Research to look at what shapes gender identity

Researchers at the University of Georgia will partner with other universities as part of a national study on identity development in transgender populations, the largest study of its kind to date.

The five-year, $2.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health supports three study sites and partner institutions: New York City (Columbia University), San Francisco (San Francisco State University) and Atlanta (UGA). The study will look at how people who identify as transgender developed their identity as well as gauge how they overcome adversity at different times in their lives.

Through surveys and interviews, the national partnership will help lay the groundwork for putting social services and support networks in place for the transgender population. The first year of the project will look at critical incidents, starting from birth, that help shape a person’s gender identity.

“It’s about creating better health outcomes for transgender people across the lifespan and ultimately reducing the massive amounts of discrimination they face,” said Anneliese Singh, who is leading the Atlanta team and is an associate professor in the department of counseling and human development services in the UGA College of Education.

Gender identity is the internal way in which people experience and define their gender.

“For instance, people tend to have an internal sense of being a woman or a man,” Singh said. “Transgender people may not fit neatly into this gender binary as transgender people may not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.”

Singh said this study is unique because of its proactive focus. Until now, major studies on transgender populations have been reactive, typically associated with HIV.

“There are a lot of things we already know that need to be changed,” said Singh, citing issues such as discrimination at home or in the workplace. For example, transgender people experience high rates of violence, transgender youth experience high rates of homelessness and the transgender population overall has much higher rates of suicide attempts than the average population.

“But once we know more about transgender identity development, we will be able to develop better intervention and prevention initiatives so transgender people can thrive,” she said.

This study aligns with previous work Singh has done in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer population, where she investigates the resilience people build as a result of discrimination.