A new study finds that transgender children, young people who assert a gender different from what was assigned at birth, identity as consistently and innately with that gender identity as other kids their age who are not trans.
Kristina Olson, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, conducted an in-depth study of 32 transgender children and compared the way they relate to their gender with their siblings as well as with other similarly aged cisgender (not transgender) peers. The kids were all living full-time as the gender they identify with and living in supportive home environments, and none of them had reached puberty yet.
The study used an Implicit Association Test to measure the speed with which participants associated aspects of gender with their own identity. People commonly respond faster during such a test to items associated with their own memory, allowing it to measure their implicit attitudes, which may be more automatic and subconscious. It found no significant difference among any of the kids; transgender and cisgender children identified with their gender identity at exactly the same rates. Transgender girls and cisgender girls identified with being a girl at the same rates; transgender boys and cisgender boys identified was being a boy at the same rates.
The consistency continued for explicit measures; for example, transgender girls liked to have girls as friends and liked the same toys and foods that other girls liked — just like cisgender girls.
In an interview with KUOW in Seattle, Olson clarified that this study was about kids who assert their gender at quite an early age. “Sometimes we hear from parents that the parent says, ‘Well, you could just be a boy who likes to wear dresses,’ and the kid says, ‘No, it’s not the dress. I am a girl,’” she explained. “That seems to be the crucial difference between a boy who likes a girly things and a boy who is saying, ‘I am a girl.’” In other words, not every kid who explores or experiments with gender is necessarily transgender, but when they do assert a gender identity, it’s a very authentic experience.
Olson urged parents to support their children’s gender identity and pointed out that many of the parents in her study started out with negative reactions when their kids asserted that they were a different gender. This led to some serious mental health consequences for their kids, including becoming withdrawn and even self-harm. The parents told her that they had other medical professionals indicate to them, “You’re either going to have a child who’s living and not the gender you thought they were, or you’re not going to have a living child.”
A study released last year found that there are no permanent consequences or side effects to children using hormones to delay — or ultimately block — the onset of puberty associated with the gender with which they do not identify. This process allows the young person to continue to explore and make sense of their identity before committing to a full transition and life as a transgender adult.