Aidan Key is a longtime transgender educator who founded organizations TransFamilies and Gender Diversity. He is also a contributor to the groundbreaking 2014 anthology Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, which will see its second edition launched on April 15.
Questions about trans children are plentiful, yet answers can be harder to come by. That's true especially now, with the national dialogue swirling at an all-time high: This year alone, over 225 bills targeting LGBTQ youth have been introduced in courts around the nation, from Florida to Texas, including just this week in Alabama, where lawmakers passed a bill that would criminalize gender-affirming healthcare for youth, the first of its kind to make such treatment a felony. The barrage of bills and stories debating trans lives bring, in turn, a flood of questions — especially to someone like me, whose work takes me to schools around the country to provide trainings on understanding and supporting youth of all genders.
So, what are some of the most common questions I hear? Below are the top seven, with concise answers that I hope are an important start to fostering compassion.
Aren’t they too young to know they're transgender?
No. Studies on gender cognition indicate that a gender diverse child’s awareness of their gender is commensurate with that of non-transgender children. In other words, trans children have a solid sense of their gender in the same way, and at the same time, that other children do. Still, though they have an awareness of their own gender, a child generally lacks the vocabulary to express this definitively. With few images of other trans or gender diverse children like themselves — and with the awareness that this difference is unsettling to adults around them — a child may wait to disclose this information to parents for some time.
Shouldn’t we, as parents, wait until we have certainty before moving forward with gender-affirming care?
No. Taking an affirmative approach to a child’s gender journey does no harm. In the past, if a child was asserting or displaying a gender difference, medical and mental health professionals advised “watchful waiting.” It was a directive to take no action — just wait and see what happened. While sounding benign, “watchful waiting,” in reality, delays necessary support, intervention or direct engagement that validates a child’s needs during this crucial time.
This approach is no longer supported by health professionals. Rather than delaying a decision, it is a decision — a course of inaction — that can result in very real harm. The unfortunate impact is one that invalidates and devalues a child’s core sense of self. Supporting small, reversible changes allows child and caregiver time for self-discovery. If a child decides that further steps toward transition aren’t right for them, they will know they were supported through every step of the process.
Could this be a phase?
Yes. Gender exploration could be a phase … or not. Keep in mind that childhood phases apply to interests that last a few weeks or a month rather than several months or years. We once believed that transgender children would express their gender identity differences "insistently, persistently, and consistently." And while this does apply to many trans children, there are others for whom it does not. Sometimes parents wish for definitive indicators so as to have a clearer understanding of next steps. Confusing things further, parents may find it challenging to delineate between a child’s gender identity, gender expression and anatomical sex. But the question of whether it is, or isn’t, a phase is less relevant than the importance of providing a supportive environment during that time of exploration.
What if they change their mind?
With the above thoughts highlighted, if, during a period of exploration, a child “changes their mind,” the act of supporting them has done no harm. A name or pronoun, once changed, can be changed again. Hairstyles can be changed “back.” Even certain medical interventions such as puberty delay and early hormonal interventions can be paused or discontinued. Having the chance to explore and “try things on” is often the only way to gain salient information.
Isn’t this topic too mature to discuss with children?
Most people have a familiarity with the term "sexual orientation," and incorrectly place a child’s gender identification difference into that category. However, being transgender is not a sexual orientation. And we all have a sense of our gender that is innate — even the youngest of children. A clearer way of understanding it is to consider the language that children themselves use, for example, “in my heart and mind, I am a boy even though you see me as a girl.” As humans, we all have an innate sense of our gender identity, that is separate from the people to whom we have an attraction.
Won’t other children be confused?
When children have an opportunity to learn about their trans peers, they get it! Children can easily grasp the concept of gender identity (who they are on the inside). Nor are children confusing gender with sexuality, like their adult counterparts. As a matter of fact, it is confusing to them when a trans student is not provided access to the bathroom or locker room that best corresponds to their gender identity.
Should trans athletes be allowed to participate in K-12 sports?
Trans athletes in schools have been engaging successfully in K-12 sports for years. The first gender inclusive policy in the nation, developed by the WA State Activities Association, was implemented, without fanfare, over 15 years ago. This Gender Diverse Youth Sport Inclusivity Toolkit was developed to highlight the state’s successful policy implementation, to address FAQs and to make evident that all athletes have a right to play. Recently, concern has been raised that young trans female athletes will have an unfair physical advantage over other female athletes. This does not pan out. In over 15 years of trans inclusion, trans woman athletes have not dominated their sports — they win some and they lose some — just like their teammates and competitors.
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