In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Transgender Children

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Nomenclature
  • Gender Heterogeneity in Global and Historical Context
  • Intergenerational Relationships and Justice-Oriented Parenting
  • The School

Childhood Studies Transgender Children
RM Kennedy, Lisa Farley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0215


The scholarly literature on transgender children spans many disciplines including medicine, law, humanities, the social sciences, and the emergent field of transgender studies. However, the most contentious discipline to claim epistemological ownership over knowledge of the trans child is psychology. In 1980, “Transsexualism” as well as the accompanying child diagnosis, “Gender Identity Disorder in Childhood” (GIDC), first entered the lexicon of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), thereby setting transgender children on a trajectory of being understood in Western discourse as mentally disordered. The DSM, published by the American Psychiatric Association, sets out a common international language and the standard criteria for the classification and diagnosis of all mental disorders and therefore has wide implications for governing the legal, social, and medical experience of trans people. Refusing the construction of gender variance as disordered, a growing chorus of voices in recent years has contested the pathologization of transgender lives and the dominance of medical-scientific narratives about trans experience. Many parents of transgender children, trans adults, and trans children themselves have become outspoken activists, demanding authentic supports and safe spaces for children whose gender expression diverges from their natal sex and the socially constructed meanings attributed to this sex. In turn, scholars, particularly in the field of transgender studies, have interrogated the assumptions that tie particular gender expressions and identifications to biology. Rather than confine the debate about trans children to how they should be psychologically or medically treated, these scholars challenge the social and cultural forces that regulate bodies and restrict or enable diverse forms of gender expression and embodiment. The struggle of trans people, youth, and children for the right to a gender existence not threatened by pathologization, violence, and exclusion may be read as one of the defining questions of our time and is one that is still rapidly unfolding.

General Overviews

Numerically speaking, the bulk of literature on transgender children originates in medical psychology and is dedicated to clinical treatment. Gill-Peterson 2018 offers a critical reading of the history of modern science that gave rise to this focus, with a view to underscore the need and value of representing non-medicalized narratives of trans children’s experiences, historically and in the early 21st century. Within the clinical literature itself, two general categorizations can be made: (i) works that tend to view atypical gender expression as a disorder that requires correction and (ii) works that attempt to address how to best support transgender children and their families. The first approach advocates intervention therapies intended to better align a child’s gender expression with their natal, or birth, sex. Conversely, proponents of gender-affirming care (see Ehrensaft 2011; Chang, et al. 2018) argue that corrective models do incalculable psychosocial damage and that trans children require supportive environments where they can safely explore their emerging gender embodiment and transition options. While biased toward seeing gender variance as disordered, one current clinical overview that lays out these debates is Drescher and Byne 2013. But if clinical literature has largely dominated writing on transgender children, the relatively new field of transgender studies has set out to investigate the social, political, and cultural forces that inform, produce, and regulate gender. Emerging in the early 1990s, transgender studies has contested the pathologizing view that atypical gender expression is a disorder at all, and through both scholarship and activism has insisted transgender people themselves—not doctors, psychiatrists, or mental health professionals—are the custodians of knowledge about their own experience and needs. While transgender children have always existed, new attitudes toward trans phenomena are ushering in rapidly changing perspectives, practices, policies, and theoretical frameworks in a range of fields, often influenced by trans children, their families, and communities (Meyer and Sansfaçon 2018).

The coming years will likely see an explosion of new literature and approaches to the topic. To date, many of the defining texts in the field of transgender studies are gathered together in the groundbreaking book The Transgender Studies Reader (Stryker and Whittle 2006). More recently, this research has coalesced around the new journal TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, which began publishing in 2014 and continues to be the only journal dedicated to trans topics that are not medical or clinical in nature. Notably, the first volume of Transgender Studies Quarterly offers a collection of keywords intended to set out a fertile lexicon of concepts and questions that can be used to enliven debates about the heterogeneous meanings of gender expression. While not dedicated to childhood per se, researchers of trans childhood will find of particular interest orienting entries on such topics as “Adolescence,” “Child,” “Childhood,” “Temporality,” and “Autobiography.”

  • Castaneda, Claudia. “Childhood.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 1.1–2 (2014): 59–61.

    DOI: 10.1215/23289252-2399605

    Castaneda illustrates the ways that transgender childhood both threatens and exposes the contradictions of gender acquisition in developmental theories. Theories of development posit that the child goes through stages of becoming, and yet the shape of what is to come is predetermined by the biological template s/he is born with. The transgender child, who becomes differently, exposes the intense cultural forces invested in normalizing gender outcomes. Available online for purchase.

  • Chang, Sand C., Anneliese A. Singh, and Lore M. Dickey. A Clinician’s Guide to Gender-Affirming Care: Working with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Clients. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2018.

    While not geared specifically toward children, this guide outlines foundations and applications of gender-affirming care for clinicians working with transgender people. The guide addresses the importance of client self-determination; the cultural landscapes of gender diversity; the meaning of structural barriers and challenges to care; options for social, medical, and legal transitions; and pathways of access and referral as well as practices for advocacy and empowerment in clinical contexts.

  • Digital Transgender Archive.

    An open-access, online digital hub that provides a guide to global archival materials on transgender topics as well as a collection of digitized historical material. An excellent online resource for researchers. Created and maintained by K. J. Rawson and Steven Carl Anderson.

  • Drescher, Jack, and William Byne, eds. Treating Transgender Children and Adolescents: An Interdisciplinary Discussion. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    This edited collection is based on questions posed to international clinicians working with gender variant children on how they assess, treat, and measure clinical success. Indicative of just how contested clinical paradigms are, one theme questions whether the elimination of discrepancies between the child’s gender identification and birth sex is an ethical goal for treatment. Some clinicians believe it is an ethical treatment goal to the rightful concern of gendering-affirming practitioners.

  • Ehrensaft, Diane. Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children. New York: The Experiment, 2011.

    A practical guide for families and therapists working with gender-nonconforming children who may or may not arrive at a place where they want to medically transition. In stark contrast with corrective treatment approaches, Ehrensaft emphasizes the importance of affirming what she describes as the gender creativity of children.

  • Gill-Peterson, Julian. Histories of the Transgender Child. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.5749/j.ctv75d87g

    Drawing from clinical archives in North America, Gill-Peterson documents the scientific construction of transgender as linked to notions of human enhancement and eugenics, placing race at the foreground of their analysis. The book shows that transgender is not a new phenomenon, but rather a historical construct that encodes the entrenchment of modern science in discourses of colonialism, racism, childism, and transphobia.

  • Meyer, Elizabeth J., and Annie Pullen Sansfaçon, eds. Supporting Transgender and Gender-Creative Youth: Schools, Families, and Communities in Action. New York: Peter Lang, 2018.

    This updated, edited volume provides an overview of policy and law, transgender youth rights and services, and shifting institutional and community practices in Canadian and US contexts. The collection addresses access, health, and rights in education, social work, medicine, and counselling as experienced and impacted by gender independent children and families in both rural and urban communities.

  • Stryker, Susan, and Stephen Whittle, eds. The Transgender Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    With fifty chapters and over seven hundred pages long, this edited collection played a significant role in defining the contemporary field of transgender studies. Early-21st-century interventions are placed alongside historical passages to trace critical questions central to conceptions of gender heterogeneity. The editors provide introductory commentary and context to classic texts, often exposing specters of cisgenderism and transphobia at their core.

  • TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. 2014–.

    Leading international and interdisciplinary journal of transgender studies that functions as a critical nexus of scholarship in the field. The journal focuses on transgender experiences in a global context at the same time that it critically interrogates the production of transgender as a universalized identity.

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