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Defying gender norms linked to childhood abuse, PTSD.

by Mitch Montoya
Feb 23, 2012

For Malic White, growing as a child actor meant frequently challenging what it means to be a girl or a boy. But it wasn’t until White identified as transgender during high school that the question of self became difficult and complex.

“My family was okay with me being queer,” said White, who is graduating from the University of Chicago in June with a bachelor of arts in gender studies and creative writing. “But being trans is difficult for them to identify with because I don’t represent my gender in a binary way.”

Adults facing gender identity issues, like White, often deal with an array of social and emotional challenges, however these questions also loom over children who don’t conform to gender norms.

Children who don’t act like other kids of the same sex– researchers call them gender nonconforming – are more likely to suffer physical, psychological and sexual abuse as well as post-traumatic stress disorder later in life, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health say. The research team’s work was published Monday in the journal Pediatrics and is one of the first studies to look at gender nonconformity as a risk factor for abuse.

“Parents need to be aware that discrimination against gender nonconformity affects one in 10 kids, affects kids at a very young age, and has lasting impacts on health,” said researcher Andrea Roberts, the lead author.

Using the nationwide study Growing Up Today, researchers looked at responses from 9,000 young adults who recalled childhood experiences. These memories included feelings of masculinity or femininity, media characters they imitated and whether they suffered abuse.

Those who reported the most gender nonconformity were more likely to have been physically, psychologically or sexually abused, the study says. Young adults who didn’t conform to gender norms in childhood were twice as likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder than those who did conform.

Children may suffer more abuse due to conflict with parents, however more conclusive studies need to be done to confirm this, Roberts said.

Transgendered adults often deal with the difficult process of negotiating their sex assigned at birth and how they represent themselves later in life.

Just because a transgendered person may be assigned female does not necessarily mean that they aspire to acquire all of the characteristics of a man, said White, whose undergraduate thesis is now an autobiographical look at gender. Society often asks individuals to choose strictly between being male or female, a difficult process for someone who doesn’t feel close to either.

Kids often shift which gender they express during different periods of development but that does not mean they will necessarily identify as transgender, Roberts explained. Like their adult counterparts, these children are harassed for not adhering to norms.

While many parents may think that questions of gender only emerge in those who will eventually identify as gay or transgendered, this may not always be the case. Eighty-five percent of the young people from the study who were gender nonconforming are heterosexual adults, a statistic that Roberts said was surprising.

Since gender issues can affect many children, Roberts said she sees the results of the study as an opportunity for adults to proactively help young people.

“Parents are in a strong position to protect and support their children for whatever situation they may be in,” she said. “Also, teachers or pediatricians can give support, acceptance and approval, which can be very beneficial to the child.”

Gender nonconforming individuals can face trouble as adults as well, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. The survey, conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, found that these people as well as transgendered adults faced discrimination at work, school and in health care scenarios.

Roberts and her team continue to research the issue to get a complete picture about why the abuse happens to these children, she said. Gender identification can negatively affect a broad range of individuals, prompting researchers to explore the nuances of each population.

Malic notes that there are particular conflicts about gender expression within the trans community, but that these issues are more far-reaching.

 “Gender is something that everyone deals with,” White said. “Expectations can get in anyone’s way of who they are.”