Right now, the first generations of socially transitioned transgender children—kids who live openly as the “opposite” gender—are growing up in America. University of Washington psychology professor Kristina Olson works with hundreds of them via the university’s TransYouth Project, the largest longitudinal study of its kind in the country. Five years in, her team has already published findings that both defy long-held assumptions about the wellbeing of trans kids and raise important new questions about what makes them thrive or struggle. Recently awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, Olson is expanding her work to include other gender nonconforming groups as well. Meanwhile, she says it’s a privilege to watch her “cohort” grow up. —Jessica Voekler
A lot of people think I come to the work with some idea of what the findings should be. That’s just not how it works.
I’m a researcher. I’m a scientist. And I want to know what’s true in the world.
When we started this project in 2013, nobody was really doing this kind of work. Now, very frequently, the cover of The New York Times will have an article about something somebody said or did that affects transgender people. That’s just like, a whole new world.
The MacArthur [award] is about creativity, and getting people to move in new directions or take on new risks. It’s well beyond me. This is for the community of people who have been asking these questions.
I grew up in Urbana, Illinois, in the middle of some corn fields.
We had a gay prom king one year. At the same time, I saw a lot of tension. For example, parents who found out their kids were gay and kicked them out of the house.
I became interested in why it is that aspects of identity, and the categories that we have, are so important to people. People have such different life experiences purely because of some aspect of their identity that they have no control over.
Children, to me, are really interesting because these are ages at which attitudes and beliefs are still forming.
We just tell families what our goal is. We want to understand experiences of transitioned transgender children, and we want to follow them for what we hope is 20 years—but they have the right to stop at any time.
I recently saw a family that was one of our first. The kids have grown, and it’s just amazing. You see how much they’re growing and their sense of themselves and their view of the world.
As hard as it can be to think about funding the project, and people who don’t like the project, and people who think this is a bad idea—I get to know these kids, and I get to know them over time and see what happens in their lives. It is an incredible privilege.
It makes me fall in love with the work every time that I see them.
Some transgender children are doing quite well in our study. They have good mental health and wellbeing. I didn’t know that was going to be true until I looked at it.
Obviously, there are lots of trans people who are struggling. So we want to understand: What are the kinds of experiences that the kids I work with have had that are making them have better outcomes than we have seen in studies of other trans folks?
They’re one of the first sets of kids having this experience of socially transitioning really early. No matter what the outcomes are later in development, they’re going to be interesting.
People say: ‘What is going on? When I was a kid, there [were] no five-year-old [boys] that thought they were a girl.’
Also, I meet a fair number of people in their 60s, 70s, even early 80s who say: ‘When I was three or four, I knew I was a girl. But I knew that I was going to take it to my grave. It’s only in the last couple of years that I realized like, wait, young kids are coming out—I can come out, too.’