A recent Atlantic magazine article explores the often difficult periods of childhood and adolescence, where many kids who experience discomfort, depression, or dysphoria seek comfort and solace in exploring different identities. Sometimes, this identity exploration can manifest itself in children trying on different gender roles or presentations, or changing their names or pronouns as they grow and develop. In many cases, a child’s gender transition can mostly or fully alleviate depression or dysphoria.
But what if it doesn’t? What if a child transitions, and is still unhappy? Certainly, adolescence has always been fraught with changing attitudes, shifting beliefs, and physical and emotional development that can feel scary or confusing.
The article identifies a tiny niche group: teenagers (or adults) who once transitioned, and have now transitioned back to their original gender after they discovered that what they thought was gender dysphoria was...something else.
A handful of interviewees tell stories of physically transitioning in their youth, only to grow into adulthood and realize that they’d regretted their decision, and decided to change back, even though some of their physical changes would forever remain.
Additionally, the author interviews a group of doctors who require that children who are considering physical gender transitions take lengthy comprehensive assessments in order to first rule out other causes of dysphoria or depressed feelings that a transition perhaps wouldn’t help solve. These assessments are not without controversy. Many children and teens who identify as trans or gender nonconforming find solace in a combination of treatments that can meet their needs, while not necessarily having to restrict access to a physical transition in the meantime.
Taking a step back from the article, it seems that a growing group of vocal trans individuals on the Internet and in the media has created a double-edged sword. On one end, children and adolescents who are experiencing gender dysphoria or are simply curious about gender identity can explore and feel reassured. On the other, trans culture can just as easily promote the idea that gender exists in a binary world: you are either one gender or the other, with no wiggle room in between. Perhaps instead of adults being so concerned with whether children transition or not, we should go a step beyond. We can create safe spaces where children and adolescents can feel safe to research, explore, and question the full gender spectrum, whether it’s by observing or participating.
By showing and telling children that gender is less paint-by-number and more throwing painting onto an empty canvas a la Jackson Pollock, we can make space for all forms of gender expression and identity.