No menses, no mustache: Gender doctor touts nonbinary hormones & surgery for self-sacrificing youth

This is another in a series of posts examining statements made by top gender specialists at the inaugural USPATH conference in Los Angeles in February 2017.  (See here and here for more.)


Not so long ago, unremitting distress about one’s gender was the one and only reason for medical transition. Those days are over. With activists clamoring for a change from “gender dysphoria” to “gender incongruence” in the next revision to the international register of diagnosis codes, the ICD-11, the push is on for insurance-paid hormones and surgeries for anyone who believes their body is in any way “incongruent” with their “gender identity.” And this effort includes medical intervention for children and adolescents.

In this clip, excerpted from a USPATH symposium entitled “OUTSIDE OF THE BINARY – CARE FOR NON-BINARY ADOLESCENTS AND YOUNG ADULTS,” pediatric gender specialist Johanna Olson-Kennedy MD, discusses her views on medical interventions for “nonbinary” youth.

As always, we recommend that you listen to the recorded excerpt yourself, as well as reading the transcript included in this post. Time stamps are indicated by square brackets. []

 

According to Dr. Olson-Kennedy,

There are still people who want to embark on phenotypic gender transition—hormones and surgeries—who don’t meet this criterion [for gender dysphoria]. Well, what are we to do?

…And it’s great. I love this. I don’t like the word “pass” at all. Passing as a member of the other sex is not a criterion for treatment, whereas achievement of personal comfort and well being are. And that is really the crux of what should guide our care, as medical providers, as professionals in the mental health role.

How is this any different from elective cosmetic surgery? Trans activists will say it’s “medically necessary” because it is a guaranteed suicide preventative, a dubious claim at best. But how about a teen girl who hates herself and is self-harming because her breasts are (to her) too large or too small? What about her “comfort and well being”?

[:52] So, there are a lot of medical intervention possibilities for folks who have nonbinary identities. And again, this is really not for me to determine. It’s really for me to work with a person to determine what it is they’re interested in.

As we all know by now, the idea that a medical or psych provider should use diagnostic skills to determine whether a young person ought to undergo permanent drug or surgical treatments is so 20th century.

[1:06] Some people are like, oh! no menses, no mustache. You know, assigned female at birth, “I really don’t want facial hair, I don’t want [inaudible], I’m super dysphoric about bleeding.”

So, there’s lots of options, certainly for menstrual suppression. I love—I was so excited to be in one of  the first sessions that I went to, which was gynecologic care for trans-masculine folks, this “leave a gonad” thing.

So, it was this idea of, you know, maybe you don’t wanna have bleeding but you still want estrogen, and you want that support from a medical perspective. Or you just don’t want to go on testosterone.

It’s 2017, and designer endocrine systems are all the rage. Human beings should tinker and tamper with their delicate hormonal balance, because it’s what they want right here, right now. Mix and match–why not?

[1:48] There’s lots of these different things.  Maybe a central blocker and low dose testosterone. I had a young person who went on testosterone for a year, and it was like, that’s enough, I’m fine with it.  I’m masculinized enough, and that’s good for me. Or no medical intervention at all.  That’s absolutely possible.

The slide below,  from a different talk at the same USPATH conference, pretty well encapsulates this “treatment” approach:

nonbinary medical pathways slide

So we see the mindset of “affirm-only gender doctors here; why so many of them don’t acknowledge there might be permanent harm done to young people who eventually detransition. There are no mistakes. It’s all part of the gender journey.

 

[2:06] So, for nonbinary assigned males, maybe just Spironolactone [an androgen blocker] or using a peripheral blocker only. That might be something that people opt for. I had a young person who really [inaudible] nonbinary identity, but kind of, very very huge fear of a large nipple areola complex. Like, “I just can’t even deal with that.”

All you women with large nipple areolas that you just can’t even deal with, maybe you can get Medicaid to cover that in your state? Worth a try.

It would be one thing if these people were arguing for elective, cosmetic treatments on demand, for adults. But activists and gender specialists not only want to retain a medical diagnosis, gender incongruence in the next version of the ICD-11;  they want insurance to cover all trans-related treatments, for nonbinaries and anyone else who wants them.  In fact, some public and private insurance policies (such as that of the San Francisco Department of Public Health) already provide such coverage.

wpath-karasic-cultural-humilty-and-sfdph-cropped1

Back to Olson-Kennedy and her areola-avoidant patient:

[2:33] So, we put them on Spironolactone for a while, and then eventually she came back and said I wanna go on estrogen.  So there’s selective estrogen receptor modulators for people who do not want breast development. That could be a possibility.  Maybe hormones, no surgery. No medical intervention, another possibility.

No medical intervention: Just one of many dishes in the smorgasbord of options for nonbinary, gender fluid youth. Who’s to say (certainly not a medical doctor), which is the least harmful of those possibilities in the long run?

[2:51] My observations: Sometimes nonbinary identities are strategic…to protect themselves, to protect their parents. What I can tell you for certain about trans kids, youth, is they do a lot of taking care of the people around them.

Here we see a theme we’ve heard from other affirm-only genderists: Trans youth are more mature than “cis” kids. They are extraordinarily prescient about their future; they know for certain what they will want at age 20, 30, 40.

winters-trans-kids-are-more-mature

Prominent gender therapist Diane Ehrensaft lauds her tween clients for having the wisdom and foresight to opt for adoption in the future—unlike their balking parents, whose only reason for objecting to sterilizing a 12-year-old is a selfish desire for grandchildren.

But there’s something else crucial to note about Olson-Kennedy’s comments: After initially lauding her young enbies for pursuing smaller nipple areolas, or choosing to halt their menstrual periods without sprouting a beard, she is now implying to her audience that nonbinary is only a stopover for many of these kids. They are only claiming this identity to “take care of” their parents, when what they really want is to go whole hog to a binary transition.

[3:18] “I will sacrifice my own comfort for the comfort of the people around me, who I know I’m making very uncomfortable with my gender.”

What an extraordinary assertion. Trans kids aren’t just mature beyond their years when it comes to making irreversible decisions about their bodily integrity and fertility. They also emanate Buddha-like concern for the feelings of others, especially their woefully ignorant parents. How long before we have religious sects led by trans kid gurus, like Tibetan child lamas on steroids?

And how does the claim that trans kids are precociously mature square with the accumulating evidence of a strong correlation between gender dysphoria and autism? Young people with autism are not exactly known for their self-sacrificing nature or their ability to reflect upon the feelings of others.

[3:33] And so, marking that out is really important. Because again, because expressing that [they are nonbinary] is often used as evidence that they are not trans.  “No, well they don’t want to do this. Clearly, they’re not trans.” And having that conversation, and making sure that someone isn’t taking care of someone else at their own sacrifice.

 Are they “taking care of someone else” or perhaps listening to a family member who just might have the best interests of the child at heart, more than a gender doctor who hasn’t known the kid their entire lives?

So, on the one hand, we hear that nonbinaries need treatments “to feel more comfortable,” and at the same time, we’re told that a significant number of martyr-like trans kids are “sacrificing” themselves by feigning a nonbinary identity for the comfort of their parents. Which is it?

The Guardian recently produced a mini-documentary on nonbinary milennials and their quest for comfort. Meghan Murphy dissected this bit of puffery, and took on the living nightmare of feeling uncomfortable in this article.

Well worth a look.

meghan murphy enbie tweet.jpg

 

 

 

Brain sex: The jury is still out—but does it matter?

Early this morning, Think Progress (a “progressive” news outlet) posted on Facebook what was meant to be a provocative pull-quote from its latest trans-kid piece by reliable journalist propagandist Zack Ford, “It Takes A Village To Bully A Transgender Kindergartner”:

And what exactly is the “need” of this child? A boy in kindergarten would like to be accepted as “girl”? Well, as a woman, I take offense at any boy who is pretending to share my gender when he quite clearly NEVER can nor ever will. … He is not. He never can be.”

The commenter quoted is, of course, a woman (a bigoted bully, as seen through Ford’s tunnel-vision lens) who questioned the parents’ need to socially transition their 5-year-old child. The child’s transgender status has resulted in a giant kerfuffle as result of the Minnesota school’s dilemma in deciding what to do to accommodate the kindergartner.  Zack Ford paints anyone who questions the wisdom of a 5-year-old boy being assured he is really a girl as an ignorant transphobe, a bigot supported only by right-wing conservative groups.

