In her recent study on transgender children, Dr. Kristina Olson of the University of Washington boldly seeks to prove transgender association is neither confusion nor pretense, but instead an immediate fixed identification of oneself. By focusing on children, Olson hopes to create an acceptance for children making transgender associations at a younger age, freeing them of any body-related insecurity that results in adulthood and promoting a healthy sense of self.

Olson, who works as a specialist for transgendered youth at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, told CBS News that her patients often experience gender dysphoria. She defines this as "persistent unhappiness, discomfort, and distress about the incongruence between the gender that you are assigned, based on your anatomy at birth, versus the way you internally experience gender." Olson’s mission has always been to help combat this, as well as give parents a better understanding of who their children are.

She states in a press release, “Seeing how little scientific information there was, basically nothing for parents, was hard to watch. Doctors were saying, ‘We just don’t know,’ so the parents have to make these really big decisions: Should I let my kid go to school as a girl, or should I make my kid go to school as a boy? Should my child be in therapy to try to change what she says she is, or should she be supported?”

Olson advocates the latter, as her study finds proof for why support is warranted. To prove how deeply rooted the identification with the opposite gender is within transgender children, Olson recruited 32 transgender children, ages 5 to 12, who came from environments that supported their choice to live as their identified gender. These children were specifically chosen because they had not reached adolescence in an attempt to disprove the claim that transgender identity associations cannot happen before the onset of puberty.

Olson and her colleagues used both self-report methods, along with implicit measures in order to more clearly ascertain how deeply held gender identity is in these children. Olson also recruited cisgender children (non-transgender children) and matched them to the age of transgender participants in order to compare results. Findings were published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Implicit measures during the testing were based on the commonly employed Implicit Association Test (IAT), used to measure the speed with which participants associated gender, both male and female, with concepts of “me” and “not me.” The belief is that participants will respond more quickly to associations more deeply felt. What Olson found was that the implicit associations of transgender children were indistinguishable from the cisgender children; they just as quickly identified with the opposite gender as cisgender children did with their gender identity.

Explicit, self-reporting measures involved direct questioning of the children about their identity. Once again, Olson found that transgender children showed the same pattern of results as their cisgender counterparts. Transgender girls, for example, reported preferring to hang out with girls as well as liking certain toys and foods that other girls liked.

Olson reported that, though further research must be done, her findings suggest that transgender identity is deeply held within children. She says, “Our results support the notion that transgender children are not confused, delayed, showing gender-atypical responding, pretending, or oppositional — they instead show responses entirely typical and expected for children with their gender identity.” In other words, transgender children are just like all other children; they just weren’t born with the gender they identify with.

Olson has high hopes for her future of transgender research. She plans to recruit up to 100 more transgender children and follow them into adulthood. In doing so, she hopes to see how living as their identified gender from youth will positively affect the individuals in adulthood. This will be the first large-scale study of its kind, consisting of children from all over the United States.

“We have absolutely no idea what their lives will look like, because there are very few transgender adults today who lived as young kids expressing their gender identity. That’s all the more reason why this particular generation is important to study. They’re pioneers,” Olson said.

Her study seems promising for the future of acceptance of transgender identity. By allowing children to freely identify with who they truly are at a young age, there is more hope of creating within these children the longstanding sense of self-respect and security that all individuals deserve.

Source: Olson K. Gender Cognition in Transgender Children. Psychological Science. 2015.