Trans kids prefer playing with toys and wearing clothes that are different from the sex assigned to them at birth, finds study
Transgender children show strong identities and behaviors and they gravitate towards toys, clothes, and friends that are different from the sex assigned to them at birth.
This is regardless of how long they have actually lived as a member of that gender, say researchers in a new study that assessed gender identity and gender expression in a group of 317 children aged 3 to 12 years in the US and Canada.
This implies, for example, that transgender boys (assigned females at birth), on average identified as boys, favored stereotypically masculine toys and clothes, and preferred to be friends with boys.
The findings, says the team, implies that transgender children show a clear pattern of gender development associated with their current gender and not their sex assigned at birth.
According to the researchers, how — and for how long — a transgender child was treated as their assigned sex does not appear to affect their current gender identity and expression.
"Trans kids are showing strong identities and preferences that are different from their assigned sex. There is almost no difference between these trans and cisgender kids of the same gender identity — both in how and the extent to which they identify with their gender or express that gender," says lead author Selin Gülgöz, who did the work as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, US.
The behavior is similar to cisgender, who often show preferences and behaviors that are highly stereotypical of their gender. "For example, they show strong preferences for same-gender playmates by age three, preferences for gender-typed toys throughout early and middle childhood, and gender-typed clothing preferences," says the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
"Gender identity and gender-typed preferences manifest similarly in both cis and transgender children, even those who recently transitioned," it says.
The amount of time that had passed since the children's social transition was not associated with either stronger or weaker gender identity. According to the authors, these findings suggest that gender development in transgender children does not necessarily show a "lingering impact of birth sex assignment."
"We are not seeing any increases or decreases over time in how strongly transgender children identify with their current gender," says Gülgöz, who will start a new position this winter as an assistant professor at Fordham University.
The team recommends that future work should address how demographics and family support influence gender development.
Findings part of TransYouth Project
This is the first study to report on all the participants in the TransYouth Project, launched in 2013 by UW professor of psychology, Kristina Olson.
The TransYouth Project is a large-scale, national longitudinal study of over 300 socially-transitioned transgender children. The participants were recruited when they were 3-12 years of age, and the researchers are hoping to follow them for 20 years.
The study also followed nearly 200 of their cisgender siblings and about 300 unrelated cisgender children as a control group.
The transgender children in this study had socially — but not medically — transitioned when they participated. This, says the team, implies that they had changed their pronouns and often their first names, as well as dress and play in ways associated with a gender other than their sex at birth.
In Western societies, past generations of transgender individuals typically underwent social transition to live in accordance with their asserted gender identity in adolescence or adulthood.
In recent years, however, the number of children socially transitioning in preschool or elementary school years has increased, says the team. The researchers thus attempted to answer the question: What does a transgender child's gender development look like?
For this study, researchers met individually with participants and their parents at participants' homes, conferences, and camps. Participants were asked about specific aspects of life that are typically connected to gender — clothing, toys, and friends. The researchers also evaluated participants' sense of their own gender identity.
Unlike their cisgender peers, the transgender children lived as a member of one gender before being treated as a member of another gender. The team compared the gender development of the transgender cohort with that of cisgender children, including siblings.
Across multiple measures of identity and gender typing, the transgender children showed few differences from cisgender children.
The researchers found that the transgender children showed, on average, strong preferences and behaviors associated with their current gender, just as the cisgender children with whom they were compared.
"Transgender children strongly identify as members of their current gender group and show gender-typed preferences and behaviors that are strongly associated with their current gender, not the gender typically associated with their sex assigned at birth," the findings state.
When asked to identify their gender, an equivalent percentage of cisgender and transgender children -- 83% and 84%, respectively -- named their current gender.
Further, while in both groups there were, for example, some tomboys, on average, most transgender girls, like their cisgender counterparts, wore stereotypically feminine clothing, chose toys such as dolls to play with, preferred playing with female playmates, and identified themselves clearly as girls, and not boys. Thus, the transgender group looked similar to the cisgender group in both the range of responses and the most common responses.
The similarities, according to the researchers, were somewhat surprising because transgender children, unlike their cisgender counterparts, were early in life treated as a gender other than the one they currently identify as.
No impact of early-sex specific socialization
The analysis also shows that early sex assignment and parental rearing based on that sex assignment do not always define how a child identifies or expresses gender later.
As part of the study, researchers asked parents for photographs of their child from birth through toddlerhood at typical social events such as birthdays and holidays to capture information such as what the child wore or what their room looked like.
These images helped show that transgender children were initially socialized among families and friends as the gender associated with their sex at birth. However, years later, there appears to be no impact of that early sex-specific socialization.
These results suggest that years later, the effect of this early sex-specific socialization is not apparent on these measures of children's gender preferences and identities.
The findings suggest that transgender children may be self-socializing to learn how to "be" their current gender. The data, says Olson, thus far suggest that the act of transitioning probably is not affecting gender identity one way or the other.
"Kids are not passive about their environment. Once they have a sense of their gender identity, they will look for cues from their environment, noticing what society's expectations are, and attending to information about the gender they identify as," says Gülgöz.
The findings, say the researchers, do not imply that gender socialization is unimportant in early development. On the contrary, early development appears to be the time when, for example, children learn which toys or clothing or activities are stereotyped as masculine or feminine in their culture, they explain.
"The children in our study seem to have learned this information by ages 3 and 4, as even our youngest transgender participants showed clearly gendered preferences. Therefore, the transgender children in our sample are showing signs of broader knowledge about gender likely gained through living in their society," says the study.
"They just do not appear to show an impact of early direct socialization geared toward the gender they were assumed to be at birth, at least on the measures assessed here," the researchers add.