A recent Associated Press article had the headline in the Chicago Tribune: "More Teens Identify as Transgender, Study Shows." The study, done by researchers at the University of Minnesota, was on healthcare utilization by transgender and gender nonconforming youth (TGNC). In their sample the percentage of teens who identified as TGNC was 2.7 percent, a small percentage of the population, but indeed larger than the estimate of 0.7 percent cited from a 2017 study. Why would the AP run with a point that was not the focus of the original research, and should we accept this at face value?
By focusing on the larger than expected number of teens who do not view their psychological experience as consistent with their biological sex, the AP is attempting to make gender nonconformity appear normal and thus something that should be accepted and even celebrated. There is a desire to paint a picture of psychological wholeness in this population, with the cause of any deviations from psychological wholeness being attributed to the actions of those who refuse to properly celebrate and accept diversity.
The TGNC group in the Minnesota study was comprised of those who affirmatively answered the question, "Do you consider yourself transgender, genderqueer, gender fluid, or unsure about your gender identity?" This question is far broader than the headlines generated by users of the AP story. Being unsure is not the same as being transgender. The teens are going through a stage of life characterized by uncertainty and may eventually come to be content with a gender identity that is consistent with their biology. This would be consistent with the estimate of 0.6 percent of adults reporting as transgender in the cited 2017 study.
The Minnesota study does indeed report that more TGNC youth reported mental health problems than youth who were content with their biological gender. It is important to note that the data do not allow us to determine the degree to which these mental health problems were caused by perceived discrimination, actual bullying, or whether the comorbid conditions predated the TGNC status. The analysis also failed to control for the TGNC youth being more likely to come from poor families. It is well established that poverty increases the risks of having mental health problems.
From the introduction of the study itself: "misperceptions of a person's gender expression may result in a young individual feeling as if their gendered experience is negated or not affirmed." If you fail to correctly identify a teen's personal experience with gender, you are harming the person. But how can one correctly identify the wide ranges of reported gendered experiences?
At the movement level what we are seeing is an act of anti-creation. The societal influencers feel constrained by the created order of male and female and encourage people to express their uniqueness. A search for "how many genders does Facebook recognize" results in a range of 51 to 71. Teens in general, and teens with existing mental health issues in particular, will be especially vulnerable to these pressures.
During adolescence it is common for people to have a false sense of uniqueness; this is known in psychology as the personal fable. Teens often believe that others, especially parents, cannot possibly understand them. In addition adolescence is time of identity seeking as we try to figure out just who we are and where we fit in. If our favorite social media site gives us dozens of gender options, of course some of us have to be unsure of , or even confused about our gender to the point that we deny physical reality. Certainly Facebook has more credibility about the nature of gender than stodgy old mom and dad.
Research on today's teens shows that they feel less connected to society and more isolated than did teens from previous decades. Because today's teens, on average, have never experienced the sense of belonging that their parents and grandparents had, they may not fully understand what is missing while still longing for connection and community.
Joining a subculture has long been a method by which people learn where they fit and find community. With the increasing exposure of the TGNC community in popular culture, it is not surprising that some teens are exploring the subculture of the TGNC community. In this community teens will be affirmed and celebrated as brave for rising above the traditionally imposed binary approach to gender. Indeed with as much press as the TGNC community is getting these days, it is surprising that far more teens are not questioning the status of their gender.
For Christians the response is clear. We must guide and disciple young people while keeping them grounded in the reality that God made us male and female. The Associated Press may want us to celebrate rejections of reality. But only when we begin with reality can we help young people consider who God made them to be and help them to find their place in our community.
Dr. Joseph J. Horton is professor of psychology at Grove City College and the Working Group Coordinator for Marriage and Family with The Center for Vision & Values. He is also a researcher on Positive Youth Development.