Gender identity is as strong in transgender children as it is in cisgender children (those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth), no matter how long a child has been treated as being a gender they don’t identify with, according to initial findings from a University of Washington study that is the largest of its kind.
The results bolster earlier UW research that has found transitioning doesn’t affect a transgender child’s sense of self.
The study also found that transgender children’s gender development mirrors that of cisgender kids.
For example, just as cisgender children tend to show interest in toys and clothes that society stereotypically associates with their gender, transgender children tend to do the same for things associated with the gender they identify as.
Even if a transgender boy’s family treated him as a girl for the first few years of his life, he will notice cues about what society expects of boys and “self-socialize” to learn how to “be” the gender he identifies as instead, said Selin Gülgöz, a postdoctoral researcher in UW’s psychology department and lead author of a paper about the study, which was published Nov. 18 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).
“These children have a very clear understanding of the things assigned to the sexes,” Gülgöz said. “But it looks like, once they identify their gender, they are gravitating toward what society shows them.”
There is nuance when it comes to the influence of stereotypes, Gülgöz noted. How much girls like traditionally feminine things can vary, for instance, but researchers found that variance occurs to about the same extent in transgender girls as in cisgender girls, she said.
The UW researchers studied 822 children from the United States and Canada — 317 transgender children between the ages of 3 and 12, 189 of their cisgender siblings and 316 other cisgender children as a control group — and will follow them into adulthood.
Gülgöz said this study differs from other large studies of transgender children because all the children in UW’s study have socially transitioned to their present gender. Those children’s experiences might be expected to differ from those of children who are gender-nonconforming but haven’t transitioned, she said.
This research is part of the TransYouth Project, led by UW psychologist Kristina Olson, who earlier this year received the Alan T. Waterman Award, which is given to early-career scientists by the National Science Foundation, and was awarded a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Olson put a $1 million grant from the Waterman award toward the TransYouth Project.
Transgender populations are understudied, according to the American Psychological Association. The study will deepen the available literature about transgender children and could become a resource for transgender children and their families, Gülgöz said.
Understanding the findings could help adults better support children when it comes to gender identity, said Aidan Key, executive director of Gender Diversity, a Seattle-based organization supporting transgender people and their families. Key, a transgender man, has written and spoken extensively about children’s gender identity and is working on a book due out in late 2020 titled “Trans Children in Today’s Schools” (Oxford University Press).
“It’s not about the end destination,” he said. “It’s about making room for kids to explore and find their way.”
As with any study, the findings come with limitations and caveats: The transgender children involved had all socially transitioned and all came from at least somewhat supportive families that tended to be well-off financially. The study didn’t include children who use nonbinary pronouns such as “they.” About 68% of the children participating in the study were white, with the next-largest racial group being “other/multiracial,” at 9%. Researchers noted in the PNAS paper that they need to better understand how their findings hold up across race, a range of household incomes, and differing political ideologies and level of education among parents.
Previous UW research has shown that transgender children’s sense of gender identity was consistent whether it was tested before or after they transitioned socially. In a news statement about the more recent study, Olson explained: “Our data thus far suggest that the act of transitioning probably isn’t affecting gender identity one way or the other.”