Should We Introduce Children to the Concept of Transgender People?

Critics cry that introducing all children to the concept of transgender people will cause them to "become transgender," but schooling has little impact on gender identity development in children.
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Should we introduce children to the concept of transgender people? The answer is yes according to an article published in the December 2010 issue of the peer-reviewed Graduate Journal of Social Science.

The article by Natacha Kennedy and Mark Hellen, entitled "Transgender Children: More Than a Theoretical Challenge," was developed from a paper presented at the November 2009 conference "Transgender Studies & Theories: Building Up the Field in a Nordic Context" held at Linkoping University in Sweden.

Critics will cry that introducing all children to the concept of transgender people will cause children to "become transgender." But the authors found that schooling has little impact on gender identity development in children. In fact, children who develop a transgender identity seem to do so in spite of often unwitting but nevertheless pervasive efforts by schools to enforce gender conformity.

Kennedy and Hellen believe that school efforts do have a consequence, however. Transgender children learn very quickly that being transgender is "not acceptable," and so they conceal their identity, even from family members, to avoid suffering socially. As a result of fearfully suppressing their identity for such a long period, "many of these children achieve well below their abilities at school, leave school early, are more likely to self-harm or attempt suicide, and more likely to suffer from mental health issues in early adulthood."

By having schools introduce the concept of transgender people to all children, the authors assert, transgender children will "feel they are not alone and that their gender identity is as valid as any other." This will, in turn, greatly diminish the damaging consequences currently observed as these children mature.

Most studies have been based on direct observations of transgender children. In this case, the researchers instead surveyed transgender adults about their childhoods and then correlated their results with other research. One of the interesting results is a conclusion that there are many more children who conceal their non-conforming gender identities through childhood -- so-called "non-apparent" children -- than those who clearly identify as transgender as children.

Children themselves were not queried for the study because "there are ethical difficulties associated with obtaining data from children who may not be 'out' to their parents." Additionally, the authors felt asking children to participate in any study could result in an unrepresentative sample skewed toward "apparent" transgender children.

The authors found that roughly three-quarters of transgender people were aware of being transgender before leaving elementary school, and there was "an average delay of 7.5 years between becoming aware of one's transgender or gender variant nature, and learning any words with which to describe it." This means "many transgender children go through most, if not all, of their time in compulsory education knowing their gender identity is different from that expected of them."

On the strength of this finding, the authors argue:

If a school system tried to coerce any other group of individuals to become people they are not, to regard an inner core of their identities as illegitimate, and prevent them from expressing their identities freely, particularly from a very young age, it would be characterized as barbaric. ... The [resulting] internalization of self-hatred, guilt, self-doubt and low self-esteem in childhood affects transgender people throughout their lives. Any education system, or indeed society, which allows this state of affairs to continue is neither fully inclusive nor fully humane.

That's harsh criticism certain to draw the attention of educators. Also likely to speak up are mental health professionals, who have traditionally landed on the side of "it's usually just a phase" in their work regarding transgender children. Regardless, the article opens a new chapter in the dialogue about transgender children, one that is certain to lead to greater progress for all transgender people.

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