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How Gen Z Changed Its Views On Gender

my pronouns are they, them web banner
my pronouns are they, them web banner

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When I talked to teens for my book iGen in 2015 and 2016, most were skeptical about transgender identities. “They’re just confused,” said one. Another said, “They weren’t born that way. I feel like they’re denying their previous existence. They’re not true to themselves and I kind of don’t like it.”

Those beliefs, it turns out, were so mid-2010s. In a 2019 poll, two-thirds of U.S. young adults said they had become increasingly supportive of transgender rights over the last five years. Today’s teens not only support transgender rights, but arrive home from school excited when one of their friends comes out as trans.

But how much have things really changed? When I started writing a new book about generational differences (Generations), I knew it would be important to revisit Gen Z’s views around gender, including nonbinary and transgender identities.


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Samuel Rae Bernstein (b. 2002), then a 15-year-old California high school student, gave a TEDx talk in 2018 titled “Transgender Is Not a Scary Word.” He described growing up as a girl, and thinking he was not allowed to be anything else. By 13 he was so unhappy with his body he started cutting himself. Then he read about being transgender online, realized who he was, and began to feel whole again. “Transgender should not be a scary word. No identity should ever be scary, or weird, or shameful,” he said. “We need to focus less on what makes us different and more on what makes us the same.”

For Gen Z (those born 1995-2012), the whole concept of gender is more fluid. Not only can people be transgender, identifying with a gender different from their sex assigned at birth, but they can identify as neither male nor female (often called nonbinary, sometimes shortened to enby, the phonetic of N.B.; there’s also gender fluid, gender queer, demiboy, demigirl, and many other terms describing self-definitions of gender). Gen Z speaks a whole language of gender often barely understood by their Gen X and even Millennial parents—or by most people just a few short years ago. There’s cisgender (or cis, someone whose gender identity is congruent with their sex assigned at birth—who’s not transgender). There’s AMAB (assigned male at birth) and AFAB (assigned female at birth), terms meant to express that sex is assigned by others. There’s also agender (someone who doesn’t identify with having a gender at all). This rainbow of identities is why Gen Z thinks it is important to state your pronouns (for example, she/her, he/him, they/ them), as it may not be obvious which set(s) someone prefers. And if everyone states their pronouns, that makes “it easier for non-cis people or friends to then say their pronouns without having to be the first to say it,” a young woman told the authors of Gen Z, Explained.

In late 2020 and early 2021, Gen Z was the only U.S. generation in which a majority believed there are more than two genders. As recently as the first half of 2020, this was a minority opinion even among Gen Z’ers—a remarkable amount of change over just six months. In contrast, there was only a small uptick in this belief among older generations.

Notes: Figure shows percent who disagree with the statement “There are only two genders, male and female.” Late 2019 data were collected July 18 to December 26; early 2020 data were collected January 2 to June 25; late 2020–early 2021 data were collected July 2, 2020 to January 12, 2021.

Audrey Mason-Hyde (b. 2005) was assigned female at birth but likes wearing bow ties and other clothing typically associated with men (in interviews, Audrey has said she/her pronouns are fine, though she doesn’t like to be referred to as a girl or a boy). For a while, Audrey identified as a tomboy, but didn’t feel that captured who she really was. At 12, Audrey gave a TED talk about being nonbinary. “For me, gender is a spectrum. My gender identity and expression is entirely about me, and not about how other people perceive me. I don’t know how we deal with that in a world so desperate to define by gender,” she said. In a later interview, she shared, “Now, being nonbinary, I feel so comfortable to just be that, and so uncomfortable to be a girl or a boy—it’s just not who I am.”

Until recently, it was unclear just how common being transgender or nonbinary was, and whether there were any generational differences in the number who identified this way. With most estimates suggesting transgender people were less than 1% of the population, a large sample is necessary to get accurate numbers.

That type of data is finally available. Starting in June 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau offered four options on its Household Pulse Survey question about gender: male, female, transgender, and none of these, the last a rough gauge of those who identify as nonbinary, gender fluid, or another gender identity. With more than a million respondents, the survey is large enough to provide accurate estimates.

The results are clear: Gen Z young adults are much more likely to report identifying as either trans or nonbinary than other generations. While only 1 out of 1,000 Boomers report they are transgender (one-tenth of 1%), 23 out of 1,000 Gen Z young adults (2.30%) identify as trans—20 times more. By this estimate, there are now more trans young adults in the U.S. than the number of people living in Boston.

