[This post was prompted by Andree. To prompt a post, back me on Patreon.]
In the past ten or fifteen years, there has been a massive increase in the number of transgender people. A 1997 estimate– from the clinic that treated over 95% of transgender people in the Netherlands– suggested 1 in 10,000 people assigned male at birth and 1 in 30,000 people assigned female at birth are transgender. Today, the best surveys suggest that 0.6% of people in the United States identify as transgender. How did this increase happen?
If you read LGBT history, it is striking how many people are what we would presently call transgender. Classic lesbian novels such as the Well of Loneliness depict recognizably transgender experiences. Stone butch women wore masculine clothing, behaved in a masculine fashion towards their partners, and did not allow their partners to touch their genitals; some people who had a stone butch identity, such as Leslie Feinberg, eventually identified as transgender. In the gay male community, we see “drag queens” who lived as women, used female pronouns, and desired bottom surgery (for an introduction, I can’t recommend highly enough the documentary Paris is Burning and David Valentine’s excellent Imagining Transgender). There were many heterosexual men who crossdressed regularly, and even special cruises and conferences which catered to them; again, many of these men took hormones or even sought surgery (Amy Bloom’s Conservative Men in Conservative Dresses is unsympathetic and rather transmisogynistic, but an interesting resource).
What did these people have in common? If they bought hormones, they did so on the grey market; if they got surgery (and most either couldn’t afford it or had spouses who objected), they flew to Thailand. Most did not biomedically transition. They also did not legally transition, and often did not socially transition: crossdressers were male at work and around their family; many drag queens and butches lived as their assigned gender during the work week. Their experiences are recognizably transgender experiences, but they are invisible to gender clinics, survey-takers, and much of the cisgender population.
Today, we have better access to transition treatment: while there is still gatekeeping, it is rare in the Anglosphere to be denied hormones because you’re gay, because you use your genitals during sex, because you’re a trans woman who wears pants, or similar. That leads more people to transition and more people to transition through a gender clinic instead of on the grey market.
Being transgender is also more socially acceptable in many ways. It is a double-edged sword; if people are more aware of transgender people, it is also harder to go stealth. But trans people tend to experience less housing discrimination, job discrimination, and familial rejection than they used to.
Trans people respond to incentives. It’s not true that gender dysphoria automatically leads to transition. Some gender dysphoric people have a choice between transition or suicide (although to be fair even in this case we would expect some of that population to show up in the suicide statistics instead). But if the cost of transition is high enough, many gender dysphoric people dissociate and depersonalize and are depressed, many gender dysphoric people live for the weekends or trips into the big city where they can be themselves, and many gender dysphoric people will have secret fantasies that they never tell anyone about. As transition becomes more accessible and socially acceptable, people are less likely to use non-transition coping mechanisms for gender dysphoria.
Equally important, I think, are the narratives which are available to frame our experiences. One of the reasons people identify as transmasculine instead of stone butch, or transfeminine instead of drag queens, is that these are the narratives we have to put our experiences into. The lines between gender-non-conforming people and transgender people are not as sharp as we’d like to believe or as would be politically convenient. We gender-non-conforming and gender dysphoric people are, often, an inchoate mass of feelings and desires and incoherent yearnings; it is often hard to know what we want as opposed to what we don’t want. We reach out to our communities for labels and identities and ontologies, and those labels and identities and ontologies wind up shaping what we desire. Of course they do. That’s how people work.
The same person, with the same desires, may identify as a butch lesbian, a radical feminist, a nonbinary person, or a queer trans man, depending on what segment and era of the LGBT+ community they are part of– and they might be equally happy and comfortable in each identity, if it is socially legible to their community. I think it’s a mistake to say that that person “is really” nonbinary, or “is really” butch, or “is really” a radical feminist. They have certain wants, certain needs, and certain ways of articulating those wants and needs are socially legible to their communities. (I wrote a similar process here, with regards to gray asexuality.)
As trans-related identities, labels, and ontologies displace their predecessors, and people are more likely to understand themselves from a trans-related framework, more people are likely to identify as trans and to transition (at least socially). To some extent, the incentives and labels explanations feed into each other: as more people come to understand themselves as trans, the conditions for trans people improve; as the conditions for trans people improve, more people come to understand themselves as trans. But I believe they are distinguishable and both play a role.