Most transgender children do not grow up to be transgender adults.
This article on the Science of Us is an excellent summation of the research: studies consistently show that the majority of transgender children do not grow up to be transgender adults; the two largest studies show that two-thirds and 90%, respectively, stopped being transgender.
Now, of course, some gender dysphoric people don’t transition. But look at those numbers! Even if you assume half of them are non-transitioning gender dysphorics, there’s still a high chance– somewhere between a third and two-fifths– that the child will grow up to be cisgender.
To be clear, I completely support the current standards of care for transgender children. Social transition is easily reversible: all you have to do is tell everyone “hey, I’m going back to using my old name and pronouns.” And gender dysphoric children are distressed by being their assigned gender. You don’t have to justify alleviating a child’s distress by saying “also they will continue to want this thing for the rest of time!” Like, imagine if a parent said “I’m not going to give my children any toys, because when they’re adults they probably won’t like playing with toys!” That’s clearly absurd.
As for physical transition, the gender dysphoric child is given puberty blockers to give them more time to make a decision. Puberty blockers are used to treat children who have puberty at a very young age, and are generally considered safe and effective. When the child is older, they can make a decision about which puberty to go through. Since even under the most conservative estimates a gender dysphoric child has something like a hundred times the chance of being a gender dysphoric adult, these treatments make sense. (I do worry that puberty is what eases childhood gender dysphoria, in which case preventing puberty has little effect. I would really like someone to do a randomized controlled trial about this. Until then, I think the harm of wrong-gender puberty to trans people outweighs the harm of possibly transitioning to cis people.)
However, I do think that this research is important and needs to be more widely known.
Right now, the parent of a trans child gets a narrative like this: “if your child is gender dysphoric, they’re going to be gender dysphoric for the rest of their lives, because their unchangeable gender identity is different from the one they were assigned at birth. The chance of detransition is minuscule and only happens if the child has made a mistake.”
Since there is, in fact, a very large chance that a gender dysphoric child will not grow up to be a gender dysphoric adult, this narrative harms gender dysphoric children. Imagine being a gender dysphoric child, knowing that your parents have fought with the school and the doctors and their family to let you transition, and feeling your gender dysphoria lessen. Would they think “oh, guess I’m my assigned gender at birth after all”? Or would they think “but I used to be a different gender! I felt that really strongly! Probably this is just a fluke”? Would they worry about the disappointment of their parents, the feeling that all their parents’ work was wasted, the embarrassment of being ‘mistaken’?
I’ve had the wrong puberty. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
What if instead our narrative was: “many gender dysphoric children do not grow up to be gender dysphoric adults. Gender dysphoric children should socially transition, because children’s pain matters. But when they’re teenagers, it will change: some of them will become transgender, and some of them will become cisgender. There’s nothing we can do to make one outcome or another happen; all we have to do is wait and see what happens.”
That would be a much kinder and more compassionate narrative for trans children.
Frankly, I think trans adults need to take a long, hard look in the mirror. That narrative didn’t appear out of nowhere. It was the product of a lot of trans people talking about our childhoods. The born this way narratives we peddle to gain acceptance are hurting gender dysphoric children.
I would not have met criteria for gender dysphoria as a child. Oh, there’s a way I can bend, spindle, fold, and mutilate my past to make it look like I was gender dysphoric, but I wasn’t. I was a child who was very proud of my gender and who was also autistic and not very good at gender roles. I was looking forward to puberty! And then it happened and I was trapped in this body that was wrong and this social role that was wrong and I didn’t understand what was going on except that suddenly my body didn’t belong to me anymore.
I don’t think my narrative is uncommon.
Of course, some trans adults are trans children– after all, trans children are something like a hundred times more likely to become trans adults. But many trans adults were not gender dysphoric as children. That’s okay. The legitimacy of our genders should not be based on whether we were playing with dolls when we were six. Those of us who became trans in adolescence need to talk about it. And those of us who were trans as children but are cisgender as adults need to talk about it too– and trans people cannot shout them down claiming that their experiences are transphobic.
Gender dysphoria in children and gender dysphoria in adults are related, but distinct conditions. Many people have one but not another. It’s okay to say that. And the ethical treatment of transgender children depends on it.