Fewer than 1% of Boomers identify as non-binary, compared to more than 3% of Gen Z young adults. Combined with the more than 2% who are trans, that means 1 out of 18 young adults identified as something other than male or female in 2021 and 2022. With 39 million 18- to 26-year-olds in the U.S., about 2 million young adults identified as trans or nonbinary—more than the population of Phoenix, the fifth-largest city in the country.

Notes: Data collected between July 21, 2021 and October 17, 2022. Based on 1,050,222 respondents

There’s another key difference among the generations when it comes to transgender or nonbinary identity. Most Boomer and Gen X people who identify as transgender were assigned male at birth. Among Gen Z, however, most transgender people were instead assigned female at birth.

The same generational shift toward those assigned female at birth appears among nonbinary people. Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial nonbinary adults were about equally likely to have been assigned male or female at birth, but among Gen Z young adults, two-thirds of non-binary people were assigned female at birth. Thus, the largest generational differences in identifying as either trans or nonbinary appear among those assigned female at birth.

Is this anything new, or are young people just more fluid with gender identity than older people? The Household Pulse survey was done over a short period of time, in 2021–2022, so it is possible that the differences in transgender and nonbinary identification could be due to age in- stead of generation. Perhaps young adults five to seven years before (when this age group was more Millennial than Gen Z) were also identifying as trans or nonbinary at similar rates.

Notes: Data collected between July 21, 2021, and October 17, 2022. Terms are from the BRFSS survey, though they are increasingly considered outdated and are replaced with transgender women and transgender men, respectively.

 

To figure out whether the difference is due to age or generation, we need a survey that asked about gender identity for several years, ideally including a very large number of people. Beginning in 2014, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, administered by the CDC, asked about 200,000 Ameri- can adults every year (1.7 million total) whether they were transgender, and I analyzed that data with my co-authors Brooke Wells of Widener University and Nic Rider of the University of Minnesota.

The changes are striking. The number of young adults reporting they identified as transgender quadrupled between 2014 and 2021, while the number of transgender people in older age groups stayed about the same. Transgender identification was virtually identical across age groups in 2014, but by 2021 four times more young adults than older adults identified as transgender.

So as 18- to 26-year-olds shifted from Millennials to Gen Z, the number who identified as trans skyrocketed. The population of transgender young adults in the U.S. grew from about 220,000 in 2014 to about 900,000 in 2021, an increase of 680,000 people. In seven years, the number of young adults identifying as transgender increased by the size of the population of Las Vegas. This is a true generational shift, and not just about being young.

Notes: The question asks, “Do you consider yourself to be transgender?” with options of yes and no. “Don’t know/not sure” and “refused” considered missing data. Age groups derived from the ages of each generation in 2021 (for example, Gen Z adults were 18 to 26 in 2021).

The sharp increase in transgender identification from 2020 to 2021 suggests the change is accelerating. The Household Pulse Survey confirms this: Among young adults born in the 2000s, identifying as transgender jumped 48% between late 2021 and late 2022, and identifying as nonbinary leapt 60%—in one year. By late 2022, with more than 3% identifying as transgender and nearly 5% identifying as nonbinary, 8% of 18- to 22-year-olds (1 in 13) were either transgender or nonbinary.

The increase in young adults identifying as transgender between 2014 and 2021 occurred almost exclusively among gender nonconforming people and those assigned female at birth, with little consistent change among those assigned male at birth. The number of gender nonconforming people increased by a factor of 10 since 2014, and the ranks of trans men more than quadrupled, with an acceleration between 2020 and 2021. As recently as 2016, there were more trans women than trans men among young adults, but in 2021 there were twice as many trans men as trans women. That is all the more striking because discussions of transgender identity in medicine and popular culture historically focused much more on trans women, from Christine Jorgensen in the 1950s to Caitlyn Jenner in the 2010s. Now the more common experience is going from female to male, like actor Elliot Page (b. 1987), who came out as a trans man in 2020. “Despite feeling profoundly happy right now . . . I am also scared,” he wrote. “I’m scared of the invasiveness, the hate, the ‘jokes’ and of violence.”

Notes: If respondents identified as transgender, they were also asked, “Do you consider yourself to be male-to-female, female-to-male, or gender non-conforming?” Although these are the terms used in the survey, male-to-female and female-to-male are increasingly considered outdated and are replaced with transgender women and transgender men, respectively.

