The word “genius” makes Kristina Olson squirm.
When the MacArthur Foundation rang last year to tell her she’d won one of its coveted fellowships — colloquially called genius grants — the University of Washington psychologist figured it was a mistake.
“Are you sure you have the right Kristina Olson?” she asked.
Even though the caller ticked off items on Olson’s résumé, including her groundbreaking research on transgender children, it was weeks before she was convinced it wasn’t all an elaborate prank.
Olson still won’t mention the prize unless pressed. Where she comes from, in central Illinois, boasting is almost as inexcusable as not being nice. “Talking about myself is my least favorite subject,” she says — and she really means it.
But it’s been a remarkable run for the 38-year-old researcher. A few months before Olson found out about the $625,000 MacArthur fellowship, she won the Alan T. Waterman Award, the National Science Foundation’s highest honor for early-career scientists. Olson was the first psychologist, and the first woman in 14 years, to win the prize and the $1 million grant that comes with it.
She’s using the NSF money to expand her TransYouth Project, the nation’s first large-scale, long-term study of transgender children. Olson launched the project in 2013, shortly after the UW wooed her away from Yale. She plans to follow hundreds of kids and their families for 20 years as they navigate the little-understood terrain between the poles labeled male and female, where gender identify can be fluid and doesn’t always align with biological sex.
Olson’s findings so far counter the perception that being transgender equates to marginalization and misery. The young trans kids in her study, who are supported by their families and allowed to dress and act according to their preferred gender, do remarkably well. Their self-esteem is high. They are no more likely to be depressed than other kids and experience only slightly higher levels of anxiety.
That’s not true for every child, and the research hasn’t been going on long enough to span the potentially more fraught period of adolescence and young adulthood. But Olson is widely praised for bringing scientific rigor to issues that have so far been debated mostly on the battlefields of the culture wars.
“This is pioneering work,” says Henry “Roddy” Roediger III, the former chair of the psychology department at Washington University in St. Louis, who hired Olson “on the spot” when she knocked on his door as an enterprising 18-year-old freshman looking for an internship. “She started it from scratch.”
Some experts compare Olson’s research to that of Evelyn Hooker, whose friendship with a gay man in the 1950s spurred her to launch the first psychological study of what she called “normal homosexuals.” Hooker’s finding that gay men’s mental health was no different than that of straight men helped end homosexuality’s classification as a mental illness.
But at a time when trans people in the United States are being barred from bathrooms, banned from the military and rejected by churches, Olson’s research is a flashpoint for critics. One article on the conservative website The Federalist described it as part of a “campaign to wrench human society from its foundations by abolishing the two sexes.”
Parents of little boys who dress like princesses and little girls who dream of becoming boys are more interested in practical advice than politics, and Olson’s research has been reassuring for many of them. Her studies helped inform guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending families take a “ ‘gender-affirming,’ nonjudgmental approach that helps children feel safe in a society that too often marginalizes or stigmatizes those seen as different.”
That’s what Jessica Chen and her husband, Tom MaCafferty, did when their son, Bailey, started asking to wear dresses and grow his hair out at the age of 4. “We just want him to grow up healthy and happy,” Chen says. Now 6, Bailey doesn’t identify strongly as either a boy or a girl and still prefers the male pronoun. “He would be just as happy going as Elsa (from the Disney movie ‘Frozen’) or Batman for Halloween,” Chen says.
The Renton family has participated in Olson’s research and receives regular updates from her lab. “It seems to me that she goes in with very few assumptions, and just wants to understand,” says Chen, a psychologist at the Veteran’s Administration in Seattle. “For her to devote energy to studying this issue … provides a spotlight and gives a voice to a community that can be marginalized and vulnerable.”
It was a youngster like Bailey who crystallized Olson’s interest in transgender children. At a dinner party in 2008, when she was at Yale, Olson chatted up a friend’s 5-year-old son and noticed him playing with a set of Polly Pocket dolls when he thought no one was looking. Her friends told her that the child, who has since transitioned to living as a girl, had always preferred “feminine” toys and playing with girls.
