Story at a glance
- Roughly 1.6 percent of American adults are now transgender or nonbinary, according to a 2022 survey.
- That number is higher still among young adults, with 5 percent of people under 30 now identifying their gender as different from the one assigned them at birth.
- The growing visibility of transgender and nonbinary people comes amid rising societal acceptance and new efforts to count the populations.
Those populations are not new. Only recently, though, have survey-takers thought to ask people about gender identity, invoking terminology that did not exist for prior generations. The word “nonbinary” did not appear in The New York Times until 2014.
The rising visibility of nonbinary and transgender people reflects the nation’s growing acceptance of gender fluidity, especially among the young. One landmark study found 1.2 million nonbinary people in the 18-60 age group. Of that total, three-quarters were under 30, which suggests Generation Z has explored gender identity to an extent that older Americans have not.
“We have a world in which we are finally counting these groups,” said Kay Simon, 28, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota who studies the experiences of queer youth and their families. “You can’t identify as something if you don’t know what the word is.”
Simon grew up in Florida and Texas. “From a very young age, I kind of realized I was gay,” they said. “At the time, I probably could have told you that I felt different about my gender, but I didn’t have a word for it.”
The word was nonbinary, denoting a person who identifies with neither the male nor female gender.
Simon remembers when the academic community introduced he-she-they pronouns on faculty pages and email salutations, during their grad-school years. Even now, teaching about sexuality and gender identity in the presumptively safe space of a college campus, Simon must decide “kind of regularly” whether to correct someone who refers to them with the wrong pronoun.
“I’ve had students misgender me,” they said. “And it becomes this joke of, A, you’re referring to your professor wrong, and, B, you didn’t read the syllabus. So, we have two problems.”
The population of young nonbinary and transgender people is clearly large and probably growing.
A 2022 report from the Williams Institute, a research center at the University of California, Los Angeles, estimates that 1.3 percent of adults ages 18-24 and 1.4 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds are transgender, with a gender identity different than the one assigned at birth. Teens and young adults are much more likely to be transgender than older adults.
Five years earlier, in a 2017 report, the Williams Institute had found roughly half as many young transgender people. But the earlier analysis used different methods and drew on comparatively sparse data, so it’s hard to know how much of the increase is real.
Is the transgender population exploding, or are researchers simply counting better? That is a common quandary, researchers say, in studies of the nonbinary and transgender communities.
“I would argue, actually, it is not an increase,” said Russ Toomey, a professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona. “We are seeing the numbers of people disclosing nonbinary and trans identity on a survey because we are asking people in more inclusive ways about their gender.”
Perhaps the most expansive tally to date of transgender and nonbinary people comes from the Pew Research Center. In a 2022 survey, Pew found that 1.6 percent of U.S. adults reported a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth.
Pew, too, found that the nonbinary and transgender populations skewed young. Three percent of adults ages 18-29 said they were nonbinary and 2 percent said they were transgender. In the 50-plus population, by contrast, only 0.3 percent of respondents identified themselves as transgender or nonbinary.
“I think that Gen-Z individuals are not alone in this, but they are kind of leading the charge,” said Rachel Farr, an associate professor of developmental psychology at the University of Kentucky.
Today’s young adults have grown up in a society that is gradually recognizing the rights of the LGBTQ community. In 2010, the Senate voted to repeal the Clinton-era “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, allowing LGBTQ people to serve openly in the military. In 2015, the Supreme Court recognized a legal right for same-sex couples to marry.
“It’s not that there are more people. It’s that there are more people who are open and who are out,” said Shoshana Goldberg, director of public education and research at Human Rights Campaign, the LGBTQ rights group. “The reality is that when you talk to the average person on the street, they’re going to be more accepting and more affirming than they’ve ever been.”
Within Generation Z, polling suggests the LGBTQ population doubled in just four years, from 10.5 percent in 2017 to 20.8 percent in 2021.
Bisexuals, and especially bisexual women, populate the majority of the Gen-Z queer community, according to research from Gallup and others. Transgender and nonbinary people constitute a smaller but significant share.
Researchers say social media played a defining role in helping transgender and nonbinary young people define themselves.
Landon Richie, 20, grew up in Texas and came out as transgender at 11. “But since I was two,” he said, “really as early as I could think and express myself with some sort of agency, I understood that I did not fit into the role that I was assigned as a girl.”
Richie couldn’t fully process his identity until around age 10, when he “gained larger access to the internet and saw people who were transgender and who talked about their experiences,” he said. “And I was able to see myself reflected in their stories and their experiences.”
Now that the transgender and nonbinary communities have been identified and counted, researchers say, they need society’s support.
Both groups face a heightened risk of physical, emotional and sexual abuse in both childhood and adulthood, the UCLA study found. Depression and suicidal ideation are alarmingly common.
Transgender and nonbinary people often feel under attack, and with good reason. Research shows queer people face a heightened risk of being victims of violent crime. Transgender and nonbinary individuals also face higher rates of workplace harassment and discrimination.
The communities also face legislative attack. GLAAD, an LGBTQ media advocacy group, tracked more than 300 anti-LGBTQ bills across the nation in 2022, many of them targeting transgender persons by seeking to bar them from equal access to sports, restrooms or health care.
“Almost for as long as I’ve been out, there’s been a target placed by the Texas legislature on my back,” said Richie, who has been politically active in his state for several years.
Some faith-based and socially conservative groups have argued that influential Instagram posters and overzealous educators seed gender confusion in young people.
Advocates for the queer community counter that social media and progressive curricula help transgender and nonbinary people discover their identities, rather than create them.
Friends and loved ones can play a crucial role, researchers say, simply by honoring the name and pronoun requested by a transgender or nonbinary person.
“I think the first thing is just to accept them and listen to them,” said Allison Eliscu, M.D., medical director of the adolescent LGBTQ* Care Program at Stony Brook Medicine in Stony Brook, N.Y.
“If you make a mistake, because we all do, apologize, say it correctly and then try to do better.”