This week, comments that TV personality Mario Lopez made during a June interview on The Candace Owens Show caught Twitter’s attention. Lopez criticized celebrity parents who support their children’s self-identified gender, calling it a “dangerous” and “weird” Hollywood trend with alarming “repercussions later on” (following overwhelming backlash on Wednesday, Lopez issued an apology). His basic idea is one that is unfortunately still shared by too many people. It’s the idea that it is dangerous for parents to support the choices of a young child with a penis who says, “I feel like a girl,” or the child with the vagina who says, “I feel like a boy.”
His argument, that letting children choose their own gender identity will apparently lead to long-term damage and confusion to the child, is not new or unique to him. This public debate is much more important than a single C-list celebrity interview. These arguments get trotted out whenever anyone pushes back against a rigid gender binary, as though anything but a permanent, biological, and sharp boundary between boys and girls will lead to individual and societal turmoil. (Target heard the same arguments in 2015 when they removed gender labels from their toy aisles.)
These arguments are likely well intentioned, driven by sincere concerns for children’s welfare; they just aren’t well-informed.
The core issue is whether it is indeed dangerous to support a child’s gender identity or expression. Research has shown that there are a lot of important details to unpack in that question. First, it is important to recognize that gender identity and expression (whether someone identifies as a boy or girl and how they choose to express that to others) is not related to sexuality or sexual orientation. A child can be very clear about their gender and simultaneously know nothing about sex or show any sexual interest.
Second, by preschool, almost all children have a gender identity and expression. If you ask a small child about their gender, they will give you an answer. Granted, that answer may change from day to day and how they express their gender may vary.
So the real question is whether we should support a child who gives us a different gender answer—or shows us a different gender answer by their choice of clothes, hairstyles, and toys—than the one we expected based on their birth certificate. To that question, research is quite clear.
Some of the most relevant research was conducted by Kristina Olson and Katie A. McLaughlin at the University of Washington. They studied a national sample of young children (ages 3-12) who identified themselves as transgender and were allowed to “socially transition.” That is the term used when the family supports and allows the child to express their own sense of gender identity in such things as their appearance (such as hairstyle and clothing), their pronouns used to refer to the child, and the child’s name.
They compared their sample of socially supported trans kids to a control group of non-transgender children in the same age range, including the siblings of the transgender children. They found that children who were supported by their families and allowed to express their gender identity as they wanted were no more likely to be depressed than the non-transgender kids and had only minimally elevated anxiety.
This research is an important contrast to the outdated research that often gets cited that says that children with “gender identity disorder/dysphoria” are much more depressed and anxious than other children. Importantly, those kids—the ones whose parents sought out a clinical diagnosis and who are labeled with a disorder—are the ones who suffer psychological damage, not the ones who are allowed to be themselves.
What is much more dangerous is supporting a culture that accepts (even implicitly) the rejection or harassment of trans or gender-nonconforming youth. Research with trans teens finds that 90% have been called a derogatory name during the past year, 50% have been physically harassed, and 25% have been physically assaulted because of their gender identity. These negative experiences harm young adult’s educational trajectories, peer relationships, mental health, and physical health.
This is not a small problem. As of 2017, a Harris Poll found that almost one in eight young people identify as transgender or gender nonconforming. Flippant remarks about not accepting or supporting a child, especially a young child, because of their gender identity or expression is much more damaging than helping children feel safe and supported.
What can people do who want to be supportive of all children?
First, it is important to acknowledge that many children express their gender in creative and fluid ways; this is a normal part of being a unique human. Children are considered transgender if they are “insistent, consistent, and persistent” that their gender identity does not match what was assigned at birth. If you feel uncomfortable with a child’s gender nonconforming, ask yourself why. It is likely driven by your own anxiety than any evidence-based concerns.
Second, make sure you use the preferred pronoun children want and call them by their preferred name. This is basic human respect. As a child, I went by Christy instead of Christia. No one ever pushed me on that decision, rather they simply called me by the name I wanted them to use. This is no different. And for trans kids, the stakes are high. New research by Stephen Russell and colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin shows that calling trans youth by their chosen name lowers their risk for depression, suicidal thoughts, and suicidal behavior.
Third, when you are speaking to a group of children or teens (and adults for that matter), state your own pronoun choices (“I am Christia and I use the she/her pronouns.”). This normalizes the ideas that (a) you cannot assume my gender identity unless I tell you and (b) it is okay to choose the pronouns that feel most comfortable to you. Some other options: he/him, she/her, they/them, ze/hir, among others.
Fourth, reduce your reliance on binary language. Instead of “ladies and gentlemen” or “boys and girls,” remember that many people don’t identify with either (plus, research from the journal Child Development shows that gendered language actually increases children’s stereotypes). What about “attention scientists,” “listen up, wildcats,” or “folks” instead? My own Southern gender-neutral favorite, “ya’ll” works in almost every setting.
Despite what soundbites make it into celebrity interviews, supporting children in their gender identity and expression will not lead to societal and psychological chaos. The real danger is in forcing kids into a rigid category that doesn’t fit with the child’s sense of self and in fostering a culture that says anything different than the stereotype is wrong or weird.
Christia Spears Brown, PhD, is a developmental and social psychologist at the University of Kentucky who studies the maintenance and impact of gender stereotypes. She is the author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes.