When Is A Kid Truly Transgender?

Transgender Child In Washington, DC

The blogger Gendermom shares her story:

When I tell people that my [five-year-old] son is now my daughter, the responses are remarkably predictable. Faces cloud with confusion. People seem to wonder if they’ve heard me correctly. Or they suggest that it’s probably a phase, or that my son is just gay. They tell me that their little boy used to try on his big sister’s dresses, too, but not to worry–it all worked out okay in the end.

They are generally very kind and curious. But I can tell that the idea of my child is entering their consciousness like a visitor from an alien galaxy. They walk away from our conversations with stunned and thoughtful looks on their faces, as if they’re thinking, “Did she really just say that?” The problem I encounter most often is not one of prejudice, but of incredulity.

Earlier this year, Beth Schwartzapfel investigated the issue at length, centering on the controversial Canadian psychologist Kenneth Zucker, who would likely clash with Gendermom:

It’s now widely accepted that no amount of therapy can change a person’s sexual orientation, and Zucker says he would not try to do so. But gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same thing.

Sexual orientation is a matter of whom you are sexually attracted to. Gender identity is more elemental: It’s who you feel in your bones that you are. Zucker’s critics say that most transgender children know precisely who they are. “These kids come out very early and say, ‘Mommy, I’m in the wrong body,’” Schreier says.

Sure, Zucker says, but that doesn’t make it a fait accompli. Children’s gender identity is plastic and malleable, he says, shaped and formed by the world around them, by the feedback they receive, by the emotional resonance of the things they do, by their personal relationships, even by the clothes they wear. If this is true, then it should be possible for these kids to change.

Zucker is quick to point out that his clinic has referred more than 60 kids for the medical interventions required to begin their transitions; a paper he wrote on the subject was, in fact, the first such study published in North America. By age 11 or 12, he concedes, trans kids are typically “locked in” to their gender identity, and for them, “I very much support that pathway, because I think that is going to help them have a better quality of life.”

But it’s different, he says, for younger kids. “If a child can grow up and feel comfortable in his or her own skin that matches their birth sex,” Zucker argues, “then you avoid the complexity of fairly serious surgical treatments. Penectomy and castration are not the same thing as having mild and minor cosmetic surgery. Lifelong hormonal therapy. It’s serious.”

Previous Dish on transgender kids here, here, here, and here.

(Photo: Five-year-old Tyler, known until last fall as Kathryn, gets a haircut from his dad at their suburban Washington, D.C., home on March 12, 2012. Tyler’s insistence on being a boy started at the early age of 2. By Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)