By Kashmira Gander
Trans children who live as the gender they identify with act and develop similarly to their cisgender counterparts, according to a new study.
In the largest ever study of transgender children, scientists recruited 317 3 to 12-year-old transgender children, 189 of their siblings, and 316 cisgender kids who acted as controls. The transgender participants had socially transitioned, meaning they were living as the gender they identify with rather than what they were assigned at birth. For instance, a child with a penis assigned a boy at birth who has come out as and is living as a girl.
To conduct the study, the researchers met families across North America, study co-author Selin Gülgöz, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington, told Newsweek. They spoke to children and parents about the former’s gender identity. That included showing kids toys and asking which ones they preferred, and quizzing them on how similar they felt to boys or girls. The cisgender control group followed the same steps.
“The most surprising finding is, overall, just how similar transgender and cisgender kids looked,” Gülgöz told Newsweek. “What this means is that, if I saw the data of any random participant, I would not be able to tell if that child is transgender or cisgender.”
“Within both transgender and cisgender children, we find a wide range in the strength of their identity and preferences. For example, we had some ‘tomboy’ transgender girls in the study, just as we had ‘tomboy’ cisgender girls.”
As the trans rights movement has gained mainstream attention in the past half decade or so, some have debated the legitimacy of the marginalized group’s experiences. Some have controversially argued that teaching children about trans issues is confusing, that children shouldn’t be allowed to transition, or that doing so perpetuates damaging gender stereotypes, for instance that girls wear pink or are submissive.
Gülgöz said the study can’t answer whether children should be allowed to socially transition due to its design. But the findings “show that the time a child spends living as transgender does not appear to change their gender identity, or make their preferences in gender-stereotypical clothes or toys more prominent, which lends support to previous research suggesting that early social transitions are not likely to be the cause of transgender children’s gender identities.”
“This study does show that in fact not all trans girls (or cis girls) want to wear frilly pink dresses or play with dolls. We in fact see plenty of trans kids violating these stereotypes, just as we see cis kids do so,” said Gülgöz.
“Other work in our lab has shown that trans kids either endorse gender stereotypes at equal rates or less than cis kids so the idea that trans kids are perpetuating stereotypes does not appear to hold up.”
According to her team’s findings, Gülgöz said it’s not possible to speculate why children—both cis and trans—appear to be drawn towards different interests, styles of clothing, and whether this is due to socialization, biology, or something else entirely.
Gülgöz acknowledged the study was limited because all of the children had socially transitioned, and the participants were studied in one moment in time. The cohort was also skewed in favor of children from higher-income homes with educated parents. It’s unclear if the same patterns would be found in other samples, she said.
The team plans to revisit the families and chart the participants’ development every three years.