National Trans Visibility March, Washington, DC USA by Ted Eytan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

With the increasing visibility of transgender people in media, law, and social life, many suggest that the United States reached a  “transgender tipping point” in the past decade. The term suggests a big recent increase in people identifying as transgender, yet there has been surprisingly little research into whether and how the likelihood of identifying as transgender has changed over time.  

In a recent American Journal of Sociology article, Danya Lagos put the “transgender tipping point” idea to the test. They analyzed how many people, born between 1935 to 2001, identified as transgender or gender nonconforming. In addition, Lagos looked at the influence of social demographic factors (age, race, sex assigned at birth, and educational attainment) on the likelihood of identifying as transgender. The results of the study confirmed that there has been a big increase in people identifying as transgender and gender nonconforming since 1984, and that there have been big changes in the social demographic factors that predict trans identity across different birth cohorts.

For cohorts born from 1995 to 2001, for example, white people are somewhat more likely than people of other races to identify as trans, yet the reverse was the case for older cohorts born from 1945 to 1984. For every cohort born from 1935 to 1984, people assigned male at birth are more likely to identify as trans than those assigned female at birth. But this too has changed in recent years, as sex assignment at birth no longer predicts trans identity for those born from 1985-2001. Higher educational attainment is more consistently linked to lower rates of transgender identification throughout all age cohorts. Many believe that exposure to gender theory in higher education leads to more fluidity in gender expression, but the results of this study suggest otherwise.

In short, although the number of people identifying as trans has definitely increased, there hasn’t been any singular “transgender tipping point.” Instead, it’s more complicated than that.  The effect of other social identities and statuses, including race, sex assignment, and education, actively evolves and shifts as each birth cohort grows up in a changing social world. And just as society has changed throughout the years, so too has the prevalence and predictors of trans identity.