No, not all trans people “always knew” since childhood

Zinnia JonesThe infamous “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” study by Littman (2018) made use of a peculiar methodology to support its conclusions: querying only parents on when they became aware that their child was transgender, and treating the acquisition of this awareness ac synonymous with the moment their child “became” transgender. This approach mirrored the common folk notion among unaccepting parents that their child “never showed any signs” of being transgender, and therefore must be mistaken about their newly-voiced gender identity and almost surely must be cisgender after all. This unique approach doesn’t assess a trans person’s timeline of gender identity development, only a cis parent’s desire to believe that their child’s transness is false and fleeting so that they can count on the certainty of ultimately having an assumed-cisgender child once more.

For this reason, the “ROGD” study produced conclusions directly at odds with the existing literature on trans identity development and disclosure. When trans people themselves are surveyed, studies repeatedly find that they were aware of their trans identity for many years prior to their first disclosure to another person – information that is completely erased when cis people are surveyed on when a trans person came out to them. Various publications identify a gap of several years between initial self-awareness of a trans identity and initial disclosure of this identity to others. And a recent study further illuminates the differing experiences of trans youth throughout the process of clarifying their gender identity.

Medico et al. (2020) interviewed 10 trans youth and their parents attending a support group in Switzerland; the youth ranged in age from 9 to 21, with seven trans boys and three trans girls. Consistent with the findings of other publications, the authors reported that “a few months to a few years elapsed from the moment youth reached self-understanding to when they first came out to others.” However, their experiences were not homogeneous and did not follow a single straightforward path – instead, the authors identified three distinct pathways of development and disclosure among these youth.

One pathway, that of the “affirmed” children, involves expression of a cross-gender identity to the family in early childhood. Crucially, these children may be acutely aware of family disapproval and may modify their expressions of gender for this reason:

If a parent for example, does not want the child to express their felt gender, the child will reassure their parent by acting in a way as to confirm this significant adult’s point of view. Children may therefore seem ambivalent about their gender while they are in fact navigating a stressful situation and managing fear of rejection.

Another group, the “silent” children, had a “felt, embodied sense of something being wrong” that “was difficult to label or express”, and so they concealed or repressed this during their childhood despite experiencing “internal conflict regarding gender for many years”. These youth only revealed their gender identity at the onset of puberty, which “induced overwhelming body dysphoria coupled with social dysphoria”, and this group came out as trans to others between the ages of 12 and 17. One parent recounted the protracted course of their child’s gender identity development which they were not contemporaneously privy to:

“Then after he told me that he’d been questioning for more than two years, he’d looked on various websites some. Then all of a sudden one day he came across people like him and it made him feel good and he said ‘That’s it, I’m transgender’. So he explored for two years before talking to me.

Finally, a third group followed a “neutral” pathway. Like the silent group, these youth came out as trans at puberty once “social pressure and the development of secondary sexual characteristics made gender become an issue”. But unlike the silent children, “neutral” youth did not experience the distress of gender incongruence to the same degree prior to puberty – instead, “they didn’t question their gender or repress their gender expression” and “report living either as non-gendered or in a gender that suited them”. The authors note that the neutral group included assigned-female youth who “lived a form of social masculinity during childhood” until this became socially unacceptable at the onset of puberty:

Social pressure to conform is reported as becoming very strong at puberty for youth assigned female at birth, inducing intense distress and attempts to conform among youth who hadn’t conformed before.

One experience shared by all three groups is that once puberty began, “there was too much pain” due to unwanted bodily changes: “silent children can no longer elude or escape facing gender identification and neutral children discover how deep and embodied their gender nonconformity is”. As might be expected, some parents did not anticipate this development: “At the moment of coming out some parents report they were surprised, some expected it and some were relieved because they were anxious about their youth experiencing depression and suicidal ideation and not knowing why.”

The authors make clear that “no evidence indicates that youth suddenly become trans at adolescence” – instead, this clarification and emergence is the result of a process that includes several factors. Among these are gender subjectivity, an internal feeling of something not being right; embodiment, the understanding that this feeling relates to bodily sexed features and social experiences of gender; and gender identity, the actual identification with an explicit trans label. For these children, this process is anything but a simple, sudden, or rash decision.

As this is a small sample of trans youth, it may not necessarily have captured even more complex experiences of gender identity development that may exist. However, what these results do show is that the perspectives and perceptions of trans youth and their parents are clearly two distinct things: a child who hasn’t come out as trans to their parent may not therefore be cisgender, they may actually be transgender and understandably concealing this from disapproving family. It also elaborates on the traditional rudimentary division between early-onset (pre-pubertal) and late-onset (post-pubertal) gender dysphoria: this dysphoria may take different forms in childhood for different trans people, and puberty may reveal an “early-onset” dysphoria that had been present all along. Perhaps most importantly, it speaks against the widespread misconception, still held by many cis people and even some trans people, that one must have been acutely aware of being trans from one’s earliest memories in order for one’s gender to be accepted as valid. As can be seen even among a handful of trans youth, there is no one way to be trans.

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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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