The Future Is Non-Binary, and Teens Are Leading the Way

Teenage girls are challenging the meaning and the traditional constraints of gender in ways I couldn't have imagined—but many boys are still trying to fit into a gender structure that has historically benefited them.
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A class of students with varying gender identities.

A class of students with varying gender identities.

Danielle looked in the mirror and didn't recognize what she saw. "I noticed when I would look to the side, I would see my breasts, and I would just press them down." Clarity didn't come to her until high school: She didn't feel like a girl. Later, "she" became "he." But hold on—it's not so simple.

Danielle now goes by Danny and identifies as gender non-binary. Danny uses male pronouns but doesn't feel completely male or female. Some days he feels like a boy, sometimes not. He's attracted to boys, not girls. Sophomore year of high school, he cut his hair short. "That's when it felt right," he says.

Danny is part of a new generation leading a quiet revolution in how we think about gender and sexuality. Young people are creating new vocabularies and taxonomies, and we scientists of sexuality and gender are playing catch-up. When I began a project three years ago to study the lives of today's queer teenagers, I had no idea what I was in for.

The future is non-binary, and teens are leading the way. Well, not all teens. My research uncovered an important distinction I haven't seen emphasized in other research into today's teens. At the helm of this revolution is one group in particular: those assigned female at birth. Young people like Danny.

Among teens in my study who identified with a non-binary gender or sexual identity, the vast majority were like Danny: assigned female at birth. I found almost double the number of transgender boys, who were assigned female at birth, as transgender girls, who were assigned male at birth.

I struggled to find gay boys to participate in my study. What did they say when we did find them, after much searching around? Those who "fit in" with the other boys and conformed to a masculine gender presentation were often either not totally out or didn't see themselves as fitting in with the larger queer community. They were clearly in the back seat of the revolution.

Teenage girls are challenging the meaning and the traditional constraints of gender in ways I couldn't have imagined, but many boys are still trying to fit into a gender structure that has historically benefited them.

I came out as a gay man when I was in high school in the mid-1990s. I had never known a single gay person—just seen images of the occasional gay man in drag (spoofed or stigmatized, never revered), or, even more common, gay men dying of AIDS. There was no Internet to expose me to sexual and gender diversity. My experience as a quietly struggling gay adolescent, presenting as a typical boy (what we today call "gender-conforming"), motivated me to become a social psychologist and to study diversity in sexuality and gender.

I came out during the reign of the binary paradigm of gender and sexuality. You were a boy or a girl, gay or straight. There were no in-betweens. I initially told my friends I was bisexual. I soon learned that most people used a bisexual label to soften the potential blow of homophobia. Most of us who initially identified as bi—myself included—eventually identified as gay.

In my study of queer teens today, I struggled to find enough boys who identified as gay and were out in high school. Between my generation and today's teens, the script has flipped. Today's teens are much more likely to think of themselves outside the traditional binary of gay-straight and male-female. They are far more likely to think of gender and sexuality as existing along a spectrum, with many shades and thus requiring new labels.

In my survey of over 300 queer teens in diverse regions of California, 71 percent identified with a non-binary sexual identity label, such as "pansexual" (attracted to people regardless of their gender), "bisexual," or "queer" (which sometimes meant "attracted to a broad spectrum of diverse genders"). Nearly a quarter of the sample identified as gender non-binary, meaning they feel neither male nor female and typically prefer to use "they" pronouns rather than "she" or "he."

A recent study by the Williams Institute at the University of California­­–Los Angeles found that, among all teens in California, not just those affiliated with the queer community, 27 percent identified with some level of gender non-conformity.

It's important to remind ourselves that the revolution is underway. It's not complete. The future is non-binary. The present is a state of flux.

This non-binary future isn't about indulging teenage rebellion or experimentation. It's about a new culture of collective appreciation for the differences among us. It's about opening up to creativity and authenticity in how we think, feel, and act in the world. It's about being able to look in the mirror and see reflected back what feels "right" in our minds.

Perhaps it sounds utopian, but the end result may be a world where kids on the schoolyard don't have to worry so much about whether or where they fit. In a world beyond binaries, there's a place for everyone. And if there's no category for you, you make one.

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Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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