More U.S. adults than ever know someone who is trans — but nearly half are too uncomfortable to use ‘they’ pronoun

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Alana Smith made Olympic history over the weekend by becoming the first out nonbinary athlete on Team USA, participating in the Women’s Skateboarding Street event and proudly displaying their pronouns — they/them — on their skateboard during the broadcast. Still, broadcasters did not refer to Smith as "they" during the event.

A growing number of Americans personally know someone who identifies as transgender. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
A growing number of Americans personally know someone who identifies as transgender. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Now, new findings released by the Pew Research Center show that the broadcasters were not alone in their apparent discomfort.

The research, released Tuesday, revealed that despite the cultural shift around gender identity — celebs like Elliot Page coming out as transgender, for example, or members of Gen Z being four times as likely to identify as trans, nonbinary or genderfluid, according to recent data — not everyone has the same acceptance level of the new reality.

There is a slight uptick in awareness, according to Pew, which found that 42 percent (about four in 10) Americans say they know someone who is transgender — up five percentage ponts since 2017. Additionally, 26 percent of adults say they know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns such as “they” or “them” — up from 18 percent since 2018.

Still, 56 percent of U.S. adults believe that gender is assigned at birth, while 41 percent say that a person’s gender can be different from the sex they were assigned at birth — views that have been roughly stagnant since 2017.

While all age groups have shown evidence of a growing awareness, the highest growth by far is among those under 30: Forty-six percent of those under 30 said they know someone who goes by gender-neutral pronouns such as "they/them" (up 14 percentage points from 2018), compared to 29 percent of those over 30 years old (up 10 percentage points from 2018).

And while half of Americans say they would feel "very" or "somewhat" comfortable using a gender-neutral pronoun, 48 percent say they would feel "very" or "somewhat" uncomfortable in doing so.

Breaking that down by age, the findings show that six in 10 people (61 percent) under 30 say they are comfortable using gender-neutral pronouns to refer to someone, including 39 percent who say they are "very" comfortable.

That’s compared to 53 percent of those between 30 and 49 years old, 46 percent of those between 50 and 64 years old, and 41 percent of those 64 and older who say they are "somewhat" comfortable referring to someone as “they/them.”

The numbers around comfortability have been virtually unchanged since 2018.

Interestingly enough, these polls also mirror political party associations, Pew Research notes, which, it can be argued, are parallel to the record number of anti-trans bills (such as bathroom bills and bans on trans athletes competing in school sports or receiving gender-confirming medical care) that limit definitions of gender only to the sex assigned at birth.

Though adults in both political parties are now more likely to know someone who uses “they/them” pronouns, Democrats are still twice as likely as Republicans (34 percent vs. 16 percent).

That being said, 68 percent of Republicans say they would feel uncomfortable using these pronouns, compared to 67 percent of Democrats saying that they are indeed comfortable using them.

As for Smith, it's not exactly clear what the broadcasters thought. But OutSports opinion writer Brian Bell believes that "what happened to Smith on Sunday reflects the attitudes within the minds of event organizers… The information is out there. Olympic organizers have it, failed to properly communicate it to people whose job it is to convey knowledge of competitors (who are capable of doing their own research as well) and soured an amazing moment of inclusivity in sport in doing so."

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