US researchers say transgender preschoolers have the same gender preferences for friends, clothes and toys as their peers.

A small study looked at around 30 transgender kids aged 3-5 and found that they did not differ from other kids in their preferences, behaviour, stereotyping, and identity. 

For example, transgender girls (who were born as boys but identified and lived as girls at the time of the study) liked dolls and pink dresses, and preferred female friends as much as other girls in the study.

The study adds to the belief that gender may be the earliest identity and social category to emerge in development.

“An increasing number of transgender children—those who express a gender identity that is
opposite their sex—are transitioning socially, which means they use pronouns, names, and clothing associated with their identified gender in everyday life,” says Anne A. Fast, the study’s lead author. 

“In this study, we asked whether these children differed from their gender-typical peers on basic tasks related to gender development at an early age.”

The study compared three groups of children: 36 transgender 3- to 5-year-olds, 36 cisgender 3- to 5-year-olds (children whose gender identity and biological sex were the same), and 24 siblings (also ages 3 to 5) of transgender or gender-nonconforming children. 

The children primarily identified as female, were primarily White, and were from a range of economic backgrounds and geographical regions in the US.

The researchers asked children to complete gender development tasks to gauge their understanding of gender constancy, their preferences regarding gender, and their beliefs about gender. 

Children were also asked what they feel like they are “on the inside,” in their minds, thoughts, and feelings.

The transgender children did not differ from children of the same gender in the control group or the sibling group on preferences, behaviour, stereotyping, and identity, the study found. For example, transgender girls (who were born as boys and identified and lived as girls at the time of the study) liked dolls and pink dresses, and preferred female friends as much as cisgender girls and sisters of transgender children did.

However, researchers found differences among the groups in children’s beliefs about the
stability of gender. 

While children in the control and sibling groups tended to say that their gender as a baby and their gender as an adult matched their current gender, children in the transgender group tended to say that their gender as a baby was different than their current gender, but that their gender as an adult would be the same as their current gender. 

Considering stability of gender in others rather than in themselves, while children in all three groups tended to believe that most other people’s gender in childhood remained stable through adulthood, transgender children and their siblings were less likely than cisgender children to believe that everyone’s gender was stable. 

They occasionally indicated that someone’s gender could change between childhood and adulthood.

While the limited scope of the study means it should not be generalised for all transgender kids, the findings do shed an important light on the phenomenon.

“We are increasingly aware that there are individuals who identify early in development as a gender other than the one aligned with their sex at birth,” notes Dr Kristina Olson, the study’s senior author.

“Such children should be included in work on basic gender development to expand our knowledge of gender developmental experiences and strengthen theories of gender development.”

The study is accessible here.