The Development of Gender Minority Identities
Describing Developmental Pathways
Few empirically based studies have explored the developmental trajectories of gender minorities. Most of our information about the early childhood and adolescent experiences of gender minorities has been gleaned from qualitative studies, interviews, case studies, and autobiographical accounts of gender minority adults.
The work of Gagne and his colleagues represents one of the few empirical explorations of the perceptions of gender minority adults and their childhoods. Gagne, Tewksbury, and McGaughey (1997) and Gagne and Tewksbury (1998) undertook extensive interviews with gender minority persons to obtain retrospective accounts of their childhoods. The researchers interviewed 65 participants, all biological males. Interviewees noted that they learned early in childhood that cross-dressing and feminine behavior were considered “deviant.” As children, they experienced anxiety and shame when they observed the reactions of others, including family members, neighbors, and peers, when they played with other girls, engaged in cross-dressing, and wore make-up. “Boys were scolded, shamed, beaten, and sent to psychiatrists for wanting to do feminine things” (Gagne & Tewksbury, 1998, p. 87). One interviewee noted: “I would paint my toenails on occasion. My father caught me one time and beat the hell out of me for it” (1998, p. 87). The majority of their participants recalled trying hard to repress feminine interests and engaging in hypermasculine activities. Beginning in late childhood and early adolescence, most participants reported cross-dressing in secret. Youth who were caught cross-dressing were humiliated; some continued in secret, and some suppressed this behavior completely until adulthood when the behavior resurfaced. For most, it was contact with other gender minority adults through either the Internet or support groups that facilitated their coming out as transgendered.
Other reports from therapists who have worked extensively with gender minority clients are fairly consistent with the descriptions given by Gagne and Tewksbury’s interviewees. Several authors (Anderson, 1998; Brown & Rounsley, 1996; Israel & Tarver, 1997; Pazos, 1999) indicated that their clients were conscious of their gender atypicality at very early ages. This awareness was experienced by gender minority clients in different ways. Some felt a strong sense that they would eventually become their desired sex by puberty, some felt as though they were the opposite sex despite outward physical appearances, and some simply believed they should have been born the opposite sex (Brown & Rounsley, 1996).
In response to this early recognition of gender atypicality, many gender minority youth engaged in compensatory activities. In cases involving biological females, many engaged in magical thinking, tried to adopt penises by using socks or toys, urinated standing up, and refused to wear bathing suit tops or shirts during the summer (Pazos, 1999). Many recalled wanting short hair, wanting to play only with boys, and taking on male roles in imaginary play activities. Depending on parental attitudes to nonconforming behaviors, these children were forced to join organizations that reinforced their female status, such as Girl Scouts.
By most accounts, gender minority adults spent their childhood feeling isolated and estranged from their peers (Anderson, 1998; Brown & Rounsley, 1996; Grossman, D’ Augelli, & Salter, 2006). Many described being harassed verbally and physically by peers and developing solitary interests to protect themselves against social ostracism. Many also tried to suppress their feelings and adopted a desire to please others and to conform to others’ expectations of what they should be (Brown & Rounsley, 1996).
The onset of puberty constituted a crisis for many gender minority youth (Brown & Rounsley, 1996; Burgess, 1999; Fish & Harvey, 2005; Israel & Tarver, 1997). The emergence of secondary sex characteristics at puberty was associated with feelings of betrayal and disgust and negative body images. Many (e.g., Brown & Rounsley, 1996) described this as the sense that their bodies had betrayed them. Many biological females attempted to alter their appearances by binding their breasts, and biological males often used surgical tape to tape the penis down or hid their testicles by pushing them back into the inguinal canal (Brown & Rounsley, 1996). Other males attempted autocastration and injected silicone in their lips, chest, buttocks, and/or thighs (Burgess, 1999). “Gender variant people go through this crucial developmental period struggling with the dissonance between what the culture tells them they are and whom they feel themselves to be internally” (Fish & Harvey, 2005, p. 85). School-based rites of passage, such as dating, the prom, and athletics, furtherly acerbated the alienation that these gender minority youth experienced.
Research on the developmental trajectories of gender minorities is only just beginning. Most gender minorities employ the term coming out to describe the developmental process of acknowledging one’s gender minority status. Based on his extensive personal experiences and interviews with female-to-male transgenders, Devor (2004), a sociologist, developed a model consisting of 14 stages to depict the developmental process for persons who adopt a transsexual identity and who elect to transition to the opposite sex. This model was adapted from Cass’s (1979, 1984) stages of homosexual identity formation. As in Cass’s model, gender minorities progress from anxiety about their gender identities to discovery of their transsexualism. This discovery is followed by a period of anger, confusion, tolerance, and acceptance of transsexual identity. Once the sex reassignment surgery is over and the transition is complete, the final stage of identity formation is pride.
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