"God blesses those who take out his sweet spirits." - Just Another Cassio
Question #77826 posted on 06/10/2014 5:36 p.m.

Dear 100 Hour Board,

On my newsfeed today, a story came up about Ryland Whittington, the child born a girl but who now (at the age of about six) is a boy. The story and Youtube video I watched produced by his family says that at a young age, Ryland began claiming that she was boy, rejecting all things feminine, and crying about her confusion. The conclusion the parents and experts came to was that Ryland was born female but his brain was male.

I don't understand. I hope that doesn't come across as callous, but the whole notion of being transgendered perplexes me. What is it in the brain that thinks "I'm male" in contrast to the body and hormones? So much of being a boy or girl is cultural - from a young age, girls are supposed to like pink and dolls and dancing and whatever else. I can see how a child just wouldn't like those things and it makes the child seem less feminine culturally. But I guess it's more than that. What is the difference?

What would be your reaction if you had a child that, at 3, told you he/she was a different gender?

From a religious perspective, how would it work in the Church if you did decide that your child was born in the wrong gender and you raised them as such? How does that work with our belief that gender is eternal, and how does it work practically with things like YM/YW, ordinances, etc?



Dear friend,

So, you're basically asking three questions here, right?

  • What in the brain thinks "I'm male" in contrast to the body and hormones/what is the difference between being transgender and not having interests stereotypical to one's gender?
  • What would be your reaction if your 3-year-old told you he/she was a different gender?
  • How would it work in the Church if you did decide that your child was born in the wrong gender and you raised them as such?
Let's tackle your first question. What does it mean to be transgender? Basically, a transgender person identifies as a gender that doesn't match their physical or genetic sex. Transgender individuals can identify as male, female, transvestite, bigender, androgyne, or genderqueer. Transsexualism is a subset of transgenderism, and refers to individuals who identify as the gender opposite from their physical sex. One defining characteristic of transsexualism is "gender dysphoria," or an extreme sense of discomfort with one's assigned (physical) sex. One of the best descriptions I've heard of gender dysphoria is that it is the inability to feel at home in one's own body, because of its physical sex. Imagine that every time you look at your hands, you see cucumbers there instead of fingers. No matter what you do, you can't shake the feeling that you should have fingers, but every time you look, there are cucumbers instead. That is how many transgender individuals feel when they view their own bodies. This profound discomfort is primarily what sets transsexualism apart from simply preferring trucks to dolls. 
There are a number of explanations as to what causes transsexualism, and nobody is really sure which is the right answer. There are some genetic occurrences that seem to predispose people to transsexualism: for example, some men have longer repetitions of a gene known as the androgen receptor, which reduces their body's ability to bind testosterone, and is correlated with male-to-female transsexualism. Brain structure also comes into play here: there is a region of the brain known as the bed nucleus of the stria terminalus, which deals with sex and anxiety responses. The size of this brain area tends to differ between the sexes. However, in male-to-female transsexuals (physically male individuals who identify as female), this region is the size typical for females, while in female-to-male transsexuals (physically female individuals who identify as male), the region is the size typical for males. Prenatal exposure to androgens (male sex hormones) has also been cited as a cause of transsexualism.
In short: we don't know exactly what causes someone to identify as a gender different than their physical sex, but it may be related to their genetics, hormone levels, brain structure, or prenatal chemicals. 
Whew. On to your next question: what would I do if my 3-year-old told me he/she was a different gender? I would definitely take it with a grain of salt. Frankly, most 3-year-olds don't really have a solid idea about what differentiates the genders, or a great grasp on reality in general. When my little brother was 3, he was convinced that he was Simba. If my child was insistent, though, I might ask something like, "Why do you think that?" and, depending on their answer, explain that you can have varied interests despite your gender, that girls don't have to like pink and boys don't have to like bugs. I might talk a little bit about how we have both a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother, and our bodies are made to look like theirs. Boys' bodies look like Heavenly Father's, and girls' bodies look like Heavenly Mother's. Being a boy or a girl doesn't mean you have to act, look, feel, or play a certain way, but it does mean that we are made to look like one of our Heavenly Parents. Then I would let the subject go unless they brought it up again. 
Alternatively, if they made the comment in a lighthearted situation, I might just respond with, "oh, you're a (boy/girl)? I thought you were a monkey/dinosaur/something else goofy!" Then if they brought it up again, we would have the aforementioned serious talk. I would also make sure that I encouraged and allowed them to pursue their own interests, instead of trying to direct them toward gender-typical activities, and give them as much freedom as I felt appropriate in dressing themselves.
You didn't ask what I would do if they brought it up again when they were older, which is good, because I honestly don't know. A lot of prayer, research, and discussion with the child would definitely happen. I would probably talk to counselors, try a lot of different things, and make a lot of mistakes, but ultimately I would try to figure out what the best possible course would be for my child, and follow it. 
As far as how this situation would be dealt with in a Church context, there don't seem to have been many statements made. "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" states that "Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose," but most discussion on this principle has occurred in terms of same-sex marriage. Frankly, from a doctrinal standpoint, we don't know much about why some people are transgender, or what that means in terms of their "eternal identity and purpose." MSJ has covered the Church policy on transgender individuals below. I would guess that a parent who raised their child as the opposite gender may be subject to some sort of Church discipline, but I haven't found much information.
In closing, just remember that this is an incredibly complex issue that we don't really have a lot of answers about. This kind of conflict about gender identity causes some people a lot of pain and confusion. In most cases, they are simply trying to do the right thing. Thank you for asking questions and trying to understand.
-Stego Lily

Dear Basil,

If I had a child at 3 or even older who told me he/she was a different gender, I would ignore it and wait for the phase to pass. I had an uncle who, at the age of about 3 or 4, insisted he was a girl and made everyone call him Mary Jane. That phase eventually passed, and he grew up just fine, went on a mission, got married and had four children. Children go through all sorts of phases as they grow. If it lasted longer than that and wasn't actually a phase, well...I don't know how I'd deal with it.

As far as the Church is concerned, if an adult decides he or she is a different gender and goes for a name change or even a sex change, he or she is restricted. It's my understanding that, for instance, a woman who decides she is a man could not hold the priesthood or go to the temple. A man who decides he's a woman would also not be able to hold the priesthood (and I honestly don't know how it works if he already had the priesthood) or go to the temple. These types of situations, however, are all considered on a case-by-case basis by the First Presidency.

-Marguerite St. Just