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About 5 percent of young adults identify as transgender or nonbinary, U.S. survey finds

Adults younger than 30 are more likely than older adults to say their gender differs from their sex assigned at birth, a new Pew Research Center report found.
Image: The 45th annual Seattle Pride Parade on June, 30, 2019.
The 45th annual Seattle Pride Parade on June 30, 2019. Genna Martin / San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images file

Approximately 5 percent of young adults in the U.S. identify as transgender or nonbinary, and an increasing number say they know someone who is trans, according to data released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center. 

Adults younger than 30 are more likely than older Americans to say their gender differs from their sex assigned at birth. The findings estimate that the total number of adults who identify as transgender or nonbinary (meaning they identify as neither exclusively male nor female) in the U.S. is 1.6 percent.

The new data, which was weighted to be representative of the entire U.S. adult population, comes from an online survey panel from mid-May of 10,188 randomly sampled people. The findings are part of a broader survey that will be released some point this summer about the general public’s “attitudes about gender identity and issues related to people who are transgender or nonbinary,” the report states.

Since 2017, the number of adults who say they know a trans person has been on a slight but steady increase, rising from 37 percent that year to 42 percent in 2021, and 44 percent this year. Although that number decreases as adults get older, a third of those 65 and older in the survey still said they know a transgender person. 

More people know transgender people as friends than as co-workers or family members, according to the findings. A little over a quarter of adults said they have a friend who is trans, with roughly 1 in 10 having a trans co-worker or family member. 

The survey also found 1 in 5 U.S. adults said they personally know a nonbinary person. A similar Pew survey from last year found an increase — from 18 percent in 2018 to 26 percent in 2021 — in the number of Americans who said they knew someone who preferred using gender-neutral pronouns.

The survey’s estimate of the percentage of trans and nonbinary people in the U.S. is notable because that figure has been historically difficult to gauge, as the Census Bureau has dragged its feet on updating its questions to be more inclusive. In 2016, research sponsored by the Department of Labor uncovered obstacles to the feasibility of adding questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to the current population survey, though the Census Bureau took the historic step last year of adding those questions to its household pulse survey, which measures the impact of the pandemic on families. 

A 2021 estimate from UCLA Law’s Williams Institute estimated the number of nonbinary adults in the U.S. to be 1.2 million, and a 2016 report from the institute placed the number of transgender adults in the U.S. at 1.4 million. 

Results from an Ipsos global survey released last year, which drew on data from 19,000 people in 27 countries, found 4 percent of young adult respondents identified as as transgender, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, gender-fluid or “in another way.”

The new Pew results found that while it is more likely for a Democrat than a Republican to know a trans person (48 percent vs. 42 percent), the split has narrowed since last year. 

In addition, the Pew researchers conducted six focus groups in March with 27 trans and nonbinary people of different ages and racial identities to discuss a range of topics, from access to gender-affirming care to social policy. Those discussions, which were not intended to be statistically representative of the entire population in the U.S., showed that historic challenges — including employment discrimination, bias and violence — appear to persist. 

Some participants said deciding whether to reveal their gender identities to other people can be a “constant calculation.” Many participants talked about hesitation in discussing their trans or nonbinary identities in work settings, for some because of a perceived lack of professionalism.

They also discussed financial barriers to medical treatments such as hormone therapy and surgery, with some leaning on “underground networks” for help. Some also described feeling a lack of connection with the larger LGBTQ community, while others felt more accepted. 

The findings come amid a record surge in anti-LGBTQ legislation, particularly targeting the rights of trans people at the state level, with the Human Rights Campaign estimating that more than 320 anti-LGBTQ bills have been proposed in state legislatures so far this year.

Many of the participants said they did not become more certain of their gender identities until “well into adulthood.” A middle-aged trans man described not knowing “what trans was” until getting to college — “that was when I had a word for myself for the first time,” the participant said. 

Many participants cited young people as a reason for optimism. 

“They understand almost intrinsically so much more about these things than I feel like my generation did,” a nonbinary participant in their mid-30s said. “They give me so much hope for the future.”

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