LGBTQ+ is not enough

It’s a fact -- our nation is becoming more queer with each new generation. Recent studies show that millennials and Gen Z are more likely to identify as LGBTQ than any generation prior. We know that LGBTQ millennials are even closing the gap with non-LGBTQ people when it comes to parenthood.

Yet, at the same time, we are seeing an epidemic of violence against transgender Americans -- and especially Black transgender women. This troubling trend coincides with efforts by the Trump-Pence Administration to bar brave transgender service members from fighting for our country's freedom, excluding transgender people from workplace non-discrimination protections and to erase efforts to protect transgender schoolchildren.

These targeted attacks are fueled in no small part by a misunderstanding of this growing population. And that misunderstanding is fed by a lack of reliable data. That’s why it is incumbent on us as researchers and as academics to focus on these upcoming generations of LGBTQ youth and commit to working to ensure their identities and experiences seen, quantified and validated.

So much is unknown about LGBTQ young people. There is little federal data about LGBTQ youth. With recent news that LGBTQ identities will not be collected on the 2020 US Census, we continue to exclude a substantial population and a population that is growing larger and larger with each new generation. When it comes to tracking violence, creating laws or simply having a full understanding of the American population: LGBTQ people do not count if they are not counted.

However, what has been documented is that young LGBTQ people are continuing the longstanding tradition of expanding the common understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity -- and continuing the LGBTQ community’s historic resilience in the face of daunting challenges.

As a researcher at the University of Connecticut, I collaborated recently with the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, the Human Rights Campaign, to conduct a groundbreaking survey of more than 17,000 LGBTQ youth in an effort to help fill the data void.

We found that young people are identifying in ways that are not reflected in mainstream awareness or knowledge about LGBTQ people, and rarely if ever seen in the media, including television and movies. We also confirmed that these young peoples’ identities are often misunderstood by the communities in which they live their everyday lives -- from their families and friends to their classmates and faith group members.

Even my colleagues -- renowned professors at top research institutions -- had never heard of terms like “pansexual” or “non-binary” before my conversations with them about what my research had found. Yet, our survey found that twelve percent of youth surveyed identified as pansexual -- or someone who has the potential for emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to people of any gender. More than 1,500 youth identified as non-binary, or as not identifying exclusively as a boy or girl. These numbers, scaled to the overall American population of youth, means upwards of hundreds of thousands of teens are likely identifying with these identity labels today.

That is why it is imperative that we do more to support these young people and do the work to understand the ways they are identifying their gender identity and sexual orientation. Brushing this off with a dismissive “teens will be teens” can have devastating consequences for our LGBTQ youth. My research showed that transgender, including non-binary, teens are at the highest risk for health problems as well as bullying, harassment and even violence. These children are opting to never use the restroom at school out of fear.

As parents, teachers, social workers, doctors or simply as citizens -- we need to expand our understanding, pushing our boundaries and having important conversations with our children, friends and loved ones about the spectrum of identities that exist in the world. It is imperative that we normalize these identities. It is no coincidence that there is a correlation in data between people who know an LGBTQ person and people who support LGBTQ equality.


Dr. Ryan Watson is faculty member in Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut. He leverages large datasets to document health and well-being among sexual and gender diverse young people. He is the co-Principal investigator, along with Dr. Rebecca Puhl, on the LGBTQ Teen Survey, executed in collaboration with the Human Rights Campaign.

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