Zack Ford Facebook
In this post, I’m not going to be writing about the fact that it isn’t just conservatives who question the trans-kid trend (obvious to anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis, or for that matter, the increasing number of blogs by left wing parents, professionals, and feminists. Check out my blogroll). Nor will I be dissecting in detail this “news” article set out as bait on the Think Progress Facebook page to incite the reliable progressive hordes.

Instead, my interest in Ford’s latest bit of Newspeak revolves around the huge number (easily 10-1) of reader comments on that Facebook post, which can be paraphrased as follows:

You stupid bigots! Go read up on the science of gender identity. Gender identity is proven, settled brain science. Little kids KNOW from the time they’re born what sex they are. Plus intersex. No one “chooses” to be transgender, they’re born that way.

 I’ve spent thousands of hours marinating in gender dogma and research studies, both pro- and con-, re: “innate gender identity.” So while it’s no surprise to me to see some people spouting as FACT the totally unproven hypothesis that gender identity is set in stone at birth, what does surprise me is the sheer numbers who have bought what, at best, is a tenuous theory, and who have thereby completely shut down even a modicum of critical thinking.

Of course, who can blame well intentioned progressives? They’re fed bittersweet mouthfuls of Innate Gender Identity gruel every single day not only by the media, but even by the President of the United States, who via his Department of Justice, baldly asserts on line 36 of the complaint against the state of North Carolina:

36. Gender identity is innate and external efforts to change a person’s gender identity can be harmful to a person’s health and well-being.

DOJ complaint

US v. North Carolina

(And it’s not just these few lines. The entire complaint reads like boilerplate trans-activist dogma, and interested readers are urged to take a look at the rest of this document).

This increasingly unchallengeable notion that gender identity, aka “brain sex,” is innate, hard-wired at birth, and thus absolutely unchangeable (despite the efforts of us horrible bigoted parents who are rooting for our kids to commit suicide) means, to the masses who now parrot it like the top graduates of a Maoist Re-Education Camp: Every toddler who claims to be the opposite sex must be agreed with by every adult who comes in contact with the child. Innate gender identity is the ironclad reason why no one is supposed to question the sudden flood of “trans kids” we hear about on a daily basis.

Given the gravity of all this—that little kids are now being ushered aboard a train that will lead inexorably from puberty blockers to cross-sex hormones (with concomitant irreversible changes) in 100% of reported cases–these brain sex/innate gender identity claims can’t just be ignored and dismissed. Not when so many  people—more every day—have swallowed them whole.

Here’s the thing. There is some research that supports a role for biological, genetic, or physiological factors in gender dysphoria. And as much as people on “my side” of this argument (the argument being: should children be “transitioned” to the opposite sex on their own say-so?) would like to simply dismiss any and all evidence for biological aspects of things like gender dysphoria, it’s not that simple.

Shunning entire lines of research because we are made uncomfortable by the findings should not be the way of truth seekers. If opening our minds to their claims changes our position, then so be it. As medical historian and intersex-rights activist Alice Dreger says in her book Galileo’s Middle Finger which chronicles (among other things) the chilling effect of activism on scientific inquiry,

[it is] a rare trait in activists: a belief in evidence even when it challenge[s] our political goals.

Human beings, in general, do not appreciate having their cherished ideas challenged. Political viewpoints tend to be set in stone, with any wavering seen by one’s allies as a dangerous and slippery slope. Evidence contrary to the ideological convictions of either side is taken as an existential threat to the fundamental integrity of the position.

For instance, people (like me) who support a woman’s right to abortion often avoid  acknowledging the fact that a fetus is not just an amorphous mass of cells, but a proto-human being. Conversely, anti-abortion advocates give short shrift to arguments about a pregnant woman’s agency over her body, and the critical importance of a baby coming into the world to a parent who is ready–and can financially afford–to raise the child.

The battle lines dividing those who support the idea that self/parent/activist-identified “trans” kids should be transitioned as young as possible, vs. those who disagree (like me) are drawn across a long-contested and hardened piece of ground: nature vs. nurture. And the opposing combatants are highly reluctant to give even an inch on the matter.

As you’ll see, this post is going to argue not for a détente or concession of territory, but rather, for a willingness of “my side”—the gender critics–to consider the evidence marshaled by our detractors, and then ponder whether it changes your mind. I’m only going to touch on a few areas of research typically used by the trans activist side; if you’re interested, you’ll want to spend some delving time yourself.

Let me cut to the punchline right now: Speaking for myself, weighing the claims (and the research they base it on) of the activists who want to transition children as early as possible has actually strengthened my conviction that medical transition should be an adults-only decision, if made at all. The only thing I can say I might have shifted my opinion on after endless investigation is this: There may be a very small (it’s always been very small) number of people for whom medical intervention is the only way they can live a happy life. I don’t believe we should prohibit these interventions for such people as adults. I still do not believe, weighing up all the evidence, that we should be tampering with the bodies of young people who may very well grow up to be happy without the expensive, drastic, and irreversible meddling of the gender-soaked medical and psychiatric professions. Instead, as I harp on constantly, let’s celebrate and support gender defiance in young people.

So let’s start with the obvious. [Note to regular readers: The information in the next couple of paragraphs is well known to you, but please stick with me, because I’m going to cover some research I haven’t formerly written about]. If gender identity is “innate” how come so many gender dysphoric youngsters change their minds?

4thWaveNow is chock-a-block with posts and research studies—as well as personal narratives from formerly trans-identified people who changed their minds, as well as others who experienced and resolved severe gender dysphoria in childhood—supporting the fact that many children outgrow their dysphoria and grow up to be adults happy to have bodies and brains that have not been tampered with by the medical and psychiatric professions. A 2008 meta-study by Korte et al sums it up:

Multiple longitudinal studies provide evidence that gender-atypical behavior in childhood often leads to a homosexual orientation in adulthood, but only in 2.5% to 20% of cases to a persistent gender identity disorder. Even among children who manifest a major degree of discomfort with their own sex, including an aversion to their own genitalia (GID in the strict sense), only a minority go on to an irreversible development of transsexualism.

Because so many trans activists claim that intensity of discomfort with one’s body parts is some irrefutable sign of “true transgender,” or that prior researchers didn’t adequately differentiate between “true trans kids” and the merely “gender nonconforming,” I’m going to emphasize this bit of the above quote:

even among children who manifest a major degree of discomfort with their own sex, including an aversion to their own genitalia.

Even WPATH—World Professional Association for Transgender Health—whose clinician-activists spend a good deal of time promoting younger and younger ages for “transition,” acknowledges on page 12 of its Standards of Care that most trans-identified kids grow out of it:

In most children, gender dysphoria will disappear before, or early in, puberty.

An earlier online version of  the WPATH SOC-7 cited specific numbers—greater than 80%–and included research citations, but this more specific information, oddly enough, has disappeared. But this 2014 study remembers:

…as the World Professional Association for Transgender Health notes in their latest Standards of Care, gender dysphoria in childhood does not inevitably continue into adulthood, and only 6 to 23 percent of boys and 12 to 27 percent of girls treated in gender clinics showed persistence of their gender dysphoria into adulthood.

Ok. So most kids grow out of gender dysphoria. But that fact doesn’t by itself dispense with biological evidence for gender dysphoria, whether or not it persists.

Traditionally, feminists have staked their claim on the “nurture” side of the “gender identity is innate” argument, with little acknowledgement of the findings in biology and neuroscience that hint at any real difference between male and female brain physiology.  And there is plenty of hard science bolstering this nurture-based stance: recent MRI studies have mostly corroborated the view that male/female brains are more alike than different, which leads to the conclusion that sex-role stereotyped behaviors are primarily the result of socialization, as Cordelia Fine laid out in her “Delusions of Gender.”

Nature_versus_Nurture

Trans activists and the clinicians who (let’s face it) follow their lead obviously point to other studies of adult transgender people which support the idea that their brains are hard-wired to be closer to the sex they “identify” with. Some of these studies do offer some evidence for sex differentiation in the brain. But imaging studies of adult brains are pretty much impossible to control, because all adults have had life experiences and social influences (not to mention possible cross-sex hormone treatments in some cases) which, owing to neuroplasticity, will of course have an impact on brain structure.

