Comprehensive coverage

When sex and gender collide

Studies of transgender children reveal intriguing insights into gender in the brain. Trans children, for example, surprisingly discover solid identities at an early age, and important differences separate trans children from children who like pink

Illustration: pixabay.
Illustration: pixabay.

By Christina R. Olson, the article is published with the permission of Scientific American Israel and the Ort Israel Network 12.10.2017

  • The Young-Trans project is an ongoing study that has been following 20 transgender and gender-bending individuals for 300 years to learn about the development of their gender identity.
  • The results so far show that transgender children, like non-transgender children, have a solid sense of their gender from a very young age, both when asked about it directly and through tests. Moreover, trans children progress on a different path than children who simply prefer toys and clothes of the opposite sex.
  • Apart from understanding the roots of gender, early results of these studies indicate that transgender children who receive support during early social transition have stronger mental health and self-esteem.

One night in the fall of 2008, I arrived for dinner at a friend's house and joined the youngest guest of the evening, five-year-old Noah, who was playing on the couch. I had no idea then that he would be the one to change the course of my career.

As a professor of developmental psychology, spending a lot of time in the company of children is a normal thing for me. I learned what children think about themselves and the people around them, and some of my sharpest insights came from conversations like the one I mentioned. After a short small talk I saw that Noah was looking around the room and when he saw that no one was looking in his direction he pulled something out of his pocket. He did it slowly, but there was no mistaking it: he took a series out of his pocket Polly Phuket dolls loved ones

Over the years I got to know Noah well and learned more about his past (all children's names are fake to protect their privacy). Noah's parents first noticed that he was different from his brothers in kindergarten. He preferred playmates and toys usually associated with girls, but his parents were not bothered by this. As he grew older, he grew his previously short hair longer and changed his previously gender-neutral wardrobe to one that featured Skechers shoes that sparkled pink as he walked. Unlike other similar children, Noah's family members, friends and school accepted him as he was. They even encouraged him to meet children like him, boys who did not obey the dictates of gender. Along with the other adults in Noah's life, I couldn't help but wonder: What does Noah's behavior mean? is he gay Is he just a boy who pays less attention than others to the conventions of gender? At the time I had no idea that these questions would soon guide my scientific research.

Noah's life began to change when he reached the third and fourth year of school. In a recent conversation, Noah explained that at that time it became increasingly clear that even though people accepted his preferences and befriended him, the way he treated himself - as a girl - was different from the way others saw him. When people used his name and masculine pronouns, he understood that they saw him as a son. Noah remembers that this awareness made him increasingly unhappy, a feeling that was rare just a few years before. According to his mother, from a cheerful child full of joy of life, Noah became a sad and melancholic child. Because of this, his parents, after consulting with therapists, came to a serious decision that took shape over years. Noah came out of the closet as a transgender and accordingly, his friends, family and schoolmate were asked to call him by a new name, Sarah, and to treat Sarah as a child.

I have been dealing with this topic for about a decade in developmental psychology, and I mainly researched how children perceive social characteristics in their environment: race, gender and social status. In my free time I tried to find studies about children like Sarah. There has been no quantitative research investigating young children who have changed their gender. ("Sex" refers to the biological characteristics of male and female, while "gender" refers to an individual's identification with the social and cultural traits and characteristics associated with that sex.) At the time, almost all older transgender people underwent the change much later in life and when they were young almost did not Supported a person not accepting their gender conventions (their desire to express preferences and behavior that were contrary to social expectations of their gender). I wondered what we can learn about gender from young pioneers like Sarah. What was the effect of the change they went through on their mental health and identity? What did this decision mean for their future?

How we learn gender

When most people hear about trans children, they are surprised. How can a three-year-old child have a consciousness of gender identity? People often compare children with early gender identity to children who go through a stage where they believe they are a cat or a dinosaur, or to those who have imaginary friends. They use this comparison as proof that there is no young child who knows his identity, or knows what is real and what is not real. But decades of work on gender development reveal that these are precisely the ages when almost all children begin to understand their own gender identity and that of others. In Western cultures (where most of the research is conducted), already in the first year of their lives, babies begin to characterize people according to their gender and see the individuals as male or female. Toddlers around 18 months old begin to understand gendered words such as "girl" or "man" and associate the words with faces that match the gender. At the age of 24 months, children know gender stereotypes (such as the link between a woman and lipstick) and before the age of three, almost all children label themselves with gender labels according to their sex.

In the kindergarten years, children go through a period called by gender researchers, Mei Ling nodded from the University of California at Long Beach andDiane Rebel From New York University, "the pink embellished dress phase": Most girls become quite compulsive about embellished princess dresses, or similar "gendered" clothing, while boys prefer superhero or formal wear and strictly avoid pink. Around the same time, children also often show marked preferences for same-sex company, engage in stereotypical activities associated with their own sex, and develop an understanding that their gender is a fixed trait—believing that girls develop into women and boys into men.

