If a kid as young as three insists that they are the other gender, should they be allowed to transition? This is a question still hotly debated by many researchers, but a new study published in Pediatrics suggests that transgender kids whose gender identity is affirmed by their parents are as happy and healthy as their peers.
When kids haven’t reached puberty yet, transitioning doesn’t require anything medical like hormones or surgery. It just involves changing their name and pronouns, as well how they present themselves, such as the length of their hair and the clothes they wear. It’s still a new phenomenon that families are letting their young kids undergo this social transition, and that’s exactly the group that researchers at the University of Washington wanted to study — to see if experiencing affirmation in their identity at such an early age had an impact on their mental health.
That’s because studies of transgender teens and adults have consistently found elevated rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality — and those studies suggest this likely results from experiencing prejudice, discrimination, stigma, social rejection, and a personal conflict between one’s identity and appearance. But for these young transitioned children, however, the same mental health concerns did not apply. Compared to their non-transgender siblings and other kids their age, they showed basically the same levels of depression and only marginally higher rates of anxiety.
“These findings suggest,” the study reads, “that familial support in general, or specifically via the decision to allow their children to socially transition, may be associated with better mental health outcomes among transgender children. In particular, allowing children to present in everyday life as their gender identity rather than their natal sex is associated with developmentally normative levels of depression and anxiety.”
Lead researchers Kristina Olson and Katie McLaughlin explained in a Los Angeles Times op-ed last week the significant novelty of their results. “Why the big difference? Previous studies included many children who’d been brought to a clinic to “fix” them (or at least align their gender with their sex),” they wrote. “The children in our study, by contrast, were recruited specifically because their parents accepted their new gender identity.”
Indeed, their study contributes to the dismantling of what’s known as the “desistance myth.” Several studies of gender non-conforming youth have suggested that most end up not being transgender when they grow up — they desist in their identity. But many of the studies that support this conclusion defined gender nonconformity inconsistently, essentially grouping all effeminate boys and butch girls with those kids who were actually asserting a different gender identity that was “insistent, consistent, and persistent.” Thus, it’s difficult to conclude from those studies whether the kids who turned out not to be trans were ever trans to begin with.
The desistance myth has led many researchers and therapists to be skeptical about whether children should be allowed to socially transition. This was the biggest charge against the gender identity clinic in Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), which shut down last year following a damning independent review. Many trans advocates accused the clinic and its head, Dr. Kenneth Zucker, of practicing reparative therapy (ex-trans therapy instead of ex-gay therapy) by trying to force kids to conform to gendered behaviors that match the sex they were assigned at birth.
Though a New York Magazine investigation has since revealed the shoddiness of that independent review, it also confirmed the researchers’ hesitation to let kids socially transition. Since a kid might not be able to tell the difference between being a girl and just wanting to be or thinking that they should be, the therapists reason, it might not be good to let them actually adopt an identity consistent with that gender identity. These doubts largely reflect concerns about the challenges the adults in that child’s life face in accommodating that transition, as well as fears about what happens if the child eventually has to transition back if they turn out to not be trans. Because letting young kids socially transition — like those in this new study — is such a generally new phenomenon, there isn’t actually any research available about what might happen if a kid detransitions when they get older. The fears could be totally unfounded.
The new study also doesn’t exist in a bubble. In fact, Olson led a study published last year that similarly found that transgender kids identify as completely with their gender as other kids. That children as young as three already have a strong sense of their gender identity should not be surprising, as research increasingly reveals that this is true of all children, not just those who are transgender.
The growing body of research about these kids who are actually transgender has hugely important implications as conservative lawmakers target transgender school students for discrimination. Tuesday is the deadline, for example, for South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard to veto a bill that would ostracize transgender students to single-stall restrooms, severely encumbering their learning and social experiences in schools. Similar bills have been introduced in half a dozen other states.
Conservatives are pushing such rhetoric by attacking transgender youth as threats to safety and privacy, blatantly rejecting the reality that children understand their gender at a very young age. For example, the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal published a sensationalized story this week about parents at a charter school in St. Paul, Minnesota who learned that there was a transgender student in the Kindergarten class. When the school indicated they would be talking to students about gender diversity, parents objected because “the concept, they believed, is too complicated for kindergartners to grasp.” At least ten students transferred out over the “controversy.”
What the research shows is that these young people are perfectly capable of understanding gender identity and in fact, they’re better off if they do. More importantly, if their parents do not share that understanding — like those in St. Paul who could not answer the questions they didn’t want their kids asking — that’s exactly the kind of environment of rejection that could set a transgender kid up for a childhood of depression, anxiety, and suicidality.