Implications of Current Transgender Theory on Children and Young People
While sex (male/ female) is an immutable biological reality, gender (masculinity/ femininity) is understood as a social construct which changes through history and according to societal norms. Conversely, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) who produce the guidance upon which NHS practice is based, describes gender identity as:
‘a category of social identity (that) refers to an individuals’ classification as male, female or occasionally some category other than male or female. It’s one’s deeply held sense of being male or female, some of both or neither, and does not always correspond to biological sex’ 1
As such according the APA & NHS gender identity is unverifiable and yet considered to exist independent of both gendered socialisation and biological sex. There is no scientific basis for the idea of innate deeply-held sense of gender.
Many people consider themselves to be transgender without a Gender Recognition Certificate and without undergoing legal, social or medical transition.2
The medical diagnosis of being transgender in adults and children is dependent upon not adhering to stereotypical gendered norms and / or a feeling of discomfort in one’s body.3
Historically children diagnosed with gender dysphoria were predominantly boys, consistent with the ratio for adult transsexuals which was 90% male in the late Sixties.4 Referral numbers of children were very small until around 2009 when they began to rise. Over the past six years the referral rate has increased by almost 1,000% and girls have overtaken boys.5
• The Tavistock clinic for children and adolescents has seen referral increases of about 50% a year since 2010-11. In 2015 – 16 there was an unexpected and unprecedented increase of 100%
• 2,016 children and adolescents were referred to the Tavistock Clinic in 2016 – 17 (compared to 1,398 the previous year) and of that number 69% were girls, increasing to over 70% in the adolescent age group.6
• It is estimated that 95% to 100% of girls who transition during adolescence would otherwise grow up to be lesbian 7
• A disproportionate number of children on the autistic spectrum identify as transgender 8
The established clinical approach to children with gender dysphoria is ‘watchful waiting’, an approach based on ‘developmentally informed therapy’ (Zucker) which explores possible factors underlying a child’s belief that they are the opposite sex and attempts to help a child resolve the disconnect between mind and body. 9
‘Affirmation of preferred gender’ is a new approach associated with the full social transition of a child through name change and change of clothes etc. This approach is informed not by research or evidence but by social change. 10
Social change has in large part been driven by the tactics of transgender activists to shut down debate11 and silence those in disagreement.12 The issue of ‘transgender kids’ has become a political social justice issue and anything other than affirmation of a child’s ‘gender identity’ has been painted as ‘conversion therapy’ by health organisations pressured by activists. 13
However there is no professional consensus on the ‘affirmation’ approach.14 Clinicians and researchers in the field have cautioned against any treatment which is difficult to reverse, including social transition,15 puberty blockers 16 and any irreversible hormonal treatments, until after a child’s psycho-sexual development is complete. 17
Nevertheless, activists have consistently promoted the message that if a child is prevented from medically transitioning they will commit suicide18 and that puberty blockers are a fully reversible and safe way to ‘buy time’ for a child to decide. ‘Affirmation’ can be seen as a commitment to this pathway.
Effects of Treatments
It is recognised that around 80% of children with gender dysphoria will come to accept and be happy as the sex they were born19 and that the greatest likelihood is that these children will be gay or lesbian as adults.20
Children’s identities are not fixed but developing, the construction of the Self is influenced by many factors including parents and environment. Daily affirmation by trusted adults that a boy is really a girl (or vice versa) is likely to have a self-fulfilling effect and create persistence of a child’s belief, as children believe what adults tell them.21 The created fear of a puberty the child now believes to be the ‘wrong’ one creates the need for puberty blockers.
If a child starts puberty blockers at Tanner stage 2 and subsequently progresses to cross-sex hormones at age sixteen as almost all children on this pathway do, permanent infertility will be the result as eggs or sperm will not have developed. These children will never experience full puberty as cross-sex hormones can only affect the development of secondary sex characteristics and not opposite-sex reproductive development.
The flood of sex hormones at puberty triggers the important changes and organisation of the teenage brain, a process which is not complete until the mid-twenties when the brain/personality is fully formed. The long-term effect on neurological development of blocking this crucial process is not known.
Androgen inhibitors have only recently been used for children with gender identity confusion. Licensed for use in the treatment of men with prostate cancer, studies have raised concerns about effects on short-term memory, language ability, mental flexibility and inhibitory control.22 Recent studies from the US indicate long-term serious health effects for some women who were administered blockers for precocious puberty, such as excruciating muscle and bone pain, depression, weakness and fatigue. 23
There are no studies to show that blockers are truly ‘reversible’ when used to treat gender dysphoria as so few children come off them once they start that the number is too small to study. There are increasing concerns that their use may prevent the ‘crisis in adolescence’ necessary for stable identity formation.24
Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria
Although there exists plentiful research on the etiology of transsexualism in adult males, 25 there are no research studies on adults who underwent medical gender reassignment treatments in childhood as this is a new phenomenon.