Olson was already exploring the way children categorize and think of themselves and others. Her early work focused on kids’ views of race and social class and the roots of bias and prejudice. Among her surprising findings is that by preschool, children know that white people tend to be wealthier than black people.
“White parents have this tendency to say, ‘My kid doesn’t see race,’ but that’s just not true,” Olson says. Children often try to make sense of inequality by inferring that some people must deserve less than others, which can entrench bias. “Kids pick up biases from the adults around them,” Olson says — even when those biases are unconscious, like tightening your grip on your child’s hand in some neighborhoods but not others.
Race and gender are both major components of how we view ourselves and judge other people, but transgender children are a special case. They believe themselves to be in one category, while adults are telling them they’re wrong. “What is the psychological experience of those kids?” Olson wondered.
A straight, white woman from the Corn Belt town of Urbana, Illinois, Olson’s interest in gender identity and inequality is rooted in her observations starting at a young age. Though she grew up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood and her father is a university professor, the public schools she attended were racially and economically mixed. Olson became obsessed with fairness and its flipside.
“It was very clear to me early on that there were big racial disparities, and that I had advantages by the very nature of my skin and that my dad had gone to college,” she says. She also knew kids who came out as gay and were kicked out of their homes.
Olson met her lifelong friend, Demarco Brooks, in kindergarten, when he was bused from an African American neighborhood to their elementary school. Later, they were both bused to another school in a less-affluent part of town. “We had children of doctors, children of professors, factory workers and lower-paid university workers,” says Brooks, now dean of students for W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia. “I think that diversity was a foundation for the work Kristina is doing.”
Olson was an academic standout who competed on the swim team and led the percussion section in the band. Her mother ran an in-home day care, which helped spark Olson’s curiosity about how kids see the world. She started volunteering at a camp for disabled kids at the age of 8 and coached swimming for the Special Olympics.
But she was never one of those obnoxious overachievers, Brooks says. “The cool thing about Kristina is that you knew she was very intelligent, but she never flaunted it and never made you feel like you weren’t,” he says. “She’s such a humble person, you feel elevated in her presence.”
She’s also ambitious — in a quiet way that drives scientific discovery, says Roediger. Graduate students at Washington University used to fight to get Olson as their research assistant, because she was so good and so much fun to work with.
At Harvard, where doctoral students usually conducted a handful of experiments at a couple of elementary schools, Olson set up 30 experiments and convinced a dozen principals to let her work with their students, says Mahzarin Banaji, her Ph.D. adviser. “Kristina has the energy of the toddlers she studied … (and) a zest for research that’s infectious.”
Olson also is committed to increasing diversity in the field of psychology. She set aside a chunk of her Waterman Award money to create a summer internship for minority undergraduates from across the country, a move Science magazine describes as probably unprecedented in the award’s history. More than 300 people applied for the eight slots in this year’s inaugural class.
Olson’s Social Cognitive Development Lab is nicknamed the Panda Lab to help parents find the place among nondescript buildings on the fringe of the UW campus. On a recent afternoon, a curly-haired 5-year-old named Tessa is perched on a tiny chair, looking at pictures of outfits on a computer screen. When research assistant Daniel Alonso asks her to pick the one she’d most like to wear, she immediately points to a sparkly pink dress. When Alonso shows her pictures of toys and asks who would be most likely to play with them — boys, girls or both — Tessa’s answers conform to expectations. Blaster ray gun? Boys. Mini bake shop? Girls. Bucket of slime? Both.
Tessa is part of a control group. She was born female and clearly embraces it. Critics of the concept of gender fluidity argue that young kids, who can fantasize about being dinosaurs or dogs, can’t be taken seriously when they claim to be a different gender. But awareness of sex, gender identity and sexual stereotypes develops very early, Olson says. Most infants are able to distinguish the sex of people around them before their first birthday. By the age of 3, the majority of kids easily match themselves and others to their genders.