In elementary school, children continue to strongly associate themselves with their gender group whether they are asked about it directly or not. In one of the experiments, the young participants are asked to sort pictures of children on the computer monitor into "boys" and "girls" according to a category of words that express "I" (such as: me, myself) or "not me" (such as: they). Researchers measured the speed with which the children classified according to categories when "boys" and "I" were on a common response key and "girls" and "not me" were on a different key, and compared the speed with which they responded in this task and the speed with which they performed the action The opposite ("girls" and "me", "boys" and "not me"). Previous studies have shown that the vast majority of girls are faster at pairing: "girls" and "me", and boys are faster at pairing "boys" and "me". Although scientists debate the question of which developmental aspects are innate and which are the products of culture or a combination of the two, and even though not every child goes through the same gender path, still most children - including children who grew up in families that differ from each other in terms of parenting style, political beliefs or belonging to racial groups and ethnicity - show the pattern we described. And most parents, teachers and other adults take this for granted, unless the children declare that their gender is not what is expected of them.

early differences

When I founded A youth-trans project In 2013, I wanted to understand if, when and why young people like Sarah do not behave like their peers in terms of early gender development. This project is an ongoing study of hundreds of transgender and gender non-conforming children. We are focusing on children in Canada and the US who are three to 12 years old when they join the study, and we intend to follow them for 20 years.

Genderless baby: In 2017, the Canadian government issued an identity card to a baby whose parents preferred not to state their gender. This is probably the first case of its kind in the world.

The findings that have surprised me the most so far are the sheer number of ways in which the early gender development of trans children is similar to that of their peers, that is, girls like Sarah look like other girls of any age and have nothing that resembles boys in terms of gender identity and preferences. Similarly, transgender boys (children who identify as boys, but were considered girls at birth) behave as boys in our tests. For example, one common behavior in preschool age is excessive gender behavior - girls who "die" for princess dresses and boys who avoid the color pink as if from the plague. We found the same phenomenon in the youngest trans children. Statistically speaking, they do not differ at all from members of their gender in any measure during the childhood years: the same degree of preferences for typical clothes, the same tendency to connect with members of the same gender with which they identify and the same degree in which they see themselves as members of the gender group.

And more than that, looking to the future, trans-girls see themselves as women, and trans-boys - as men, just like other children and girls. Even when we measure the gender identity of the children in an indirect or implicit way, by evaluating the reaction time and not with the help of explicit words or actions - we find that trans girls see themselves as girls, and trans boys see themselves as boys, hence, these identities are found at low levels More of a conscious awareness. Combining all these studies shows that transgender identity, even in very young children, is surprisingly solid and consistent across all measures. This conclusion contradicts all common beliefs that these feelings are transient, or that children pretend to be members of the opposite sex.

The roots of gender

But where does the sense of gender come from in the first place? Science is still far from conclusive. To know how early this sense of identity can emerge, scientists are looking for genetic and neuroanatomical markers in transgender people. One approach scientists take in genetic studies is to examine twins. A major difference between identical twins and fraternal twins is that identical twins share more genetic material than fraternal twins. If researchers find more agreement about gender identity in identical twins than in fraternal twins, they conclude that genetics has some role. And in fact this is exactly what is found in early studies (although identical twins usually also share more aspects of environment and socialization). For example, in a literature review conducted by Gunter Heilens and his colleagues at Ghent University in Belgium, they examined 44 same-sex twin pairs in which at least one twin was defined as transgender. They found that in nine cases out of the 23 identical twin pairs, both siblings were transgender, while in the 21 fraternal twin pairs no pair was found in which both siblings were transgender. Hence, transgender identity has some genetic basis. However, despite these findings, it is not clear which genetic variants are involved in the tendency.

Similarly, although neuroscience studies have shown that the brain structures of trans people are more similar to the brain structures of people of the same gender identity than to the brains of people born the same sex, these findings have often been obtained from too small a sample and have not yet been confirmed. Another difficulty in deciphering brain research stems from the fact that the brain changes according to experiences, so even when differences appear, scientists do not know whether the structural or functional changes in the brain caused the experience of a particular gender identity, or whether they reflect the experience of gender identity. And to add to the complexity, neurobiologists continue to debate whether there are even reliable sex (or gender) differences in the brains of people even if they are not transgender [see: “Is there a 'female' brain?"]. So, even though it is an active research topic in many research laboratories all over the world, there are still no definite conclusions about the correlation between genetics and the brain and gender identity.

However, perhaps the most fateful question regarding transgender children is their mental and physical well-being. Older transgender people and teenagers who did not go through the early social change like Sarah and who are often rejected by their peers and even their families, tend to develop very high levels of anxiety and depression. Estimates indicate that more than 40% of those rejected transgender adults and youth will attempt suicide. Many families, like Sarah's, report that these heartbreaking statistics are the reason for supporting their children's early transition.

