Has there been a recent increase in the number of people who identify as transgender in the U.S.?

Reproductive Health

A: The number of people estimated to be transgender in the U.S. has increased slightly over the past ~5-6 years, particularly among those aged 13-24 years.

TL; DR: There has been an increase in the number of teens and young adults estimated to be transgender in the U.S. There may be several reasons for this, but there is no evidence this is due to ‘social contagion’.

Data on this topic is limited, as U.S. public health surveys only started asking about gender identity in the past decade. There are two time periods, 2014-2015 (youth and adults) and 2017/19 (youth)/2017-2020 (adults), for which data has now been collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that we can compare.

During that interval, from 2014/15 to 2017/19 (for youth) or 2017-20 (adults), the percentage of people estimated to be transgender in the U.S. changed as follows:

*Ages 13-17: ⬆️ from 0.7% to 1.4%
*Ages 18-24: ⬆️ from 0.7% to 1.3%
*Ages 25-64: ⬇️ from 0.6% to 0.5%
*Aged 65+: ⬇️ from 0.5% to 0.3%

Overall in the U.S. in 2017-20, 0.6% (or ~ 1.65 million people) aged 13+ years, identified as transgender (slightly up from 1.54 million in 2014/2015).

Important to note is that the estimates from 2014/15 for teens were extrapolated from the rates reported among adults (not from a survey of teens). It could be that the methods used in 2014/15 underestimated the number of teens that were transgender and that the number of teens who said ‘Yes’ to being transgender in 2017/19 more accurately reflects the true number. For those aged 18-24 years, it could be that more young adults are transgender than in the past, or it could be that the same number of people are transgender as there were before, but more felt willing to disclose this on the survey in recent years. A similar trend happened in regards to left-handedness in the U.S. In the early 1900s, a time when there was a lot of stigma against being left-handed, less than 4% of the U.S. population admitted that they were south-paws. Over a span of a few decades, after it was acknowledged that left-handedness was normal and not to be shamed, the percentage rose to almost 12%, where it has remained steady ever since.

There is currently *no* evidence, however, to support the idea of a ‘social contagion’ phenomenon whereby youth suddenly experience gender dysphoria (i.e., discomfort or distress that can occur in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth) around the time of puberty onset due to social and peer influences. Indeed, the 2018 study that proposed this theory was found to have several methodologic issues that called into question the author’s conclusions, leading the author to have to publish a correction. A subsequent study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, which used sound methodology, found no evidence to support this hypothesis.

In general, current evidence does support the idea that one’s internal sense of gender identity is well-formed by age 7, but that it can take time for people to recognize the source of their discomfort or distress as gender dysphoria and to identify as transgender. Puberty, with its resultant bodily and social changes, can be a time that people begin to explore their gender identity and/or start to have the knowledge and language necessary to articulate they are transgender, but this doesn’t mean there is a ‘social contagion’ phenomenon at play.

Bottom line; The number of teens and young adults estimated to be transgender has increased in recent years, which could indicate a true increase, or it could reflect changes in survey methodology or people’s willingness to disclose the are transgender on a survey, but there is no evidence for a social contagion phenomenon.

For more information on differences between sex and gender and the science of gender identity, see our posts below.

Past post on differences between sex and gender

Past post on gender identity

See other resources below:

Williams Institute Report on CDC Estimates of Transgender Youth and Adults in the U.S.

NBC news piece on lack of evidence for social contagion theory of transgender identity

Journal of Pediatrics study – no evidence for social contagion or “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria”

See correction to 2018 study mentioned above here

NYT piece on rise in transgender youth

Washington Post piece on changes in left handedness in the U.S.

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