Freedom, a two-spirit 13-year-old, poses for a portrait in Watertown, S.D. At last year’s Pride parade, he dressed up as Freddie Mercury; this year, he wants to dress as a rainbow king. The past year hasn’t been easy, and he’s had to deal with bullies. But he’s also had classmates come out to him, and he says he likes that people know “I’m someone they can trust.”
Annie Flanagan
June 8, 2022 7:00 AM EDT

For trans and gender-expansive American adolescents, the past school year has been a paradox.

Never before have diverse gender identities and expressions been celebrated so openly and inclusively, with Generation Z leading new conversations that challenge traditional conceptions of the male-female gender binary. Young people are embracing a wide range of gender identities and coming out as transgender, nonbinary, or the pan-Indigenous umbrella term two-spirit, among other identities, at earlier ages. There’s been an “explosion of language” in how young people express their gender, as Jonah DeChants, a research scientist at LGBTQ suicide-prevention nonprofit the Trevor Project, put it to TIME. The Williams Institute at UCLA, which researches sexual-orientation and gender-identity law and policy, estimates that 150,000 Americans ages 13 to 17 are trans. A national survey released in May by the Trevor Project found that 67% of LGBTQ youth surveyed did not identify as cisgender. Visibility and representation have never been higher, and acceptance and understanding of gender diversity continue to climb.

But at the same time, these young people have experienced escalating attacks from statehouses around the country. Conservative lawmakers have turned the full force of America’s fiery “culture wars” on trans and gender-expansive youth, unleashing a torrent of anti-trans state-level legislation that limits whether they can play sports, use a bathroom aligned with their gender identity, study LGBTQ issues in school, or access medical care to affirm their gender. After Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, a Republican, signed several of such policies into law in April, she said she believes “very strongly” that “if the Good Lord made you a boy, you are a boy, and if he made you a girl, you are a girl.” LGBTQ advocates argue such laws seek to legislate trans and gender-expansive people out of existence. NBC News calculates roughly 240 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in 2022 alone, half of which targeted trans people specifically.

Childhoods—which can be difficult to navigate in the best of circumstances—have been disrupted for the kids being vilified and pathologized by lawmakers. Advocates say they’ve seen a spike in bullying in schools. Families in Texas, Alabama, and elsewhere are contemplating moving to states less hostile to their children’s rights. And with the midterm elections approaching, the political fervor is likely to intensify, as conservative politicians continue to leverage their attacks to rally their base.

The photographer Annie Flanagan spent a year documenting gender-expansive young people across the U.S. as they experience adolescence at a fraught political and cultural time. Flanagan’s subjects are supporting one another, thriving, and finding joy. They’re getting ready for summer vacation. They’re hanging out with their friends. They’re maneuvering the social dynamics of prom. They’re walking across the stage at high school graduation and getting their diplomas, looking to the future, and planning for better days. These moments send their own message. Says Zuri, 19, a trans woman in Alabama: “We aren’t going anywhere.” —With reporting by Annie Flanagan and Kara Milstein

