The Williams Institute, a research center focused on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy, conducted the study. Its data offers a portrait of a slice of the LGBTQ community that has long been ignored.
The data reveals a growing group, largely composed of young people, that mirrors the mental health struggles experienced by the wider LGBTQ community. At a time when measures that could broaden protections for gender minorities such as nonbinary people face uncertain political fates, researchers hope this estimate can show nonbinary people are a significant subgroup of the LGBTQ population.
“That number says, ‘This is part of who you’re talking about when executive orders are signed to protect people against discrimination,’ ” said Bianca Wilson, one of the study’s authors.
The research from the Williams Institute summarized findings from two prior surveys, one on trans adults and one on lesbian, gay and bisexual adults who aren’t trans, with data collected from 2016 to 2018.
The term nonbinary can be used to describe people who do not identify exclusively as male or female, and some nonbinary people use they/them pronouns.
Joel Baum, who oversees professional development at the nonprofit Gender Spectrum, said this population estimate is meaningful because while people frequently dismiss others’ experiences, numbers are more difficult to argue with. He said this data could help some people acknowledge nonbinary individuals even exist.
“It’s almost like a stake in the ground, right?” he said. “Saying, ‘Here we are.’ ”
Increased visibility for gender minorities can also help people find the language to best describe themselves, advocates and community members say. For Zac Boyer, the most fitting label is genderqueer.
Boyer, manager of programs and outreach for the central-Ohio-based LGBTQ organization Stonewall Columbus, recalled the first time they entered they/them in the pronoun field of a conference’s website. Sitting in bed after slamming their laptop shut, they felt tingly and free. “Did I just do that?” they thought.
Boyer is excited for people who might not consider themselves nonbinary to be exposed to new language and “maybe realize that they’re a part of our beautiful, eclectic and diverse community.”
Visibility is growing
The existence of people who do not fit neatly into male or female boxes has been documented for thousands of years, and the visibility of nonbinary individuals has grown significantly in the past decade.
Celebrities such as Demi Lovato have publicly come out as nonbinary. Netflix is about to introduce its first nonbinary character in a preschool series. The world’s first known nonbinary mayor took office last month in Wales. Some U.S. states and cities are beginning to offer gender-neutral markers on driver’s licenses.
Last June, the Supreme Court announced its decision that under federal law, workers cannot be fired simply because of their sexuality or gender identity. At the start of his term, President Biden signed a sweeping executive order clarifying that in anti-discrimination laws, “sex” includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
But the Equality Act, which would strengthen these existing protections by explicitly including sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics, hangs in limbo in the Senate.
Wilson said this population estimate is meaningful to show lawmakers exactly who they’re helping when they sign orders to protect against gender-identity-based discrimination.
Mental health issues run rampant
Most LGBTQ nonbinary adults in the United States reported being young, White, living in urban areas and not making enough money to make ends meet.
More than half said they have been physically or sexually assaulted. Nearly 94 percent have considered suicide. Almost 40 percent have attempted it.
LGBTQ nonbinary adults experience high rates of psychological distress, the Williams Institute found, which Wilson said is in line with what researchers see in the broader LGBTQ community. More research would be needed to understand whether nonbinary-identified people are more susceptible to these issues than binary LGBTQ people, she said.
“Research has shown that the stress from being a minority — stress from being a sexual and gender minority in particular — is related to psychological distress,” Wilson said, “And being nonbinary is a unique kind of gender minority experience because you are constantly surrounded by binary-identified people.”
Baum said it’s important to recognize that being nonbinary does not lead to mental illness, but the way nonbinary people are treated in society can.
“Much of the mental illness is in reaction to treatment, not in-and-of-itself because someone’s nonbinary,” he said.
Ale Guanlao Sison, a trans nonbinary graphic designer and healer, said recently they’ve been wondering whether trans and gender nonconforming people would experience so many mental health issues if they didn’t live in a world so affixed to the binary.
“For some people, yes, it’s sometimes a chemical imbalance in your brain,” they said. “But it's not just that, you know. If we're not given the same resources as other people to be able to live and thrive, that is going to affect our mental health.”
The nonbinary population skews young
At a time when 1 in 6 members of Generation Z identify as LGBT, the study found 76 percent of nonbinary adults are between ages 18 and 29.
More than 1 in 10 LGBTQ adults between ages 18 and 60 identifies at nonbinary, the Williams Institute found, and more than three-quarters of nonbinary adults are 29 and under. Though most nonbinary respondents identified as cisgender, the study found 32 percent of transgender adults are nonbinary.
Wilson said while she sees this number as reflecting the overall population growth of younger LGBTQ people, the age disparity could also be because of generational differences in the language used to describe gender identity.
“Younger folks are helping to push the language for how to talk about gender in ways that go beyond the man-woman continuum,” she said.
Terms historically used in the LGBTQ community, such as butch, femme or queen, likely also reflected some gendered notions about identity, Wilson said. But younger people have a whole new language.
It will be interesting to see whether older populations start to adopt this newer terminology to describe themselves, Wilson said.
“It's fair to assume that on the older end of the spectrum, this might be an underestimate,” Wilson said. “And that might be about the right language to describe how older folks think about nonbinary identities, but maybe not with these labels.”
Most nonbinary adults do not identify as trans
For a time, Boyer worried that being nonbinary and also identifying as trans might invalidate someone else’s experience as a trans person.
“I was trying to make everyone feel welcome,” Boyer said. “And in that I was making myself unwelcome within my own self.”
Boyer is one of the approximately 42 percent of nonbinary adults who identify as trans. Transgender is a term for people whose gender does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth.
“Definitionally, I am not cisgender,” they said. “So the umbrella is trans-ness, and my flavor of trans-ness just happens to be genderqueer.”
Helana Darwin, a scholar of social inequality who has published several studies on nonbinary people, said it’s important to recognize this is not a homogenous community.
She said when she began researching nonbinary people, some of her colleagues were resistant to including a question about being nonbinary on surveys because they assumed the population would be too small to be significant.
Some people also thought including a transgender category on surveys would be enough, she said, not understanding that not all nonbinary people identify as trans.
Nonbinary people make a broad range of considerations while deciding to claim or reject the label of transgender, Darwin’s research found.
“Those who do not identify as transgender either do not consider themselves to be 'trans enough’ to claim group membership alongside trans men and trans women or otherwise consider their gender experience to be qualitatively different from the transgender experience,” she wrote.
Wilson said it’s critical from a public health and social justice perspective to document the experiences of all gender minorities, not just those who identify as trans.