But even in the (primarily MRI) studies of adult brains that are better executed and controlled, it turns out the fundamental difference in these studied brains is not so much a matter of the subjects’ gender identity but of their sexual preference, as sexologist James Cantor draws attention to in a blog post surveying research studies frequently cited to prove a transsexual brain:

 In Scientific American Mind, journalist Francine Russo takes on a fascinating research question: “Is there something unique about the transgender brain?” she reviews some of the relevant brain research on transsexuals and concludes that transgenderism is indeed a phenomenon of the brain.  Although I agree with Russo that transgenderism is a phenomenon of the brain, I believe Russo over-focused on gender identity, which led her away from the better explanation of the data:

These brain scans don’t reflect gender identity, they reflect sexual orientation.

Cantor’s post, Russo’s Scientific American piece, and the cited research studies are all well worth reading.

There is some other research I find compelling: studies of prenatal hormone levels—specifically, testosterone—and their influence on sex-stereotyped behaviors and other characteristics in children.

A couple of years ago, Brynn Tannehill, a trans activist-journalist, posted a list of what Tannehill obviously considered to be airtight studies,  many of them revolving around prenatal hormones,  in support of innate gender identity . But are they airtight?

First, Tannehill conveniently neglects to mention that many of the cited studies (surprise, surprise) also show a link between prenatal testosterone levels and rate of homosexuality—in other words, hormone levels may have some impact on same-sex attraction.

But, more importantly, it turns out that several of the researchers linked by Tannehill have shown that the impact of hormones on both sexual identity and gender identity, while existing, is small. For example, Melissa Hines, in a 2006 paper, “Prenatal testosterone and gender-related behaviour, looked at several studies and concluded that

 Levels of prenatal testosterone predict levels of sex-typed postnatal childhood play behavior.

 Like what kinds of play behavior?

Research on girls and women with CAH has provided some support for the hypothesized influence of testosterone on human behavioural development. Girls with CAH show increased male-typical play behaviour, including increased preferences for toys that are usually chosen by boys, such as vehicles and weapons, increased preferences for boys as playmates and increased interest in rough-and-tumble play.

 Does this preference for rough-and-tumble, stereotypical “boy” play mean these kids are transgender?

Although there are fewer studies relating prenatal testosterone levels to postnatal sexual orientation and core gender identity, there is also some evidence, particularly from women with CAH or CAIS, that testosterone influences these psychosexual outcomes as well. However, these influences are substantially smaller than those on childhood play behaviour.

 

 

 

 

Prenatal testosterone levels are only a small factor in later sexual orientation and gender identity. What they are more predictive of is –wait for it—preference for non-sex-stereotyped activities! In other words: gender nonconformity (or my preferred term: gender defiance).

So some children play with stereotypically opposite-sex toys, prefer the hairstyles and activities of the opposite sex, and prefer the company of children of the opposite sex. Is it possible these preferences are at least partially “hard-wired” due to the effect of androgens on their brains? Sure. Does it follow that this means they are the opposite sex? Of course not. Nor does it necessarily mean they will grow up to be same-sex attracted, either (as I’m sure many heterosexual women who were tomboys can attest).

Let’s put a finer point on it: while some studies show that prenatal hormone levels could contribute to sex-stereotyped differences in human behaviors and, yes, sense of self, acknowledging these differences doesn’t lead to the conclusion that trans activists reach: If a child is born with a set of proclivities and tendencies more typical of the opposite sex, this means they ARE the opposite sex and medical and chemical alteration of the body is fully justified and should be pursued as soon as possible. 

What else does biological or genetic research show? In an earlier post, I argued that the only way to even begin to prove an innate male or female brain would be to scan a huge number of identical-twin newborns (before they had a chance to have any “nurture” influence—i.e., no social experiences), separate the twins at birth, then compare those brains later when the children grew up, some of whom would no doubt decide to undergo transition to the opposite sex.

For ethical reasons, this sort of research would be pretty much impossible (you can’t forcibly separate twins at birth and raise them separately, and you can’t control how kids are raised by dictating to parents how to raise them, even if you could). But an international team of researchers has looked at twins and the prevalence of gender dysphoria/transsexualism in a meta-analysis published in 2012, “Gender Identity Disorder in Twins: A Review of the Case Report Literature.”  (The full study is behind a paywall.)

Using a combination of their own clinic records and an exhaustive search of the literature, they examined a total or 44 twins of which at least one twin had gender identity disorder (GID)—the diagnostic term at the time, since replaced with “gender dysphoria” (GD). Of these, 23 were identical (monozygotic/MZ). The remainder were fraternal (dizygotic/DZ).

What were their findings?

 Nine (39.1%) of the 23 MZ [identical] female and male twins were found to be concordant for GID. In contrast, none of the 21 DZ [fraternal] twin pairs were concordant for GID.

This was a statistically significant difference, leading to the conclusion that “there is a role for genetic factors in the development of GID.” That difference in rate of gender dysphoria in identical twins matters. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that it was still a minority (39.1%) of identical twins who were both gender dysphoric.

Twin studies
In their discussion of their findings, the authors (like all truth-seeking scientists who submit their work to peer review) acknowledge that reality is nuanced:

The higher concordance for GID in MZ than in DZ twins is consistent with a genetic influence on its genesis although shared and nonshared environmental factors cannot be ruled out. Indeed, from these case reports, very little is known about the “equal environments assumption,” that is, the assumption that MZ twins are not treated more similarly than DZ twins in ways that might affect their gender identity.

In other words—“nature” appears to be a factor, but we can’t rule out nurture. ”Influence” is not causality.

And of even greater interest: In the penultimate paragraph of the discussion, we find this gem:

In the studies on genetics and sexual orientation, a higher concordance for homosexuality has been found in MZ versus vs. DZ twins. Using family methodology, there is also evidence for genetic influences [38]. In the reviewed case studies of twins with GID, from those whose sexual orientation is known, all, with the exception of Green [25], were attracted to their biological sex and nearly 50% of the non-GID twins were also homosexual, reflecting a higher percentage than found in the general population [39]. In all the cases reported to be concordant for GID, there was also concordance for sexual orientation.

Here we have it again. As Cantor noted, as I have noted, as the Dutch pioneers of pediatric transition have noted, this study finds—as nearly every study over decades has found: Whatever the precise contributions of nature v. nurture that leads to gender dysphoria or opposite-sex identification, a huge majority (if not 100%) of the studied individuals exhibit same-sex attraction by adolescence or adulthood.

I’ll hammer it home again: The constantly repeated refrain by trans activists that gender identity has “nothing to do with sexual orientation” is directly refuted in every study, as well as many of the personal accounts by trans-identified people splattered all over the media.


 So, what have we learned from looking at a few studies aiming to tease apart the nature-nurture question about gender dysphoria/opposite-sex identification?

  • there is sparse evidence of an innate male or female brain, and what differences there may be are mitigated and influenced by later life experiences. If anything, brain differences seem to indicate variations in sexual preference, not intrinsic gender identity; and
  • prenatal hormones—specifically, testosterone—have an effect, on….gender nonconforming behaviors in childhood. They have a contributing, but minor, effect on later homosexuality and gender identity; and
  • in general, there is evidence for both biological and non-biological (environmental-social) contributions to the development of gender dysphoria.

For me, it all boils down to this: Nature v. nurture is a false dichotomy. We are all the result of our genetic inheritance, hormonal influences, and how we were brought up and continue to live—which also includes both post-natal physiological influences (e.g., the various chemicals we imbibe in our hyper-industrialized world in addition to drugs and hormones we deliberately take in), as well as what we learn and experience over the course of our lifetimes.

In the end, the squabbling over nature v. nurture is a non-issue. What matters is protecting kids from the—however well intentioned—meddling of adults in children’s bodily and psychological integrity.  Whatever the relative contributions of nature and nurture to a child’s sense of self and ultimate decisions, adults should protect children from undergoing interventions that close off future possibilities.

Proponents of medical transition for children are not champions of gender nonconformity. If they were, as I’ve said many times, they would be celebrating it in children and instead of agreeing with the magical thinking of a child that this means they are “born in the wrong body,” they’d be helping these kids realize they are wonderful and unique examples of their natal sex. A healthy, fully functioning body attached to a brain is an integrated whole with that brain. It is an existential reality, no more “wrong” than the body of a person who demonstrates more sex-stereotyped typicality. By promoting the view that research evidence pointing to certain sex-stereotyped behaviors as having a biological component (however small) means kids’ bodies can be “wrong,” they are using science to limit the possibilities for children.

