Emerging Gender Identities
Mark Yarhouse, Julia Sadusky, and Anna Brose
A core tenet of the CCCU’s work is to assist institutions in addressing and engaging the current issues of the day. At the 2022 International Forum, Mark Yarhouse, the director of Wheaton College’s Sexual & Gender Identity (SGI) Institute and a CCCU senior fellow, led a highly attended, well-reviewed session on emerging gender identities. We asked him to adapt content from that session into an article to serve as a resource for any CCCU institution engaging this issue on campus.
About the authors:
Mark Yarhouse is a clinical psychologist specializing in conflicts tied to religious identity and sexual and gender identity. He is an award-winning teacher and researcher and serves as the Dr. Arthur P. Rech and Mrs. Jean May Rech Professor of Psychology as well as the director of the Sexual & Gender Identity (SGI) Institute at Wheaton College. He has published over 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters and is the author or co-author of several books.
Julia Sadusky is a licensed psychologist and owner of Lux Counseling and Consulting (Littleton, CO). Yarhouse and Sadusky coauthored Emerging Gender Identities: Understanding the Diverse Experiences of Today’s Youth (Brazos, 2020).
Anna Brose is in her second year in the Ph.D. program in clinical psychology at Wheaton College, where she is a member of SGI and the Wheaton College Mental Health Collective and serves as research assistant to Yarhouse.
In this article, we want to help leaders at CCCU institutions think through what we in our book refer to as emerging gender identities and expression, particularly shifts that have been reported in the past five years and how Christian colleges have been responding. We invite you to consider ways to intentionally engage the topic in light of your institution’s theological commitments surrounding gender, gender identity, and gender expression and the current cultural experience of today’s emerging adults.
Transgender Experiences and Emerging Gender Identities, Past and Present
Transgender is an umbrella term for many ways a person experiences or expresses a gender identity that does not correspond to their biological sex. Emerging gender identities are under another umbrella term — gender non-binary — in which a person experiences their gender identity as in between or outside of the binary of male/female. Emerging gender identities include bigender, demigender, graygender, and pangender.
Though this article won’t delve into the past too deeply here, we suggest in our book that many cultures throughout history have responded to what we today refer to as transgender experiences and diverse gender identities. In the past, cultures have previously understood them in mental health terms, moral terms, sacred terms, or other categories. Broader Western society now places transgender experiences and emerging gender identities in a diversity category (rather than, say, a mental health or moral category) and celebrates them as aspects of diversity.
How Common Are Experiences of Diverse Gender Identities?
Many previous prevalence estimates centered on gender dysphoria (or other prior diagnostic categorizations) and were limited to those who sought medical treatment at specialty clinics. These led to remarkably low prevalence estimates, as those who identify as transgender or non-binary comprise a much broader group than those who pursue medical transition. Indeed, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, most transgender adults do not report the use of hormone treatment or gender confirmation surgery.
Thus, in terms of this broader understanding of transgender identity, current prevalence estimates range from 0.5% to 1.3% of adults (Herman et al., 2017; Zucker, 2017). These prevalence estimates are fairly comparable across race and ethnicity — the Williams Institute estimated that 0.8% of African-American or Black adults, 0.8% of Latino or Hispanic adults, 0.5% of white adults, and 0.6% of adults of another race or ethnicity identify as transgender.
Where we do see greater statistical differences are across generations. A recent 2022 Gallup Poll reflected higher prevalence estimates among Gen Z (2.1%) compared to Millennials (1.0%), Gen X (0.6%), or Boomers (0.1%) (Jones, 2022).
The breakdown among adult transgender individuals in the U.S. is that 33% identify as transgender women, 29% as transgender men, and 35% as non-binary (James, et al., 2016). As we noted above, non-binary is an umbrella term that may mean different things to different people, but emerging gender identities in some ways exist under this umbrella and appear to represent a growing number of young adults.
When Do People Experience a Discordant Gender Identity?
