The most damaging myths about transgender kids
In the first three months of 2022, nearly 199 anti-trans pieces of legislation have been proposed, after a whopping 147 in 2021. These laws prohibit, punish, or severely limit medical transition, athletic involvement, bathroom access, and identity privacy among providers and educators. The reality is that these laws are based on damaging misinformation about transgender children, their caregivers, & their providers.
As a transgender man who has worked with gender-diverse children as young as three years old, I know how vital it is to have scientifically accurate and evidence-based information to keep our children safe and healthy.
Related: Is “no homo” homophobic?
So let’s explore some of the most common myths about transgender children:
There are only two genders
One word: science. There is a wide spectrum of genders acknowledged by science and biology, well beyond the binary of male or female. Many people confuse sex assigned at birth (sometimes called “biological sex”) with someone’s gender identity, their deeply-held sense of what their gender is. All people have a gender identity, it simply becomes highlighted when that identity doesn’t match our sex assigned at birth. Sex assigned at birth is not as simple as chromosomes or genitals. Politicians and anti-trans advocates who insist on completely rigid binary genders are hurting all of us and know that this kind of fear-mongering is their most effective weapon in the face of a culture still learning about the reality of trans identities.
Kids aren’t old enough to know their true gender
Some critics argue that children cannot separate imaginary play from a deeply-held identity, believing that children can be coached into expressing a transgender identity, or that youth may be influenced by social media to be transgender. The American Psychological Association states that most children have a firm idea of their gender identity by age 2, including transgender children. I have worked with kids whose first words were “I not boy” or “No dress,” suggesting that even some pre-verbal children are aware of the potential mismatch between their gender identity and how their caregivers see them. Research has established that trans kids’ gender identities are as strong as their cisgender counterparts’ gender identities, emphasizing that even very young children who say they are not the sex they were assigned at birth can and do know their authentic gender.
Medical transition is dangerous for transgender youth
Some people fear that doctors are unquestioningly recommending medical transition (puberty blockers, hormone replacement therapy, and/or surgery) for young children without regard for the permanent changes their bodies will undergo. The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, and other major medical/mental health organizations all support gender-affirming care for pubescent youth when appropriate, especially in cases where youth are so dysphoric that they self-harm, sometimes resulting in suicide attempts. Child and adolescent gender clinics employ rigorous, constant evaluation of youth that can extend over 6+ months, to determine what medical path, if any, is appropriate. Medical transition is not utilized for youth who have not entered puberty, and there is plenty of youth with no desire to medically transition. However, access to these services can be lifesaving for transgender youth. Early studies show low rates of transition regret.
Many kids experience transition regret
There can be some confusion in understanding research about trans, gender nonconforming, and gender creative kids. Certain interpretations of early studies suggested that there were high rates of trans children later detransitioning. It has become clear that many of these young people were probably not transgender to begin with. Many of the kids in these studies were recruited from gender clinics their parents brought them to in order to change gender nonconforming behaviors or gender exploration. Many of them did not consistently, insistently, and persistently state they were a gender other than their sex assigned at birth, a hallmark of transgender identity.
Trans kids confuse or upset other kids
Some fear that if children interact with or learn about transgender people, they will be confused about their own gender. In my experience supporting trans kids and their siblings at camps through Gender Spectrum and Camp Aranu’tiq, young children often intuitively understand gender transition and are readily accepting of their trans peers.
If my child is trans, they will be bullied and have mental health issues
Some parents are concerned about their child exploring gender because they believe their child will inevitably experience increased suicidal ideation, attempts, mental health outcomes, bullying, and discrimination. It’s important to emphasize the impact of family acceptance, robust laws that protect trans youth, and continued education to address the pervasive social stigma against trans people. When adults in a child’s life support their social transition (changing name and/or pronouns, style of dress, participation in activities associated with their authentic gender), youth have the same levels of self-worth and depression, and only slightly higher anxiety compared to their cisgender counterparts, likely attributable in large part to transphobia and external discrimination and bullying.
Transgender athletes have an unfair advantage over cisgender athletes
Many of the laws targeting transgender children prevent trans youth athletes from participating in sports based on their authentic gender identity. Most public discourse about such laws focuses on a purported advantage of transgirls/transwomen over cisgirls/ciswomen, though research is inconclusive at best. This myth begs larger questions about fairness in sports, and the purpose of youth participation in sports. What is the purpose of youth participating in sports? What do we lose by limiting the goal of these sports to winning, rather than using athletics as an activity that builds community and character?
Allowing transgender youth to use the bathrooms consistent with their gender identity is unsafe
There is no evidence suggesting negative outcomes when transgender kids use the restrooms that correspond to their authentic gender identity. When California state law AB1266, The School Success & Opportunity Act was passed in 2013, opponents feared that male students would masquerade as trans girls to harass young women in the restroom. However, Los Angeles Unified School District had passed a similar district policy in 2004, finding zero instances of such harassment. The reality is instead that trans and gender-nonconforming students continue to experience daily bullying and discrimination in restrooms.
Religion condemns trans and nonbinary identities
Every major world religion has historically acknowledged both humans and deities who move fluidly between male and female categories. Hundreds of cultures throughout human history have acknowledged people who identify with a social category beyond male or female, often referred to as a third gender. Third gender people are often viewed as especially sacred, having a special connection to the divine within their given spiritual tradition. Nearly every mainstream Protestant denomination accepts/ordains transgender people, and every faith community I’ve ever researched has some kind of network, formal or informal, that embraces trans people.
We must get past these myths and instead look to science and facts. The lives of trans and nonbinary people are literally at stake.
Kelsey Pacha is the Board President of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, the organization responsible for the groundbreaking book Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, and the owner of Kelsey Pacha Consulting, working with clinicians, parents, corporations, & other providers to support the health of LGBTQ people. Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, first published in 2014, is a 728-page resource written by and for transgender, nonbinary, and gender-expansive people. The second edition of the book releases on April 15th, 2022.