Puberty blockers, cross sex hormones, and surgeries for children and young people permanently limit their options. Options like: sexual experiences in an unaltered, non-surgically-tinkered-with body. Options like: Figuring out your sexual orientation, especially if you’re gay or lesbian and won’t, on average, come to terms with that fully until early adulthood. Options like: Being a role model for other kids that boys and girls can be and do or be anything, regardless of whether they fit into sex-stereotyped-typical behaviors and appearances.

Yes, a person who later decides to “transition,” who undergoes hormone treatments or surgeries after puberty may not “pass” as well as a someone who had natural puberty curtailed (and was incidentally permanently sterilized in the process). But the Cult of Passing as the opposite sex should be challenged—especially since those same trans activists who worry so much about “passing” (in perhaps their most obvious self-undermining argument) want us to also believe (for instance) that a “penis can be female.” To play Devil’s Advocate with the trans activists, if a boy’s penis can be female, you have no business promoting medical transition for anyone’s child.

Puberty blocking is not a benign intervention. While I’ll grant that, if stopped in time, GnRh agonists are “reversible” (as in, they will not prevent natural puberty), the psychological and neurological effects of delaying natural puberty cannot be seen by any thinking person as “fully reversible.” Neither is social transition “fully reversible,” for that matter. You can’t “reverse” a childhood spent cementing the idea that biological sex can be changed by a society bent on denying the existential reality of sexual dimorphism. You can’t “reverse” a message, repeated over and over to a child by trusted adults that there is something fundamentally wrong with his or her body that must be corrected.

Regarding nature-v-nurture?  Here’s what I’d say to my fellow kid transition critics:  Don’t dismiss the stuff from the “nature” side because you’ve pre-decided that any science supporting an innate contribution to gender dysphoria is a priori bunk and it’s all nurture/socialization.

In my opinion, taking seriously the dogma of the other side, examining it closely, and then coming to well-thought-out, nuanced conclusions is a much stronger place to operate from than dismissing out of hand any kernel of truth “they” might be obsessing over. That’s not truth seeking; that’s just being close-minded in service of an impenetrable ideology.

Nature-nurture—it’s both. Just like our thought-generating brains are indivisible from the bodies they’re a part of.

Your thoughts?

The trans-kid honeymoon is sweet—while it lasts

I recently received comments from two readers (here and here) regarding a 2014 Dutch survey study of 55 young transgender adults (average age 20). The study, which reported overall positive psychological outcomes after medical transition, surveyed youth who had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, after which they had received puberty blockers, then cross-sex hormone treatments, and finally SRS surgery. The average length of time from first pre-treatment assessment to post-surgery was 6 years.

RESULTS:
After gender reassignment, in young adulthood, the GD was
alleviated and psychological functioning had steadily improved. Well-
being was similar to or better than same-age young adults from
the general population. Improvements in psychological functioning

were positively correlated with postsurgical subjective well-being.

These findings would likely reassure parents and others who have ushered children down the medical transition road. And frankly, anyone who has watched even a few YouTube teen transition vlogs would not find these results particularly surprising. For these kids, it must be an exhilarating experience, to feel they can escape their dissatisfaction with sex-role stereotypes and/or physical characteristics, and embark upon the long-awaited transformation into the opposite sex.  The speed with which the metamorphosis happens—with many young people “passing” as the opposite sex after only a few months of hormone treatment–is  downright magical.

No doubt, at least some of these people will go on to live happy, long lives with no regrets. But it’s likely some will begin to question (at what age? 30? 40? 50? 60?) whether giving up their fertility; permanently altering their bodies; and facing a lifelong regimen of injections and medical monitoring were ultimately worth the price.

Here is one young woman who has begun to raise a few questions. In a recent video entitled “Gender Troubles” (uploaded 6 years after she first decided to “transition,” and after 4 years of videos on her channel that mostly celebrated that choice), she acknowledges what she values about her “transition,” while sharing her realization that things are not quite as simple as they originally seemed to her younger self:

 When I decided to go on hormones…it seemed like the most logical choice for me. I was in a very bad place emotionally…I hated myself a lot. I hated my body. I didn’t identify with it….and I felt very separate from my body. And finding YouTube videos of other people who were transitioning and finding out it was an option to do so kind of deeply affected me. It was very difficult to resist those changes….to resist taking hormones, to see those changes in myself, especially because feeling so disconnected from myself it seemed like the best idea….and you don’t often see other narratives out there, on YouTube, about gender…

…. I struggled with the changes, how I felt about them, how it made me feel and why. At first I accepted them. It was exciting. It was euphoric. It was certainly a ride. And I really liked seeing myself with more muscle, I liked my voice deepening, the hair that was growing…

… My parents were really cool with it. They were not cool with me being a lesbian at all…. [now] they didn’t have to say “I have a lesbian daughter. I have a son who’s straight”….My family was supportive of my transition, so we became a lot closer because of that…

…As time went on, I really felt like…I didn’t identify with the changes I was seeing…I didn’t like the fact that these changes weren’t natural. Part of it felt like I was burying a piece of myself…

…The other night, I cried, because I realized I really want to be able to get pregnant. And I really want to be able to breastfeed. … Maybe it’s me getting older, the internal clock…ultimately I don’t regret getting top surgery…but there are elements where I miss having them….only about 15% of the time. But I can’t deny that this happens…

…There’s a lot more that happens besides achieving a male body or a more masculine body….a lot of things change and you don’t realize it. I don’t think I realized it as much until  …  a year or two off hormones. Things started kind of affecting me…

…When I was transitioning I was really caught up in the thrill of it, the excitement of it, the endorphins that went along with it…[but now]  I’ve been thinking about things I wasn’t before.

Transition regret videos aside, even if we restrict our focus to the 55 subjects in the Dutch research study cited above–young people who (so far) are reporting largely positive benefits from their transition–there is more nuance to this study than first meets the eye. 4thWaveNow contributor fightingunreality delves into some of the study’s unexamined implications in the post below.

As you read fightingunreality’s analysis, consider whether survey studies like this one might be subject to the  “interpersonal expectancy ” of researchers and “supportive” parents. The interpersonal expectancy effect is also known as self-fulfilling prophecy, or the Pygmalian effect, extensively studied by preeminent psychological researcher Robert Rosenthal:

 …the tendency for experimenters to obtain results they expect, not simply because they have correctly anticipated nature’s response, but rather because they have helped to shape that response through their expectations. When behavioral researchers expect certain results from their human or animal subjects, they appear unwittingly to treat them in such a way as to increase the probability that they will respond as expected

In more recent years….research has been extended from experiments, to teachers, employers, and therapists whose expectations for their…patients might also come to serve as interpersonal self-fulfilling prophecies.


Analysis of the 2014 Dutch study (available in full at the link, and introduced above),

by fightingunreality

Any discussion of the “outcomes” for those children chosen for the experimental use of puberty-blocking drugs would be remiss without first addressing the ethics of what has been done.

First, this study is about young people, many of whom initially presented to the clinic as prepubescent children. Children’s understanding of gender is primarily comprised of the simplistic social stereotypes through which they have learned to perceive the meaning of biological sex, and which they lack the certainty of identity to resist. Developmentally unable to fully comprehend abstract concepts, they have little understanding of the social forces which inform and compel both them and the adults to behave in certain manners deemed to be “appropriate” on the basis of sex. The vast majority of these children were socially transitioned by their parents prior to their arrival at the clinic, thereby disrupting the chance that they may have had to experience a typical childhood.

hormone graph 2

Because 85% of the fathers and 95% of the mothers were supportive of their children’s desire to live as the other gender, and since virtually all of the children were living for all intents and purposes as socially transitioned, we can assume, with little doubt, that these parents subscribed to the idea of sex-based gender roles for their children akin to those we have seen in the plethora of news stories of (mostly) moms citing wrong toys and early color preferences as indications that their children were different.

