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Support for Teaching Gender Identity in School Is Split, Even Among Democrats

Americans are deeply split over whether gender identity should be taught in school, according to two polls released this week that underscored the extent of the divide on one of the most contested topics in education.

Many groups, including Democrats, teachers and teenagers, are split on whether schools should teach about gender identity — a person’s internal sense of their own gender and whether it aligns with their sex assigned at birth, according to a survey by researchers at the University of Southern California and a separate survey by Pew Research Center.

But on issues of race, another topic that has fueled state restrictions and book bans, there was broader support for instruction. That extended to some Republicans, the U.S.C. survey found.

The results highlight nuances in the opinion over two of the most divisive issues in public education, even as the American public remains deeply polarized along party lines.

The U.S.C. survey polled a nationally representative sample of nearly 4,000 adults, about half of whom lived with at least one school-age child, and broke responses out by partisan affiliation.

Democrats were by and large supportive of L.G.B.T.Q.-themed instruction in schools, yet were split when it came to addressing transgender issues for younger students in elementary school.

Fewer than half of the Democrats polled supported teaching about gender identity in elementary school, or using a transgender student’s pronouns at that age without asking the parents. About a third of Democrats supported assigning a book about a nonbinary author’s personal experiences to elementary school students.

But for high school students, a strong majority of Democrats supported teaching these and other L.G.B.T.Q. topics.

Republicans strongly opposed teaching about transgender topics at all grade levels. They expressed more support, especially for older students, for teaching issues of same-sex marriage, which was legalized nationwide in 2015. Nearly half of Republicans supported allowing a high school teacher to display a photo of a same-sex spouse on their desk, for example.

Republicans showed a similar pattern on questions of discussions on race, with more support for teaching these topics to older students.

A majority of those polled — including a majority of Republicans — supported teaching the following topics in high school: slavery as the main cause of the Civil War, discussing ways some white Americans opposed the civil rights movement, and exploring causes of racial wealth gaps. There was less support among Republicans for teaching about more modern concepts, such as assigning a book about a police shooting of an unarmed Black teenager, or discussing the use of race in college admissions.

The two issues — the teaching of race and history, and the treatment of L.G.B.T.Q. issues and gender identity in school — have often gone hand in hand in political debates, with conservative lawmakers seeking to restrict what schools can do and liberal politicians defending and at times requiring instruction.

Yet the results are the latest to suggest that the American public may hold more complex views on the issues, with opinion varying depending on the scenario and the age of the students involved.

State laws do not always reflect diversity of opinion even within a state’s majority party, in part because statehouses are increasingly partisan, with fewer swing districts, said Eric Plutzer, a professor of political science and polling director at the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, who was not involved in the new surveys.

“We are in a period where public opinion in general is probably less important than the opinion of the base and primary voters” for both parties, he said. “That is an important context to understand this.”

The Pew survey examined the views of teachers and teenage students and found that they, too, are particularly split on whether schools should teach about gender identity.

Half of the teachers — including 62 percent of elementary school teachers — said that gender identity should not be taught, according to the survey, which included about 2,500 K-12 teachers. Those who supported teaching about gender identity were more likely to teach older students in middle and high school and identify as Democrats.

(Overall, 58 percent of teachers identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party, and 35 percent identified as or leaned toward Republicans, according to Pew — a more liberal population than Americans overall, who are about evenly split.)

Similarly, about half of 1,400 teenagers polled by Pew said they did not think they should learn about gender identity in school. That view was more commonly held by teenagers who identified as or leaned Republican, but was also embraced by more than a third of teenagers who were more liberal.

Roughly one in 10 teenagers polled said racism and racial inequality had never come up in their classes. Slightly more — 14 percent — said the same about sexual orientation and gender identity.

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