Equity & Diversity

How Many Transgender Children Are There?

By Evie Blad — March 07, 2017 4 min read
Texas high school wrestler Mack Beggs is announced as the winner of a semifinal match of a wrestling tournament at Allen High School in Allen, Texas. Beggs, a transgender boy, has been undergoing hormone therapy as he transitions from female to male. The governing body that oversees Texas high school sports requires Beggs to wrestle in the girls' division because of its rule that restricts sports participation based on the sex listed on an athlete's birth certificate.

As policymakers and educators debate the rights of transgender children in schools, they have no federal data to answer even the most basic question: How many transgender children are there?

That’s because publicly collected data on transgender individuals—part of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey—is not collected in every state, and participating states only survey adults.

Although it’s generally believed that transgender children make up a relatively small share of the population, advocates surmise some are now more likely to “come out” and transition at younger ages than in years past because of greater public awareness of the issue.

About 0.7 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds living in the United States identify as transgender, some 150,000 teenagers, according to an estimate released in January by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law. The think tank, which researches issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, based its estimates on statistical modeling rather than direct surveys of children.

More work is needed to gather more representative and demographic data about transgender youths, the organization says.

Why are data on transgender students important?

Federal civil rights laws should protect the interests of transgender children, regardless of how many there are, advocacy groups say. But more complete data could help explain the need for clear, consistent policies related to transgender students to state and local officials, they say.

Questions about transgender students have only grown since the Trump administration rescinded Obama-era guidance on gender identity last month. That guidance had put schools on notice that they could be found in violation of the sex-discrimination protections of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 if they didn’t honor students’ gender identity.

In withdrawing that guidance, the Trump administration left it to state and local decisionmakers to determine how to handle a range of issues, including what restrooms and locker rooms transgender students should use, whether to call them by their desired pronoun, and how to handle identifying their gender on student records.

For educational leaders, conversations about those decisions can remain hypothetical for a long time—until a transgender student enrolls in their school. Because transgender students represent a small proportion of the population, it can take a while for smaller, rural districts to confront such issues. When they do, it can be a scramble.

And the decisions can lead to criticism from various corners, school leaders say.

Texas school athletics officials, for example, have faced stiff criticism after they required a transgender boy to compete against girls in wrestling even after he underwent hormone therapy and said he wanted to compete in the boys division. He recently won the state’s girls’ wrestling championship, and parents and other athletes complained that the testosterone treatments gave him an unfair advantage.

How did researchers create their estimate?

The Williams Institute used data from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a telephone survey that asks adults a range of health- and demographic-related questions. Nineteen states asked optional questions about transgender identity in 2014, and an additional eight states asked those questions in 2015.

Researchers looked for correlations between transgender status and other factors, such as age and religious affiliation. They matched those correlations against demographic data in every state to create estimates for the teenage population.

Are there efforts to collect more federal data on transgender students?

Some researchers and advocacy groups have pushed in recent years to expand the data that federal agencies collect related to students’ sexual orientation and gender identity. Questions added in recent years to surveys collected by the CDC and the U.S. Department of Education have provided additional data points about bisexual, gay, and lesbian students, but none has focused on gender identity.

Advocacy groups say adding more questions about such issues to federal surveys would help examine how LGBT students are treated in schools, whether they experience higher rates of peer victimization, and how those experiences affect their lives and academic outcomes.

But that push comes amid complaints from some education leaders that data collection is already cumbersome and overwhelming. And, in some states, parents have pushed back against student surveys out of privacy concerns.

To this point, most data on the experiences of transgender students are collected by groups like GLSEN and other advocacy organizations and by academic researchers.

What’s next in the national debate over transgender-student rights?

At least six cases are in federal courts right now that are related to schools’ transgender-student policies. Those include the case of Gavin Grimm, a Virginia boy who sued the Gloucester County, Va, district after it would not let him use the boys’ restroom.

The U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear Grimm’s case March 28. But after the change in interpretation by the Trump administration, the high court sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., to determine if Title IX and its accompanying regulations apply to transgender students. That court had originally deferred to the now-rescinded interpretation of the Obama administration.

A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2017 edition of Education Week as How Many Transgender Children Are There?

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