Since none of these child-transition studies (this Dutch study being no exception) report the extent to which parents enforce traditional gender roles, we have no real sense of the degree of their influence on these children or how much they might affect the kids’ willingness to defy them in order to express their non-traditional likes and dislikes– without the expressed belief that they are in fact, a different sex. Is it only a coincidence that 94% of the males in this study were either same-sex attracted or bisexual (87.9% SSA, 6.1% BI) or that 100% of the females (89.2 SSA, 10.8% BI) had same sex attractions? Are we really expected to believe that social and parental attitudes in regards to homosexuality play no part in either the formation of the children’s understandings of what constitutes “feeling like the other sex,” or, more importantly, the acceptability to parents of what, in effect, becomes medicalized gay conversion therapy?

Since the stated protocol by these researchers is to provide a six-months to a year “diagnostic phase,” this means that prior to the first assessment for this particular study, they had already been living as cross-gendered for at least that amount of time, plus the previously acknowledged but unspecified duration of social transition. During the actual diagnostic phase, all of them “officially transitioned” –including name changes. Since the youngest, at the time just prior to the administration of hormone blockers, was 11.1 years old, that means this child had been living cross-gendered since a minimum age of 10.6 years old –in addition to the time prior to arriving at the clinic. What can such a child actually know about what it means to live as his or her own natal sex?

Given the willingness, as noted in the study, of peers and parents to promote and solidify by reinforcement these children’s sense of being wrong-bodied, it is hard to see how such children could establish a basis by which they could reasonably fully comprehend–let alone reevaluate–their child-based understanding of gender and gender roles. As has been noted in previous posts on this blog, identity formation throughout childhood and adolescence is both malleable and fluid. It is impossible to believe that the interventions by both the parents and the clinicians did not directly interfere with these children’s identity development. How does a child who has basically reordered their family’s lives by their insistence that they are actually the other sex back down from such claims? How do they tell their friends? We are not talking about adults, here, after all. By the time these children reached the point of choosing to delay their puberty, they had been living as the other gender for years –in some instances possibly half of their young lives. By the time it came to choose whether or not to imbibe cross-sex hormones, it is no surprise that none of these children chose to revert to living as their own sex: they had been socialized trans.

It’s interesting to note from the information in this paper that during the time between starting hormone blockers and their choice to be put on cross-sex hormones, these kids –especially the girls –actually experienced greater levels of “gender dysphoria.” I think it’s important to ask ourselves why that is. These kids were not facing the risk of further development of secondary sexual characteristics. They were living as their chosen gender. Why wouldn’t they be at least somewhat relieved of their dysphoria? Since levels of such dysphoria consist of self-assessment, this worsening could merely reflect the child’s desire to fully transition along with the knowledge that admitting a decreasing level of dysphoria might threaten the willingness of the clinicians to advance their transitions. That is one possibility. The other more likely possibility is that living as fully socially transitioned children, their awareness of not physically “matching” their chosen gender while assuming that role actually worsens the sense of being wrong-bodied. In other words, telling someone that you are actually a boy or a girl when you clearly are not increases self-awareness of and discomfort with your actual sex.

As was articulated in a BBC documentary by a gay Iranian who was pressured into transition, prior to transitioning he often heard, “He’s so girly. He’s so feminine.” After the surgery, whenever [he] wanted to feel like a woman or behave like a woman, everybody would say “look, she’s like a man. She’s manly.” This phenomenon can readily be applied to children who may have been considered like the other sex prior to living akin to that sex, but become seemingly less like the other sex when attempting to assume that role. The very fact that they are attempting to live as the other gender may very well increase the dysphoria that assuming such a role is meant to lessen. Is it a wonder that 100% of the children that comprised this cohort chose to go on to cross-sex hormones?

The gender specialists promoting these studies want us to believe that the use of hormone blockers provides extra time without the stressful development of secondary sexual characteristics. They’d like us to believe that the children are being given a sort of “time-out” to consider their choices and become more mature before committing to irreversible changes, but is that really the case? The hormones required for adolescent brain reorganization and development are not released when a child has received GnRh agonists. Physical development typical for teenagers is prevented, setting the children even farther apart from their peers, and sexual and romantic involvements –a key factor in desistance –are avoided.

Ultimately, 100% of the children who chose to utilize hormone blockers in this study went on to fully transition. In fact, virtually all children inducted for such therapy demonstrate 100% persistence rates despite that fact that even today, major proponents of this therapy (such as Johanna Olson-Kennedy and Robert Garofalo, in their 2016 paper detailing research priorities on gender identity development and biopsychosocial outcomes) acknowledge that “Clinically useful information for predicting individual psychosexual development pathways is lacking.” They do not have reliable information on who will or will not desist. Are we really expected to believe that these hormone blocker advocates are exceptionally lucky in their selection process when they themselves profess such uncertainty and bemoan the lack of adequate research? Or should such absolute rates of persistence be setting off alarm bells to those of us concerned with the practice of funneling children into a pipeline that flows in only one direction: towards lifelong medicalization with unknown long-term consequences?

Because of the extraordinary persistence rates of children infused with hormone blockers, it’s obvious that hormone blockers do not allow these children extra time. The choice to participate in this protocol becomes the decision to transition, because it prevents the aspects of maturation necessary for desistance from ever occurring. The one thing it does do, however, is to make it seem safer to interfere with the children’s natural course of development. Parents are assured that the effects of blockers are reversible, and the moral burden of placing young children in the position of making adult decisions is put aside.   As a result, even more children are being swept up by this 21st century version of reparative therapy. Altogether, we will never know the number of children who would have desisted had they been allowed to develop without social and medical intervention. This is a travesty.

As far as the “positive outcomes” this study purports, there are numerous problems. First, in order to understand this study, we must consider the selection process detailed in a previous paper by the same authors.  The 70 children chosen for this study were selected from an original cohort of 111 (out of 196 children arriving at the UV hospital seeking treatment for GD) eligible for hormone blockers, after having been “thoroughly screened after a comprehensive psychological evaluation with many sessions over a longer period of time” and found “eligible for puberty suppression and cross-sex hormones.” It was a group chosen on the basis of their likelihood of coping with the transition process. They had “no psychosocial problems interfering with assessment or treatment,” and “adequate” (in the case of this cohort, very high) “family or other support,” and what the researchers described as “good comprehension of the impact of medical interventions.” (We can only guess what that could mean, given the fact that pre-adolescents and adolescents do not have the frontal lobe development to fully project themselves into the future.) Altogether, they seem very unlike the average children and adolescents who are currently being inducted into this process of life-long medicalization either in regard to screening or support and ongoing therapy, which the study notes was provided to them for an average of 6 years “after first presenting at the clinic.”

Fifteen of the cohort of 55 had “some missing data” which we are assured resulted in “no significant differences” on the pre-treatment tests.   I think, too, that when considering the outcomes of these children, it would be remiss to ignore the 15 members of the original cohort of 70 who did not participate in follow up: six had not met the one year gender reassignment surgery anniversary for this study and were, therefore, excluded. Two refused to complete the assessment, and two did not return their questionnaires. (Why?) Three had health problems which prevented them from undergoing gender reassignment surgery, one “dropped out of care” (no clarification) and 1 died from complications from surgery. (How does one weigh such a loss against “positive outcomes?”)

Given the fact that all of these children had what is in essence a “gender obsession” since childhood and had been socially transitioned for years, it comes as no surprise that they experienced relief at finally accomplishing their goals. The kids as a whole did overall demonstrate better functioning than at their initial assessment –possibly from the counselling and special attention they were getting –but “it cannot be ruled out that it relates instead or as well to the benefits that accrue from being validated and accepted for treatment.” They were getting what they wanted, after all. Research has shown that gender non-conforming children and adolescents are at higher risk for PTSD due to abuse and bullying because of being different, and the prospect of “fitting in” provided by merely initiating action towards this goal certainly provides a degree of psychological relief- regardless of the actual physical changes that have yet to take place. This is evidenced by the “significant quadratic effect” that commences immediately upon initiation of cross-sex hormones, well before significant physiological effects of the hormones could possibly have occurred.

