Existing Beyond Theory

While many of the essays I have written over the years have a footing firmly based in emotions, I have explored the theory of transgender from time to time.  Let’s face it:  some people are not going to accept that transpeople are not just crazy loons unless they have some “solid evidence.”

Unfortunately, what people consider to be solid evidence has a wide variance.

In January of 2011 I shared a review of the literature.  Since most of “the literature” comes from psychological research, that won’t be good enough for some people.  Since I live with a graduate professor involved in educating and mentoring doctoral researchers, I’m sure we might disagree on that point.

This literature review is not up to her graduate school standards.  I have not included an annotated bibliography in APA style.  I’m only a layperson when it comes to psychology.

My actual purpose (and hope) is to get people to read it, especially the people who need the information presented this way.  Well, that and making a few corrections so that it properly fits into my autobiography thingy.

I’ll get started on the other side.

The graphic above is called Faces.

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.

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, with 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 transgender, 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 they first could remember feeling that their gender identity was at variance with that assigned at birth, the answers had a mean of 7.9 years and a mode of 5 years of age.  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 child 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 right and remembering sobbing all day long because they had got it wrong.

–a respondent

It is only a short step from there 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…since 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 lack 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 (as I recall, approximately 25% of adult transpeople have served in the military, as compared to less than 10% of the general population).

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).

[Note:  Subaltern: A person who is marginalized and oppressed by the dominant culture.]

I know, I know.  Even bringing up Raymond in the context of transpeople can be a triggering event.

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 transpeople 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 chimera of 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…but I will add a snippet written in early 2008.  I guess this is the “beyond” part promised in the title.

My life, everyone’s life, is but a path…starting from our births and leading into infinity. There is no end to the path. There are lots of obstacles along the path…some of them very hard to surmount. Some are seemingly so large that we are tempted to take a different fork in the path. But by surmounting them, we become better, stronger people. I’ve learned that the obstacles seem much harder to surmount before we try, than when we actually try. Having passed the hard parts, life seems smoother for awhile…life is fun. The beauty in life is not “up ahead” on the path, but off to the sides, in what we can see and hear, taste and touch along the way. Waiting for something good to come along is not good…make something good now.

Life is a state of constant change. It’s good to keep that in mind. If you are depressed, sad, and lonely, it will change. If you are on top of the world, that too will change. It helps to keep away from the too highs and too lows, to even out the path.

Life is wonder, life is beauty, life is learning. Embrace it with everything you have.


Life Stories

What would

you tell

the protagonist

of your story

to do

if you could?

Why aren’t you

living your life

so that

those events

could happen?

The deeper question:

Am I?

–Robyn Elaine Serven

–March 7, 2008

1 comment

    • Robyn on March 7, 2015 at 00:02

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