Similarity in transgender and cisgender children's gender development

Researchers find that transgender children show a clear pattern of gender development associated with their current gender and not their sex assigned at birth.

Introduction

Children undergo gender socialization when they learn about the social expectations, attitudes, and behaviors generally associated with being a girl or a boy. Transgender children experience different gender socialization from their cisgender peers (children whose gender identities align with their sex assignment at birth) because for part of their childhoods, they were treated as members of one gender (before transitioning) and are later treated as members of another gender (after transitioning). This unique socialization experience raises several important questions about gender development (i.e., identity, self-perceptions, attitudes, behaviors).

Studying gender development among children who have experienced socialization of two genders grants researchers novel insight into gender development. In this study, the authors examined the extent to which young transgender children’s sense of their gender identity and their expression of that identity differs from the gender identities and expressions of their cisgender peers. The authors also sought to determine whether the time that a transgender child has spent living and being treated by others as their current gender informs the extent of their conformity to their gender identity. This study sheds light on gender development that previously solely focused on cisgender children and provides the largest report to date of the experiences of early-transitioning children’s gender development.

Findings

Overall, the authors find that transgender children showed a clear pattern of gender development associated with their current gender and not their sex assigned at birth.

  • Transgender children strongly identify as members of their current gender group and show gender-typed preferences and behaviors that are strongly associated with their current gender, not the gender typically associated with their sex assigned at birth.
    • For example, transgender boys (assigned females), on average, identified as boys, favored stereotypically masculine toys and clothes, and preferred to be friends with boys.
  • Transgender children’s gender identity (i.e., the gender they feel they are) and gender-typed preferences generally did not differ from two comparison groups: cisgender siblings and cisgender controls.
    • On the explicit gender identity measure, which asked participants if they were a boy, a girl, or something else, transgender participants, cisgender controls, and cisgender siblings were all more likely to respond with their current gender (transgender: 84%; cisgender controls: 83%; cisgender siblings: 87%) than with the other gender or “something else.”
    • However, the groups differed on the implicit gender identity measure, which assessed the relative speed of associating oneself with the categories “boys” or “girls”. While all groups associated themselves with their current gender, transgender children did so to a lesser extent than cisgender controls.
    • For stated clothing preferences, transgender participants showed stronger gender-typed clothing preferences than controls and siblings.
  • Transgender and cisgender children’s patterns of gender development showed coherence across measures and the magnitude of these associations was similar across groups.
    • For instance, children who had more stereotypical toy preferences also tended to have stronger gender identification and stereotypical clothing preferences.
  • There were minimal or no differences in gender identity or preferences as a function of how long transgender children had lived as their current gender.
    • After controlling for age, longer time since transition predicted less stereotypical clothing preferences, but no other significant associations between time since transition and any of the measures (i.e., toy preferences, peer preferences).

The authors’ findings suggest that early sex assignment and parental rearing based on that sex assignment do not always define how a child identifies or expresses gender later. Future research is needed to examine whether these findings could be further generalizable in samples with different demographic characteristics (i.e., samples in the U.S. with a different range of household income, parental political ideology, race, and level of education; or in other countries and with families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds).

Methodology

The authors collected data from 317 transgender children (208 transgender girls and 109 transgender boys) from across the United States. They recruited 2 comparison groups: 1) the Sibling Group and 2) the Control Group. In the Sibling Group, the researchers recruited a close-in-age cisgender sibling of each transgender participant who was also 3-12 years old. In the Control Group, unrelated cisgender participants were recruited to match each transgender child by gender and age. Control participants were recruited from a university database from one major metropolitan area in the Pacific Northwest.

Participants received a series of tasks that assessed multiple indicators of gender development, including gender identity; implicit gender identity; perceived similarity to their own and “opposite” gender; toy, peer, and clothing preferences; and gender-typed behavior (outfit at appointment). All three groups (transgender, sibling, control) received the same measures. Parents also filled out a questionnaire packet containing questions about demographics.

Intersectionality

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