Americans have slowly but surely been starting to embrace the concept of gender nonconformity over the last few years. And it appears the next generation will be even more inclusive, with a new study finding 27 percent of young people in California do not identify with a particular gender.
As reported by Broadly, the study, helmed by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, analyzed data from 2012-2013's California Health Interview Survey to see how young people between the ages of 12 and 17 responded to questions on the survey dealing with gender expression. These questions asked respondents to determine how their classmates viewed their clothes, mannerisms, appearances, and even how they walked and talked, on a scale from "very feminine" to "very masculine."
Researchers used those responses to group non gender-conforming youths in two categories: "highly gender-nonconforming (GNC)," and "androgynous." If, for instance, adolescent women described themselves as "very masculine," or adolescent men described themselves as "very feminine," they were placed in GNC categories, while youths who considered themselves "equally feminine and masculine" were considered androgynous. In the end, researchers determined about 27 percent — 796,000 total — of youths in the state fell in one of those two non gender-conforming groups. The majority, about 21 percent, considered themselves androgynous, with about six percent falling into the GNC category.
Researchers also measured the youths' mental health in correlation with their gender identities, since the questionnaire included questions about psychological distress and suicide. The study did find that gender non-conforming adolescents were more likely to suffer psychological distress than their gender conforming peers, but they were not found to be more likely to harbor suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide over the course of their lifetime, which differs significantly from previous research finding higher rates of suicide among non gender-conforming adults.
California has made a major attempt to be inclusive of its non gender-conforming constituency. Just last month, the state introduced gender neutral birth certificates as part of its new "Gender Recognition Act," which both allows residents to choose a third gender neutral option on their legal documents (including drivers' licenses) and makes it easier for them to legally change their gender designation. The state approved 10 LGBTQ-inclusive history books for students in kindergarten through 8th grade, making it the first in the country to do so. There is also a state-wide ban on bullying and discrimination when it comes to gender nonconforming students. Researchers say it's possible the state's progressiveness has made it a safer space for adolescents to explore their own gender identity, but that it's important the rest of the country catch up.
"It’s possible California’s policy environment has made it safer for adolescents to be gender nonconforming,” Tara Becker, one of the study's co-authors, said in a statement. “But given events at the national level, we should by no means relax our stance. California can and should strive to be an ongoing model of acceptance and inclusion."
Previous studies have shown gender-nonconforming youths are more at risk of being bullied than their gender-conforming counterparts, and that they are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety disorders, and low self-esteem. Still, there's hope that renewed focus on gender expression and identity will help mitigate discrimination, both in terms of policy and in social acceptance. Local governments, private sector companies, and pop culture have taken some steps to get there - just last year, for instance, Tinder added transgender and gender-neutral identification options, which was a pretty big deal. But as the California study suggests, the gender non-conforming population is likely much bigger than people think, and researchers say it's time we reflected that.