In the mental health field, we tend to think about early and late onset of gender dysphoria. Early development would be prior to the onset of puberty, while later development would be at or after puberty. In the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, participants were asked the age at which they felt their gender was different than their biological sex. This is not quite the same thing as gender dysphoria, but it provides important information on when people first experience a discordant gender identity. Most (60%) reported recalling that difference before puberty, with 32% reporting experiencing that at age 5 or younger and 28% reporting experiencing that between 6 and 10 years of age. Of those who experienced it later in life (what mental health professionals might think of as late onset), 21% reported experiencing that discordance between ages 11 and 15, 13% between ages 16 and 20, and 6% at age 21 or older.
This suggests that some students will have already explored gender identity questions prior to applying to college; some students will be navigating gender identity and view the start of college/university as an ideal time to start anew; and some students will find themselves exploring gender identity for the first time while a student enrolled at a college or university.
Gender specialty clinics are also seeing a rise in late onset gender dysphoria, especially among those born female (referred to as natal females) (de Graaf, et al, 2018). Late onset experiences had historically been considered “much less common” among natal females. The recent shift from the number of early to late onset cases, and the gender ratio flip from male to female presentations, has been a source of some professional and public discussion.
We haven’t seen a lot of research that accounts for the rise in late onset experiences, particularly among natal females. However, one study (Littman, 2018) reported on the perceptions of teenage daughters by parents who indicated their daughters experienced gender dysphoria later (at or after puberty) and that many reported their teenager had other mental health concerns, experienced trauma or stressful events, and had engaged in some self-harm prior to the gender dysphoria. All studies have methodological limitations, and that was true for this study as well. Limitations included not interviewing or surveying the teenagers themselves, recruiting from parent groups that already believed in the phenomenon that was being investigated, and other concerns.
What Explains the Rise in the Number of Diverse Gender Identities?
Many specialists in this area look at the rise in cases and describe more of what we refer to in our book as a “self-awareness” explanation. That is, young people who would reflect those experiences would have existed and have always existed across cultures and throughout history, but because society is now more accepting of diverse gender identities, they now have the level of societal acceptance necessary for understanding oneself.
The other primary explanation of what is going on has to do with the possibility of “social contagion.” That is, social reinforcement of diverse gender identities among peer groups is the root explanation of the increase, with the thought that females may be more susceptible to such peer influence. This was one of the conclusions Littman considered as a result of the study she conducted.
What we have suggested is that while both explanations should be studied further, our reading of what is going on maps on better to what Ian Hacking describes as “a looping effect.” (We describe it briefly here, but for greater detail, see Emerging Gender Identities, pp. 27-43).
The looping effect is basically the concept of how people are affected by language and classifications and how language and classifications are affected by people’s experiences — both shape each other. Put differently, language and concepts shape lives, which shapes language and concepts. It is an ongoing dynamic that Hacking described as a five-step cyclical pattern:
- Classification: what names do we give groups, things, or ideas;
- People: the individuals that fit into the group, name, or classification;
- Institutions: the organizations or structures that arise in order to understand the classification and aid the people;
- Knowledge: the place/existence of amassing knowledge about the theoretical underpinnings of the classification; and
- Experts: selected individuals who give ample time to know, understand, and theorize about said classifications.
We also suggested that there may be extended steps of the looping effect, such as industry — that is, the societal engagement and response to these classifications that goes beyond the institutions. This includes how these ideas are used and reflected in media, for example, as well as the meeting place of expert knowledge/institutional practice and popular understanding. It also includes the growth of service provision around these ideas. Rather than discuss “social contagion” as such, we would acknowledge peer influence as it is embedded in this thick interconnectedness of what counts as knowledge (determined by experts) and the use of ideas in media, social media, and so on (industry). There is mutual shaping that goes on here.
Put another way, the capacity for diverse gender experiences to be present already exists to some extent and in some form — but as we name them, we also give opportunity for these ideas and experiences to begin to emerge.