Would body image and psychological well-being have improved in these children had they been allowed to experience a natural childhood and identity formation without medical intervention? It is well known in the field of child development that children go through a period of significant peer gender enforcement which corresponds with their concrete thinking and familial socialization which certainly affects the self-image of those who fail to conform. This rigidity begins to relax at around 8 to 10 years –after some of the children in this study have already been socially transitioned due to the discomfort this rigidity has created. Would they have come to a more nuanced understanding of gender roles had they made it past this stage? We –and they –will never know. Logically, children have been shown to be more accepted by members of the sex with which they share interests, rather than those whose similarities are based solely on sex, and gender enforcement prior to adolescence tends to be enacted by members of the same sex. Is it any wonder that children tend to “identify” with those who seemingly accept them and share common interests? Would a more mature understanding of abstract concepts assist them in accepting their own bodies without conforming to artificial gender roles as it did for many of us who matured without the alluring possibility of appearing to actually change sex?

As adolescence progresses, criticism is most likely directed by male peers who are not known for impulse control or empathy. Certainly those of us who have been on the receiving end of such mockery can attest to the resulting social stigma and humiliations we suffered in light of it due to our vulnerability at that age and the fact that we were insecure in our own identities and lacking the self-assurance that maturity brings. It has been demonstrated that peer and social disapproval for gender non-conformity peaks in the adolescent years and gradually decreases throughout young adulthood and adulthood. Not only do we mature, but the peers responsible for the harassment mature, as well. The insults decrease. As gay rights activists in the past often said, in an attempt to help bullied gay and lesbian children, “it really does get better.”

Unfortunately, none of the children in this study will ever know whether this would have been the case for them, because they left behind in childhood the bodies which they very well may have come to accept in the absence of such criticism. In a study in which there is no viable way to create a control group with which to compare these children, there’s no way of knowing how well they would have fared with just the extensive psychotherapy alone, nor of desistance which may have taken place without these prolonged social and medical interventions which prevented the maturation and social and sexual experience that would have occurred otherwise.

As a gender non-conforming adult, I am occasionally harassed by what are typically groups of two or three teen boys out to impress their friends. Because I am an adult with a fully-formed sense of self, my identity is not threatened as are those of the children who have not yet discovered, through experience and physical development, who they really are or can be. Sadly, the ultimate result of medicalized disruption of identity formation –which would have included their whole selves, bodies included –creates an identity which is dependent upon exogenous substances, conscious gendered performance, and the willingness of others to deny their own perception in order to validate it. As such, the identity is not sustainable without significant degrees of external support, and remains more highly vulnerable to what are perceived as being threats to self when it is not validated.   As a result, they may be “at increased risk for the development of narcissistic disorders…as a consequence of the inevitable difficulties they face in having their cross-gender feelings and identities affirmed by others.” (Note: While the linked study is not specifically of children, it seems to me children subjected to early medical transition would also be at some risk of narcissism, given the confluence of factors brought to bear upon them.)

Perhaps the greatest hindrance to accurately critiquing this study is related to the ages and the timing of this so-called “long-term” study: it was completed after only a minimum of one year after gender reassignment surgery. These now young adults had barely any life-experience living as fully transitioned persons. They were still in the honeymoon phase of what had become a fully supported childhood desire. A significant portion of them were still living at home with their supportive parents and attending school. Their lives as fully transitioned adults were just beginning, and the difficulties of navigating sexual relationships and the hardships that entails for those not of their natal sex were in their infancy. They were many years away from the rise in suicidality noted in a Swedish long-term study of adult transgendered persons, which began to rise around 8-10 years after transition.

Because of the failure of the Dutch authors to denote significant variables among these youths (as I’ve outlined in this post), their study inspires more questions than it provides answers.   Have these children been harmed by the parental and medical reification of childhood fantasy and desire? We have primarily their own self-reports to rely on –the reports of young adults who never were given the opportunity to experience childhood or adolescence as one would experience their own actual sex. They have nothing with which they can compare their current experienced “gender.” They will not know what it’s like to have sex in their natural bodies, nor be loved as such. Certainly, as partially formed adults (remember- maturation takes place concurrently with hormonal action and resulting brain development and theirs was delayed), they had not reached fully adult status at the time of their self-assessment. We do not know how the difficulties of living as transgendered people will affect them. We do not know if the long-term effects of injecting artificial cross-sex hormones will damage them physically (or mentally). We will never know whether they might have resolved their gender dysphoria, as others have, and pressed on through life, because they were never given the chance to find out.

Their childhood fantasies were to become a different sex. What they have been given, instead, is the means of promoting that illusion—and the reality of becoming a life-long medical patient.

 

Blocking puberty–and the right to an identity crisis

I recently wrote about research findings that gay and lesbian youth are typically older than their heterosexual counterparts when they first act upon and realize their sexual orientation. While same-sex attracted girls, in particular, reach this milestone between 19-early 20s, the current trend is to “socially transition,” then puberty block, and finally move on to cross sex hormones at age 16.

It’s easy to see that many of these teens are being set up to short-circuit the natural discovery of their sexual orientation. But is that the only potential problem with social transition and puberty blocking—the preemptive conversion of likely gay and lesbian youth to transgender?

Not by a longshot. There are so many important things that happen at puberty which are critically important to the maturation necessary to make informed decisions about major life changes (you know–things like sterility, loss of breasts, and a permanently deepened voice) that a developmental psychologist or cognitive scientist could write a doctoral dissertation about the subject.

In fact, many have; the research and clinical literature going back to the mid-20th century is chock-a-block with replicated studies, clinical observations, and meta-analyses. More recently, we have MRI and fMRI studies corroborating earlier observations.

What we don’t have, at least not yet, are the PhD theses showing how the experimental “treatments” currently being implemented by pediatric endocrinologists and gender specialists—many of whom have no professional background in child or adolescent psychology—fly in the face of that large body of literature.

I have spent hundreds of hours poring over the literature on gender dysphoria and pediatric transition. But in all the studies and papers I’ve read, I have not seen mention of the vast body of extant knowledge about child and adolescent psychology. It’s as if these gender specialists just started from scratch.

What exactly are they ignoring? Well, for starters, there’s the work of Erik Erikson, a preeminent child and adolescent psychology expert of the 20th century. You can’t read the scholarly or clinical literature on pediatric psychology without finding a reference to Erikson’s work; in fact, much of the current knowledge in the field is built upon his fundamental insights. A blog post is not adequate to even summarize it, but his bedrock finding about the psychological journey of adolescence is this: Developing an identity takes place in stages, culminating in an integrated adult personality; and “identity work”—including an identity crisis—is critical to healthy adult psychological functioning.

erikson capAdolescent psychology expert James Marcia was another foundational thinker who built upon Erikson’s framework:

… two distinct parts form an adolescent’s identity: crisis (i.e., a time when one’s values and choices are being reevaluated) and commitment. He defined a crisis as a time of upheaval where old values or choices are being reexamined. The end outcome of a crisis leads to a commitment made to a certain role or value.

But we don’t need a study, a theory, or someone with a PhD after their name to prove this to us, do we? Any adult who has lived through that time of life called “adolescence” can attest to the fact that questioning, and trying on and discarding different ways of being, go with the territory. And it’s a rough time. How many adults would willingly relive the fraught and tumultuous days of middle and high school? Every psychologist (until the Age of the Trans Child) has agreed: it’s not supposed to be an easy ride. In fact, without the essential but painful work of adolescence, a person will not reach their adult potential: unable to achieve an integrated adult identity, either because they have failed to resolve the identity crisis or because they have experienced no crisis.

Contrast this long-accepted understanding of adolescence with the approach taken by today’s gender specialists. Instead of helping children weather the natural and not necessarily comfortable process of cognitive and emotional development, they concretize and freeze in place the certainties of childhood, in what should be a time for exploration, not stasis.

It would be one thing if these gender clinics were really in the business of helping a child expand or explore different gender identities, without medical interference. But we know that they support and encourage “transition” from one sex to the other, with all the permanent physical changes that entails. In terms of adolescent psychological development, once these kids have taken the irrevocable step of moving from blockers to cross sex hormones, they have been denied the opportunity to go through an identity crisis.  So, a 16-year-old girl who has lost her fertility and her breasts, and who has already committed to a permanent testosterone-deepened voice and increased body hair — how easy will it be for her to experience James Marcia’s “time of upheaval where old values or choices are being reexamined?” That adolescent girl has been cheated of that stage of life. And when did we, as a society, decide that was a good thing?

The media stories and anecdotes from gender clinics are all the same: The kids are uncomfortable, so they and their parents seek relief. Then, according to everyone, the treatment “works” because the kids are happy. For how long? No one knows.

