'Sorely Needed' Study Weighs In on Early Transgender Identity

Those who begin IDing as transgender at young age tend to keep that identity, research finds
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 4, 2022 9:01 AM CDT
'Sorely Needed' Study Weighs In on Early Transgender Identity
Parents of transgender children and other supporters of transgender rights gather to speak about transgender legislation being considered in the Texas House and Senate on April 14, 2021, in Austin, Texas.   (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Children who begin identifying as transgender at a young age tend to retain that identity at least for several years, a study published Wednesday suggests. The research involved 317 youngsters who were 3 to 12 years old when they were recruited to the study. Five years later, at the study's end, 94% were living as transgender, and almost two-thirds were using either puberty-blocking medication or sex hormones to medically transition, per the AP. Most children in the study were from white, high-income families who supported their transitions. On average, the kids began identifying as transgender at around age 6. It's unknown whether similar results would be found among youngsters from less-advantaged backgrounds or those who begin identifying as transgender as teens. The study was published online in Pediatrics.

Politicians seeking to outlaw or criminalize medical treatment for transgender youth have cited evidence suggesting many children change their minds or "retransition." Some doctors say that's why transgender medication or surgery shouldn't be offered until adulthood, but rigorous research on the numbers is lacking. The Pediatrics study is one of the largest to look at the issue, although not all kids had started treatment and none had transgender surgery. Families were recruited to participate in the study from camps, conferences, social media groups for trans kids, and word of mouth in about 40 states. Kristina Olson, a Princeton University psychologist who led the study, said a few of the children transitioned back briefly during the study, but by the end, most had returned to a transgender identity.

"It suggests that our model of thinking about people as they're either X or Y, they're either cisgender or transgender ... is kind of an antiquated way of thinking about gender," Olson said. The Society for Evidence-Based Gender Medicine, a nonprofit group of health professionals concerned about medical transition risks for minors, said other evidence shows high numbers of kids outgrow transgender identities by puberty or adulthood. Some researchers, however, point to flaws in that data. The Pediatrics study is "incredibly timely ... and sorely needed," said Coleen Williams, a psychologist who works with Boston Children's Hospital's Gender Multispecialty Service, a clinic that treats transgender kids, and who wasn't involved with the study. "If you're in the trenches doing this work day in and day out with trans kiddos and their families, this is what we see."

(Read more transgender stories.)

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