Judy Berman writes a great story today in Salon ‘s Broadsheet about transgender activists fighting to remove “gender identity disorder” as a category in the DSM, the Bible of psychiatric diseases. The activists argue that they are making the same case gay activists made in the 1970s, when they fought successfully to get “homosexuality” removed as a mental illness. Only, as I wrote in a story earlier this year in the Atlantic , it’s not quite so simple.
For adults, the activists’ case seems fairly straightforward. Strong feelings of identification with the opposite gender recur throughout history and across cultures. Many transgendered adults suffer a lifetime of shame and heartache before they finally get a sex change. More social acceptance would do them a world of good.
The real controversy centers around children. Many children identify with the opposite gender at a very young age, sometimes as soon as they can speak. And a growing group of parents are taking their kids at their word and letting them live as the other gender as early as kindergarten. I met many of these parents. They are in an impossible situation, and doing what they think is best for their kids. I started out totally sympathetic, until I began to look at the research, both sociological and biological. Existing studies - almost all done on boys - show that the great majority of boys who identify strongly as girls when they are young turn out to be gay men, not transgendered. Since I wrote the story, I’ve heard from many older gay men who swear that when they were little they insisted they were girls. Does this mean gender confusion should be pathologized? Probably not. But it does mean that gender identity might be like all other identities: fluid, confusing, and not meant for a tidy box, of any kind.