Transgender children as young as 5 years old respond to psychological gender-association tests just as consistently as children who do not identify as trans, according to a groundbreaking study released this week by researchers at the University of Washington.
"Our results support the notion that transgender children are not confused, delayed, showing gender-atypical responding, pretending, or oppositional," says the study being published in Psychological Science. “These results provide evidence that, early in development, transgender youths are nearly indistinguishable from cisgender children of the same gender identity.”
Gender Cognition in Transgender Children, noteworthy as the first report from the Trans Youth Project, the country’s first large-scale longitudinal study of transgender kids, concludes, "The data reported in this paper should serve as further evidence that transgender children do indeed exist and that this identity is a deeply held one."
The lead author, a professor at UW and director of the Trans Youth Project, Kristina Olson, told BuzzFeed News, “We think this matters, because a lot of the public discussion about transgender kids say these kids are pretending, these kids are being obstinate, or these kids don’t really think they are a girl, for example. These results suggest this isn’t something they are saying ... This is who they are. This isn’t a phase that they are going through at the moment.”
The research involved 32 transgender children, ages 5 to 12, who present full-time to the public as their gender identity and have the full support of their parents. The study compared those kids with control groups of siblings and other nontransgender children.
Researchers used several tools, including an Implicit Association Test, or IAT, to measure how quickly the children paired concepts that both reflect and conflict with their gender identity. Among other tests, subjects were exposed to images of princesses and the word “me,” the word “boy,” and the word “they,” then asked to categorize them quickly on a computer. Transgender children’s responses mirrored the cisgender control groups when matched by gender identity, the study found.
IATs have been widely used in psychological research to detect automatic associations, such as gauging a person’s reactions to people of a different race.
“When concepts are linked in your mind, you are faster to respond to them when they are paired together,” Olson explained. Even though “kids don’t understand why they are doing what they are doing on this computer,” and the difference in response times is a “matter of milliseconds,” Olson said the results surprised her.
“I thought there would be a difference between the degree to which a transgender girl associated herself with girls — compared to cisgender girls — simply because, for part of that transgender girl’s life, other people called her a boy,” Olson said.
"The reason I was wrong,” she continued, is that “I had this wrong interpretation that it was a switch. But for them, that is who they are and have been.”
Pointing out that transgender people experience higher rates of homelessness, suicide, and violence, Olson said research "hopefully could change a few minds, not only of parents but of people who could be allies to these kids in the world."
Olson is attempting to recruit a total of 100 transgender children for the Trans Youth Project, ranging from 3 to 12 years old, as part of the first longitudinal study in the country.
"We are trying to track this first generation to see what their lives look like going forward, partly to help parents make decisions about what to do if they have a transgender child. Until now, the only studies that existed were based on children’s therapy to not identify that way.”