Existing beyond Theory

During the course of a normal week, quite a few articles roll through my email and get stuck in a file somewhere.  Often I write something about them and try to share that as promptly as I can.

Today’s item is a research paper published in the Graduate Journal of Social Science this past December.  I’m not quite so prompt in reviewing this one because of my time in the hospital.  But I have gotten there eventually.

I read the pdfs so you don’t have to.  In this case the article is by Natacha Kennedy and Mark Hellen and is entitled Transgender children: more than a theoretical challenge (pdf).

Kennedy and Hellen took the unusual approach of realizing that transgender children become transgender adults in most cases (provided, for instance, they reach adulthood), and moreover, that most transgender adults claim to have recognized their gender variance in childhood.

In a previous study from 2008, Kennedy had found data suggesting that the average age at which transgender people become aware of their gender variation is 8 and that more than 80% of transpeople are aware of it by the time they leave primary school (note:  this data was obtained from British transfolk).  Hellen, on the other hand, in a paper from 2009, suggested that there were two categories of transgender children to be considered, which he called “apparent” and “non-apparent”.  Past studies which have suggested that in fact the existence of transgender children, especially before their late teens, was quite rare have actually focused on the existence of apparent transgender children.

The authors take note of the fact that relatively little has been written about transgender children and what is available has mostly been written by mental health professionals.

Minter (1999) reviewed much of what was available and concluded that

the reader is left with the impression that the validity of these studies is open to question as it appears that the ultimate objective of much of this research into Gender Identity ‘Disorder’ in children is to legitimize the “prevention” or “elimination” of what is judged socially unacceptable gender-transgressive behavior.

Additionally, since the ‘participants’ were children referred to treatment by parents concerned about the behavior of their children, questions about the validity of the sample cannot be denied.

The present study includes data from an online survey of transgender adults about their memories of childhood.  There are many reasons for obtaining data in this way.  It would be inappropriate to obtain this data directly from children since children become aware they are transgender at different times.  So a complete representative picture [would] not be available for a given generation until they are adults.  Additionally, there are ethical difficulties associated with obtaining data from children who may not be ‘out’ to their parents.  Also there are likely to be sampling difficulties associated with identifying transgender children to take part in the study, which may result in an unrepresentative sample skewed towards apparent transgender children.

Hinton (2009) followed a female-to-male transgender child, called J, from primary school to the early part of secondary school, in a case study in which both J and the  actions of his school were observed and documented.  Local administrators were unable to discover any instances of literature or guidance relating to very young transgender children.

Kennedy and Hellen’s study group consisted of 121 people.  It would have been better if it had a better gender distribution, but they got what they got:  103 participants were assigned male at birth, 11 assigned female, 3 not assigned a gender, and 4 declined to answer that question.  Ages of participants ranged from 18 to 65, which the majority between 36 and 55.  31% of the participants described themselves at male-to-female transsexual, 6% as female-to-male transsexual, 21% as transgendered, 21% as transvestite, 2% as intersex, 6% as mixed gender and 12% as other (gender queer, neutrois, crossdresser, gender fluid, or not sure).

Asked when theyfirst could remember feeling that their gender identity was at variance with that assigned at birth, the answers had a mean of 7.9 and a mode of 5.  Only 4% gave an answer of 18 or larger.  76% were aware of their gender variance before leaving primary school.

Kessler and McKenna, in a paper from 1978, reported that children begin to understand gender identity between the ages of 3 and 4 and are taught over the next two years that it is an invariant category.  Intons-Peterson’s 1988 study suggested that most children are aware of gender constancy by the age of 3 years and 9 months.

Kennedy’s 2008 study revealed that the average age of a male-to-female transgender to try on an item of female clothing was 8…and that 84% had done so before leaving primary school.

One of the most common early expressions of feelings was, perhaps unfortunately, ‘God has made a mistake.’  This is perhaps why religious fundamentalists are so dead set against us.  On the other hand, the alternative seems to be to feel that something is wrong with us.  We internalize the problem.

It was my first day at primary school and they told the boys to queue on the right and the girls to queue on the left.  I went to the left and got moved to the rightand remembering sobbing all day long because they had got it wrong.

–a respondent

It is only a short step to “I had got it wrong.”  Being assigned a gender which is different from what is internally perceived is an emotional shock.  And from then on there is often a feeling of being apart or different.  And from that comes the need to conceal our gender identities…that it is socially unacceptable to be who we are.

It would appear that most transgender children’s social radar is good enough to tell, even from a young age, that being transgender is ‘unacceptable’.  However it is apparent from…responses that even those brave enough to reveal something of their identities to others soon find out that they risk suffering socially.  In addition, this may be likely to result in them making assumptions about everyone;  what is unacceptable to some is unacceptable to all.

The fear associated relates to how gender groups (particularly boys) police membership in childhood by means of denigration of the Other and of qualities associated with the Other. (Paechter, 2007)

One of the problems transgender children face is lck of vocabulary.  The average age at which any such vocabulary (other than”sissy” or “tomboy”) is learned is 15.4 years.  That is, there is a 7.5 year delay between becoming aware of one’s gender variance and having the words to describe how we feel.This delay has reduced by about 6 years in the last half century, but it is still a problem.  One might imagine that the availability of the Internet will reduce this gap further, but there is as of yet no such evidence.

the consequences of discovering this vocabulary in circumstances in which transgender people are eroticized, objectified, or ridiculed may be significant particularly if the individual concerned has suffered from low self-esteem as a result of any kind of transphobic bullying.

