For the first time ever, UCLA’s statewide telephone health survey asked teenagers a very specific question about their gender expression: How do you think other people at school would describe you?
They were given a choice of “very masculine”, "mostly masculine", "equally feminine and masculine", "mostly feminine" and “very feminine.”
Youth who reported that people at school saw them as equally masculine and feminine were categorized as “androgynous.” Girls who thought they were seen as mostly or very masculine and boys who thought they were seen as mostly or very feminine were categorized as “highly gender nonconforming.”
Lead author Bianca Wilson analyzed their answers. She found that about six percent of surveyed youth were highly gender nonconforming, and 21 percent were androgynous. Teens in both groups were twice as likely as their gender-conforming peers to have experienced psychological distress in the past year.
“We want to think about how to address bullying and bias related to gender stereotypes and gender expectations," she said. "This a reminder that we’re talking about a quarter of the youth that we need to be thinking about their concerns and their needs”
Wilson doesn’t know if there are more gender-nonconforming teens than there used to be. She says people may just be getting more comfortable defying the norm.
“We are having much more public discussions about sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression," she said. "So It would make sense that youth, and really all people, would be in a place to name what they’re experiencing, to say oh, that makes sense to me, I identify in this way.”
The study came out of The Williams Institute, a think tank within the UCLA school of law focused on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy. It was based on data from the California Health Interview Survey, which was given to more than 1500 teens statewide.
Wilson says this is the first large-scale, random sample study to ask teens about gender expression.
Researchers hope the study will encourage parents and teachers to change the way they talk about gender.