Extra! Extra! Read all about it!
Trans Kids Found Not Crazy! Extra! Extra!
That’s not an actual headline, of course, but it’s not far off from the real one:
The “truly stunning” findings, published this month in the journal Pediatrics, show that transgender kids like mine (those allowed to live in the gender they say they are) are just as mentally healthy as their non-trans peers. They aren’t depressed or riddled with mental health diagnoses. In fact, emotionally, they’re pretty average.*
This headline made me think about other “truly stunning” findings that might have made headlines in earlier generations – and that sound patently absurd today (or they should):
Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m thrilled, if unsurprised, about these findings. My child is actually a data point in this study. We’ve been participating in the TransYouth Project (TYP) study for the past two years, since my daughter was six years old. It is headed by Dr. Kristina Olson, a talented (and brave, no doubt) researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle. (Olson did NOT use the phrase “truly stunning” to describe her findings, by the way.**) The TYP is a ground-breaking investigation into a population of children that didn’t even exist a decade ago: A substantial cohort of kids being allowed to live in their preferred gender from a very young age (the study looks at kids as young as three). They’ve enrolled more than 200 families from around the U.S. in the study so far. I interviewed Dr. Olson for my podcast last year, and speaking with her made it clear to me how badly we need the data she’s collecting. “We literally know almost nothing about these kids,” she said, “Or about what their futures look like.”
No wonder I’m terrified half the time.
And as grateful as I am for this amazing study, I’m also kind of pissed off that it has to exist at all.
Imagine you’re me, a mother of one of these children. You know you’re not a perfect parent, but you also know you’re pretty good. Your child is basically indistinguishable from her little non-trans girlfriends (she has better manners than Ella but isn’t quite as mature as little Claire). Her teacher reports that she’s a pleasure to have in class, she’s popular at school and sought-after for play dates, she’s kind to animals and affectionate with her grandparents, she’s curious about anything and everything, and she brings sunshine and silliness into every room she enters.
And she’s part of a wide circle of trans kids in our community who seem to be every bit as well-adjusted as she is. We meet up with these kids and their parents at support groups and play dates where the only remarkable thing about our children is how unremarkable they appear. I often lose track of which ones are trans and which ones are their cisgender (not trans) siblings. (From the kids’ perspective, who cares? They’re just there to play.)
Based on what I’ve witnessed, these “stunning” findings seem to validate what’s fairly self-evident to any parent who has interacted with this group of children. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need the science to battle the bigots. We do need it, badly. I suppose I’m just saddened by the reminder that my child’s viability as a mentally healthy human being remains a matter of debate, an open question we still need science to settle.***
I recently heard Gloria Steinem give an interview in which she explained that the reason she decided to found Ms. magazine was that every time she wrote a story for a mainstream publication about equal rights for women, the editor would insist that she also present “the other side” – a quote from someone arguing against equal rights for women. Fair and balanced reporting in 1972 required taking seriously the notion that women’s fundamental equality remained an open question.
Last month I was asked to contribute to a newspaper op-ed about trans kids. But the group I was working with decided to withdraw our article after we learned that the paper’s editors were likely to simultaneously solicit another piece that would present an opposing argument – “the other side.” I presume that argument would have stated (politely, no doubt) that my child (and her mother) were both a couple of nutballs in serious need of psychological help.
Thank goodness we now have a fancy, peer-reviewed scientific journal suggesting otherwise. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that, or how impatient I am for science to catch up with all the things I already know.
* The research published in Pediatrics did find that kids like mine have anxiety rates that are “a smidge higher” than the national average, but if we consider the fact that these kids are living in a culture where many people (including lawmakers) are still arguing that they have no right to exist, I’m guessing that we can chock up that “smidge” of anxiety to environmental factors. I think I would actually be kind of surprised that it’s only a “smidge,” but when I consider my own child – the least anxious person I know – a “smidge” sounds about right.
** The “truly stunning” comment came from an editorial in the same journal that published these findings, and it was in this context: “This finding is truly stunning in light of the numerous studies that show depression and anxiety internalizing psychopathology scores up to 3 times higher for non–socially transitioned children…” So, kids who are supported rather than questioned and harangued about their gender are doing better. Is that REALLY so stunning? (Chin scratch.) I’d have picked a different adjective, I guess.
** Of course, the assumption that transgender kids would have problems isn’t coming from nowhere – the only data we do have on the mental health of transgender people come from studies of adults. Those data show disturbingly high rates of depression, suicide attempts, and drug use – a result, of course, not of innate instability, but of living in world that has been outrageously hostile and violent to trans people until, about five minutes ago, our society (at least sometimes, in some places) began to acknowledge the basic humanity of this population. My child is lucky beyond belief to have been born into an era that allows her to live in a gender that doesn’t feel all wrong, and in a community that supports her in this. And it is also true that many, many transgender adults are thriving, are mentally healthy, and are living wonderful lives. I am in awe of their courage and in lifelong debt to them for paving the way for my child.