Gender identity is a person's sense of identification with either
the male or female sex, as manifested in appearance, behavior, and other
aspects of a person's life.
Psychologists believe human sexual identities are made up of three
separate components. The first shows the direction of a child's
sexual orientation, whether he or she is heterosexual (straight),
homosexual (gay), or bisexual. The second is the child's style of
behavior, whether a female is a "tomboy" or homemaker-type
and a male is a "macho guy" or a "sensitive
boy." The third component is what psychologists call the core
gender identity. According to an article in the May 12, 2001 issue of
, it is the most difficult to ascertain but is essentially the deep inner
feeling a child has about whether he or she is a male or female.
In most people, the three components point in the same direction but in
some people, the components are more mixed. For example, a gay woman
(lesbian) might look and act either feminine or masculine (butch), but she
still deeply feels she is a female. Scientists are uncertain about where
the inner feeling of maleness or femaleness comes from. Some believe it is
physical, from the body, while others believe it is mental, from the
hypothalamus region of the brain. There is also debate on whether the
determination is shaped by hormones, particularly testosterone and
estrogen, or by genes assigned at conception.
Gender identity emerges by the age of two or three and is influenced by a
combination of biological and sociological factors reinforced at
. Once established, it is generally fixed for life.
Aside from sex differences, other biological contrasts between males and
females are already evident in childhood. Girls mature faster than boys,
are physically healthier, and are more advanced in developing oral and
written linguistic skills. Boys are generally more advanced at envisioning
and manipulating objects. They are more aggressive and more physically
active, preferring noisy, boisterous forms of
that require larger groups and more space than the play of girls the same
In spite of conscious attempts to reduce sex role stereotyping in the
final decades of the twentieth century and in the early 2000s, boys and
girls are still treated differently by adults from the time they are born.
The way adults play with infants has been found to differ based on gender.
Girls are treated more gently and approached more verbally than boys. As
children grow older, many parents, teachers, and other authority figures
still tend to encourage independence, competition, aggressiveness, and
exploration more in boys and expression, nurturance, motherhood and
childrearing, and obedience more in girls.
There is a growing amount of scientific research that suggests gender
identity develops at a very early age.
Several studies show that infants can discriminate between male and
female faces and associate faces and voices according to gender by the
time they reach one year old. However, gender-labeling tasks, such as toy
identification, do not occur until about age two. Gender identity and
awareness of sex differences generally emerge in the first three to four
years of a child's life. However, children begin to demonstrate a
preference for their own sex starting at about age two.
Gender identification is often associated with the choice and use of
in this age group, according to a number of studies done in the 1970s,
1980s, and 1990s. Sex differences in toy play have been found in children
as young as one year old. By age two, children begin to spontaneously
choose their types of toys based on gender. Several of these studies show
that by age one, boys display a more assertive reaction than girls to toy
disputes. By age two, the reaction of boys is more aggressive.
Most two-year-olds know whether they are boys or girls and can identify
adults as males or females. By age three, most children know that men have
a penis and women have breasts. Also at age three, children begin to apply
gender labels and stereotypes, identifying gentle, empathic
characteristics with females and strong, aggressive characteristics with
males. Even in the twenty-first century, most young children develop
stereotypes regarding gender roles, associating nurses, teachers, and
secretaries as females and police officers, firefighters, and construction
workers as males.
Preschoolers develop an increasing sense of self-awareness about their
bodies and gender differences. Fears about the body and body mutilation,
especially of the genitals, are often major sources of
in preschoolers. As children become more aware of gender differences,
preschoolers often develop intense feelings of vulnerability and
regarding their bodies.
By the age of six years, children are spending about 11 times as much time
with members of their own sex as with children of the opposite sex. This
pattern begins to change as the child approaches puberty, however.
By the teenage years, most children have an established sexual orientation
of heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. They have also established their
style of behavior and core sexual identity. However, a very small fraction
While most children follow a predictable pattern in the acquisition of
gender identity, some develop a gender identity inconsistent with their
biological sex, a condition variously known as gender confusion, gender
identity disorder, or transsexualism, which affects about one in 20,000
males and one in 50,000 females. Researchers have found that both early
socialization and hormonal factors may play a role in the development of
gender identity disorder. Children with gender identity disorder usually
feel from their earliest years that they are trapped in the wrong body and
begin to show signs of gender confusion between the ages of two and four.
They prefer playmates of the opposite sex at an age when most children
prefer to spend time in the company of same-sex peers. They also show a
preference for the clothing and typical activities of the opposite sex;
transsexual boys like to play house and play with dolls. Girls with gender
identity disorder are bored by ordinary female pastimes and prefer the
rougher types of play typically associated with boys, such as contact
Both male and female transsexuals believe and repeatedly insist that they
actually are, or will grow up to be, members of the opposite sex. Girls
cut their hair short, favor boys' clothing, and have negative
feelings about maturing physically as they near
. In childhood, girls with gender identity disorder experience less
overall social rejection than boys, as it is more socially acceptable for
a girl to be a tomboy than for a boy to be perceived as feminine. About
five times more boys than girls are referred to therapists for this
condition. Teenagers with gender identity disorder suffer social isolation
and are vulnerable to depression and
. They have difficulty developing peer relationships with members of their
own sex as well as romantic relationships with the opposite sex. They may
also become alienated from their parents.