Thus, thinking this through as Christians is important in the discussion of gender identities because many people wonder, Did these really exist all this time, or are we just coming up with new names and ideas and therefore creating something new? This question matters because embedded in it are the questions, Are gender identities real, essential things, or are they social constructions? Is a social construction just something a person thought up and now people are changing to fit into?
An extended discussion of these questions is beyond the scope of this article, but what we can grasp from the looping effect theory is that there may be space for aspects of both claims to be true: Different capacities for gender experiences have existed, and the naming and creation of linguistic categories for these experiences has shaped what they have become and how they are experienced and expressed today.
What’s important to consider here in regards to the work of CCCU institutions is that students coming to campus are emerging adults who have been and are interacting with new language and categories for understanding themselves and their gender. This language and these categories were not available to students of previous generations. Students will need help navigating what they experience, along with these changing and emerging linguistic constructs, in light of their own Christian faith. Is your institution poised to help them do that?
Students Navigating Gender Identity at Christian Colleges and Universities
What will we see on campus in the coming years? We will likely see transgender (cross-gender) experiences, emerging gender identities (such as gender non-binary and various new and emerging linguistic constructs for naming variations in gender experiences), or gender dysphoria itself (or the distress that can be associated with a more discordant gender identity). We may also see some emerging adults who are searching for identity and community and have landed on gender diverse experiences as a reflection of the cultural salience of this moment.
We do not yet have much research on the experiences of students navigating gender identity at Christian colleges and universities. Yarhouse, Dean, Stratton, Keefe, and Lastoria (2021) recently published a study of 31 transgender or otherwise gender diverse students from nine Christian undergraduate institutions. These students were highly religious and spiritual, but their beliefs and doctrinal positions on gender identity and gender expression varied considerably. They also reported different attitudes toward campus policies related to gender and gender expression.
Campus climate was perceived by the students to be largely negative, which is similar to what has been reported at secular institutions. What appears to contribute to the negative environment are comments from other students, more so than faculty or staff. Resources that do exist on campus appeared to be under-utilized by students in this sample.
On one measure of mental health, it was reported that “more than three-quarters of the sample were demonstrating moderate to high distress” (Yarhouse et al., 2021, p. 4496). Frequency of past suicide attempt was higher than what is reported in the general population of students but comparable to what has been reported among transgender students at secular universities.
Obviously, more research needs to be done on the experiences of students navigating gender identity and faith at Christian colleges and universities, but it was concluded that “Many of the transgender students … were doing more poorly than their cisgender peers, which appears to be consistent with what is reported from samples obtained from non-faith-based colleges and universities” (p. 4497).
Options for Macro-Level Considerations
As we close this article, we want to offer a few thoughts on ways to think through your institution’s engagement around emerging gender identities. A key recommendation we have discussed elsewhere (e.g., in Listening to Sexual Minorities, included in the recommended reading list) is to distinguish macro-level and micro-level engagement. Macro-level has to do with policies and procedures that are informed by theological commitments. Micro-level has to do with interpersonal relationships. Both macro-level and micro-level engagement will be informed to some extent by the lens through which you see gender, gender identity, and gender expression.
In our contribution to Understanding Transgender Identities: Four Views (Baker, 2019), we wrote that we see Christian institutions responding to diverse gender identities through several different lenses. Lens one treats diverse gender identities as a concern to be corrected. As such, there is no cross-gender or other-gender identity or expression allowed by policy. Stated positively, identity and expression that corresponds to biological or natal sex is viewed as reflecting creational intent, and gender-related policies encourage students toward reliance on God for managing gender dysphoria in ways that reflect creational intent as the preferred vision for flourishing.
Lens two focuses on different gender identities’ experiences to be empathized with. In a fallen world, cross- or other-gender identity and expression will occur. Stated positively, diverse gender identity and expression will be discussed and supported on a case-by-case basis. There may be more emphasis on “how I am” (“I am a person who experiences gender dysphoria”) rather than “who I am” (“I am transgender” or “I am gender non-binary”). Policies suggest students manage gender dysphoria in individualized ways (on a case-by-case basis) and grow in faith through enduring hardship as the preferred vision for flourishing.
