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