When Is It Too Early to Decide to Change Genders?

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jul 19, 2010

The decision to transition from one gender to another should be among the most private matters. But when you're the offspring of Hollywood power couple Annette Bening and Warren Beatty, it becomes a matter of public debate -- especially when you are 18 years old. Kathlyn Beatty, eldest child of the acting duo, had privately confided that she planned to transition and become a man. Once the tabloids got a hold of the news, the conflagration quickly ignited the Blogosphere.

Some asked whether a reportedly "heartbroken" Warren would be able to accept his son. The U.K. Daily Mail has reported that Kathlyn plans to go by the name Stephen and reportedly has been living as a man for two years.

Some question whether an 18-year-old, though a legal adult, is old enough to make the drastic decision to transition.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer to the question of what age is appropriate or advantageous for transgender youth to transition is neither easy nor universally applicable. A number of factors -- such as the youth's family, school and social environments -- are at work in influencing such decisions. Many transgender advocates argue the issue is often sensationalized in mainstream media and largely misunderstood by the general public.

Dignity & Respect
EDGE spoke with a number of national leaders on the topic. Delving deeper into concerns and issues facing transgender youth reveals profound questions about their abilities to feel safe, secure and happy in their own skin.

According to several sources, the question of when a youth may transition and what that process might entail is a deeply personal one for both the youth and his or her family. A transgendered person feels, often from a very young age, that the gender they were assigned at birth is incorrect, not indicative of the gender they personally identify with. In order to align their at-odds internal and external expressions, many transgender people choose to undergo hormone treatments or reconstructive surgeries.

Many also do not, however, and the options available depend greatly on a number of factors. Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, hopes the Beattys are given some room by the media to sort out what is best for Stephen. While tabloids jumped on other recent celebrity transitions, most especially Chaz Bono's, advocates feel Beatty's age is particularly deserving of privacy.

"We need to insure the media covers stories like this with respect and a sense of dignity for the children and families involved," Silverman told EDGE. "Transitioning is a personal and private process for someone that ends up happening in the public eye. It's difficult enough for someone to deal with without it becoming sensationalized."

Further, Silverman emphasized the importance of a space for all youth to openly come to terms with their gender and whether what they've been given makes sense for them. It's often a thought process more challenging than what many cisgender (non-transgender) people might think.

"At all ages, children and young adults should be free to explore their gender identities," Silverman added. "I think it's important that we not punish children because they identify their gender in a way that's different than what society expects of them."

Media-Made Misconceptions
For the most part the media have offered problematic commentary on transgender youth. Unfortunately, they all-too often employ rhetoric that even sometimes goes as far as to seem condoning of anti-transgender violence. On Sacramento's KRXQ-FM last year, radio host Arnie States argued trans youth are "freaks" and "weird people," further stating if his son ever wore female clothing, he would "hit him with one of my shoes." Opponents to efforts to help trans youth transition, such as physician Paul McHugh, often describe hormone treatments and surgeries as a "form of child abuse."

Anti-transgender language in the media has only increased as legislation like a transgender-inclusive national Employment Non-Discrimination Act has entered the political fore this year. Fox News talking head Bill O'Reilly compared transgender people to Ewoks and described a transgender student's concern over which bathroom to use as "bogus" and "ridiculous."

Negative media coverage feeding into stereotypes about the transgender community may very likely contribute to the many concerns to which trans youth are prone. According to findings from a 2009 GLSEN survey of transgender students, nearly nine out of 10 respondents had experienced verbal harassment in the last year; a quarter had experienced physical assault. They were also markedly likely to miss class and receive lower grades. Research also indicates transgender youth are at a heightened risk of depression, substance abuse and suicidal behavior.

The Clock Is Ticking
When compared with gay, bisexual and lesbian youth, transgender youth also feel their difference at a younger age. That only means that more damage is often done more quickly, but it also heightens the need for open-minded medical care and a supportive family unit in considering the possibility of intervening with treatment.

Grace Stowell, executive director of BAGLY, the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Youth, has been working in the community for over 30 years and noticed transgender youth are also coming out earlier in recent years, sometimes catching parents and schools alike unprepared.

"The advocacy is being pushed younger," Stowell said. "For non-transgender GLB people, they're identifying as that post-puberty, but the transgender conversation is shifting into grade and preschool in some case. It brings the issue front and center where parents and school systems would not have expected that before."

And it's also pushing the need, in many cases, for earlier intervention. While that might just mean changes in dress or hairstyle at younger ages, once youth reach puberty in middle school, there are options available that can put a "pause" button on puberty, allowing for decisions about taking cross-gender hormones or undergoing sex-reassignment surgery to be made sometimes years later. Such options are essential, Stowell said.

"It's not enough to say they're too young to know because a lot of damage can be done by forcing a child to live a gender that they are not," Stowell added. "Waiting 15 years can mean the damage has been done. A lot of issues can stem from forcing someone to live a life in a way that is fundamentally not who they are."

Next: Exploring Available Options


  • ZoeB, 2010-07-19 03:21:02

    If they’re old enough to consent to marry, they’re old enough to consent to transition.

  • , 2010-07-20 09:18:34

    Transitioning is best suited to physician-patient protocol sans the adverse and reactionary conduct of others ill suited to offer anything less than kindness. Love one and another and know it is enough for mankind.

  • , 2010-07-21 08:22:26

    IM the mother of a transgender child. I have a granddaughter who is 7 and "gets it" in an amazing way. But she did ask did her (now) uncle, KNOW that he was a boy and not a girl..and I asked her how SHE knew she was a girl and not a boy. She really thought about it for a few minutes and went..OK then HE knows hes a boy! It really is THAT simple. Its not about age. Think about probably have never HAD to THINK about whether you were male or female, or WHEN you KNEW that you were. These kids KNOW who they are just like you or I "KNOW" who we are.

  • oatc, 2010-07-21 11:00:56

    ZoeB > If they’re old enough to consent to marry, they’re old enough to consent to transition. Pretty transphobic comment after reading ""Finding a willing care provider who will educate themselves and work with you is essential," Pearson told EDGE. "Many still don’t want to approach the issue until the youth is 18, which is much too late for a lot of these kids. There needs to be intervention at puberty, at which point they are very high risk. For a lot of these kids, intervention is literally life-saving." Even more so given that transition for a pre-pubertal child )like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Shilo, is only a matter of name, clothes and hairstyle, which must surely be within the competence of the child and family to decide. But then you’re Australian, and the courts have, barbarically, decided they must have micro control over children’s gender presentation there. Anonymous > Transitioning is best suited to physician-patient protocol... At puberty, yes, but what is the role of the physician earlier? Or perhaps you were thinking of earlier assurance that assistance will be provided when needed?

  • , 2010-07-23 22:03:43

    This is a great article from Children’s Hospital Boston about transitioning at an early age.

  • , 2010-08-06 18:36:57

    All this thinking makes me nervous - the fact that sex and gender must ’agree’ - isn’t this exactly the thinking we should be getting away from? Maybe the ’problem’ isn’t having the wrong body, but the culture around us that equates our bodies with our gender identities. Giving a child a drug to ’pause puberty’ because of this binary thinking on gender seems pretty sad. Growing up fat is difficult too, why not lipo for 12 year olds? nose jobs for pre-teens. Isn’t this the same thing? Why are we so keen to medicalize gender identity??? This is dangerous territory.

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