Be that as it may, an identity crisis isn’t supposed to be resolved in preschool, or kindergarten, or even middle or high school: It is the work and the challenge of adolescence, not complete until late adolescence.

 Adolescence has long been characterized as a time when individuals begin to explore and examine psychological characteristics of the self in order to discover who they really are, and how they fit in the social world in which they live. Especially since Erikson’s (1968) theory of the adolescent identity crisis was introduced, scholars have viewed adolescence as a time of self-exploration. In general, research has supported Erikson’s model, with one important exception: the timetable. It now appears that, at least in contemporary society, the bulk of identity “work” occurs late in adolescence, and perhaps not even until young adulthood.

“Late in adolescence”—after the time when most “trans” youth have moved on from puberty blockers to cross-sex hormones, thus bypassing the period when they would have been able to explore possibilities in their original bodies—including, but not limited to, their sexual orientation and other essential aspects of their identities and personalities.

The insights of the earlier child development experts have been corroborated by advanced visualization technologies, such as MRI and fMRI, which have revolutionized our understanding of the human brain and psychological development. In recent years, we have come to understand that full maturation occurs much later than previously thought.

Recent research has shown that human brain circuitry is not mature until the early 20s (some would add, “if ever”). Among the last connections to be fully established are the links between the prefrontal cortex, seat of judgment and problem-solving, and the emotional centers in the limbic system, especially the amygdala. These links are critical for emotional learning and high-level self-regulation.

Beginning at puberty, the brain is reshaped. Neurons (gray matter) and synapses (junctions between neurons) proliferate in the cerebral cortex and are then gradually pruned throughout adolescence. Eventually, more than 40% of all synapses are eliminated, largely in the frontal lobes. Meanwhile, the white insulating coat of myelin on the axons that carry signals between nerve cells continues to accumulate, gradually improving the precision and efficiency of neuronal communication — a process not completed until the early 20s.

In addition to reading research studies, I spend a fair bit of time reading the blogs, tweets, and social media writings of trans-identified teens. While most teens are pretty self-absorbed, with these kids, I am always struck by the depth of self-involvement, the extreme obsession with looks and appearance, and the constant focus on getting what they want, when they want it.

What is conspicuously absent in the narratives of many of these teens is another key aspect of pubertal maturation: self reflection and awareness. Concrete, literalist thinking is a hallmark of childhood. So a preadolescent frozen at Tanner Stage 2 of pubertal development (when blockers normally begin to be administered) may still think literally and concretely: “I am a boy.” Instead of: “Maybe I think I’m a boy because I like trucks and hate girly clothes. Maybe there’s a reason I think I’m a boy, but I’m really not.” The name for such higher level reflection, or “thinking about thinking,” is metacognition.

So when these young people, frozen at an earlier stage of cognitive development, are asked at age 15 or 16, “Are you SURE you’re really a boy?” why would any of them say “no”? And in fact, in the small number of studies that have looked at kids who have been socially transitioned and puberty blocked, none of them have failed to move on to cross sex hormones. Is this because they are “truly trans” and their clinicians have godlike diagnostic skills, with zero—zero!—false positives? Or is it because the very act of endorsing and reifying their self-proclaimed concretized self-images has helped them persist in those self-perceptions?

 No adolescent withdrew from puberty suppression, and all started cross-sex hormone treatment, the first step of actual gender reassignment.

It’s not just metacognitive and abstract thinking that develops slowly, reaching fruition in late adolescence. As I wrote about in this post, executive function—the ability to make decisions, plan, and think of future consequences (like, “do I want to have children of my own, ever”?) doesn’t begin to consolidate until the mid-20s.

Then there’s social maturity and a more nuanced understanding of how to interact with one’s peers. Who doesn’t remember the awkwardness, the trying-to-fit-in, seasick self-consciousness of adolescence? Social development takes place in concert with one’s peers, along with the slow dawning of self-reflection. A socially transitioned, puberty-blocked 14-year-old who has avoided the rigors of hormone-fueled social issues won’t  understand any of this.  How will that lack of experience inform their decision to continue on to cross sex hormones?

 We previously investigated how the ability to understand social emotional scenarios using mixed emotions varied across puberty in girls aged 9–16 (Burnett et al., 2011). There was a change between early and late puberty in the number of emotional responses that participants gave in social emotion scenarios, with girls in late puberty attributing a wider combination of emotions in social scenarios than their peers in early puberty

… Our findings of puberty-related changes in neural activation, together with those shown in other recent fMRI studies using different ‘social’ tasks as described in the introduction, suggest that aspects of functional brain development in adolescence, like these behavioral changes, may be more closely linked to the physical and hormonal changes of puberty than chronological age.

 As the authors note, social intelligence—a more nuanced understanding of “social emotion” scenarios—develops as a result of the release of hormones, not chronological age. This is so obvious it hardly seems worth studying (or proving on a functional MRI study).  Yet gender specialists talk as if the brain develops separately from the body; as if hormones are only important for secondary sexual characteristics. They are constantly reassuring skeptics that blocking puberty gives these incredibly immature kids the time to figure out if this is really what they want—without the benefit of the cognitive, emotional, and social maturation processes that comes with the secretion of pubertal hormones.

I’ve touched upon only a few facets of adolescent cognitive-emotional development in this post. The literature in this area is vast, still accumulating, and spans decades and millions of pages of writing. Contemporary cognitive scientists like Russell Viner, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Jay Giedd are continuing to add to the body of knowledge. But their work on adolescent psychology and brain development is not referenced in the media or in the writings of trans activists or pediatric gender specialists. In point of fact, what little peer-reviewed research there is in the field of “gender identity” is going in the exact opposite direction of the rest of developmental psychology and cognitive science—towards a reification of rigid, unchanging identity and decision-making “agency” for younger and younger children; while the replicated research of developmental psychology and neuroscience is moving toward an understanding of neuroplasticity, the necessity of undergoing an identity crisis, and a later age for brain maturation than was previously thought.

Cognitive scientist Jay Giedd:

One of the most exciting discoveries from recent neuroscience research is how incredibly plastic the human brain is. For a long time, we used to think that the brain, because it’s already 95 percent of adult size by age six, things were largely set in place early in life. … [There was the] saying. “Give me your child, and by the age of five, I can make him a priest or a thief or a scholar.”

[There was] this notion that things were largely set at fairly early ages. And now we realize that isn’t true; that even throughout childhood and even the teen years, there’s enormous capacity for change. We think that this capacity for change is very empowering for teens. …

Instead of respecting this “enormous capacity for change,” gender specialists are tampering with the endocrine system, freezing gender dysphoric children in a state of suspended development—and then expecting these psychologically and emotionally immature children to make permanent decisions about their future as adults. It’s a huge clinical gamble. What it amounts to is hoping for the best.

But is anyone preparing for the worst?

If you care for “trans” kids, fight for freedom from gender, not the scalpel & syringe

I received this comment a few days ago. The theme is a common one among trans activists and gender specialists nowadays: They not only think they know how to diagnose “true trans” children. They are confident that social transition, puberty blocking, and cross sex hormones (with concomitant permanent sterilization) will lead to happy trans adults.

I’ve reproduced the comment here. (Boldface emphasis is my own.) My response is below.


LisaM says:

People are always mixing up Gender Non Conforming Only children, GNC Only, (usually first defined by their parents) and transgender children (those who show strong cross gender desires and associated Gender Dysphoria, GD, if thwarted).

Now GNC Only (little or no transgender desires and the associated GD) will fairly often, but not always by any means, end up bi-sexual, gay or lesbian as adolescents and adults and be happy with their gender (maybe after some exploration).

GNC with strong GD will nearly always retain that into adolescence and adulthood and at some stage transition or die.

So it is important to separate them out, which to be fair for a very young child can take a few years to work out, hence the WPATH ’support and wait and see’ approach.

The longer a child expresses transgender desires and has GD then the more likely they are really transgender. But, an important but, a child with strong GD may not be a ‘typical’* ‘sissy boy’ or ‘tomboy’. though they will almost certainly show GNC behaviour of some kind and strongly express transgender wishes.

