5 percent of young adults identify as trans or nonbinary, survey says

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LGBT activists and supporters block the street outside the U.S. Supreme Court as it hears arguments in a major LGBT rights case on whether a federal anti-discrimination law that prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of sex covers gay and transgender employees in Washington, U.S. October 8, 2019.

For years, advocates and policymakers have struggled to get a clear picture of how many transgender and nonbinary adults live in the United States. The U.S. Census doesn’t ask about gender identity, and until now, few institutions ventured to estimate this number.

Data from the Pew Research Center released Tuesday offers a clearer picture: About 1.6% of the U.S. population identifies as trans or nonbinary, the latter term being used to describe people who do not identify exclusively as male or female, the survey found.

The nationally representative survey found that young adults were the most likely to identify this way. Among people younger than 30, about 5% said they are trans or nonbinary.

Pew released its findings alongside a detailed report on the “experiences, challenges and hopes of transgender and nonbinary U.S. adults,” which relied on focus groups to help illuminate the lives and perspectives of a group that has become both increasingly visible and accepted – as well as targeted and marginalized – in recent years.

Together, the survey and focus group findings help clarify the share of the U.S. population that identifies as transgender and nonbinary – which is higher than previously estimated – and illustrate the diversity and complexity of a community that has long been the target of prejudice and misinformation.

“Advocates have known for some time that statisticians have been undercounting the number of trans people in the U.S.,” said Olivia Hunt, policy director at the trans advocacy group the National Center for Transgender Equality. Because of this, Hunt said, “we’ve had a lot of lawmakers, policymakers dismiss the needs of trans and nonbinary people.”

The Pew data suggests that at least 5.3 million trans and nonbinary people live in the United States, based on current Census data. That is about two times higher than the number implied by two studies from the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute: A 2016 survey estimated that 0.6% of U.S. adults – about 1.4 million – identified as trans, and another in 2021 estimated that 1.2 million adults identify as nonbinary. (Pew researchers noted that the intent of its latest survey was not to calculate a specific total.)

According to Pew’s research, adults younger than 30 were more likely than older generations to identify as a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth: 5%, compared with 1.6% among 30-to-49-year-olds, and 0.3% for adults older than 50.

Pew research associate Anna Brown noted that researchers classified people as trans if they said their gender was different from their sex assigned as birth, which means they may not explicitly identify as transgender, she said. The nonbinary category included people who explicitly said they were nonbinary, as well as people who used terms such as agender or genderfluid.

The survey did not get into the reasons rates might be higher among younger groups, Brown said, “but one thing to note is that young adults tend to be more familiar with the idea of being nonbinary.” They are also the only age group in which a majority of respondents – 52% – said they know a trans person.

The share of people who know a trans person has also increased significantly in recent years, the Pew survey found: In 2017, 37% of U.S. adults said they know someone who is trans. That rate is now 44%, including 42% of conservatives and 48% of liberals.

The data is clarifying and affirming, Hunt said.

“Trans people are here to stay,” she said. “Our needs are real and need to be addressed.”

Hunt was particularly interested in the share of people identifying as nonbinary – about 1% of U.S. adults. This could have substantial policy implications for advocates and lawmakers, she said: For example, these numbers point to a real need to have “X” gender markers on identification documents. It could also push policymakers to address the specific medical needs of nonbinary adults and make the legal system more inclusive, she added.

In April this year, the White House announced that all U.S. citizens would be allowed to select an X gender marker on their passport applications, and that the Transportation Security Administration would update its technology to reduce the need for pat-downs and additional screenings for trans and nonbinary travelers.

Nonbinary gender designations on identification documents, such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses or state-issued ID cards, are also available in 21 states and the District of Columbia. These gains were made possible by the increasing political and social visibility of trans and nonbinary people, advocates say.

But they’ve also become the target of a fierce backlash and an unprecedented onslaught of anti-trans legislation, much of which has been directed at transgender children.

On Tuesday, Louisiana became the 18th state to ban transgender women and girls from playing on female sports teams. Oklahoma passed three anti-trans bills this year, including one that bans nonbinary gender markers on birth certificates. This year, Alabama enacted the most aggressive gender-affirming care ban in U.S. history (it has been blocked amid an ongoing legal challenge). And in Florida and Texas, state leaders have attempted to restrict gender-affirming health care through administrative means.

Conservative lawmakers who have introduced these bills say the policies are meant to protect children.

“A lot of different segments of the population have been talking about gender identity and the gender binary,” Brown said. This is why Pew’s recent reporting via focus groups are particularly valuable at a time when misinformation and prejudice is rampant, she said: “We were able to hear from people who are affected by this conversation in their own words and take a deep dive into the issues.”

This is not always easy for researchers, said Brown, who noted that it was difficult to get a big enough sample of trans and nonbinary people in surveys to learn more about their views.

The focus groups included a total of 27 trans and nonbinary adults of varying ages and racial backgrounds from across the country, and highlighted the diversity and complexity of a group that has often been flattened or misunderstood.

While participants shared a range of experiences navigating their identity, most said they knew from an early age – some as young as preschool or elementary school – that something was different about them, “even if they didn’t have the words to describe what it was,” the report said.

Participants also identified a number of political priorities, from advocating for basic needs such as housing, employment and health care to combating the wave of anti-trans legislation.

Hunt, of the NCTE, is heartened by the increase in research. This summer, her organization plans to release its own survey on trans and nonbinary Americans that will include even more detail, she said.

“It is something that fills me with joy, that my community is being seen,” said Hunt, who remembers growing up and feeling as though “I was the only trans person out there.”

Amid ongoing political and social attacks, Hunt also expressed pride in the number of people coming out as trans and nonbinary.

“These are people who are coming out and being public because they’re not going to be intimidated,” Hunt said. “We’re a part of society that is not going away.”