Lens three looks at gender identities as part of an emerging culture to be celebrated. There is an assumption that there will be cross- or other-gender identity and expression. There is a celebration of personhood as it is experienced. Stated positively, identity and expression will be discussed and supported. Policies are broadly supportive and may include support for social or possibly medical transitioning as reflecting “who I am” (rather than “how I am”) as the preferred vision for flourishing.
These lenses (or some combination of aspects of them) have implications for programming, education, support services, bathroom access, locker room use, housing, health care and counseling, records, and documentation. Perhaps further reflection on your institutional lens or lenses will help clarify macro-level policy development.
Your micro-level engagement has to do with interpersonal relationships on campus. This will come out of student development, resident life, the counseling center, the classroom, and many other ways that students, staff, and faculty engage one another across campus.
Micro-level responses can also reflect lenses through which people see gender identities. But what we hope the reader will consider across all three lenses is a basic approach to valuing students navigating gender identity questions, new language and categories for gender identity, and their Christian faith. This will entail, at minimum, listening to them, demonstrating their value to God and to the community, and finding practical ways to support them. We encourage the reader to think creatively about fostering a campus environment that enables students to take their gender seriously, to take their Christian faith seriously, and to take ways of relating their faith and gender seriously.
It may be helpful to frame this topic as students navigating gender identity and faith at their Christian college or university. The question that comes up then is, How does your institution equip them to do so? We are at our best when we take the initiative to understand and provide support to students navigating gender identity and religious identity. We have tried to make the case that students navigating gender identity on campus will not just be transgender, but will also be identifying as non-binary or reflecting other emerging gender identities, most of which takes place prior to enrollment at college. In other words, students are engaging with the categories and language available to them today, which varies greatly from even a generation or two previously.
Some students will see moving to college as a time to transition, if that is something they are considering, while others will experience gender identity questions for the first time at college. How your institution engages these experiences of emerging gender identities will likely be a reflection of the lens or lenses through which you see this topic. This will reflect theological commitments held around sex and gender, gender norms, gender identity, and gender expression that will inform policy development at the macro-level and interpersonal relationships at the micro-level, as you consider implementation with students, staff, and faculty.
Emerging Gender Identities: Understanding the Diverse Experiences of Today’s Youth (Mark A. Yarhouse and Julia Sandusky, Brazos, 2020)
Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say (Preston Sprinkle, David C. Cook, 2021)
Understanding Transgender Identities: Four Views (ed. James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy, Baker, 2019)
Listening to Sexual Minorities: A Study of Faith and Sexual Identity on Christian College Campuses (Mark A. Yarhouse, Janet B. Dean, Stephen P. Stratton, and Michael Lastoria, IVP Academic, 2018)
Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture (Mark A. Yarhouse, IVP Academic, 2015)
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. Washington, DC: Author.
de Graaf, N. M., Carmichael, P., Steensma, T. & Zucker, K. J. (2018). “Evidence for a change in the sex ratio of children referred for Gender Dysphoria: Data from the Gender Identity Development Service in London (2000-2017).” Journal of Sex Medicine, 15 (10), 1381-1383.
Herman, J. L., Flores, A. R., Brown, T. N. T., Wilson, B. D. M. & Conron, K. J. (2017, January). “Age of individuals who identify as transgender in the United States.” UCLA School of Law: The Williams Institute.
James S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M. Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.
Greathouse, M., BrckaLorenz, A., Hoban, M., Huesman, R., Rankin, S., Stolzenberg, E. B., (2018, August). Queer-spectrum and trans-spectrum student experiences in American higher education: the analyses of national survey findings. Rutgers, Tyler Clementi Center.
Jones, J. M. (2022, February). LGBT Identification ticks up to 7.1%. Gallup, February 17, 2022. Available at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/389792/lgbt-identification-ticks-up.aspx?utm_source=twitterbutton&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=sharing
Zucker, K. J. (2017). “Epidemiology of gender dysphoria and transgender identity.” Sex Health, 14, 404-411.