With an increasing number of young children transitioning socially to the gender opposite to their birth sex, and with rates of bullying and discrimination against transgender youth known to be high, researchers say it is important that we begin to understand more about how cisgender children (those whose gender identity matches their biological sex at birth) view their transgender peers. A new paper in the Journal of Cognition and Development is the first to explore the issue.
Across two studies, a team led by Selin Gülgöz at the University of Washington in Seattle, presented dozens of cisgender five to ten-year-olds with vignettes about hypothetical peers who were either cisgender or transgender. For instance, in the second study, which used more comprehensive vignettes, one description the children heard was of a baby named Jack who was born with a boy’s body, but who liked playing girl games, wearing girl clothes and who told her parents she was actually a girl and wanted to be called Annie and referred to as “she” and “her”.
The participating children’s task was to rate how much they liked each child they heard about in the vignettes and to categorise them as either a boy or a girl.
The children generally rated their peers positively, whether cisgender or transgender. However, on average, they rated cisgender peers more positively than transgender peers. Note, though, that the well-known preference that children show for other kids of their own gender also applied, to an extent, to transgender identities – so, for cisgender girls, for instance, their liking for transgender girls (natal boys who had transitioned socially to a female identity) was higher than their liking for cisgender boys.
In terms of how they categorised the gender of their transgender peers, the participating children were inconsistent. Some categorised transgender peers by their natal sex (i.e. according to their biological sex at birth); others according to their peers’ transgender identity; while others switched between the two approaches. To the researchers’ surprise, they found that the older children – who they expected to be more accepting of transgender identities – were actually more likely to categorise transgender peers by their natal sex. The researchers speculated that this may be because of the older children’s growing sense of gender as a usually stable concept, rather than as malleable.
A final important finding was the association between how the cisgender children categorised their transgender peers and their patterns of liking towards those peers – specifically, those who tended to categorise transgender children by natal sex also showed less liking of them, mirroring similar findings with adults.
The new research makes a first contribution toward understanding this topic, but inevitably it has some significant limitations. Apart from the reliance on vignettes, this includes that the transgender children were all presented as being entirely gender stereotypical (i.e. behaving and having interests in line with the stereotypes associated with the gender they had transitioned to) – it remains to be seen how cisgender children might feel toward transgender peers who do not conform to the stereotypes of the gender they have transitioned to, especially considering young children’s tendency to hold peers who do not conform to gender stereotypes in low regard. Also, note these new findings are based on children from a liberal American city, whose parents were happy for them to participate in such research. One can imagine the findings being different in other cultures and contexts.
Gülgöz and her colleagues said “We look forward to future work that specifically investigates the relation between cisgender children’s attitudes toward their transgender peers and the well-being of those transgender children, as well as work investigating effective ways to reduce bias against transgender children.”