When I was a Ph.D. student in sexology, I had a conversation with a colleague that forever cemented, in my mind, why I needed to speak out against the transitioning of children with gender dysphoria. Nowadays, every left-leaning parent and educator seems content to take a child’s word at face value if they say they were born in the wrong body, not realizing that by doing so, an important conversation is being brushed aside.
On the day in question, our research lab had just finished our weekly meeting, and I chatted with my colleague as I packed up my things to head back to my office. He had told me previously about his son, who from the moment he was born, announced that a mistake had been made—“I’m a girl,” he would say.
As a little boy, his son loved playing with dolls. He would wear his mother’s dresses and high heels, and wanted to grow his hair long like Princess Jasmine from the movie, “Aladdin.” At school, he preferred the company of girls to that of boys, who were rambunctious and mean. After many years of therapy and fighting constantly about the course of action they would take, his son had come out as gay.
I grew up as a straight woman in the gay community, at a time when homophobia was rampant in North American society. I witnessed the harassment and ignorance that my friends faced on a daily basis. Most, as a result, hid their sexual orientation from anyone outside of the community, and few were openly out to their families.
Although things have definitely improved since then, discrimination against gay people still exists. And as I’ve watched as glowing stories about transgender children have flooded every progressive news outlet over the last few years, every one of them appalls and saddens me. Because the underlying story that the public isn’t privy to is that many of these children would have grown up to be gay, but are instead undergoing a new form of conversion therapy.
It’s okay to let your transgender kid transition — even if they might change their mind in the future https://t.co/QcsX3bkZpz
— Vox (@voxdotcom) October 22, 2018
Conversion therapy seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation. No mental health professional in their right mind conducts this type of therapeutic intervention anymore, because it is understood that sexual orientation is immutable from a very young age. Gender identity, however—whether someone feels masculine or feminine—is flexible in prepubescent children and grows more stable into adulthood.
Therapy that seeks to help gender dysphoric children grow comfortable in their birth sex (known in the research literature as the “therapeutic approach”) has been conflated with conversion therapy, but this is inaccurate. All of the available research following gender dysphoric children longitudinally shows that the majority desist; they outgrow their feelings of dysphoria by puberty and grow up to be gay in adulthood, not transgender.
Children will say they “are” the opposite sex because that’s the only language they have to express to adults that they want to do things the opposite sex does. Cross-sex behavior has also been shown to be a strong predictor of homosexuality in men. Previous research tells us that even children who are severe in their feelings of dysphoria will desist.
Another phenomenon that points to homophobia as a possible motivation for transitioning is that of rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD), wherein adolescent and college-aged girls suddenly declare to their parents that they want to transition, without any previous signs of being distressed about their birth sex. This desire to transition usually manifests during or after puberty, yet these girls don’t meet any of the diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria.
A study published last month on ROGD—one that gained widespread media attention for infuriating transgender activists—found that a large proportion of these girls had come out as lesbian or bisexual prior to coming out as transgender.
Why would this be the case? Along with the physical and emotional discomfort that is typical of undergoing puberty, it has become more socially acceptable to be a transgender man than a gay woman. The study’s findings also showed that transitioning increased students’ popularity among their peers and offered greater protection from harassment, because teachers were more concerned about anti-trans bullying than bullying that was anti-gay.
As children grow up, parents will undoubtedly notice if their son is effeminate. For those who are troubled at the thought of having a girly son, transitioning offers a promising solution—by allowing a child to transition, a feminine boy now presents as a feminine girl. A little boy who enjoys indulging in make-up and other female-typical activities will bring about much less attention and criticism if he were a girl.
This same logic extends to a child’s future sexual orientation. On some level, these parents likely know that there is a chance their feminine son will grow up to be sexually attracted to men. Instead of allowing this to happen, they may be more than happy to go along with facilitating their child’s requests to transition to the opposite sex, so that to the outside world, that child will appear heterosexual—an adolescent boy who is attracted to other boys will appear to be straight if he transitions to female. What’s most disturbing is that these parents will be lauded as open-minded and “on the right side of history,” when in actuality, they are homophobic. In some cases, a child may internalize their families’ anti-gay sentiments, which adds to their desire to transition.
Saying any of these things aloud will get a person branded as transphobic, and I understand why some transgender activists and their allies find this information so threatening; it could potentially be used as evidence that transgender people don’t really exist, or they should be forced to not feel the way that they do. One meta-analysis of 28 studies showed that transitioning can indeed be beneficial for some adults, but in the event that a child can grow to be comfortable in the body they were given, it shouldn’t be controversial to contend that this would be a better outcome than a lifetime of hormones and possible surgery and sterility.
Since I began writing about this issue several years ago, many of my friends have told me how relieved they were to not have grown up in today’s political climate. As children, they similarly voiced unhappiness about their bodies and felt that they identified with the opposite sex, but eventually grew up to feel comfortable living as gay men. They fear they would have decided to transition, because transitioning is now considered a viable, and almost commonplace, way to resolve this.
Transgender activism has successfully piggybacked onto the hard-won victories of the gay rights movement. The public understands that attitudes towards gay people were once abhorrent, and they also understand that many interventions aimed at “changing” gay people were unethical. Most empathic people have consequently been persuaded that being transgender is the same, in this regard, as being gay—that it is something that shouldn’t be questioned and should always be affirmed.
Yet of children who exhibit signs of gender dysphoria, we aren’t yet able to tell who will fall into the category of those who will desist (which is the majority) as opposed to the minority who persist and who would actually benefit from transitioning. In determining the answer, we must be resolute in following the scientific evidence, and not forget that gay people deserve love and acceptance, too.
Debra W. Soh holds a Ph.D. in sexual neuroscience research from York University and writes about the science and politics of sex. Follow her at @DrDebraSoh.