The authors point out the significance of this delay:  by the time we acquire vocabulary we could easily have lived half our lives knowing we are differently-gendered without knowing how to speak to anyone about it.

As a result, most transgender children have the feeling that they are the only person in their predicament.  In a sense, what transgender children have most to share with each other is their isolation…along with feeling different, recognition of social unacceptability, and concealment and/or suppression.

Now apparent transgender children may experience something totally different.  In exceptional cases, the world learns to accommodate such individuals…at least to a certain extent.  But these exceptional cases obscure the much larger number of non-apparent transgender kids, who are much more likely to be fearfully concealing or suppressing their feelings and true gender identities.

We can note that only 31% of respondents told anyone about their feelings or self-understanding prior to the age of 18.  And even then, the reaction was generally negative, especially for those assigned to be male at birth.  This “coming out”, when it did happen, was generally in the latter teens.

However it is particularly apparent that the majority of transgender children and young people do not tell anyone and it seems for those who do, the result usually appears to be worse than not telling.  The sense of isolation in these circumstances is likely to be heightened.  As such it would seem that the decision not to tell anyone appears justified from their perspective and adds weight to the suggestion that their social radar is well developed.  It is also likely to greatly increase the probability of their remaining non-apparent as well as, potentially, the likelihood of mental health problems as they get older.

This is related to Brown’s 1988 research which has documented the relatively high incidence of MTF transpersons serving in the US military, in a further attempt to conceal and/or suppress our gender anomalies.

Significantly, FTM were more often allowed to express their gender identities at home or school.  18% were allowed to express their gender identity in primary school, which fell to 10% in secondary, while 45% had some degree of freedom of gender expression at home.

As a population, transgender people, especially if transgender children are included, potentially represent an awkward group, the existence of which could conceivably render untenable widely accepted worldviews of gender,  The response to this appears, in some cases, to have been attempts at the erasure of what, to some, seems to constitute an inconvenient group of subalterns (Raymond, 1980).

Raymond posited that transgender people in general and transsexual women in particular were the creation of psychiatric and psychological professionals in an effort to enforce gender norms and reinforce stereotypes.  But very few tradespeople had contact with mental health professionals prior to the age at which we became aware of our gender variance.

On the other hand, these children also represent a challenge to Butler’s concept of gender as an act of ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’:

Are these children not actually transgender unless they are engaged in doing something which relates to that identity?  Do the acts of crying themselves to sleep, praying that they will wake up as a girl or boy, for example, count as (trans)gender expression? What about the acts of wishing they can wear dresses, ties, skirts, trousers, or play with dolls or trains?

Although transgender children are subjected to considerable, sustained pressure to conform to the gender roles assigned at birth, what is remarkable is that we defy this pressure and still develop a transgender identity.

The existence of transgender people undermines one of the earliest cognitive structures upon which children’s views of the world are built.  The concept of the gender binary has become so deeply embedded into the way we all interpret a wide variety of aspects of the world that challenging it is something that will inevitably be uncomfortable to some.  Yet doing so is important, so that a section of the human race can live the lives they choose, free from psychologically and emotionally damaging pressures to be someone they are not.  Consequently, it is recommended that, as a minimum, schools introduce children to the concept of transgender people so that transgender children are able to feel they are not alone and that their gender identity is as valid as any other.  This would encourage other children to become more accepting of transgender people, not just in terms of their classmates but when they become adults as well.

The human cost, particularly for transgender people themselves, of maintaining the chimeraof an immutable and exclusive gender binary is becoming increasingly clear.  The internalization of self-hatred, guilt, self-doubt and low self-esteem in childhood affects transgender people throughout their lives.  Any educational system, or indeed society, which allows this state of affairs to continue , is neither fully inclusive nor fully humane.

I can’t top those words.

18 comments

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    • Robyn on January 15, 2011 at 12:03 am
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    …that simply knowing that transgender people exist has any influence on the development of a child’s gender identity.

    Still, people are afraid.

    • Robyn on January 15, 2011 at 12:06 am
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    …but I’m not seeing where to do that anymore.

    • Robyn on January 15, 2011 at 1:01 am
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    …in Orange.

  1. Margaret at MyFDL wrote this diary about how the T in LGBT is often not discussed, and in this case, especially that the repeal of DADT didn’t include ‘the T’.  It’s a great diary, as is yours.  Thanks.

    http://my.firedoglake.com/marg

  2. Saw this article recently, and thought it might be of interest to you.  

  3. … is Hourou Musuko ~ Wandering Son. The anime picks up with the entry of the transgender boy and girl into Middle School, but this is volume 5 of the Manga, which starts with them in elementary school.

    Release is on Thursdays ~ the first episode is available two hours after Japanese broadcast to anime/premium subscribing members, and free ad-stream a week later.

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