The topic of transgender children in society proves to be divisive and is widely discussed by parents, teachers, clinicians, and politicians. There is a range of opinions on the topic – from the medical point of view to issues of parenting and educating transgender children to questions of their social and legal existence in society. Those who believe that trans children should be unequivocally accepted usually concentrate on discussing ways to support and facilitate such children in every way possible. However, there is also a more cautious attitude toward this topic, and it seems logical to survey different views on transgender children to understand these issues better.
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Definitions of Transgender
The term “transgender” is usually tied to gender identity, meaning how a person thinks of himself or herself, either associating self with one or both or none of the sexes. Brunskell-Evans and Moore (2018) do not acknowledge the existence of “transgender children” but accept young people may develop gender dysphoria. Different explanations of the term “transgender” usually center on gender ambiguity, body anatomy, and, sometimes, social influence – by peers, parents, educators, for example.
The Historical Context of the Transgender Phenomenon
It seems like the phenomenon of transgender children is relatively new. Brunskell-Evans and Moore (2018) write that the figure of “transgender child” has been brought to the foreground recently. But other scientists dispute this – Gill-Peterson (2018) claims that “[t]rans children not only were present but also were an integral part of the transgender twentieth century and the broader twentieth-century history of sex, gender, and race in medicine” (p. 10). Gill-Peterson (2018) states that medical experiments were held on the children, who would now be considered trans, since the 1910s and throughout the previous century. There is a strong possibility that transgender issues were earlier perceived as medical, not social ones.
During the last 20-25 years, society has become more aware of issues the existence of trans children, probably due to research of social, medical, and other issues connected to the topic. Robertson (2019) states that, unlike for previous generations, for those born after 1990, gender identity is just part of the formation of sexuality. Some researchers even speak about an epidemic of children identifying as gender non-conforming, and its origins are not clear. The more information about them appears, the more debate there is in society about the transgender phenomenon.
Sides of the Debate around Transgender Children
The distinct groups, involved in discussing questions of trans youths, are parents, teachers, doctors, and politicians who all can influence the young lives. These people’s views may range from denial of transgender children’s existence to unequivocal support of them, to the extremes of the forceful imposition of gender on the children, to anything in between. That is why adults should be cautious when dealing with transgender youths.
The children with gender dysphoria depend on how their parents view the issue. It is generally agreed that children are entitled to gender self-determination, but it is debatable if young people can fully understand all medical, psychological, and social consequences of a gender change due to very limited life experience and lack of maturity. It is not immediately clear if children as young as seven or eight years old, and even adolescents can accurately define themselves as transgender and are capable of taking steps that will affect their entire lives.
Parents and guardians
Faced with transgender issues, it seems only logical that mothers and fathers should educate themselves, evaluate all possible repercussions of their decisions regarding any medical and/or psychological treatment of their child. The parents may need counseling on the questions the parents and guardians have doubts about. It is generally agreed that all actions the parents take should be in the child’s best interest.
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When dealing with trans students, educators have to balance and reconcile the students and their parents’ interests and those of the schools, which can be difficult if these interests are conflicting. It is manifested in the way the transgender youths are addressed at school – either “boys” or “girls,” which some of the non-binary children may find uncalled for. One can also add the widely covered issue of trans students’ bathroom use to bullying of transgender students. Some researchers argue that avoiding gender stereotyping, allowing gender-typical and trans students to express themselves within the educational environment appropriately can alleviate some if not all of the issues.
Medical service providers have opposing opinions on whether to treat transgender children and how to do it, considering the number of adverse effects such treatment may have. Harris, Tishelman, Quinn, and Nahata (2019) state that in case of puberty-blocking therapy, which is often prescribed to trans youths, the main risks are “bone health, fertility, neurodevelopment, and social development” (p. 69). These risks are further exacerbated by a deficit of profound scientific research on these issues.
Among doctors, there is no consensus if any medical intervention in young trans patients is possible if their parents do not consent to it. Some medical professionals are proponents of the idea that transgender children should be allowed to make decisions to have a medical treatment independently of the parents. Other service providers err on the side of caution, unsure of the ability of young children to comprehend the consequences of any intervention.
When it comes to legislation about trans children, there is always a concern that lobbyists and activists may influence these decisions. However, there is no way to tell if the trans-affirmative or anti-trans groups do it out of their interests or out of the real concern about trans youths. Under pressure, politicians feel the need to act, but nobody knows if any changes made to the legislation bring more harm than good. Barnett, Nesbit, and Sorrentino (2018) write that the complexity of such legal changes lies within an intersection of ethics-related, legal, and biological arguments. So-called “bathroom bills,” mandating transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their anatomical sex and opposing legislation, are cases in point.
Possible Resolutions to Transgender Children Issues
One possible resolution to trans youth controversy is to fully support and facilitate such people in seeking social and/or physical transition, despite the very young age of such children and their parents’ opinion on the matter. The other possible resolution to these issues requires much more debate, consideration of different sides involved – the transgender children, their parents and clinicians. In case of a medical treatment of trans youths, even more caution should be applied when obtaining accent and consent for the treatment, including resorting to ethics committees and legal intervention when it is otherwise impossible to reach a consensus between transgender children and their parents and/or guardians.
It is difficult to say what the prevailing attitude is in society on the topic of trans children. Those who question the existence of transgender children and the need for any transition for non-binary youths are sometimes labeled bigots and transphobic. As stated multiple times in this paper, the range of opinions is vast, some of them are based on scientific studies, others – on strong convictions and beliefs, but the sides of the debate are driven by a desire to give a chance at a happy life to all children. The more consideration for the opposing opinions and the more unbiased research will probably bring down the level of controversy on this topic.
Barnett, B. S., Nesbit, A. E. & Sorrentino, R. M. (2018). The transgender bathroom debate at the intersection of politics, law, ethics, and science. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 46, 232-241.
Brunskell-Evans, H. & Moore, M. (Eds.). (2018). Transgender children and young people: born in your own body, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Gill-Peterson, J. (2018). Histories of the transgender child. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Harris, R. M., Tishelman, A. C., Quinn, G. P., & Nahata, L. (2019). Decision making and the long-term impact of puberty blockade in transgender children. The American Journal of Bioethics, 19(2), 67–69.
Robertson, M. (2019). Growing up queer: kids and the remaking of LGBTQ identity, New York: NY, New York University Press.