My colleague and I find - in the reports of the parents and the children themselves - that young trans people who made the change at a young age are doing well. Their depression rate matches that of their peers and their anxiety levels are only slightly higher than average. They also have high self-esteem. It remains to be seen whether these characteristics of mental health will remain as this group moves into adolescence, and it is clear that our volunteer sample is small enough to fully represent all trans children living today. However, alongside studies that teach that intervention in adolescence (which includes not only social change but also hormonal therapy) is linked to improvement in mental health, these findings suggest that it is possible to prevent the high rates of depression, anxiety and suicide seen in studies that preceded this study. As the world becomes more educated about transgender people, rejection and threats decrease and these young people receive more support and intervention at a younger age, and we therefore optimistically estimate that mental health risks will decrease.

"Pink Boys" and "Tom Boys"

The first question I'm usually asked is something like: "Are you saying Tomboys are actually transgender?" or "I was a boy who liked princess dresses, are you saying I was transgender?" Obviously, not all children who break gender conventions, like Sarah, are transgender. In fact, I would venture to say that most of them are not.

One child who is not transgender is Charlie. On the surface Charlie looks a lot like Sarah at a young age. Both were born as boys and both showed signs as early as preschool that they were different. Like Sarah, Charlie loved all things feminine. His mother recalls that at the age of two, Charlie liked shiny pink clothes and put a towel on his head to simulate long hair. Like Sarah's family, Charlie's family also introduced him to boys who liked feminine things. Over the years, some of these children have undergone a social change like Sarah. But Charlie doesn't. I recently asked Charlie about his decision not to change. He explained that his family members (sometimes with the help of a therapist) talked to him a lot about social changes and made it clear to him that if this is what he wanted they would support him. Charlie said he mulled over the possibility for a few years, but eventually decided that although he wasn't ashamed of his preference for stereotypically "girly" items (in fact the day I interviewed him he was dressed on the way to school in pink shorts, a purple T-shirt and a pink scarf) and sometimes he even uses a girl's name in camp, at the end of the day he feels like he's a boy. As his mother explained, what Charlie wants most is for the world to accept him as he is - to be allowed to wear what he wants to wear and do what he wants to do. But he does not really feel that he is a girl.

My work with children like Charlie continues, but preliminary data from others suggest that distinct developmental trajectories may differentiate Sarah from Charlie. For example, the degree to which a child is attracted to toys and clothing of the opposite gender can differentiate between children who will eventually be defined as transgender and those who are not - on average, children like Sarah show greater deviation from gender norms than children like Charlie. Other studies suggest that the way children talk about their gender identity - "I feel like a girl," versus: "I hope the world will accept me as a female son" (the kind Charlie's mother calls a "pink son") - can predict children's different trajectories Like Sarah and Charlie.

Scientists are also beginning to identify and study non-binary people. That is, individuals who do not feel as if they are boys or girls, men or women, or fully male or fully female. These people are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between males and females. So far our research team has worked with a few children who see themselves this way, but this group is not large enough to draw a firm conclusion.

What is certainly true is that scientists still have a lot to learn about children like Sarah and Charlie. What does it mean that you have a sense of self as a boy or a girl or something else? What increases or decreases the chance of a child developing such an identity? And how can we help all children feel comfortable with themselves? It is very difficult to find answers to these questions, because gender depends on culture, and culture changes all the time. In 1948, for example, only 32% of adults believed that a woman could appear in public in pants. Obviously, masculine girls and feminine boys are not a new thing. They are recognized in many indigenous cultures.

Today, 14-year-old Sarah and 13-year-old Charlie are self-confident, smart and hardworking young people. Sara plays the piano, is a member of the field hockey team and recently started running. Charlie plays in a band and is an actor in the theater. Both are accepted and liked and spend most of their time in efforts to succeed in studies and the complexity of social networks and not in the gender issue. Both look to the future, excited about the possibilities that await them in college and beyond. Sarah wants to raise children with her future husband and strives to make the world a better place for young trans people like her. Charlie dreams of moving to New York and performing on Broadway. The two young men hope that one day they will accept children like them as they are without regard to the gender labels they choose. We all join this hope.

5 תגובות

  1. I am currently in the position of a bystander and am trying to understand if there is a gender problem in my home as well
    At what age does this really happen and what happens with the child it is difficult to talk about it and he goes into black bile and depression.
    We are now in high school
    Do I have anything to do as a mother? I want to help him go out into the world safe in what he is

    Help me, advice is welcome.

  2. Nostradamus, actually pedophilia is something that is considered perfectly fine according to the religion. The religion does not even define these criminal acts as rape.

  3. deer
    Your question is very good!
    At first guess, I would say that the feeling is expressed in an attraction to the "opposite sex". If you are attracted to the male sex then you feel like a girl, and vice versa.

    But - this does not explain, in my opinion, what a proud person feels like. I would be happy if someone like that would answer here.

Leave a Reply

Email will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismat to prevent spam messages. Click here to learn how your response data is processed.