Why Today's Teens Are More Likely Than Ever to Be Gender Nonconforming

"We finally have the tools to describe ourselves in our own way.”

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Feb 5 2018, 10:36pm

Photo by Leandro Crespi via Stocksy

More US teenagers than previously thought are identifying as trans and gender nonconforming, a new study suggests. The study, released today in the journal Pediatrics, analyzed a 2016 statewide survey of almost 81,000 Minnesota teenagers, focusing on 9th and 11th grade students. The study found that nearly three percent of teens surveyed identified as trans or gender nonconforming. While the study only focused on Minnesota high schoolers, the study’s lead author, Nic Rider, a University of Minnesota postdoctoral fellow studying transgender health, claims that the study’s results may be indicative of numbers across the country. “Diverse gender identities are more prevalent than people would expect,” Rider told AP.

Rider’s estimate for trans teens is higher than what past research has suggested: A 2016 study conducted by The Williams institute at UCLA School of Law, which analyzed data from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System in order to estimate the size of the transgender population, found that .07 percent of youth aged 13 to 17 identified as trans. However, in 2017, researchers at the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law and the UCLA Center for Health Policy research published a report that found that 27 percent of California teens “say their classmates view them as resisting dominant forms of gender expression.”

In light of this new research, Broadly spoke with two gender nonconforming teenagers about their reactions to the findings.

When Casey Odesser, a 19-year-old student based in New Haven, Connecticut who identifies as gender nonconforming, first learned about the results of today’s study, they weren’t surprised at all. “Throughout history, some sort of androgyny or rejection of the socialization that comes from gender has always been prevalent,” Odesser says. “Look at Oscar Wilde and David Bowie—they both rejected the idea of being confined in either masculinity or femininity.”

However, Odesser also thinks we’ve reached a watershed moment. “What is unique about our generation is that for the first time we have language that feels right to us,” says Odesser. “That’s important to people coming into a gender nonconforming identity.”

They add: “For me, when coming out, I thought, what is my comfort level using they/them pronouns instead of she/her and how does it affect my own understanding of myself and inform my subjectivity? Ultimately, everything came down to language. Now, we finally have the tools to describe ourselves in our own way.”

Adi Kwiatek, a 19-year-old student from St. Louis who identifies as gender nonconforming, also wasn’t surprised by the study’s findings. “As more information becomes available about gender identity, people are able to piece together their thoughts and emotions with possible answers,” says Kwiatek.

To Kwiatek, the surge in information about gender identities isn’t just important because it creates more visibility for gender nonconforming and trans people; it also helps build a sense of community. “There’s now less fear of not being accepted,” Kwiatek says. “That’s because of growing [gender nonconforming] community [among youth]. We’re the ones working on building that community.”

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In an interview with AP, Rider argued that growing representation of trans and gender nonconforming people is partially responsible for today’s findings: “With growing visibility in the United States, some youth might find it safer to come out and talk about gender exploration,” he said.

Odesser and Kwiatek agree, however, both say they want to see more mainstream representation for trans and nonbinary people. “We need to spread more knowledge and education about trans and gender nonconforming people,” says Kwiatek. “It needs to be easier for us to access safety, acceptance, and the resources we need.”

“We’re finally seeing people in media come around to the idea of diversity and difference,” says Odesser. “Now, it’s vital that people see more of these representations. Only then, young people will be able to see who and what they can become.”