Updated: Aug 23
News headlines are floating around about 20 percent of Millennials identifying as “non-binary.” This is based on a new study by GLAAD working with Harris Poll which looks at acceptance of sexual and gender identities.
The initial headlines caught my attention because most news outlets framed this as “20 percent of Millennials identify as non-binary.” This is actually a huge number when you start to think about it. Even lumping together the different non-binary identities (e.g., gender fluid, agender, transgender, and genderqueer) one in five fall into that category! As a person who grew up agendered and managed to live 35 years before meeting someone else like me, this seemed a bit suspicious (especially because I have a huge percentage of friends who are queer, drag performers, and other non-standard identities).
Questioning and Unsure of Identity
I looked up the study.
First, this category includes people who are questioning their gender. In fact, “questioning or unsure” is the biggest part of this “non-binary” identity make up. This makes sense when looking at Millennial since they are mostly under 30. Basic human development has demonstrated for more than 80 years that people try on different identities through their early 20s. These questioning individuals may eventually fall into the non-binary category, but many others will fall into the binary.
I think its great that more people feel free to question their gender and don’t just take the sex on the birth certificate for granted. We need more time and space for people to figure out what their gender means to them. However, since this group is the largest subset of the “non-binary” it diminished the headlines claiming people identify as binary since, by definition, those questioning or unsure aren’t actually sure they belong in the category.
The study then gives the break-outs for sexual and gender orientation by generation. Here, the numbers are still meaningful but not the shocking 20 percent in the headlines.
Two percent of folks 18-34 identify as transgender. This is larger than other generations (1 percent for 35-50, 0.5% for those over 50). This study didn’t ask any specifics about identity other than asking people to self identify, so it is hard to say why more folks under 34 are identifying as trans than those over 35. I would put good money it is on the growing acceptance and visibility of trans folks in the media.
People under 35 have gone through puberty at a time where culturally we are talking about trans folks and their stories. The “increase” in people identifying as trans may simply be more people seeing people like them being accepted and therefore feeling okay to self-identify as trans.
So why aren’t more older folks identifying as “trans” since they have exposure to the same media and those under 35?
Well, because we grew up at a time where “trannies” were mocked, made the butt of jokes, beaten, and portrayed as “sick” or “crazy” or “perverts.” Even though we are now seeing more positive representations of trans folks in the media, we have decades of messaging that being trans in not okay. We have to overcome our own internalized fear of being seen as trans prior to self-identifying as trans. There may not be an actual difference in the percentage of folks who are trans. The difference may simply be the percentage of folks who are comfortable identifying as “trans” to a stranger on the phone.
Genderfluid, Genderqueer, Bigender
This subgroup is the one I am more fascinated with. The survey shows that six percent of those under 35 identify as genderfluid, genderqueer, or bigender. They define these terms as such:
Genderfluid: Identifying as male, female and/or outside the binary at different times.
Genderqueer: Identifying as beyond the binary at all times.
Bigender: Identifying as male and female equally at all times.
The understandings about gender these terms represent is a huge cultural shift. Genderfluid recognizes that a person can move through different gender identities at different times. This not only moves gender out of the binary (what is presumed to be a constant, solid state) and understands that for some folks, gender is more like light- moving as a wave and particle, changing but still seen as the same by outside people.
Genderqueer and bigender are concepts that gender is much greater than anything the binary represents. These identities recognize that for some individuals they are still tied to a gender, but that gender is beyond the scope of what most of us have words for at the present moment.
Its these groups that I think will serve as the vanguard for developing how we conceptualize and recognize gender and its roll in our future. While people will eschew labels and mock people for labeling themselves, having this new language to talk about gender opens up an entirely new discussion and allows like-minded folks to find each other. I can’t wait to see what this dialogue becomes.
This is the last subgroup included in the study. Three percent of folks under 35 self-identified as agender. Less than one-half or one percent of people over 35 chose this identity. This is the only term in the study that is also not defined, so people had to know what they meant by it when they chose it.
I think this speaks largely to how gendered our world is. It is incredibly hard to remove yourself from gender, even when the concept fails to resonate with you. I identify as agender because I honestly don’t “get” the concept of gender. My body just feels like a set of props and not something that gives me a meaningful understanding of myself or the world (see here and here for more writing on being agender).
The difference between those under 35 and those over 35 are the most pronounced in this category. This speaks to the growing cultural discussion of gender. Writings about the absurdity of “gender reveal parties” and the extreme gendering of products (Pens? Seriously, female and male pens!!!) has allowed younger folks to think of gender as a weird cultural artifact that does not have to have personal meaning to them.
What does this mean for the future?
I have a small hope that the generation entering adulthood and the workforce will change the cultural understanding of gender. However, there is a ton of work to do before this is more than just really exciting stuff to those of us who study gender. The same study found that thirty percent of folks still feel uncomfortable seeing a picture of a gay person and their partner on a desk at work (ffs). One-third of respondents still find it objectionable for a teacher to mention LGBTQ folks in schools (probably the same folks who are comfortable with Texas schools teaching Moses was a founding father of the U.S.).
I am glad more people are feeling safe to identify outside the binary. This is an improvement. And I am glad to see we are using more terms which give people the mental constructs to say more accurately who they are.
While the initial headlines on this study seemed to promise more change in gender than is really represented, the study still offers some hope. So, all my queer, gender-nonconforming readers, keep up the fight. We have a very long way to go before all folks can feel comfortable in their own skin.