When Archie Crowley, a transgender and nonbinary doctoral student at the University of South Carolina, was in the process of discovering themselves a decade ago, one of the first sources of information they looked to was transgender people sharing their experiences on YouTube.
“Now people younger than me are pointing to TikTok and Instagram,” said Crowley, who serves as a facilitator for Midlands Area Transgender Support Group in Columbia. “People are able to create and put out their own stories, whereas before, the only way we would find out information was through other media gatekeepers.”
Crowley is among an estimated 5% of young adults who identify as transgender or nonbinary, the highest number ever recorded, according to the results of a national survey released this week. Overall, 1.6% of the U.S. adult population identifies as such, the survey found, and more Americans report knowing someone who is transgender compared to five years ago.
Crowley and others attribute the upswing to a rising presence of transgender and nonbinary people on social media platforms and the internet, more accurate media representation, and growing terminology and social acceptance that offer avenues for self-expression previously unavailable.
“Youth are living in a world where trans identity and terminology are more accessible,” said Pau Crego, executive director of the Office of Transgender Initiatives in San Francisco. “It feels safer.”
Tey Meadow, an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University in New York, said the increase reflects growing public awareness of transgender identity, a consciousness brought about not only via trans rights advocacy but through efforts by conservative lawmakers to limit such rights.
“‘Trans’ as a category of self-understanding has become more available as an explanation for things people felt at other times but had less language to describe,” Meadow said. “As trans and gender nonconforming people and their allies use the category, and as political conservatives identify it as something to organize against publicly, it becomes available to a greater number of people.”
The results also showed increased awareness of terms such as nonbinary or gender fluid, with young adults leading the way. Both terms refer to an individual who doesn’t identify as strictly male or female.
Crowley, who grew up in California but didn’t come out until they moved to the U.S. South, said the survey results “reflect things that feel accurate to the world I’m living in,” with increased transgender and nonbinary representation evident among incoming university students.
“I’m seeing people coming from high schools that have active LGBT groups,” Crowley said. “That wasn’t something I had, and I’m in my late 20s.”
Gender identity in the spotlight
The survey, with answers collected from 10,188 respondents, was conducted in May by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington. The organization said it devised the survey, along with several focus group discussions, to better understand the experiences of transgender and nonbinary individuals in a political and social climate that has put gender identity in the spotlight.
Even as a growing number of high-profile entertainers have come out as transgender or nonbinary and some federal agencies have approved nonbinary self-identification for passport and Social Security applications, numerous states have passed or introduced legislation aimed at limiting the rights of transgender and nonbinary communities.
More than 150 anti-trans bills, mostly restricting trans girls’ participation in sports and trans accessibility to bathrooms, have been introduced in 2022, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
According to the Pew survey, 5.1% of adults under 30 identify as trans or nonbinary. Among adults aged 30 to 49, the rate was 1.6%, and for those 50 and older, 0.3%.
Among the general population, 44% of adults said they know someone who is transgender, up from 37% in 2017. More than a quarter, or 27%, said they had a trans friend, while about 1 in 10, or 9%, said they know a trans person who is not yet an adult.
Advocates and scholars say the figures indicate an increase in people, especially younger individuals, coming out as a result of growing acceptance and improved media representation. Some say it’s likely many people already knew someone who is transgender or nonbinary and just weren’t aware of it.
“We’re seeing increased visibility of actual trans and nonbinary people being shown for who we are instead of stereotypes about who people think we are,” said Olivia Hunt, policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington. “As people realize that we are not some scary ‘other’ that they should be afraid of, they understand more and more that we do belong.”
Young adults were also more likely to be familiar with terms such as nonbinary or gender-fluid, the survey found, with 42% of those under 30 saying they’d heard a lot about the concept compared to 31% of people 30 to 49, 20% of those 50 to 64 and 12% of people 65 and older.
More young people are exploring their identity
Crowley, the University of South Carolina student, said the emergence of a palette of terms to describe one’s identity has been a turning point, as has the normalizing of preferred pronouns in social media profiles and email signatures. The words associated with and available to the community, once limited largely to language meant to demean or pathologize, have expanded to include more neutral or positive terms.
“There is just so much more language to describe different experiences of gender,” Crowley said. “That encourages people to figure out which terminology feels most accurate for their experience.”
They and others credit the web, too, as a driving force, especially for those in urban areas – not just by offering a wealth of information but by allowing transgender and nonbinary people to establish virtual connections.
That’s a phenomenon that Z Nicolazzo, an associate professor of education policy at the University of Arizona, explores in a forthcoming book, “Digital Me: Trans Students Exploring Future Possible Selves Online.” Virtual platforms and online technologies such as YouTube, she said, have enabled individuals to find other trans or nonbinary people or to embody themselves as video game characters in self-affirming ways.
“The internet has allowed transgender youth to envision, explore and recognize themselves in new ways than many of us who are older,” Nicolazzo said.
Crego, of San Francisco’s Office of Transgender Initiatives, is 35 and said he grew up without seeing any positive representations of transgender individuals or even knowing the word. But the landscape has changed, he said, and young people are leading the way in exploring gender beyond binary definitions.
“Youth are seeing themselves reflected in the media and on the internet, so they are less afraid of exploring and acting upon being trans or gender diverse,” Crego said. “There’s less baggage about what gender is supposed to look like, or what the consequences are of not acting according to traditional gender roles.”
While the population is small and largely invisible in census counts and other demographic measures, Crego said the survey results show it is growing and will continue to do so, hopeful the figures might bolster efforts to improve funding allocation and gain political clout.
“Trans people are an important segment of the population,” they said, “and we deserve to be represented and protected.”