusivity and non-discrimination, and the perhaps surprising fact that one third of Democrats, like the majority of Texans (63%), currently believe that biological sex should be the only way to determine gender.

Loading chart...
Strongly support28%43%79%
Somewhat support17%11%11%
Somewhat oppose15%5%5%
Strongly oppose26%11%2%
Don't know/No opinion14%30%3%

When Democrats were asked whether or not the sex assigned on a person’s original birth certificate should be the only way to define gender, the plurality, 49%, disagreed, but a third of Democratic voters, 33%, expressed agreement with the traditional conception of gender. While it’s possible that this result reflects the relative recency of this issue and ongoing efforts among Democratic voters to keep, update, or reject, their prior views about gender, their responses to the specific policies being proposed by the 88th Legislature only amplifies the finding of Democratic disunity. That same April UT/TXPP poll found 45% of Democrats supportive of requiring athletic participation to be based on biological sex in K-12 and higher education institutions, 41% opposed; 31% supportive of prohibiting doctors from providing gender affirming care to minors, 55% opposed; and 27% supportive of prohibiting “drag” performances in the presence of a minor, 63% opposed. While Democrats are, on balance, opposed to efforts by the Republican controlled legislature to legislate the lives of transgender Texans, significant shares of Democrats hold contradictory views.

It may be possible, even likely, that Democratic voters will come to see the approach taken by GOP leadership as particularly cruel and coalesce around the issue more than they currently do – especially given the transgender population’s significantly higher rates of suicide and attempted suicide, higher still among transgender youth, in addition to their significantly higher rates of physical and/or sexual victimization compared to cisgender people. But attributing too much of the totality of these results to the newness of the issue might be a mistake for Democratic strategists and their most progressive allies given that the same share of Texas Democrats endorsed the traditional relationship between biological sex and gender expression one year ago in April 2022 UT/TXPP polling. If Democratic attitudes are evolving, they are doing so slowly.

Loading chart...
Extremely important37%14%4%
Very important24%23%10%
Somewhat important18%14%14%
Not very important5%10%19%
Not important10%24%42%
Don't know/No opinion6%15%11%

While this attitude landscape provides Republicans with clear political benefits to advancing the issue as they’ve defined it, that advantage doesn’t equate to assigned importance or even attention within the electorate — including among the GOP electorate. February UT/TXPP polling found only 22% of Texans, including only 20% of Republicans, who said that they had heard “a lot” about medical care for children who are transgender. And in the context of public education, the plurality of Republicans, 42%, said it was “not important” for the legislature to address the treatment of students who are transgender when presented with a list of priorities for the legislature to consider in the context of public education.

While it might be easy to dismiss this observation as a result of question wording (i.e. what does it mean to address the treatment of transgender students?), Republican voters’ unwillingness to assign too much importance to regulating the lives of transgender people is not new.

During the 2017 legislative session that is still sometimes referred to by close observers as “the bathroom bill” session, the UT poll asked Texas voters how important they thought it was for the Texas Legislature to “pass a law regulating transgender access to public restrooms” three times during the extended 2017 session, in February, June, and October. On each of those surveys, approximately one in four Texans identified regulating bathroom access as “very important," and on each of those surveys, more Texas voters said it was either “not very important” or “not at all important” for the legislature to address transgender bathroom access than rated it important. No more than 35% of Texas Republicans identified transgender bathroom access legislation as “very important," peaking in June when Lieutenant Governor Patrick forced the legislature into a special session over the issue.

At the same time, Republican elected officials can rest assured that their efforts to legislate the care and acknowledgement of the lives of transgender people are being received by an overwhelmingly supportive base unlikely to punish them for their attentiveness, even over-attentiveness, to the issue. Transgender politics in Texas, especially as currently framed, further serves to reinforce the electoral advantages of the majority party by forcing Democrats to respond to extremely rare (e.g. gender modification surgery of a minor) or obscure (“Drag show story hours”) situations, either to the dismay of a significant minority in their own party who hold views similar to the GOP majority on this issue cluster, or, if not resisted forcefully enough, to the anger of a base that has come to expect their Democratic officials to act as faithful, committed allies to marginalized and discriminated-against populations. Either way, in political terms, Republicans win, Democrats lose.

Subscribe to the Texas Politics Project Email List

* indicates required