Olson and her team use questions and tests to delve into their subjects’ perceptions. For the TransYouth Project, the team recruited 320 trans kids between the ages of 3 and 12 who have socially transitioned, which means they dress and use the pronouns for the gender they feel themselves to be. (No surgery or drugs are involved in a social transition.) The kids and their families come from all over the country, and Olson and her team visit them every one to three years.
Among her earliest findings is that trans kids are nearly identical to other kids in gender development. Transgender girls — who identify as girls but were considered male at birth — score just like Tessa and other control girls, and nothing like boys. The congruence is the same for trans boys and for boys in the control group.
Another study focused on a different group of kids: those who don’t conform to gender stereotypes — girls who prefer to wear boys’ clothes, for example, or boys who like to play with unicorns — but who hadn’t socially transitioned. When Olson followed up two years later, she found that the kids who went on to transition were those who most strongly felt like a different gender, and that they didn’t look any different in their responses than trans kids who transitioned earlier.
In other words, parents who allow their kids to transition aren’t nudging them into becoming transgender. The kids have a clear idea of who they are from the start.
When Jane Shay’s second child, named Jonah at birth, insisted on wearing dresses and pink sneakers before the age of 3, Shay figured Jonah might turn out to be gay when he was older. But the youngster kept insisting he wanted to be a girl when he grew up, and asking when that would happen. “It was just heartbreaking,” Shay says.
At the age of 4½, the former chatterbox stopped talking altogether outside of their home. It was only after Jonah began to transition — wearing dresses to preschool, changing pronouns and eventually taking the name Jessica — that she started talking again at school. Now, instead of saying she wants to be a girl when she grows up, Jessica runs through the more-typical childhood litany of everything from a singer or scientist to a fashion designer.
“I feel like I’m going through this blind to a certain extent,” says Shay, who enrolled the family in some of Olson’s studies. “There isn’t a lot of research on raising a child different from the gender they were born with, so I hope the TransYouth Project can provide that for people trying to make decisions.”
The fact that young trans kids can be happy is not news to groups like Seattle-based Gender Diversity, a support and training organization, says founder Aidan Key. Olson consulted him when she was designing the study — and listened. “She was willing to work with the complexity,” says Key, himself transgender.
It was hard at first to find eligible kids and families. Until a few years ago, many experts recommended against transition until children entered their late teens or early adulthood. But as evidence mounted of high rates of suicide and depression among transgender adolescents and adults — largely attributed to the discrimination and hostility they encounter — experts now encourage parents to support a child’s gender exploration even at a very young age.
Laura Edwards-Leeper, a clinical psychologist at Oregon’s Pacific University who helped develop the first U.S. clinic for trans youth, gives Olson high marks for her careful methods and willingness to lay out the limitations of her work. “Her research is super-important if people can understand that it’s not saying every gender-diverse child should socially transition,” says Edwards-Leeper. “Every case is different.”
Olson is quick to point out that her study group isn’t representative of all trans kids and their families. And when other psychologists cautioned that parents might be skewing her results by painting an overly rosy picture of their kids’ mental health, Olson and her team did a follow-up study focused on what kids themselves say, with similar results.
Her approach to emails and letters calling her a “fascist pig” and worse has been to largely ignore them. “I try not to talk too much publicly about it,” she says, “because I think it makes the trolls think they are winning.”
Researchers also can get pressure from transgender activists, says Edwards-Leeper. “It’s very challenging to be in the field right now because it is so polarized.”
Olson says she hasn’t felt pressure from activist groups, though she knows they are very interested in her results.
With 14 years to go — if Olson can keep the funding flowing — the TransYouth Project has many key questions yet to address. Will trans kids who receive support continue to do well as they enter adolescence? If they delay puberty with drugs, what effect will that have? What happens to young adults who opt to have surgery, compared to those who don’t?
Those are tough decisions kids and their families have to make. All Olson and her team can do is follow the evidence where it takes them.
“No matter what you do, someone on some side probably won’t like it,” she says. “So you just have to do the best work you can.”