If these generational differences are real, they should be reflected in behaviors—and they are. Several studies have reported increases in the number of people coming to transgender medical clinics. For example, an article in Pediatrics reported that the number of youth seeking treatment at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California pediatric transgender clinic increased from 30 in the first half of 2015 to 154 in the first half of 2018—an increase of five times in just three years. Over these years, 3 out of 4 patients were assigned female at birth—also consistent with the survey data.

Why is Gen Z, particularly those assigned female at birth, more likely to identify as transgender? There are no clear answers, only theories. It could be that Gen Z young adults are more likely to know the term transgender than older generations, but you’d expect that older people who identify as a gender different from that on their birth certificate would know the term, even if cisgender older people didn’t.

Perhaps the increasing societal acceptance of transgender identities has allowed more people to come out as transgender. If growing acceptance were the only factor, though, the number of transgender people should have increased among older generations as well—but it didn’t. It’s possible that a sizable number of older people feel trans but do not want to come out when they have built an entire life around their sex assigned at birth. However, it would take a very large number of trans people 27 and older who are unable or unwilling to make such a change to explain the huge generational difference.

In addition, several older transgender people have been highly visible, which at least in theory might have encouraged older people to come out as transgender. Laverne Cox (b. 1972), known for her acting work in Orange Is the New Black, had just turned 42 in 2014 when she appeared on the cover of Time for the story “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier.” Caitlyn Jenner (b. 1949), whose transition in 2015 is often identified as a catalyst for more awareness and acceptance of transgender individuals, is a Boomer who did not transition until she was 65 years old. Greater acceptance also doesn’t explain why the change is so much larger among trans men and gender-nonconforming people than among trans women. One would think greater acceptance would increase all types of transgender identity, not just some.

Some have theorized that the increase in trans identification is mostly—or even exclusively—occurring in liberal, big-city, blue-state areas. The data tell a different story: Trans identification increased nearly as much in 2014–2021 among young adults in red states like Ohio, Wyoming, and Texas as it did in blue states like California, New York, and Oregon.

Rural vs. urban location also didn’t make much difference. In the 2021– 2022 Household Pulse Survey, the percentage of trans Gen Z’ers was about the same in rural areas (2.2%) as in urban/suburban areas (1.9%). There was also no difference in the percentage of transgender young adults in liberal big cities (like New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco) versus the rest of the country.

Thus the rise in trans identification seems to be national rather than regional, killing off yet another theory.

 

Notes: Red states are those whose electoral votes were awarded to Republican Donald Trump in the 2016 election, and blue states are those whose electoral votes were awarded to Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

No matter what the cause, it’s clear that the culture around gender has shifted, and Gen Z is at the forefront of that change.

Gen Z is also leading political activism around transgender rights. In 2021, 16-year-old Stella Keating became the first transgender teen to tes- tify before the U.S. Senate. She spoke in support of the Equality Act, which proposes to bar discrimination based on gender identity. “My name is Stella Keating and my pronouns are she/her,” she began. “It’s the honor of my lifetime to be here.” She went on to note the challenges she faces given the patchwork of laws in different states. “As a high school sophomore, I’m starting to look at colleges,” she said. “And all I can think about is this: Less than half of the states in our country provide equal protection for me under the law. What happens if I want to attend college in a state that doesn’t protect me? Right now, I could be denied medical care or be evicted for simply being transgender in many states. How is that even right? How is that even American?” She sees Gen Z as the generation that will fight for transgender people. “My generation is creating a country where everyone belongs,” she said. “Every young person . . . regardless of who they are or who they love, should be able to be excited about their future.”

What will these changes around gender identity mean going forward? It has become common to cite the statistic that only a half of 1% of people are transgender. Although that is true for older adults, it is no longer true among 18- to 22-year-olds in the U.S., where 3%—six times as many—identify as transgender, and nearly 5% identify as nonbinary. The last few years have seen increasingly contentious debate around transgender rights, and these numbers suggest that the topic is unlikely to fade in importance. In particular, the large generational difference in gender identity suggests an intensifying need for empathy, understanding, and communication across the generations in the years to come.

Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, is the author of Generations: The Real Differences between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers and Silents—and What They Mean for America’s Future, from which this essay is adapted.