The psychological diagnosis of gender identity disorder (GID), commonly
called transsexualism, is used to describe a male or female who feels a
strong identification with the opposite sex and experiences considerable
distress because of their actual sex. Children with gender identity
disorder have strong cross-gender identification. They believe that they
are, or should be, the opposite sex. They are uncomfortable with their
sexual role and organs and may express a desire to alter their bodies.
While not all persons with GID are labeled as transsexuals, there are
those who are determined to undergo sex change procedures or have done so,
and, therefore, are classified as transsexual. They often attempt to pass
socially as the opposite sex. Transsexuals alter their physical appearance
cosmetically and hormonally and may eventually undergo a sex-change
Most children eventually outgrow gender identity disorder. About 75
percent of boys with gender identity disorder develop a homosexual or
bisexual orientation by late adolescence or adulthood, but without
continued feelings of transsexuality. Most of the remaining 25 percent
become heterosexuals (also without transsexuality). Those individuals in
whom gender identity disorder persists into adulthood retain the desire to
live as members of the opposite sex, sometimes manifesting this desire by
cross-dressing, either privately or in public. In some cases, adult
transsexuals (both male and female) have their primary and secondary
sexual characteristics altered through a sex change operation, consisting
of surgery and hormone treatments.
Core gender identity
—The deep inner feeling a child has about whether he or she is a
male or female.
—Female hormone produced mainly by the ovaries and released by
the follicles as they mature. Responsible for female sexual
characteristics, estrogen stimulates and triggers a response from at
least 300 tissues. After menopause, the production of the hormone
Gender identity disorder (GID)
—A strong and lasting cross-gender identification and persistent
discomfort with one's biological gender (sex) role. This
discomfort must cause a significant amount of distress or impairment in
the functioning of the individual.
—A part of the forebrain that controls heartbeat, body
temperature, thirst, hunger, body temperature and pressure, blood sugar
levels, and other functions.
—Psychological counseling that seeks to determine the underlying
causes of a patient's depression. The form of this counseling may
be cognitive/behavioral, interpersonal, or psychodynamic.
—Male hormone produced by the testes and (in small amounts) in
the ovaries. Testosterone is responsible for some masculine secondary
sex characteristics such as growth of body hair and deepening voice. It
also is sometimes given as part of hormone replacement therapy to women
whose ovaries have been removed.
—A term used to describe a male or female that feels a strong
identification with the opposite sex and experiences considerable
distress because of their actual sex. Also called gender identity
Gender identity disorder is generally diagnosed when children display any
four of the following symptoms:
GID is typically diagnosed by a psychiatrist or psychologist, who conducts
an interview with the patient and takes a detailed social history. Family
members may also be interviewed during the
process. Most children diagnosed with GID eventually grow out of it, but
some psychiatrists try to speed up the process, usually using
psychotherapy. This treatment itself is controversial and has received
much criticism within both the psychiatric and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and
transgendered communities. For children, a clear diagnosis may not be
possible until the teenage years, since most children grow out of GID
Some psychiatrists are critical of the psychiatric classification of
gender identity disorder, saying it is more a social stigma. To prove
their case, some psychiatrists point to the fact that boys are up to six
times more likely to be diagnosed with GID and singled out for treatment
than girls. This is not because the disorder is more common in boys, but
because most parents tend to worry more if a son starts wearing dresses
than if their daughter starts playing with toy trucks.
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Boy v. Girl?: How Gender Shapes Who We Are, What We Want, and How We Get
Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 2002.
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Sex and Gender.
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Cohen-Kettenis, Peggy T., and Friedmann Pfafflin.
Transgenderism and Intersexuality in Childhood and Adolescence: Making
London: SAGE Publications, 2003.
Zderic, Stephen A., et al.
Pediatric Gender Assignment: A Critical Reappraisal.
New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2002.
Barrett, James. "Disorders of Gender Identity."
(June 4, 2003): 472.
Bartlett, Nancy H., et al. "Cross-sex Wishes and Gender Identity
Disorder in Children: A Reply to Zucker."
Sex Roles: A Journal of Research
(August 2003): 191–92.
Franklin, Deeanna. "For Gender-variant Children, Validation Is Key:
Outreach Programs for Parents."
Clinical Psychiatry News
(October 2003): 41.
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The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter
(January 2003): 1–4.
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(May 12, 2001): 29.
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The Gender Identity Research & Education Society.
Melverly, The Warren, Ashtead, Surrey, KT21 2SP, UK. 01372–801554.
Web site: http://www.gires.org.
The Renaissance Transgender Association.
987 Old Eagle School Road, Suite 719, Wayne, PA 19087. Web site:
Gender Education and Advocacy
, 2004. Available online at http://www.gender.org (accessed
September 3, 2004).
Gender Identity Disorder Sanctuary.
Available online at http://www.mhsanctuary.com/gender (accessed
September 3, 2004).