Think Trans Kids are Confused About their Gender? Think Again

A new landmark study shows that from an early age, transgender children show a remarkable consistency in how they identify and try to present their gender, undercutting the Religious Right’s myth that children are just “confused.”

The study, whose initial results will be published in the journal Psychological Science with follow-ups over the year, is believed to be the first of its kind to assess how young trans people between the ages of five to 12  feel about their gender and if they are consistent in their thoughts about their identity.

The study involved 32 trans children and saw researchers from the University of Washington together with Stony Brook University allow the children to self-report about their gender identities, whether for instance they felt male or female irrespective of their birth-assigned sex. This offers an interesting insight into how children self-identify and allows researchers to have a greater understanding of how trans children understand themselves. 

In addition, the children participated in a speed test where the children were asked to associate various concepts of male and female, also known as an Implicit Association Test. These tests are insightful because rather than learned behaviors, these tests can uncover deeply held values and beliefs about ourselves and others. In this instance, the researchers were testing whether the children consistently associated with the gender they affirm themselves rather than their birth-assigned genders. 

The researchers found that trans children affirmed their gender in both tests the same as children who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Until now we haven’t had a gauge on the consistency of trans childrens’ thoughts about gender and how they identify, but this study suggests it is the same as gender expectation-conforming children. As such, this research, which is just a small part of a much wider research effort called the TransYouth Project, could lead us to a radical rethink of how we support trans children.

Currently, doctors advise using hormone therapy to block puberty and therefore stop a trans child developing adult gendered characteristics that would not fit with their gender identity. This then allows the medical team to observe the child and how she might identify through a number of years so that they can be sure if further medical intervention is needed, such as by offering hormones to help a child affirm their particular gender, and later in that process, offer surgery too.

The prevailing wisdom has been that gender variance in children can disappear, and indeed there is some evidence to show that children may explore gender before reverting to gender binary norms in later childhood and into adolescence. However, while that might still be true in some cases, what this admittedly very early research suggests is what trans people have been telling us for a long time now: that they knew from a very early age that their sense of gender did not match what society was telling them they should be based on their physical characteristics. That means that we potentially could intervene much earlier to ensure children feel gender affirmed and thereby spare children potential depression and anxiety.

Still, this is obviously a very small study and it has a number of limitations, namely that the children in the study were all self-identifying their gender at an early age, meaning that without further study we can’t safely assert that their experience of their gender is typical for all trans children. At any length, though, this research offers vital insight into an area where there is very little research at the moment.

Lead researcher Kristina Olson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington, says in an interview with UW Today: “Seeing how little scientific information there was, basically nothing for parents, was hard to watch. Doctors were saying, ‘We just don’t know,’ so the parents have to make these really big decisions: Should I let my kid go to school as a girl, or should I make my kid go to school as a boy? Should he be in therapy to try to change what he says he is, or should he be supported?”

Olson says this research and the research that the TransYouth Project is doing as a whole is consistently supporting what a growing number of medical bodies and professionals advise: that allowing a child to self-identify and live gender aligned can provide the best outcome for the child’s mental well-being.

The Religious Right often suggests that trans children and adults are simply “confused” about their gender and that therapy can be used to push them back toward gender norms — but, quite ignoring the question of what’s so bad about gender variance anyway, we know that doesn’t work. We recall the recent, heartbreaking case of Leelah Alcorn who took her own life after her parents refused to allow her to access the medical help she needed and instead allegedly subjected her to anti-trans conversion therapy.

Hopefully, research like that which is being carried out as part of the TransYouth Project can help give greater insight into young experiences of gender and therein help to prevent what happened to Leelah Alcorn happening again, even as we work in other areas to also ensure conversion therapy against minors is banned and our trans and LGB children are properly protected.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

46 comments

Dorothy Macnak
Dorothy M4 years ago

Like Anne M., I have questions and concerns about why a five year old is body identified at all. Doesn't that sort of body consciousness usually begin much later (accept in cases of abuse)? This is the time that a child is focused on the world around them, not on their bodies. This is a time of imaginative play. What if a child is just trying on in their minds different roles (a prince one day and a princess on another day), and adult reactions (positive or negative) lock them into being identified as transgendered when it was just a passing thing? And, why did we see so little of this in the past? Please know that I'm not insensitive to trans or gays. I just wonder if we are putting children under a microscope and causing issues.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus4 years ago

Thank you for sharing!

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JL A.
JL A4 years ago

good research

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Spencer Young
Spencer Young4 years ago

My opinion is that kids aren't confused about their gender, they are only confused on how to live their lives while in the spotlight of hate and prejudices most of their entire life

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Judy W.
Judy W4 years ago

I believe this is true. I had a trans gender relative who was a "tom boy" when little, then thought she was gay and finally realized she was meant to be male. This was a long hard battle 40-50 years ago trans gender information was not widely available. "She" attempted suicide on several occasions. He was much happier after starting transformation. He married and was happy until he passed away of cancer,

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Fi T.
Past Member 4 years ago

Education makes a difference

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Miriam O.

Thank you so much for sharing with us!

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BMutiny TCorporationsEvil

Articles like this one are gradually raising EVERYONE'S Consciousness and soon, one hopes, Trans* people will be considered by all as just another of the wonderful Variety of Human Beings, like red-heads, green-eyed people, left-handed people, ambidextrous people and other "Minorities" on this Planet.

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Vesper B.
Vesper B4 years ago

ty

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Leanne B.
Leanne B4 years ago

Very interesting post thanks for sharing.

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