Poll: Utahns oppose public bathroom accommodations for transgender people


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SALT LAKE CITY — A majority of Utahns oppose making accommodations in public bathrooms for transgender people, a new poll shows.

And the issue could come up when the Utah Legislature meets in general session next January.

The UtahPolicy.com survey found 57 percent of residents are against people having the right to use public bathrooms based on the gender with which they identify, including 48 percent who say they are strongly opposed.

About one-third of Utahns — 34 percent — support public restroom accommodations for transgender people and 9 percent are undecided, according to the Dan Jones & Associates poll of 614 registered Utah voters June 8-17. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Rapid changes around LGBT issues frighten Utahns, and it will be difficult to change the minds of those who strongly oppose bathroom accommodations, Jones said.

"They're going to change very, very slowly," he said.

Troy Williams, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Equality Utah, said people fear what they don't understand. Fifty years ago, white Utahns felt uncomfortable using bathrooms alongside black Utahns, he said.

"But regardless of people's discomfort, transgender Americans have a fundamental human right and need to use the bathroom. And these rights are not dependent on opinion polls, referendums or popular votes. These rights do not rise or fall with elections," Williams said.

In May, President Barack Obama handed down a sweeping directive saying public schools must allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity. Additionally, the letter mandated that school districts integrate transgender students into their preferred locker rooms, athletic teams and other facilities.

Republican leaders in Utah quickly condemned the nonbinding directive as federal overreach, and the state and 10 others sued the Obama administration.

The lawsuit accuses federal officials of conspiring to turn workplaces and schools across the country into laboratories for a massive social experiment, flouting the democratic process, and running roughshod over common sense policies protecting children and basic privacy rights.

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North Carolina lawmakers passed a controversial "bathroom bill" requiring transgender people to use the restroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate in some public buildings. That provision raised objections from LGBT advocates and faces legal challenges.

"For us the biggest takeaway from the poll is the extremes on both ends of the issue have really manufactured a completely unnecessary controversy," said Boyd Matheson, executive director the Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank.

Policies on both sides are misguided, he said.

The North Carolina law was based on legitimate safety and privacy concerns, but unbalanced in terms of legitimate concerns for transgender people, Matheson said. The federal government policy, he said, went the opposite way.

"I think the worst thing that came out of the Obama's administration's decree is that it gave no opportunity for any real solutions to come, to have any real dialog at the state level that could be productive and get to some good, mutual accommodation to both sides of the issue," Matheson said.

While Utah legislators two years ago passed a law designed to protect religious freedom and LGBT Utahns from housing and employment discrimination, they did not address public accommodations in any way.

Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he wants the Legislature to strike the same balance when and if takes up the issue, adding that it could be in the 2017 legislative session.

"There has to be a fairness for all," he said. "If we're going to do anything, what I hope we would do is find a way to do it that doesn't take away rights of anyone but it actually protects the rights of everyone."

Adams, who helped write the 2014 legislation, said he sees common ground in letting states decide the issue, especially when it comes to schools and in making reasonable accommodations for transgender people.

Williams said the state needs policymakers who are willing to sit down with the transgender community and collaborate as they did on the nondiscrimination bill. He said he was heartened that lawmakers are willing to explore the impact of bullying on transgender students.

"That is a positive step forward. We want to make sure that students, including transgender youth, are always safe and protected," he said.

After the president's directive, legislative leaders voted to study whether Utah schools would respond and whether any legislation is necessary.

The Alpine School Board in Utah County sent a letter to state leaders in May calling the president's directive "morally reprehensible" and is considering rejecting $40 million in federal funding in its next budget.

Adams said he thinks the Jones poll accurately reflects Utahns' views on the bathroom issue.

Not surprisingly, 73 percent of Republicans in the survey oppose making public bathroom accommodations for transgender people, including 65 percent who say they're strongly opposed.

Also not surprisingly, 73 percent of Democrats support people having the right to use public restrooms on the basis of the gender with which they identify, including 55 percent showing strong support.

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UtahPolitics
Dennis Romboy

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