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.