A closer look at trajectories of childhood social gender transitions

Zinnia JonesI’ve previously covered certain popular misuses of figures on the proportion of gender-dysphoric children whose dysphoria desists or persists into adolescence following the onset of puberty. While the figure, commonly repeated as an 80% rate of desistance, is actually subject to a wide variety of estimates and may be much lower, of greater concern to me is how this statistic is often misinterpreted and misapplied.

Even granting an 80% desistance rate as accurate for the sake of argument, this figure is frequently used to assert something else entirely. Under the assumption that gender-dysphoric children are an essentially homogeneous group, many who oppose gender-affirmative approaches for trans children and adolescents will use this figure to suggest that any given individual trans child can safely be assumed to have overwhelming odds of their dysphoria desisting before or at the onset of puberty, meaning that affirmation of their cross-gender identity will likely be inappropriate over the longer term.

Putting aside the dangerous presumption that invalidation of a child’s gender identity by adults will somehow not cause harm to them even if that identification is transient and will change in a few years, the assumption of homogeneity is an unsound one. Previously, Steensma et al. (2013) found that older age at evaluation, having already undergone a social transition, greater intensity of gender-dysphoric symptoms (meeting the diagnostic criteria for childhood gender dysphoria), and explicitly expressing cross-sex identification (“I am a boy/girl”) were associated with persistence of gender dysphoria into adolescence. This indicates that those who persist in their dysphoria into adolescence, and those who desist, are not drawn from some singular group in which all members are basically the same – these may well be distinct subpopulations.

Recent research by Rae et al. (2019) investigates the related question of which gender-nonconforming children are likeliest to make a social transition in childhood, and which factors are most strongly associated with this. The authors followed a cohort of 85 non-transitioned gender-nonconforming children over a period of two years, and found that 36 of them had made a social transition at followup. What they found was that a greater degree of gender nonconformity, in terms of more extreme cross-gender identities and preferences, was associated with having made a social role transition two years later:

Our model predicted that a child with a gender-nonconformity score of .50 would have roughly a .30 probability (95% HDI = [.17–.42]) of socially transitioning. By contrast, a child with a  gender-nonconformity score of .75 would have roughly a .48 probability, 95% HDI = [.37, .60], of transitioning.

Given that social transition in childhood may itself be predictive of persistence of gender dysphoria into adolescence and adulthood, this study of individual factors associated with future social transition in childhood helps extend on our understanding of the course of gender identity development in transgender and gender-nonconforming youth.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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