Around the age of six children come to be fully aware that their sex is permanent, that it is unchanging. This is the principle of gender constancy. Essentially this awareness is a good thing as it strenghten their own self-awareness of who they are and who they will grow up to be. There is however a downside. The permanence of sex is a given biological fact. The permanence of gender as a social construct is not. Even if one is simply discussingn male and female roles as men and women in the course of my life time there have been enormous changes in gender roles. One could make the argument that medical science has progress to a point where even being male or being female does not hold the permanence it once did. However, then it becomes a question of what defines one as a male or a female and if one is talking about the role of each in procreation then it is rather permanent.
For the most part, upon birth each and every child is placed inside a box. This is not their decision. It is a decision made on the most immediate level by their parents and on a broader scale by society. Through out their early lives, the box will fill with their ‘things.’ These things may include a gender-appropraite name, clothes of the gender appropriate color, gender appropriate toys. I will not go into all the ways our society will teach male children to be boys and female children to be girls. However, by the time theses children develop their aware of the permanence of their birth gender, it is inrevertibly attached to gender identity.
If you are watching television or exploring interesting news stories online or in magazines, it is not uncommon these days to discovers stories about parents raising a transgender child. Most of these stories — I will say all of the them but I could be proven wrong — are raising a transgender child who announced their ‘correct’ gender round the age of three. Gender labeling is the first type of gender knowledge learned by children of the implied types in the image above. At three, children develop an ability to define boys and girls based on their understanding of gender roles. It is important to stress that gender identity is not about birth sex. It is about social/gender identity. In other words around the same time a boy child is acquiring the ability to correct label boys and girls based on their understanding of the world around them is the time when many of these parents first become aware that they are raising a transgender child.
The second of the three type of gender knowledge is gender stability, a growing awareness that gender is a stable state without yet be fully aware it is a permanent state. So when a child, lets use a male child, labels themselves as a girl based on everything they know and understand, they have not yet developed any real awareness of gender as a stable or persistent or constant state. However, as they go grow older and progress through the stages of gender stability and gender constancy, their identity as they labeled it to be is re-affirmed.
There is however a second group of transgender individuals. These are the children who reach the age of six and if they are male fully accept that they are a boy and that as such they will always be male and always be a boy. A similar point is also reached by female children. For whatever reason, when they reached the age of gender lableing, they were more conforming, more accepting of social norms. Whatever they may feel inside regarding their gender, they are less assertive and more compliant.
Not uncommonly, the children in this second group begin to experience gender confusion around the age of puberty. I first began to question my own gender abour the age of ten. It is around this time when gender as it relates to the relationship between boys and girls begin to take on greater significance. Before this age, gender is largely about the lenght of one’s hair, the clothes one wears, the restroom one uses. Around the age of ten, it becomes more about social relationships. A transgender child who self-identifies his or her gender at three has the luxury of seeing gender as fluid and open. They also will go through a process of reaffirming their identiy through awareness of gender stability and gender constancy. The older child does not have that luxury. The older child has already learned that gender is permanent, unchanging, carved in stone.
There is a reason so many people around the time of Columbus could not accept that the world was round. They had been taught that as fact it was flat. It was a core building block of their knowledge of the world. The same goes for gender. When a male child such as myself, at the age of ten, begins to feel uncomfortable in the role of ‘boy’ and begins exploring the world of ‘girl’ through crossdressing, their behaviors stand in direct refuation of everything they had come to ‘know’ about who they are.
As a young preteen male child, each time I gave into temptation and visited my sister’s room to try on her clothes, I felt i was breaking one of God’s laws, that I was committing a moral sin. It would not be inaccurate to suggest that I my understanding of the permanence and rightness of gender was so ingrained in my understanding of these things that I was certain I had to be the only boy in the whole world who felt as I felt. I am not talking about my desire to wear my sister’s clothes. At the time, I could not say for certain that I knew what I was feeling. All I knew for sure is that when I dressed like a girl, when I most felt like a girl, I felt happiness.
For years, like many coming to accept the world as round, I struggled with my identity. For most of my life, I self-identified as a crossdresser, a male who liked dressing up in women’s clothing. I was almost forty before I made my boldest and most decisive venture out into the public world en femme. It took me that long to finally accept that it was not simply about how I looked staying before a mirror, but how I was seen by others. Even then I would live a double life for years, going to work five days a week as a man, going out on weekend and socializing as a woman. I was fifty years old and in treatment for alcoholism when I first said the word aloud — “I am transgender.”
By every widely accepted theory about child development as it relates to personal identity and gender, I did not become transgender at the age of fifty. I was transgender by the age of six, when despite being transgender I learned that I would always be male so by extension I would always be a man.
In conclusion, I would like to make a statement regarding society’s willingness or unwillingness to accept transgender individuals for who we are. They also went through this process. They also developed the ability to label genders, became aware of gender as first stable and then constant. Like those who had learned the world was flat and then been told “No wait it is round,” they have no inner understanding of the world that allows them to accept contradictions to the deepest understanding of the way the world is and the way the world works. It could be said that even cisgender individuals are victims of a socialization process that limits their understanding of the world.
(The opinions expressed in this blog post are the opinions of a largely ignornant and possibly self-absorbed individual who is looking for answers to her own life and not providing answers for others who face similair question about themselves and the why behind who they are.)