Researchers are starting to gather data on gender nonconforming youth, adolescents whose gender expression resists conventional expectations. (Photo by Eric Parker/Flickr)
You may have seen recent news of a survey finding that 27 percent of California youth ages 12 to 17 are "gender nonconforming."
That sounds pretty high. I might even put the word "whopping" before "27 percent."
But I have to say, I've been covering the gender story for more than a year, and when I saw the headlines, I wasn't quite sure what gender nonconforming meant. Gender terminology, like gender itself these days, can be fairly fluid.
So here is the exact question that was asked of California adolescents:
A person’s appearance, style, dress, or the way they walk or talk may affect how people describe them. How do you think other people at school would describe you?
Equally feminine and masculine
This is a measure of what gender researchers call "gender expression," or the way individuals manifest what you might call the trappings of masculinity and femininity: clothes, hair, makeup, posture. As some of the UCLA researchers involved in the survey put it, those who are "seen as resisting dominant expectations around gender expression" are considered gender nonconforming.
You might think that someone who is gender nonconforming is necessarily transgender. But that is not the case.
“ ‘Gender nonconforming' " is not a synonym for transgender,” says Kristina Olson, director of the TransYouth Project at the University of Washington. “Rather it typically refers to a much greater number of people who defy stereotypes of their sex. This term can include tomboys, for example."
Many people may also confound gender nonconformity with being lesbian, gay or bisexual. But Alison Gill, a consultant on gender for the nonprofit Advocates for Youth, says research shows most gender nonconforming kids are actually heterosexual.
"There’s been an assumption that gender nonconforming people are gay or lesbian, but that’s not the case. It’s a stereotype,” she said.
In other words, you can be gender nonconforming without being L, G, B or T.
The gender expression question was included on the recent California Health Interview Survey, conducted by UCLA on a continuous basis. The telephone survey covers dozens of health topics.
The CHIS has been going strong since 2001, but this was the first time a question on either youth gender identity or gender expression had been included.
Researchers at UCLA's Center for Health Policy Research and The Williams Institute, which conducts research on sexual orientation and gender identity law, said in a health policy fact sheet that levels of gender conformity are "known to be a particularly salient factor in the safety and well-being of youth. Yet, data about gender nonconforming youth remain rare."
The question was asked of 1,594 adolescents, ages 12 to 17, across California.
There were two categories for respondents coded as gender nonconforming. One was "highly gender nonconforming" and the other was "androgynous."
Male respondents who answered "very feminine" or "mostly feminine," and female respondents who answered "very masculine" or "mostly masculine," were categorized as "highly gender nonconforming."
Those who answered "equally feminine and masculine" were coded as “androgynous.”
The androgynous outnumbered those who were highly gender nonconforming by more than 3 to 1.
Total nonconforming youth came out to 27 percent of all the adolescents queried. That would equate to 796,000 gender nonconforming youth in the state of California today.
The margin of error was about 6 percent, so that number could be substantially greater or fewer.
California and Gender
Combined surveys asking the same question in L.A., San Diego, Chicago and Florida’s Broward County provide a larger population of 9,265 youth, and that data shows high health risks associated with gender nonconformity. For example, GNC males were between two and three times more likely to attempt suicide than conforming males, and for females the rate was 1 1/2 times greater for those who were GNC.
While the California survey showed nonconforming youth reporting more than twice the level of severe psychological distress as their conforming peers, it showed no statistically significant difference when it came to suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.
Why the big difference related to suicide between nonconforming and conforming youth in the larger sample, and hardly any in the Californian-only data?
The California researchers speculated that the state's social environment may be contributing to better mental health outcomes.
“(H)igher levels of social acceptance and the presence of protective policies in California may impact rates of victimization and bullying, which, in turn, may confer some protection for gender minority youth in the state," reads the fact sheet.
The Next Frontier
Phil Hammack is a professor of psychology and researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who specializes in sexual and gender identity. He thinks that when it comes to bullying, gender expression is the new sexual orientation.
“A lot of bullying is around expression and not sexuality,” he said. “A gay boy who is considered totally masculine is considered fine by his peers. But nonconforming people are getting bullied.”
Even though there is much greater visibility for gender nonconforming youth, Hammack said, “the culture is in a state of anxiety around this revolution.”
"This is the next frontier for us to address among people who care about young people’s well-being.”
The gender researchers I spoke to agreed that gender nonconformity often causes bullying and mental health distress independent of sexual orientation and gender identities.
A Quarrel With the Question
One gender researcher who doesn’t think the question resulted in precise enough data is Charlotte Tate, from San Francisco State. Tate said that because there was no question about sexual orientation on the survey, it's impossible to tease apart how much of the mental distress exhibited by GNC youth stems from being lesbian, gay or bisexual and how much from an unconventional gender expression.
"So [the researchers] haven’t sufficiently demonstrated that the stress is linked to gender; it could be about sexual orientation," Tate said.
Bianca Wilson, a senior public policy scholar at The Williams Institute, agrees inserting a sexual orientation question would be useful to understand the "unique and compounding levels of distress" by non-heterosexual youth who also do differ in their gender expression.
In any event, there will be more data. Gill says the number of sites that have now asked the gender nonconforming question has increased to 16, and that the results will start coming in during the first half of 2018.
Hammack, the researcher from UC Santa Cruz, says it's obvious that gender nonconformity is booming. He recently completed a study of teen LGBT youth in the Central Valley and the Bay Area, and he was surprised to find how easy it was to sign up those who were nonconforming.
"We had to cap the number of gender nonconforming youth who participated to make sure we got enough gender conforming youth," he said.