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The gender identity expressed by transgender children is deeply rooted and not the result of confusion or pretense, a new study indicates.
In one of the first studies to use implicit measures (automatic gender associations beyond conscious awareness) as well as conscious self-report, researchers explored gender identity in 32 transgender children aged 5 to 12 years from supportive homes who were living out their self-identified gender in all areas of their lives. None of the children had reached puberty. They were age-matched with a group of cisgender (nontransgender) children for purposes of comparison.
The researchers used both self-report (explicit) tools that asked children to reflect on aspects of their gender and implicit evaluations aimed at assessing how strong the children’s more automatic gender associations were. They employed the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to explore how fast the children connected male and female gender with attributes linked to the concepts of “me” and “not me.” Faster responses are thought to indicate stronger associations between pairings.
On both implicit and explicit measures, data patterns for the transgender children were generally indistinguishable from findings for the cisgender children. Transgender children demonstrated strong implicit identification with their expressed gender on the IAT in the same fashion as cisgender children. On explicit measures of gender identity, transgender children expressed identical preferences in friends, toys, and food as corresponding cisgender children.
The researchers conclude that “while future studies are always needed, our results support the notion that transgender children are not confused, delayed, showing gender-atypical responding, pretending, or oppositional-they instead show responses entirely typical and expected for children with their gender identity.” Their data, the researchers note, provide additional evidence that transgender children exist and that their gender identity is “deeply held.”
Skepticism about whether children who haven’t gone through puberty can be transgender has started to give way recently to the view that children who identify as transgender should be permitted to live out their expressed gender identity rather than encouraged to feel comfortable with their biological gender.
The researchers hope to recruit and follow as many as 100 transgender children into adulthood to investigate the impact on their development of receiving support for their gender identity in childhood and determine whether they experience more positive outcomes than today’s transgender adults. They note that the project would be the first large-scale, nationwide, longitudinal study of transgender children in the United States.
The study findings will be published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.