The National Science Foundation on Thursday awarded a five-year, $1 million grant to expand the first long-term nationwide study of transgender children.
The award was granted to University of Washington Psychologist Kristina Olsen, who was named the winner of the 2018 Alan T. Waterman Award — the federal government’s highest honor for a scientist under the age of 40.
Olsen will receive taxpayer funds to further her TransYouth Project, a long-term study of transgender children that is tracking more than 300 transgender children — some only three years old.
The project, launched in 2013, aims to track the children’s development over 20 years. Olsen’s award from the NSF will allow her to use taxpayer dollars to fund the project as throughout the children’s teenage years.
The NSF’s decision to award Olsen the grant was unanimous.
“‘Transgender children’ is a category we have so little scientific knowledge about,” the social scientist told The Associated Press. “I’m interested in their experience of feeling you are in a social category that other people don’t think you’re a part of.”
Olsen’s work has already produced results. Early findings indicated transgender children, whose families allowed them to live openly with their chosen gender identity, had the same rate of depression and anxiety than non-transgender children.
“In a very scientific way, our study shows that this group of kids is doing really, really well,” Olsen said.
“While we are still in the early stages, I believe this work has the possibility of changing society’s understanding of gender and identity,” Olsen told the NSF.
Olsen’s work will help solve major societal issues across a broad spectrum, she said.
“I believe it is impossible to solve any large-scale social issues without documenting, understanding and ultimately bridging differences in people’s racial, cultural, gender and other identities,” Olsen said.
Olson’s “profound” work on transgender children will help adults better understand societal inequality, UW Department of Psychology Chairperosn Cheryl Kaiser said.
“Our childhood ideas about fairness can shape how we as adults understand injustice and whether we maintain or challenge inequity in society,” Kaiser said. “Kristina’s work is profound and has implications for how children develop to become change-makers in the world.”
But Olsen’s work with transgender children has already received criticism.
Olsen’s work “delegitimizes science,” The Federalist said in 2017, arguing it was “utterly ridiculous” to study the gender identity of young children “just learning to use the bathroom.”
Children as young as three do show awareness of their gender identity through how they describe themselves and what toys they chose to play with, Olsen said, brushing off the criticism.
“People frequently compare early identifying trans children with those who go through phases of believing they are cats or dinosaurs or who have imaginary friends,” Olson wrote. “Yet decades of work on gender development suggests these are precisely the ages at which nearly all kids are coming to understand their own and others’ gender identities.”
Olson’s stance that young children have the capability to change gender identities is “borderline reckless,” Southern Baptist Convention Director Andrew Walker said.
“I am highly suspect of allowing children to be mature agents in determining this level of self-understanding,” Walker said. “That seems to be highly problematic and borderline reckless … putting drastically catastrophic decisions about a child’s life in the child’s hands.”
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