Any fair-minded person should welcome the Western world’s recent strides in recognizing the human rights and dignity of transgender people. But changing attitudes toward gender identity are also raising extremely tough questions, particularly when it comes to children who identify as transgender. When is someone old enough to make life-altering decisions? Should parents and medical professionals always validate a child’s chosen identity? These are important conversations. Yet some would sweep them under the rug in the name of progress.
In June, The Atlantic published a cover story by science journalist Jesse Singal on children and adolescents who identify as transgender but then return to the gender identity consistent with their birth sex — sometimes after undergoing appearance-changing and potentially health-damaging treatments. The backlash on social media and in left-of-center publications was fierce; the author and the magazine alike were vilified and accused of promoting bigotry.
Now, there is an even more disturbing reaction to a paper by Lisa Littman, a physician and public health expert at Brown University, published late last month by the online science journal PLOS One. Littman’s study examined something she calls “rapid onset gender dysphoria” — cases in which teenagers (usually girls) suddenly begin to report dissatisfaction with their gender, often after exposure to transgender-friendly social media
The parents who were interviewed for the study believe their children are not “authentically” transgender but are latching on to these identities both as a coping mechanism and because being transgender is seen as “cool” in their social circles. (The study mentions several instances in which more than half of the teens in a group of friends came out as transgender around the same time.) Many of these kids have mental health problems; some have experienced trauma ranging from parental divorce to sexual abuse.
The study’s detractors scoff at claims of “sudden onset,” suggesting that the parents had simply been clueless about their children’s gender dysphoria until the kids were finally emboldened to speak. That may be true in some cases. But surely these reports warrant further study and caution — which is all that Littman advocates.
The paper, which had passed peer and editorial review, has also been assailed for its methodology. Littman did not interview the teens; the adults were recruited from support groups for parents who saw their children’s embrace of transgender identities as a cause for concern. (While critics portray these groups as “anti-transgender,” the parents were overwhelmingly socially liberal.)
Yet parental interviews are a common method in research on child and adolescent behavior, and preliminary studies describing a syndrome often draw on self-selected groups. (The paper made no claims about the prevalence of “rapid onset dysphoria” among transgender teens.) Littman’s defenders point out that no one objected when a study that said transgender kids were thriving used similar methods.
Critics are free to criticize. What’s troubling is Brown University’s response. A promotional article on Littman’s study was taken down from the Brown website; the statement posted in its place mentioned not only questions about the study’s methods but also concerns that it “could be used to discredit efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate the perspectives of members of the transgender community.”
While the statement included a nod to “academic freedom,” not a word was said in support of Littman, an untenured assistant professor. This sends a discouraging message to anyone thinking of attempting a study that could anger activists.
Transgender people do not all think alike; quite a few are irked by what they see as faddish gender-identity explorations. The discussion of transgender issues must include diverse voices and research that tackles hard questions.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.