LOS ANGELES (AP) — More than a quarter of California schoolchildren between 12 and 17 believe their peers see them as "gender nonconforming," meaning those boys are perceived as more feminine and the girls as more masculine, according to a new study that is among the first of its kind in the U.S.
The study made public Wednesday found that the 27 percent of California children perceived as gender nonconforming are more than twice as likely to experience psychological distress, such as bullying, as their gender conforming counterparts.
The study did not find that gender nonconforming children have statistically significant higher levels of suicide, but psychological distress is a risk factor for suicide, said lead author Bianca Wilson.
The study, conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, was among the first of its kind in the nation and the first representative survey measuring gender expression among California's youth population, Wilson said.
"We felt it was really important to start documenting levels of gender expression," Wilson said. "We're not just talking about protecting a small group. This is a significant part of the youth population."
Understanding how many children are gender nonconforming and to what extent they're experience bullying, discrimination and other problems will help develop mental health services and programs for such young people, Wilson said.
"We want adults focused on how to meet the needs of a group that large," she said.
Results of the study were based on interviews with 360 adolescents in 1,600 homes throughout California. The children were asked two questions involving gender expression as part of a larger annual analysis known as the California Health Interview Survey.
Such studies are slowly becoming more prevalent as awareness and acceptance increases for those who are gender nonconforming, said Alison Gill, a consultant for Advocates for Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to adolescent reproductive and sexual health.
Gill worked on a survey similar to California's for Advocates for Youth last year, but just four municipalities participated by asking high school-aged adolescents questions based on gender expression — Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago and Broward County in Florida.
That study found that 25 percent of boys and 15 percent of girls reported being gender nonconforming. It also found a relationship between being gender nonconforming and risk of suicide.
It is being expanded to 16 municipalities this year, including eight states — a number that is expected to continue increasing, Gill said.
"This is an increasingly important issue in our schools and our society," she said. "A lot of young people, more and more, are identifying in a non-binary way or gender nonconforming, and until this point we have had very limited data on this population. These studies are really critical to advance the field to help us understand their needs."