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Do Early Social Transitions Influence Gender Identity?

Are social transitions driving children to identify more strongly as trans?

 Sharon McCutcheon / Pexels
A new study shows that early social transition for transgender youth doesn’t make them identify more strongly as transgender.
Source: Sharon McCutcheon / Pexels

Because today’s children are growing up in a society that is more flexible regarding gender norms, we are seeing more children who diverge from cultural standards of what a boy or girl "should" like and how they should behave. A minority of these children identify strongly with the gender opposite that they were assigned at birth and may socially transition. Different from a feminine boy or a "tomboy," who still identifies with their gender assigned at birth, these children may wish to live as the gender opposite their gender assigned at birth. Such a social transition may involve taking on the names, pronouns, or dress of the opposite gender, though the precise nature of the social transition may be different for each child.

The idea of childhood social transition has been extremely controversial. One concern among critics of early social transition is that it may reinforce the child’s notion of being the opposite gender and intensify their cross-gender identification. While some would argue that cisgender identity is not an ethically permissible goal for a child, those in this camp would argue that they wish to save these children from the potential adverse effects of medical interventions that often go along with later transgender identity. Others might argue that they want to save these youth from the stigma of living as a transgender adult.

The counter-argument to this chicken-and-egg question argues that children who socially transition already have a very strong cross-gender identification and that the social transition is a result of their strong cross-gender identification, rather than their cross-gender identification being a result of their social transition. A new study in Psychological Science supports this latter argument.

The study, conducted by Kristina Olson’s research team at the University of Washington, studied a cohort of 85 gender-nonconforming children. None of these children had yet socially transitioned. The researchers created a composite metric of gender identity and preferences that they used throughout the study. For sake of simplicity, we will call this level of gender non-conformity. This measure was collected for every child in the study at time point 0 (i.e., before any of them had transitioned). The research team then followed up with these children two years later. At that time, 36 had socially transitioned.

Their first finding was that the children who ultimately went on to socially transition had higher levels of gender non-conformity at time point 0 than those who did not go on to transition, suggesting that strong cross-gender identification is a driver of children's eventual social transition. Further, they found that the levels of gender non-conformity for children who would go on to socially transition were similar to children who had already gone through a social transition. They were also similar to the levels of gender conformity that cisgender children felt toward their gender assigned at birth. The authors summarize the findings in their discussion:

"Said differently, a [birth-assigned male] who will later transition to live as a girl is roughly as feminine before transition as a transgender girl is after a transition, and both are comparable in degree of feminine identity and preferences to a [cisgender] non-transgender girl.”

They go on to highlight that the results from this study could reduce concerns that a social transition itself leads a child to identify or behave in a way that is more stereotypically associated with the opposite assigned sex.

It should be noted that the study highlights some limitations, including a relatively small sample size. The team, however, addresses its small sample size by utilizing Bayesian statistics. The families in their study were also more Caucasian, educated, and liberal than the general population. Another limitation is that the follow-up period was relatively short. It is possible that a number of the 36 children who did not socially transition will do so in the future. We would need to continue to follow the group’s work to see.

Overall, the takeaway is that there is new evidence to suggest that social transition itself does not make children identify more strongly with their asserted gender. Social transition, rather, appears to be a marker of a child who truly identifies with the opposite gender and feels they need to express themselves in this way in order to thrive. In line with past evidence showing that rejection of a youth’s gender identity by family and peers is associated with poor mental health outcomes, this study adds to converging evidence that the best approach to gender-diverse children is to allow them to express themselves openly and without judgment, while providing love and a flexible environment in which they can explore their identities.

References

Rae et al. (2019). Predicting Early Childhood Gender Transitions. Psychological Science. [In Press]

Turban & Ehrensaft (2018). Research review: gender identity in youth: treatment paradigms and controversies. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 59(12), 1228-1243.

Travers et al. (2012). Impacts of strong parental support for trans youth: A report prepared for Children’s Aid Society of Toronto and Delisle Youth Services. Trans Pulse.

de Vries et al. (2016). Poor peer relations predict parent-and self-reported behavioral and emotional problems of adolescents with gender dysphoria: a cross-national, cross-clinic comparative analysis. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 25(6), 579-588.

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