Gender identity is innate in transgender children, study finds

Chuck Bednar for – Your Universe Online

In contrast to the commonly-held belief that transgender children are confused or subject to peer pressure, a new University of Washington study indicates that those youngsters have deeply-held gender identities that remain consistent over a variety of different measures.

The new research, which was led by UW psychological scientist Kristina Olson and appears in the Association for Psychological Science (APS) journal Psychological Science, is believed to be one of the first to explore gender identity in transgender children using implicit measures that are less susceptible to modification than self-report measures.

In a statement, Olson explained that she decided to start the project partially because she wanted to see what children felt about social groups, but mainly because she had seen a close friend with a transgender child go through a series of challenges related to that youngster’s identity.

“Seeing how little scientific information there was… was hard to watch,” said Olson. “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 my child be in therapy to try to change what she says she is, or should she be supported?”

The notion that prepubescent children can truly be transgendered has met with some skepticism, and many experts believe that the best approach to dealing with “gender-variant” children is to encourage them to become comfortable with their biological genders.

Recently, though, doctors, parents and mental health professionals have increasingly started encouraging these youngsters to live that the gender that they most identify with. To get a better understanding of gender identity in transgender children, Olson set out to use scientific methods to find out if gender identity is deeply held, or if it is the result of confusion or pretense.

She and co-authors Nicholas Eaton from Stony Brook University and Aidan Key from Seattle-based transgender support group Gender Diversity analyzed transgender children who had been living as their identified gender in all aspects of their lives, who had not yet reached puberty, and who lived in home environments that were supportive of their decisions.

Those youngsters, as well as their cisgender (non-transgender) siblings, were recruited for the study through support groups, conferences, and word of mouth. In addition, cisgender children who were age-matched to the other participants were recruited for the study from a database of families interested in participating in developmental psychology research studies.

The study authors first used self-reporting measures to ask children to reflect on aspects of their genders, as well as implicit measures designed to measure the strength of their automatic gender associations. Overall, data from the measurements indicated that transgender children responded in a manner indistinguishable from the responses of two groups of cisgender children.

“While future studies are always needed, our results support the notion that transgender children are not confused, delayed, showing gender-atypical responding, pretending, or oppositional,” the authors wrote. Instead, their responses were “entirely typical and expected for children with their gender identity,” and the researchers believe that their findings “should serve as further evidence that transgender children do indeed exist and that this identity is a deeply held one.”

Olson said that she hopes to recruit up to 100 additional transgender children and follow them into adulthood in order to gauge how the degree of support they receive influences their overall development. In addition, she hopes to figure out if that support translates into more positive outcomes than those found in current transgender adults living in the US.

“We have absolutely no idea what their lives will look like, because there are very few transgender adults today who lived as young kids expressing their gender identity,” she added. “That’s all the more reason why this particular generation is important to study. They’re the pioneers.”


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