My trans child can tell me who she is—no brain scan required

New research reveals MRI scans show transgender kids are very much who they say they are—but what are the implications of demanding objective proof?

My trans child can tell me who she is—no brain scan required

Photo: iStockphoto

I’m the parent of a transgender child, and I have been accused of “child abuse” and “buying into the LGBT agenda,” simply for believing and accepting my kid. I know firsthand how much controversy still swirls around kids who tell us they’re a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. Families like mine, and especially the children we love, are constantly under attack.

The findings of a new study may put some of that controversy to rest. But could putting too much emphasis on objective “proof” ultimately cause more harm than good?

Researchers from the University of Liege, in Belgium, who presented their findings at the European Society of Endocrinology’s annual symposium earlier this week, performed MRI scans on 160 children and teenagers diagnosed with gender dysphoria, the severe discomfort or distress experienced by many transgender people. The results showed the brain activity of trans boys closely resembled the brain activity in cisgender (not trans) boys. The same similarities were seen between trans and cisgender girls.

In other words, this research shows transgender kids are very much who they say they are.

When our daughter came out to us at age 11, we quickly and unequivocally moved to support her. Her explanation of painfully living life inside a newly pubescent body moving swiftly in the wrong direction was all we needed to know.

Pediatric gender identity specialists recommend following your child’s lead when they come out to you, and allow them to explore that possibility, from letting them express their gender in a way that’s more comfortable to them to socially transitioning with new names and pronouns. The alternative—to try and convince them to live as the gender we thought they were—has been proven extremely harmful.

However, despite gender identity being recognizable in children as young as three, kids are often dismissed as being “too young to know.” Parents who follow their child’s lead regularly come under fire for doing so. There have been numerous cases of families of trans kids being investigated by child protection agencies for simply following recommended guidelines. In some cases, children have even been removed from their homes.

Would a simple brain scan make all this go away? Would families like ours catch a break from the constant barrage of criticism if we had “proof” of our children’s identities?


Many in the trans community urge caution before putting too much emphasis on tests like these, and I hope the rest of us listen.

First, both cisgender and transgender brains are complex and varied. Not all carry the typical characteristics we might expect to see. What if, despite what a child tells us, their MRI scan doesn’t show the results we’re looking for? Should we dismiss what they’re telling us? To do so would be dangerous, as we know trans youth who aren’t supported by family face much higher rates of depression and suicide.

Second, these findings are very binary, and we now know gender is anything but. There are people who identify as men, women, a combination of both, or something outside of those definitions entirely. The brains of non-binary kids were not a part of this study, which leaves out a significant and growing portion of the trans youth population.

Finally, there is great concern in the trans community about tests like these being used to decide whether someone receives medical support. What if doctors start insisting on brain scans to determine if someone is “trans enough” for the hormones or surgery they desperately need? Access to affirming medical care is vital for many trans youth and adults. The last thing they need are more barriers preventing access to that care.

As a parent, I like seeing studies that validate the support I give my child. But I don’t need to see a brain scan to know she’s a girl; I just need to listen to her. Her doctors do the same, basing her medical care on what she consistently tells them she needs. Today, she’s a happy 15-year-old girl because of it.


Ultimately, how someone feels about themselves still needs to be our focus when it comes to supporting them. While this study is interesting, it’s not the holy grail of answers as to why some kids are trans and some are not. We may never know why, and that’s okay.

Trans people’s identities are valid not because of a test, but because they know themselves better than we ever could. So, with that, I’m going to keep loving my trans child for exactly who she tells me she is – no scans required.

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