Some professionals have noted a new presentation of gender dysphoria which appears after the start of puberty with no previous indication of gender confusion or unhappiness. This recent development has been termed Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria and it affects mostly teenage girls.
The first study of this group 26 indicates a high incidence of internet and peer-group influence where a number of teenage girls within a friendship group ‘come out’ together as transgender. A high percentage of these girls report increased popularity although parents report worsening mental health and parent-child relationships. Typically these girls receive online advice, trust only transgender sources for information, retreat into transgender-only friendship groups and may mock those who are not transgender or LGBT.
Parents report that their teenager’s sudden announcement that they are transgender typically follows their immersion in online transgender forums such as Reddit, 27 Tumblr and YouTube.
The increasing number of social media accounts and online support forums for young people who regret their medical transition should give pause for thought. A recent survey of detransitioned young women suggests that exploration and therapeutic support should be the first step in treatment and a medical pathway seen as a last resort. Only 6% of those surveyed felt that they had received adequate counselling before making their decision to undergo medically invasive procedures which cannot be reversed.28
Given the permanent and irreversible physical effects of medical gender reassignment treatments a more cautious approach is indicated in the treatment of children and adolescents with gender dysphoria.29 Nevertheless, although any form of ‘social transition’ (name and clothing change or full social role transition) is a recognised predictor of persistence in cross-sex identity,30 rates of social transition have soared in recent years.31
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1 American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5)
2 Jenner Meierhans (2013) Is a Gender Recognition Certificate Crucial or Cruel? BBC Online
3 American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5)
4 British Association of Gender Identity Specialists (2016) Written submission to Transgender Equality Inquiry
5 Calum McKenzie (2016) Child gender identity referrals show huge rise in six years BBC News online
6 Transgender Trend (2017) From adult males to teenage girls: the movement from etiology to ideology
7 Steensma et al (2010) Desisting and Persisting Gender Dysphoria after Childhood
8 Glidden et al (2016) Gender dysphoria and autism spectrum disorder: a systematic review of the literature Sexual Medicine Reviews
9 Quote from Dr Kenneth Zucker (2017) Transgender Kids – Who Knows Best? BBC documentary, dir Sam Bagnall
10 Transgender Trend (2017) Hot Topics in Child Health: A Medical, Ethical and Political Debate
11 Transgender Trend (2016) Transgender diagnosis and treatment of children is not up for debate
12 Jesse Singal (2016) How the Fight Over Transgender Kids got a Leading Sex Researcher Fired, The Cut
13 Rebecca Hardy (2017) How a psychotherapist who has backed transgender rights for years was plunged into a Kafkaesque nightmare after asking if young people who change their sex might later regret it Daily Mail interview with James Caspian
14 Vreuenraets et al (2015) Early Medical Treatment of Children and Adolescents with Gender Dysphoria: An Empirical Ethical Study, PubMed
15 Steensma et al (2011) Gender Transitioning Before Puberty? Springer, Letter to the Editor
16 Hruz et al (2017) Growing Pains: Problems with Puberty Suppression in Treating Gender Dysphoria, The New Atlantis
17 Korte et al (2016) The Treatment of Gender Identity (Gender Dysphoria) Disorders in Childhood and Adolescence – Open Outcome Therapeutic Support or Early Setting of Therapy Course with the Introduction of Hormonal Therapy? Sexuology
18 Transgender Trend (2017) The Suicide Myth
19 James Cantor (2016) Do Trans Kids Stay Trans When They Grow Up? Sexology Today
20 Li et al Childhood Gendered Type Behaviour and Adolescent Sexual Orientation: A Longitudinal Population-Based Study University of Cambridge
21 John Whitehall (2016) Gender Dysphoria and Surgical Abuse, Quadrant
22 Gunlosoy et al (2017) Cognitive Effects of Androgen Deprivation Therapy on Men With Advanced Prostrate Cancer, PubMed
23 Christina Jewett (2017) Women Fear Drug They Used To Halt Puberty Led To Health Problems, California Healthline
24 Guido Giovanardi (2017) Buying time or arresting development? The dilemma of administering hormone blockers in children and adolescents, Science Direct
25 James M Cantor (2011) New MRI Studies Support the Blanchard Typology of Male-to-Female Transsexualism, Springer Archives of Sexual Behaviour
26 Lisa L Littman (2017) Rapid Onset of Gender Dysphoria in Adolescents and Young Adults: A Descriptive Study, Journal of Adolescent Health
27 Transgender Reality (2016) Questioning teens and social contagion, WordPress
28 guideonragingstars (2016) Female detransition and reidentification: Survey results and interpretation, Tumblr
29 Lisa Marchiano (2017) Outbreak: On Transgender Teens and Psychic Epidemics, Psychological Perspectives
30 Steensma et al (2013) Factors Associated with Desistence and Persistence of Childhood Gender Dysphoria: A Quantitative Follow-Up Study, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
31 Steensma and Cohen-Kettenis (2011) Gender Transitioning Before Puberty? Letter to the Editor, Archive of Sexual Behaviour