People who are not experts in trans rights and health care—especially conservatives, but moderates and yes, Democrats too—often fall into the tunnel of debating the likelihood of a young person “retranisitioning” (also known as “detransitioning”) at some point. Do trans and nonbinary people sometimes retransition? Yes. There is nothing wrong with people exploring and experimenting with their gender identity and presentation and deciding they feel best as their sex assigned at birth. That said, it's cruel to use examples of retransition without the full context of how very hard it is to be openly trans in this nation, and without acknowledging the social and societal pressure to present as the sex you were assigned at birth.
With that said, a longitudinal study published in Pediatrics has some really exciting news when it comes to trans and nonbinary youth. The study, which was published in May, examines findings from a five-year study on trans youth conducted by the Trans Youth Project out of Princeton University. The study found that 94% of youth who identified as trans at the start of the study still identified as trans by the end. In addition, 3.5% identified as nonbinary and 2.5% identified as cisgender.
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The study followed 317 trans youth between the ages of 3 and 12. Study participants transitioned, on average, at between 6 and 7 years old. Participants in the study had some level of social transitioning, including a name or pronoun change or changes in dress or haircuts. There are some important caveats needed for context here: All participants in the study had families who supported their social transitions. The majority of student participants are white. Parents involved tended to be more educated than the average population and have a higher income, too.
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According to the study authors, it’s ultimately “infrequent” for trans youth to retransition if they socially transitioned at an early age. Is it possible? Yes. Is it common? No.
Even still, it’s obviously valuable for researchers (and allies and advocates) to learn about retransitioning to best support folks who do choose it for whatever period of time, and for whatever reason. Researchers involved in this study, which started in 2013, plan to follow these folks for 20 years, which, to my knowledge, will be the most in-depth study of its kind.
In this study, researchers including folks from the University of Washington and the University of Victoria in Canada found that those who later identified as cisgender more commonly began social transitioning before the age of 6 and retransitioned before the age of 10. How many of the youth in this study did this apply to? About seven out of more than 300. Most of these youth also retransitioned before puberty blockers were even an option for them.
In speaking to NBC News, Kristina Olsen, a psychologist at Princeton who ran the study, recalled that at the start of the study, no families were reaching out whose children used they/them pronouns, and few folks were using the term “nonbinary.”
"This is one of the interesting things about a prospective study,” Olsen explained to the outlet. “Of tracking a cohort over time — not only are they developing and getting older and having a sense of maybe changes or not of their identity, but also culture is changing. Our words are changing, our understanding of gender is changing."
Olsen went on to stress that a “critical” takeaway from the study is the reality that most youth who retransition do so before they begin any kind of medical transition, such as puberty blockers. Only one person in the study who was prescribed puberty blockers or hormone therapy later identified as cisgender, says Olsen.
Again: There is nothing wrong with trying puberty blockers, for example, and deciding it’s not for you. But Olsen’s point is important because it stands in stark contrast to the hysteria conservatives spew about young people seeking gender-affirming health care and then regretting it. Even allies can fall into the trap of assuming youth don’t know themselves or that exploring a new identity immediately equals visits to the surgeon’s office and life-long changes, but that’s simply not the reality in any part of this country.
In speaking to The New York Times in an interview, Olsen told the outlet, “There’s this sort of idea that the kids are going to be starting those things and that they’re going to change their minds. And at least in our sample, we’re not finding that.”
Here in the United States, Arkansas, Alabama, and Tennessee have passed laws either banning or heavily restricting youth accessing safe, gender-affirming health care. In Alabama, it is now a felony for physicians to provide such care.
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