What is the controversy over nonbinary choices tellings us about our society?
Written With Erica Anderson, Ph.D.
The publication of a study reporting on the increased number of individuals, especially young people who identify as transgender, confirms for those of us on the front lines of mental health what we have known for several years. There’s been a tectonic shift in the way teens are thinking about their gender and sexual identities.
The Williams Institute of UCLA School of Law, relying on recent CDC surveys, found that the rates of young people between the ages of 13 and 25 identifying as transgender essentially doubled from 0.7% to 1.3% of the general population between 2017 and 2020. Furthermore, those who identified as transgender in the 18-24 year age group, which comprises 11% of the general population, disproportionately represented 24% of transgender-identified people of all ages.
Two major questions arise from this information: Why now? And is this rise a transient or permanent feature of our culture?
The leading theories about the why do not go far enough in explaining the phenomenon. The first theory is that consideration of transgender and nonbinary forms of gender identity is simply now more well-known and more acceptable. The other is that social media has played a critical role as an accelerant in promoting these ideas.
But neither theory explains the why now. We believe a critical mass of cultural factors has led children, upon reaching puberty, to specifically reject rigid heterosexual roles. The early teenage years have always been a period when identity and self-image questions predominate.
We wonder whether traditional male/female identities as exploited by the forces of market capitalism and exaggerated by music videos and easily accessible pornography have “turned off” kids to what’s being offered. It’s easy to imagine the toxic masculinity of first-person shooter games and the hyperfeminity of the Kardashians repelling many average young teens of today.
They either do not like the choices in terms of their natal sex (natal girls are choosing to become males at twice the rate natal boys choose their opposite) or simply prefer to be called “they” because neither sex seems to represent how they feel about themselves. The availability of medical technologies and the support of the general medical community for making changes must also be factors.
But the transgender phenomenon represents only the tip of the iceberg in terms of this cultural shift. There are surveys that report up to 20% of teens are not comfortable with a standard male/female designation. Legislatures and executive orders cannot make this change go away. The other question is whether this major social change is permanent or transitory.
The Stonewall Riots in 1969 and the decision by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 to remove homosexuality as a disease presaged America’s acceptance of gays and gay rights as a permanent feature of the society. The huge increase in transgender and nonbinary identity in teens may simply be an extension of society’s increasing acceptance of difference and diversity.
However, teens are also infamously associated with fads. We cannot say with certainty whether this new group of transgender and nonbinary teens represents a continuing and permanent change or, like some fashion statement, could come and go. Multiple personality disorder of mid-1990s is an example of recent past “epidemic” that struck the societal/teen psychological nodes for several years and then waned in terms of frequency and media attention.
While the L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ community has taken it upon itself to raise the rights and banners of young teens to make decisions about their bodies, including the use of hormones to block puberty or aid in a transition, it is too soon to be clear about long-term outcomes. The data and information on desistors (those who have changed their minds) reflect a previous generation of transgender people and do not take into account the very large number of children now considering the changes and why.
We believe that every young teen should be allowed to consider their own identity in a nonjudgmental fashion. We also believe that there should be a broader discussion about the societal factors and pressures that have led children to reject their natal designations. But we also feel the use of medical procedures to hasten or make permanent a young teen’s desired identity should be taken only after a very careful and deliberate evaluation. To not do so is placing these young people unnecessarily at risk as they mature and find potentially other ways of coping with rigid and, to them, unappealing classic heterosexual roles.
Article originally published May 1, 2023 at Psychology Today