A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests surprising similarities in the developement of trans and cisgender youth.
The study was the largest ever of its kind, examining over 300 transgender children in the United States, as well as hundreds more siblings and unrelated cisgender kids as a control group. It was conducted as part of the University of Washington’s TransYouth project, led by psychology professor Kristina Olson.
Among the findings: Kids tend to gravitate toward toys, clothing, and friendships stereotypically associated with their expressed gender, whether that gender is the one assigned at birth or one they expressed later in childhood.
In other words, the researchers write: “Gender identity and gender-typed preferences manifest similarly in both cis- and transgender children, even those who recently transitioned.”
Participants in the study ranged in age from three to 12 and had already undergone social transitions but did not have surgical interventions. The children were asked about elements of their lives typically associated with gender, such as clothing, toys and friends, as well as each participants’ own gender identity. Researchers found there was no difference between the preferences and behaviors expressed by trans children as compared to cis children.
“Trans kids are showing strong identities and preferences that are different from their assigned sex,” wrote lead author Selin Gülgöz. “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.”
Researchers found most girls, whether trans or cis, gravitated toward stereotypically feminine clothing, toys, and playmates, as well as clearly identifying as girls.
There are several important caveats to consider in relation to the study, however. Because the term “social transition” means different things to different people, there may be particular variability among the lived experiences of the participants.
What’s more, the study places particular emphasis on gender binaries — both male and female, as well as trans and cis. It does not comment widely on the experiences of nonbinary youth.
Simona Giordano, an expert in gender identity at the University of Manchester Law School who did not work on the study, pointed out that this could reinforce the perception that categories of gender have firm boundaries, which they actually do not. In an interview with Newsweek, Giordano pointed out that there are at least 14 chromosomes that govern sex differentiation, and at least 30 genes involved in sex development.
Nevertheless, Giordano said the study bolsters the case for parents to respond to a child's expressed gender. Doing so will not “make them transgender” any more than encouraging girls to play with doll would “make them cisgender.”