Is Your 5-Year-Old Transgender?

Mona Charen

5/22/2012 12:01:00 AM - Mona Charen

A 5-year-old child with large dark eyes, full lips and a button nose stares out from the front page of the Washington Post Sunday edition. "Transgender at Five" declares the provocative headline. The child's hair is being cut in a close boy's cut by her father.

We learn from the article that "Tyler," who was born "Kathryn," began insisting that she was a boy at the age of 2. "'I am a boy' became a constant theme in struggles over clothing, bathing, swimming, eating, playing, breathing." The child's parents, at first uneasy and later accepting of their girl's desire to be a boy, agreed to raise her as a boy. Starting at age 4, she began to wear boys' clothes, was permitted to choose a boy's name for herself, and has been introduced to family, friends, teachers, and congregants at church as a boy.

Oh, boy.

Let's stipulate, for the sake of argument, that something called "gender dysphoria" -- with which Tyler was diagnosed at age 4 -- does exist. Let's further agree, again for the sake of argument, that the proper treatment of this condition is choosing to live as the other sex, with all that such a radical decision implies. Is there any reasonable way to conclude that something as drastic as attempting to change one's sexual identity can be undertaken by a 4-year-old?

"Parents who ignore or deny these problems," warns the Post, "can make life miserable for their kids, who can become depressed or suicidal, psychiatrists say." How many psychiatrists? The very most that can be said is that the practice of treating children for what is sometimes called "gender identity disorder" is highly controversial in the psychiatric world. Some psychiatrists want to change the name to "gender incongruence" to remove the word "disorder." Others, such as Dr. Paul McHugh, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, think the whole idea of treating children for this condition is unwise. "We shouldn't be mucking around with nature," he told Fox News. "We can't assume what the outcome will be."

Apparently, hormone blockers are being prescribed more and more for children with "GID." The hormones postpone puberty indefinitely and, the Post explains, "give the kids more time to decide who they are and whether switching genders is the answer to their problems." McHugh calls giving hormone blockers to children "child abuse." Some young people are having "gender reassignment" surgery as young as age 16.

Perhaps some tiny percentage of children truly is born feeling trapped in the body of a person of the wrong sex. But it is undeniable that the vast majority of children go through stages. I recall wishing to be a boy myself when I was about 5 or 6. I didn't like frilly dresses and asked my playmates to call me "Timmy." Perhaps mine was a normal tomboy phase and maybe that's distinguishable from what Tyler is experiencing. But how can we be sure? The Post quotes Dr. Edgardo Menvielle, of Washington's Children Hospital, who has been treating "transgender kids" for a decade. About 80 percent, he says, switch back to the gender they were born into by the time they reach adulthood.

The problem with the Post's recommended approach -- which amounts to "let's accept a child's version of reality to avoid causing depression or worse"-- is that the decision of parents to indulge a child's whim on gender identity is itself irreversible. The effects of hormone blockers, the Post reassures readers, are fully reversible. Maybe. How much research can there have been on such a new practice? Would parents who hesitate to let their kids eat preservatives or nonorganic eggs consent to block the complex hormones that begin to flood kids' bodies at puberty? In any case, the decision to dress a girl in boys' clothing, cut her hair, and call her a boy -- even if reversed later -- must, absolutely must, scramble a child's psyche. Imagine the confrontation between a teenaged girl who has changed her mind and the parents who raised her as a boy. "Did you not think I was pretty enough to be a girl? Wasn't I feminine enough?" Or perhaps even more damaging, a teenaged boy demanding to know whether his father thought him lacking in masculinity as a child. It's a psychological minefield.

We have the technology to make -- or at least appear to make -- women into men and vice versa. If adults choose to do this to themselves (and can afford it), that's their business. But a child? One wonders: What other major life decisions should 4-year-olds be judged competent to make?