Nov. 21 2012 12:00 AM

Gender identity and children


Ken Zucker, psychologist-in-chief at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, is the 10th speaker in Michigan State University’s semester-long series, “Whom You Love: the biology of sexual orientation,” which aims to demonstrate that homosexuality is a natural occurrence in humans. His speech is called “Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation: Lessons Learned from Life-Course Research” 

Zucker is the head of the Gender Identity Service in the Child, Youth and Family Program at CAMH, and is also a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Since 2002, he has been the editor of archives of sexual behavior and is past president of the International Academy of Sex Research. 

What general themes will your lecture cover?

My lecture will focus on psychosexual differentiation from a developmental perspective. In my speech, I will characterize the temporal sequence of three key phenomena: gender identity (the emergence of a child´s sense of self as a boy, a girl or some alternative gender), gender role (the behavioral expressions that mark the constructs of "masculinity" and "femininity") and sexual orientation (one´s erotic attraction to males, to females or to both, and the corresponding self-labels that a person uses to characterize their own sexual identity, which include gay, bisexual, heterosexual and asexual). 

I will then discuss what we know about the developmental predictors of both gender identity and sexual orientation in adolescence and adulthood. These parameters include within-sex variation in childhood sex-typed behavior, biodemographic variables (such as birth order) and social class. 

What inspired you to pursue this field of research? 

My clinical research career has focused mostly on children and adolescents with gender dysphoria —commonly known as gender identity disorder —and children born with what are now termed disorders of sex development (such as physical intersex conditions). 

In 1974, while I was a graduate student in Chicago, I stumbled across Richard Green´s book “Sexual Identity Conflict in Children and Adults,” which actually coined the term “gender identity disorder.” 

When I moved to Toronto in 1975, I met a child psychiatrist, Susan Bradley, who had just established a gender identity clinic for children and adolescents at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry (now the CAMH). The rest is history.

What do you think this lecture series could do for the social views of homosexuality? 

Social scientists and clinicians have, in my view, an obligation to share with the public what they have learned about the phenomena they study. Matters of sex and gender are topics that the public finds extremely absorbing and interesting, as such matters touch upon all of our lives. The more information we have, the better. 

Science and (social) politics can, however, make for strange bedfellows. Scientific knowledge can be used or it can be abused. A responsible scientist will work hard to make sure that what we know is understood and will correct misunderstandings. 

For more information on this series, go to

Ken Zucker
“Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation: Lessons Learned from Life-Course Research”
4 p.m.
Wells Hall room 115B
MSU Campus