Do Transgender Little Girls Have A Fascination With Mermaids?

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Transgender children, kids whose gender identity does not match their assigned sex, have become the subject of interest to more and more news outlets. Interviews and profiles with very young children who identify as transgender have popped up on This American Life, NPR, and ABC news just to name a few.  The children vary in geography, with parents who have either come to accept their children as they are or go in search of “corrective therapy.” Yet, when documenting the childhood of transgender girls, one detail seems to stand out in the media — a fascination with mermaids.

Dr. Christine Milrod, who has provided therapy to transgender individuals for over 15 years in Los Angeles, tells me that she doesn’t have any formal statistics on the matter but that she has noticed the penchant for mermaids in a couple of her clients:

“… one of my transgender female clients – a fraternal twin with a brother who is also transitioning in a different state – has said that they both idolized mermaids and always played mermaid-make believe as children. She only found out recently about the mermaid phenomenon, so this is not something she made up to satisfy the myth, so to speak.”

Katherine Rachlin, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist and Gender Specialist in a private practice in New York City, works with transgender adults starting at age 17. Although she is not a child specialist, she attends many conferences to speak with parents of transgender kids as well as to study new research regarding transgender children. While she has noticed a predilection for Ariel costumes from The Little Mermaid, she finds some transgender girls to be more taken with the Disney Princess than mermaids in general. She points out that girl-identified transgender children tend to be attracted to the same feminine stories, movies, and characters that are marketed to cisgender (when assigned sex and gender identity match) girls. Yet, she observes that Ariel’s story is of particular significance:

“I have seen the Ariel Little Mermaid costumes, accessories, and books in the repertoire of the girl-identified transgender children….Ariel’s Cinderella story parallels the transgender wish to such an extent one can really not ignore the obvious. Ariel wishes to become a ‘real girl’ by changing her body and is told that she cannot, and ultimately does lose her tail for a couple of legs.  That combined with her long flowing hair and other Disney-esque attributes of beauty make her a super heroine for a transgender child. She is the epitome of feminine beauty while having a non-traditional body. She is told she can’t be a girl and do what girls do, and yet she does.”

Susan P. Landon, a marriage, child, and family therapist with a private practice in Santa Monica, works on the Child and Adolescent Team at the Los Angeles Gender Center. Landon observes:

“A transgender girl who does find mermaids interesting may do so because mermaids are identified as female by the appearance of the top half of their body not the lower half.  Not having the genitalia to match their gender identity is one source of dysphoria for transgender children.”

However, she tells me that she does not find the fascination with mermaids to be prevalent in the transgender girls who she works with; she attributes the phenomenon to mere media hype. Like Dr. Rachlin, Landon echoes that transgender girls respond to the same films that any other girl would.

“I think that this is probably an exaggerated media stereotype of transgender girls. For many young girls, mermaids may be interesting because they are pretty and are the subjects of some animated films for children.”

She stresses:

“Transgender children are just children dealing with a very serious issue.  As with all children, regardless of their issues, they are primarily children with the same interests as other children.”

The number of transgender children studied is still so small that the sample may be insignificant, but the tenuous link proves to be fascinating to doctors and parents alike.