This appears in the June 20/June 27, 2022 issue of TIME

Asher, 16, left, and Blake, 15, celebrate Asher’s birthday at a roller-skating rink near Asheville, N.C. For his next birthday, Asher says he wants to invite all his friends to a dinner party where the dress code is “fancy—whatever that means to you.” He wants to make it special. “I really like having reasons to dress up,” he says.
Annie Flanagan
Zuri, 19, creates a TikTok video in Alabama. She says the platform has been a haven. Through her account, Zuri talks about her trans experience and lessening her dysphoria, discusses beauty and makeup, and works to combat stereotypes. “My goal is to make sure people’s voices are heard,” she says. “It’s OK to come out. It’s OK to be yourself.”
Annie Flanagan
Alex, 17, in Watertown, S.D.
Annie Flanagan
Alex's bedroom in Watertown, S.D.
Annie Flanagan
Ace, 12, plays video games in his home in Watertown, S.D. Ace says the past school year has been hard, and he can "barely walk down the hallway without getting made fun of." His sibling Aja (not pictured) is also gender expansive, and he says it’s been nice that they understand his experience, at least partly. “But also with being trans, something that makes it so special is that it’s not the same thing for everyone,” Ace says. “Everyone is going through their own thing.”
Annie Flanagan
Eli, 12, gets their nails done in Mooresville, N.C.
Annie Flanagan
From left, Tiana, 19; Yani, 31; Tiffany, 19; and Marlo, 23, at Stafford House, a drop-in space serving LGBTQ people in Orlando. To Tiana, the local trans community feels like home; activist Mulan Williams, who runs the group Divas in Dialogue to help support other Black trans women, has become her de facto mother, Tiana says. Williams connected her with a support group, gave her resources on transitioning, and pushed her to graduate from high school. “I really don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have her,” Tiana says.
Annie Flanagan for TIME
Maya, 11, swims in Houston. State law prohibits Maya from playing girls’ sports in school, but she swims on a private team. It’s not the first time being trans has prevented her from competing—she quit gymnastics years ago because she didn’t want to risk disqualifying her teammates. The experience made her “mad and sad,” she says. But she finds swimming on her new team “really fun and relaxing.”
Annie Flanagan for TIME
Evan, 18, right, and Leah, 18, arrive at their high school graduation in Florida. Last fall, Evan was crowned her school’s first out trans homecoming queen. “It’s like a new season of a show,” she says about graduating. “It feels like something good is going to come from this next chapter.”
Annie Flanagan for TIME
Petra, 18, sits on a stoop in her yard in Iowa.
Annie Flanagan
Kendall, 17, near her home in Temple, Texas. Kendall says her school denied her access to the girls’ locker room in September, spurring Kendall and her friends to lead a walkout in protest. But Kendall still uses the girls’ bathroom: she goes every morning to touch up her makeup and catch up with friends. Kendall’s interest in makeup first bloomed in sixth grade when her mom caught her stealing her grandma’s makeup and bought her an Ulta palette instead. Now, makeup is her passion. She plans to attend cosmetology school.
Annie Flanagan for TIME
Ace and Tiny, 12, in Watertown, S.D. Ace enjoys listening to music, learning to play the drums, and practicing how to tattoo.
Annie Flanagan
Attendees dance at the Fiesta Youth LGBTQ Youth Prom in San Antonio. Each spring, the group holds a prom specifically for LGBTQ teens.
Annie Flanagan for TIME
Evan in her bedroom in Florida before high school graduation.
Annie Flanagan for TIME
Aja, 14, sits in a car in Watertown, S.D. They like video games, playing the bass, and hanging out with their sibling Ace and their cat Taco.
Annie Flanagan
Vienna, 16, sits with their mom in San Antonio. Vienna will start college in the fall and hopes to study journalism. They say they are fascinated by the way “journalism affects how we as a society get our information.” In their future reporting, Vienna hopes to elevate trans and nonbinary voices.
Annie Flanagan for TIME
Maya in Houston.
Annie Flanagan for TIME
Adrian, 18, in Mobile, Ala. Over the past year, Alabama has implemented some of the strictest antitrans laws in the country. “It’s been scary,” says Adrian, who serves as the teen program director at the local LGBTQ youth group Prism United. “A lot of youth are genuinely struggling right now.” Adrian says Prism United aims to give young people “a place to feel safe” and ensure they have access to any help that they need.
Annie Flanagan
Eli, 18, sits in their room in Charleston, S.C., shortly after appearing on a panel on how to best treat and interact with trans youth at the Medical University of South Carolina. They were the only trans young person on the panel.
Annie Flanagan
Léo, 18, who is qariwarmi, a two-spirit gender from their father’s Quechua culture in Peru, at the Fiesta Youth LGBTQ Youth Prom in San Antonio. Léo likes the sense of community they find there. “There’s no judgment," they say. "You’re not a spectacle—unless you want to be a spectacle.”
Annie Flanagan for TIME
Tiana outside Stafford House in Orlando.
Annie Flanagan for TIME
Austen, 17, in his bedroom in South Dakota.
Annie Flanagan
Maddie, 15, right center, eats dinner with her family in North Carolina. “My family is my whole life,” Maddie says. Whenever they have to make a decision, she says, they always consider how it will impact all four of them. “I love that for us,” she says. “All the times I’m with my family, whether we’re fighting or whether we’re laughing, it’s always good times.”
Annie Flanagan
Austen sits by a bonfire with his parents in South Dakota. Austen has loved storytelling ever since he was a kid, when he and his dad would tell each other scary stories on walks, “popcorning off of each other.” Now, with dreams of being an author, he makes a point of fighting stereotypes by representing diverse genders and sexualities in his writing—including a book project already in progress.
Annie Flanagan
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Write to Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com.

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