All of us have witnessed in recent years the growing visibility of trans and non-binary people in American culture and life. We wondered: What do swing voters make of this evolution, especially with so many younger people, in particular, identifying as either trans or non-binary?
We conducted a pair of focus groups on August 9 with 12 Florida Trump-to-Biden swing voters—four independents, one Republican, and seven Democrats—and spent time exploring this topic. What we discovered was wide familiarity with, and comfort with, trans and non-binary people. Where hesitation remains, however, is with regard to certain public policies.
Let’s start with the inter-personal. Ten of the 12 swing voters know someone in their lives who identifies as either trans or non-binary. They are conscious of the importance of pronouns to trans and non-binary people, with nine telling us they have received an email from someone who had “he/his,” “she/her,” or “they/their” displayed with their contact information. Also, seven have been in a meeting or conversation where other people announced their pronouns.
“They don’t have to hide in the closet anymore. They can be themselves,” observed Lillian, 36, from Kissimmee. “My manager is non-binary, and he dresses in women’s clothing. We’re already used to him. We actually ask him for [clothing] tips. He can be himself and he’s happy now. Maybe in the past, he would have had to dress like a guy, and he used to be all rude and angry all the time.”
“It puts that freedom into the hands of those that need it, and have needed it for a while, in that they can identify how they choose,” remarked Lance, 27, from Orlando. “They can explore their sexuality how they choose. From a social perspective, it’s good because [there’s] no discrimination. That’s something you can’t uproot. There’s always going to be [some] discrimination [of course], but the larger scale discrimination is being ceased progressively over time, so that’s certainly a good thing.”
Thomas, 27, from Coral Gables, added, “[The social benefits are] more exposure to people that are different than us, which I don’t necessarily think is ever a bad thing because it makes you be more open and empathetic.”
“I think that people are getting comfortable finally to be in their own skin and to be who they are…More people are making it visible, and more people are coming out and being who they are,” commented Karen, 46, from Orange City. “I attribute [the shift in society] to people feeling more OK with it. It’s nobody else’s business how people live. While we do have some people that feel that it is their business and that they need to regulate who people are and how they are, I feel like there’s more people that are being accepting of how other people are. When other people see that acceptance, they come out and they are who they are. That’s why I think it has grown – because there is more acceptance of it.”
We wanted to know to what these respondents attribute the heightened visibility of trans and non-binary people, something that was not as apparent two or three decades ago.
“I think that others have paved the way for this to happen. Gay rights, gay marriage have been accepted and approved. I think it’s just the next step. People are seeing that there’s acceptance for these things and that they realize they can come forward with their sexuality and be accepted. I think it’s the path of other brave people paving the way for them,” remarked BJ, 43, from Deland.
Felipe, 44, from Winter Garden, added, “A lot of celebrities are becoming transgender and Hollywood – a lot of movies. I think it’s related to a growing presence in the big media and the mainstream media.” But not all respondents expressed full tolerance.
Chris, 49, from Port St. Lucie explained, “Back in college, I knew people that were trans, and they switched over. I’m kind of ambivalent in the sense that I don’t really like it being so much out in the public and everything. I’m OK with that, but at the same time, I do feel like there is a bit of over-promotion…. This leads to that also what happened with JK Rowling, where they…really kind of just crucified her for her views as a woman.”
Our swing voters indicated there are limits to what they’re comfortable with as the growing visibility of trans and non-binary people is applied to public policy. For example, half of the respondents found it off-putting that in March, the CDC updated some guidelines related to pregnancy and COVID, and on their website referred to “recently pregnant people” and “people who are pregnant” rather than referring to “pregnant women.” In fact, women were not mentioned at all.
“Last time I checked, only women can have children. Or bear children. Let’s say it that way,” remarked Kim, 60, from St. Augustine.
Shannon, 35, from Petersburg, explained, “I don’t find it offensive per se. I would say it’s odd and slightly uncomfortable. Women’s health is so much particularly different…If someone is pregnant, they anatomically, biologically, have not gone through the process. They are still a woman by those definitions. Women’s health, in particular, is something that is so under-served that I find it a little concerning that we’re not focusing on that as women.”
“I find it off-putting because as a woman, I feel like society or whoever is behind this is trying to erase the woman—between things like this, and taking away women’s rights, putting the bans on abortion,” commented Sharelle, 35, from North Miami. “I just feel like it’s all an agenda to minimize the woman.”
Notably, none of our swing voters think healthcare for transgender adults like hormone therapy and gender-affirming surgery should be covered by Medicaid, and none think children who have their parents’ permission should be allowed to receive gender-affirming healthcare, such as hormone therapy, puberty blockers, or surgery. Also, only one believes transgender athletes should be allowed to participate in the team they identify with, such as a transgender girl on a girls’ team.
Kim, 60, from St. Augustine, explained, “I think it would be unfair because a woman’s body is made-up a certain way and so is a man’s body. A man’s body has more muscular base. Even though they declare themselves as a ‘female’ they still have those muscles to perform better. Maybe there needs to be a third category [for transgender athletes].”
And regarding allowing minors to receive gender-affirming healthcare, Thomas from Coral Gables said, “I know I made a lot of dumb decisions before I turned 18, and luckily it was just like a haircut…But if it was something more serious, yeah, I mean that’s life-changing. So, yeah, I don’t think they should be allowed [to transition].”
The bottom line is that trans advocates have won over many of the hearts of the swing voters we interviewed, but have yet to change their minds on policy.
Rich Thau is the president of Engagious, Inc. His company is the industry leader in scientifically testing and refining the effectiveness of business and issue-advocacy content, moment-to-moment. The firm helps its clients become more successful by applying the power of behavioral science and social psychology to dial test focus groups.
Thau is also the moderator of the high-profile Swing Voter Project, which Engagious conducts in partnership with Axios. Each month, Thau moderates focus groups with “Trump-Biden” swing voters to probe on attitudes towards policies debated in Washington. Axios covers the focus groups first, and then Thau regularly comments on CNN and Sirius XM’s POTUS channel.