A lot of that depends on how introverted or extroverted they are. The quiet, shy, sensitive and introverted child suffering terrible GD may not express themselves much in public as very GNC even though they may want to. Everyone forgets this point…… not every kid is a blazing extrovert and public performer. This explains the common issue of the child only expressing their transgender feelings at early adolescence, before that they were simply too shy and sensitive and hid it carefully.

The other issue is the treatment of some GNC Only kids, who if you do the ‘drop the Barbie’ stuff to them means you are making them act ‘straight’, which is cruel and if not actual SOCE** it is pretty close.

GNC Only behaviour by itself will not ‘make’ someone transgender, which seems to be the fear by some.
GD plus GNC means they are almost certainly transgender and almost never will change and if you try then you are playing Russian roulette with their lives. There is only one treatment for GD that works, transition***.

So the issue is selection and it is not that hard, although it will never be perfect. A 2012 study on CAMH children showed the only statistically significant factor (logistic regression) in their ‘persistence’ was the strength of their combined GNC/GD scores. So their own tests showed good measures to predict outcomes, which were a lot higher that the commonly stated ‘80% desist’ (based on lumping the two groups together).

A rough ‘back of the envelope’ calculation shows that maybe only 5% of GNC Only diagnosed kids are really transgender (diagnosis is never perfect). BUT, maybe as much as 80% to 90% of GNC + strong GD ones are (based on CAMH published numbers).

The majority, by far, are of course GNC Only with transgender children being a minority. CAMH’s own numbers (awhile back) stated that 70% of the kids they saw were GNC Only.

*And what is a typical ‘sissy boy’ or ‘tomboy’ anyway? This is usually just parent paranoia and absurd social ‘norms’.

**Sexual Orientation Change Efforts = sexuality reparative therapy.

***transition can mean socially or fully medically to the opposite gender, it can also mean becoming ‘gender queer’ or similar.

LisaM, first let me acknowledge that you are not arguing in your comment for full medical transition for all “transgender children.” In fact, you say that some kids may just want to “transition” to be “genderqueer.” But really, that is simply a matter of personality. We don’t need to label it with anything to do with “gender,” unless you believe in gender stereotypes. So it’s nonsensical to say such kids would be “transitioning” to anything–they’re just expressing their unique personalities, as well they should.

But apart from that statement on your part, I’ve done enough homework to know that medical transition is indeed the goal and outcome in an increasing number of pediatric cases. Much of my response will be addressing that outcome.

You don’t disagree, in the main, with the decades of peer-reviewed data that show most GNC kids will desist. What you and the other WPATHers are arguing about is the small core of kids who persist in their dysphoria as preadolescents.

WPATH activists and gender specialists are pretty confident that they’ve come up with a way to separate the “truly transgender child” from the merely “gender nonconforming” (GNC).  GD + GNC = transgender for life and in need of transition. To hear them tell it, it’s a slam-dunk. They eschew the older research because they say the net was cast too widely; that the “truly trans” kids were lumped in with merely gender nonconforming.

Here’s what I’m willing to grant:

  • There are a minority of kids who appear to be more persistent in their desire or claim to be the opposite sex.
  • Some of those kids might continue to want to “transition” as adults.
  • Some of the older studies may have been less specific in weeding out the more dysphoric from the merely GNC children.
  • Responsible, ethical clinicians don’t want to create “false positives” i.e., kids being trans’ed who would have grown out of it. They aren’t ogres.

Beyond that? What do you and other trans activists have to support medical transition of children?

That’s pretty much it.

You claim “there is only one treatment that works for gender dysphoria, transition.” But there is zero proof that the medical transition of children will produce happy adults decades later. There simply isn’t.

History and science don’t support the “transition early or suicide” narrative:

  • Show me the data proving that gender dysphoric children in earlier times didn’t end up living happy lives; that they committed suicide in the days before hormonal and surgical interventions were widely available.
  • Show me the data that dysphoric kids who are medically transitioned will be happier at 40 than kids who weren’t transitioned.
  • Show me proof that the very act of transitioning kids doesn’t create persistence. Especially because “social transition” is now being started earlier and earlier, when children are at their most impressionable and the brain is most plastic.  Do you know anything about normal child development?
  • Show me the data that the “two spirit” and GNC people in other non-technological cultures (that trans activists often co-opt) spend their days wanting to kill themselves because they can’t have surgery and hormones.
  • Show me proof that there is any such thing as innate gender identity.
  • Show me the data that these children won’t feel suicidal later on in life, after the “honeymoon phase” of transition has long passed. (In point of fact, way too many young people who are gender nonconforming, gay, or trans-identified have suicidal thoughts, and transition hasn’t prevented self harm in many.)

What is the big rush to transition kids, to prevent them from experiencing the “wrong puberty”?  I believe it is driven by adult trans activists obsessing about the fact that they didn’t–or still don’t–“pass” well enough. It’s about how realistic a facsimile of the opposite sex the endocrinologists and surgeons can manufacture.

The engine that drives this pediatric transition juggernaut is the memories and yearnings activists carry about their own childhoods. That’s what this whole medical-legal-media child transition craze is based upon: The anecdotal accounts of adult trans.

Anecdotes are fine, as far as they go. But why don’t trans activists give as much weight to anecdotes by formerly dysphoric people who are glad they were born before transition was a thing for kids? 

Based on their own retroactive wishes, trans activists are betting that all these kids who are being socially transitioned, puberty blocked, and sterilized are going to be happy adults — at 30, 40, 50 years old.

LisaM, in the name of helping these kids “pass” better as adults, it goes without saying that you and other activists also think it’s worth sacrificing a few false positives. As you said, “it will never be perfect.” Tell me: How many false positives do you think will be acceptable in the future? Regretful adults who were puberty blocked, sterilized, and operated upon, only to discover that they changed their minds later?

We’re talking about clinical guesswork with extremely high stakes. And it’s coupled with an activist strategy that is making it illegal to have a control group of kids who didn’t receive such “treatment.” The only “control group” will be future regretters (like you said, no diagnosis is perfect) who will haunt courthouses and psychotherapists’ offices long after the damage is done.

In the name of preventing the “wrong puberty,” you want to interrupt the natural course of development by blocking puberty and preventing these kids from discovering who they are without medical interference. You ignore the fact that a puberty-blocked kid also has blocked brain development because puberty isn’t just about secondary sex characteristics. It’s also about brain maturation. And by preventing natural puberty, you deny them the right to a first sexual experience in an unaltered body.  You give these kids what they say they want, thinking you are doing the right thing, contradicting decades of clinical practice, neuroscience, and child developmental psychology in thrall to a non-evidence-based belief in innate gender identity.

You think it’s all worth it—the sterilization, the false positives, the denial of puberty–because you have convinced yourselves that these kids will be happy adults.

But you don’t know that. Even the top doctors in the field admit it. The Dutch pioneers in the field of pediatric transition are uncertain.

You and your compatriots spend a prodigious amount of time and energy fighting for  children to be permanently sterilized and irretrievably altered. What would happen if, instead, you and the other trans activists formed lobbying groups to fight for full acceptance and understanding of gender nonconformity? Make the idea of having to “pass” a thing of the past, so that a little boy or girl would see adults and children who dressed and behaved and did anything they wanted, without the need and the encouragement to think there is something wrong with their bodies. Do you really think most of these “true trans” kids would still want to “transition?” Or that, at a minimum, they couldn’t just wait until adulthood to make the decision?

Trans activists believe strongly that transgender should be depathologized and seen as a normal variation in human experience. But there’s an inherent contradiction here. Setting aside the question of whether insurance and the medical system should pay for any and all interventions for something that is a “normal variation,” if it’s normal to feel “trans” or “genderqueer,” why don’t you fight for normalization of gender nonconformity?  What’s wrong with a 6’2 man in a dress? A normal variation shouldn’t require modern Western medical intervention, should it? Not everyone, everywhere in the world can afford that, can they?

Think of what you could do with your time and money, fighting for acceptance of children to be who they are, without thinking there’s something so wrong with their bodies that they have to be cut and drugged to feel whole. Think of the good you could do instead of agreeing with preschoolers that they might “really” not be a boy or girl.

“Girls can be anything!  Just because you like/play/feel [fill in the blank], you’re still a girl. A really cool girl!”

How on earth can anyone think that making it easier for an impressionable young child to want to undergo permanent medical changes is the most compassionate path? Wouldn’t it be kinder to fight against the need to conform to stereotypes in the first place?