Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of the thinky thoughts of anti-trans columnists, we had some actual research into children, gender dysphoria and gender identity?
Since 2013, Kristina Olson, a psychologist at the University of Washington, has been running a large, long-term study to track the health and well-being of transgender children—those who identify as a different gender from the one they were assigned at birth. Since the study’s launch, Olson has also heard from the parents of gender-nonconforming kids, who consistently defy gender stereotypes but have not socially transitioned. They might include boys who like wearing dresses or girls who play with trucks, but who have not, for example, changed the pronouns they use.
I’ve been a fan of the author, Ed Yong, for a long time: he’s a very talented and conscientious science writer. This is typical of his work: he’s taken Olson’s study and looked into it in some detail.
Unlike newspaper columnists, who offer zero evidence with 100% confidence, Olson offers detailed evidence but is also quick to point out the limitations of the study. Nevertheless, it’s interesting: children’s gender identity appears to be a pretty good predictor of whether they’ll turn out to be trans. From the article:
Charlotte Tate, a psychologist from San Francisco State University, says that this quantitative research supports what she and other transgender scholars have long noted through qualitative work: There really is something distinctive and different about the kids who eventually go on to transition. From interviews with trans people, “one of the most consistent themes is that at some early point, sometimes as early as age 3 to 5, there’s this feeling that the individual is part of another gender group,” Tate says. When told that they’re part of their assigned gender, “they’ll say, ‘No, that’s not right. That doesn’t fit me.’ They have self-knowledge that’s private and that they’re trying to communicate.”
This bit is key:
Olson’s team also showed that those differences in gender identity are the cause of social transitions—and not, as some have suggested, their consequence.
In other words, children are not coerced into having a particular gender identity: you can put Jimmy in as many dresses as you want but if Jimmy isn’t trans, he won’t suddenly become trans or develop gender dysphoria.
Older trans people are going “no shit, Sherlock” at this point: if it were possible to persuade people to change their gender identity, there wouldn’t be any trans people. You can’t talk people into or out of being trans any more than you can pray the gay away: some of us tried not to be trans for decades, and will spend decades trying to deal with the damage from that.
Once again there are very strong parallels between today’s harmful anti-trans bullshit and previously harmful anti-gay bullshit. That’s something the Atlantic article makes explicit, describing the work of American psychologist Evelyn Hooker.
In the 1950s, when many psychologists saw homosexuality as a mental illness (largely because they had only ever worked with gay people who had records of arrest or mental-health problems), Hooker surveyed a more representative sample and found that gay and straight men don’t differ in their mental health. That was instrumental in getting homosexuality removed from a list of mental-health disorders in 1987. “We’re sitting in a similar moment today with transgenderism,” says Devor. “The mental-health issues that we see are largely the result of living a life that blocks your expression of your gender. My view is that the work coming out of Olson’s group will have an Evelyn Hooker effect.”
I’m not naive enough to think this will have any effect on the mainstream media coverage of trans people in general and trans kids in particular: the moral panic is too well established. But it’s yet more evidence of the growing gap between the reality-based community and the commentariat. All too often, the you-couldn’t-make-it-up brigade are doing exactly that.