According to a study of nearly 81,000 students, more teens are identifying as transgender or gender nonconforming than previously thought. The number is still fairly small — about three percent of the people who were surveyed — but it's enough evidence to suggest that gender identity is more diverse than the simple girl-boy binary society hinges on. At the same time, one aspect of the study fell in line with other research on the LGBT community: Kids who identified as trans or gender nonconforming had worse physical and mental health than their cisgender peers.
The Associated Press reports that for a study published in Pediatrics, researchers looked at a 2016 statewide survey of teenagers in Minnesota, focusing only on students in ninth and 11th grades. (This would make most of them around 14 and 16 years old.) Using this data, they estimated the number of trans and gender nonconforming students in the two grades across the entire United States.
In 2017, a report from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that 0.7 percent of kids between the ages of 13 and 17 years old say they are transgender. The study of Minnesota teens, however, reports an estimate more than three times higher. Of the thousands who were surveyed, about 2,200, or three percent, fell under the umbrella of transgender or gender nonconforming, meaning they identified themselves as a gender other than the one they were given at birth. This can range from preferring gender neutral pronouns to full-on identifying as a different gender.
"Diverse gender identities are more prevalent than people would expect," said Dr. Nic Rider, the study's lead author, according to the Associated Press.
This isn't to say that smaller estimates are wrong. Gender identity is more difficult to quantify than you might think. Phrasing is key; if researchers ask a question about gender identity in different ways, they might get totally different answers from the same respondent. In fact, the CDC's survey on "youth risk behaviors" currently doesn't include questions about gender identity. (There's a note on the CDC website stating that this will change in the future.)
Like previous studies, researchers also found that trans and gender nonconforming teens were in worse health than cisgender students. Just over 60 percent reported a health status other than "very good" or "excellent," compared to 33 percent of cisgender students. Mental health was a problem as well, with 59 percent of trans or gender nonconforming kids reporting long-term mental health concerns. By contrast, less than 20 percent of cisgender students reported the same.
The statewide survey didn't ask about bullying, but the study's authors suggested that harassment and discrimination could be a factor in the high rates of mental and physical health problems. Past research has shown that LGBT teens are at a higher risk for bullying. According to "Growing Up LGBT in America," a report by the Human Rights Campaign, LGBT youth are twice as likely to say they have been physically assaulted, kicked, or shoved. A full 92 percent say they're likely to hear negative messages about being LGBT from school, the Internet, and their peers.
Transgender students are especially vulnerable to harassment and violence, even compared to their lesbian, gay, and bisexual peers. Research from GLSEN found that 90 percent of trans students heard derogatory remarks about gender expression from other students, and two-thirds said they felt unsafe in school because of their gender expression or sexuality.
It may come as no surprise, then, that LGBT teens are more prone to mental health problems like depression. In 2014, the Williams Institute concluded that transgender people in particular are at a much higher lifetime risk for suicide than the rest of the population, and other studies have suggested the same thing.
Transgender teens may not be the majority, but they are more prevalent than previously believed, especially now that the rigid gender binary is starting to soften. They deserve the same opportunities in school and at home as their peers — let's hope that happens sooner rather than later.