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Atlantic cover story is a loud dog whistle for anti-transgender parents

Jesse Singal is known for concern-trolling against trans kids, and that's exactly what his latest article does.

A recent article in The Atlantic about trans kids and teens has sparked backlash. (CREDIT: Snapwire, Pexels)
A recent article in The Atlantic about trans kids and teens has sparked backlash. (CREDIT: Snapwire, Pexels)

In his new cover story for The Atlantic, New York Magazine contributing writer Jesse Singal claims to cover all angles of the controversy around how best to support transgender and gender nonconforming kids. But consistent with his extensive record as a “concern troll” on this issue, the article’s lopsided perspectives and dearth of citations demonstrate that it’s actually a very elaborate dog whistle for parents looking to justify any doubts they have about their own transgender children.

Hailed as “balanced” and 12,000 words long, Singal never actually mentions the thing he’s clearly talking about throughout the piece: “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” (ROGD). ROGD is a fake diagnosis that was recently invented by groups of parents who advocate against affirming transgender youth. The premise is that teenagers who were assigned female at birth are being influenced by social media to suddenly decide that they are transgender boys, but that they are not legitimately transgender.

As the group Transgender Trend described it in an anti-trans booklet that it peddled to British schools:

Some professionals have noted a new presentation of gender dysphoria which appears after the start of puberty with no previous indication of gender confusion or unhappiness. This recent development has been termed Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria and it affects mostly teenage girls.

There is, however, no such thing as “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria.” The one study mentioning ROGD was conducted by Lisa L. Littman of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and only surveyed the anti-trans parent groups that invented the concept: TransgenderTrend.com, 4thWaveNow.com, and YouthTransCriticalProfessionals.org. The study didn’t actually survey any teenagers who had supposedly experienced the phenomenon.

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Another such collective, ParentsOfROGDKids.com, makes clear that it believes “identifying as the opposite gender is not normal.” Despite being junk science, many conservatives have latched onto the theory to justify their anti-trans policies in schools and to convince parents to reject their children.

In his Atlantic feature, Singal never mentions ROGD by name, but references many of these groups’ talking points — several of which appear to be borrowed directly from advocates for ex-gay conversion therapy.

Parents may be “convinced that their child is in pain,” he writes, “but also concerned that physical transition is not the solution, at least not for a young person still in the throes of adolescence.” At another point, he refers to “when parents discuss the reasons they question their children’s desire to transition.”

Whether a parent doubts the legitimacy of a child’s transition has zero relevance to whether transitioning is best for their child. Humoring this doubt is exactly what makes the story so harmful.

Singal also insists that gender identity is so fluid in children that it may be impossible to tell whether a child’s gender is just a phase. “What does it mean to be affirming while acknowledging that kids and teenagers can have an understanding of gender that changes over a short span?” he asks at one point.

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Not only does this approach undermine the validity of what young people say about their own gender, it’s another nod to parents who might not approve of what they hear. Conspicuously, the piece never references the refrain “insistent, persistent, and consistent” — shorthand for how psychiatrists identify when children are expressing gender dysphoria — perhaps because it would directly contradict his assertion that gender is impossibly fluid.

Singal also highlights the supposed “causes” of transgender identities frequently referenced by the parental groups. “Trauma, particularly sexual trauma, can contribute to or exacerbate dysphoria in some patients, but again, no one yet knows exactly why,” he claims with no citation.

There are zero studies supporting that claim, but it’s a common justification among proponents of ROGD for rejecting trans kids. If the trauma can somehow be healed, parents believe the kid will end up not being trans. Singal simply asserts it as truth.

Toward the end of the piece, Singal is even less subtle about his allusions to ROGD, directly referencing parents’ concerns about “social contagion” and the possibility their kids are somehow being “influenced by the gender-identity exploration they’re seeing online and perhaps at school or in other social settings, rather than experiencing gender dysphoria.”

Attributing the phenomenon only to “some anecdotal evidence,” he tells the story of Delta, an Oregon teen whose social circle was hit with “a wave of gender-identity experimentation.” Delta ultimately met with a therapist who helped her address some other mental health issues, Singal writes, following which her “gender dysphoria subsequently dissipated, though it’s unclear why.” His retelling of her experiences, however, suggests she was never actually diagnosed with “gender dysphoria,” making this another baseless claim.

Incidentally, Singal does not reveal that Delta’s mom, “Jenny,” is a part of 4thWaveNow, one of the anti-trans parent groups. On Twitter, she described the site as her “lifeline in supporting my dysphoric teen” and expressed disappointment that he didn’t mention the group in the story.

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Singal insists that stories like Delta’s indicate some children who say they’re transgender may not actually be transgender, thereby justifying his skepticism:

In vast swaths of the United States, kids coming out as trans are much more likely to be met with hostility than with enhanced social status or recognition, and their parents are more likely to lack the willingness — or the resources — to find them care. But to deny the possibility of a connection between social influences and gender-identity exploration among adolescents would require ignoring a lot of what we know about the developing teenage brain — which is more susceptible to peer influence, more impulsive, and less adept at weighing long-term outcomes and consequences than fully developed adult brains — as well as individual stories like Delta’s.

As he does throughout most of the piece, Singal fails to reference any research supporting this theory. He asserts in his conclusion, “Some teenagers, in the years ahead, are going to rush into physically transitioning and may regret it.” He provides no citation for this claim.

Much of Singal’s piece focuses on people who have detransitioned, having expressed regret about the steps they took to transition. Accompanying the story is a video profile of Carey Callahan, a writer and activist who has talked about her experiences detransitioning on YouTube and in other places.

Singal notes, “The detransitioners who have spoken out thus far are mostly people who were assigned female at birth,” consistent with the assumption that ROGD is more common among teenage girls. In fact, not a single kid who was assigned male at birth even appears in the story.

Singal defends the “desistance myth,” the claim that some 80 percent of transgender children will “desist” in their gender identity. In several other articles for New York Magazine, Singal has insisted upon the legitimacy of this claim and efforts to help correct children’s gender accordingly — despite the fact that the research fails to support it.

While he notes there are some “credible critiques,” Singal argues that “the evidence that desistance occurs is overwhelming.” He provides no new research to support this “overwhelming” evidence, however, instead relying upon statements several organizations have made based on studies that don’t actually support the claim.

Singal does provide stories of two teens for whom transitioning was the right decision, but juxtaposes them to show that one was clear-cut and the other wasn’t. In the case of the second teen, a trans boy named Orion Foss, his mother was not on board for many years, which led to his hormone treatment being delayed.

The purpose of sharing the anecdotes appears to be convincing the reader that making kids wait to receive treatment isn’t a big deal. However, research has shown, in stark contradiction, that family rejection of trans identity is one of the most significant factors contributing to trans kids’ mental health concerns.

In short, Singal’s article is perhaps an elaborate form of “concern trolling” and nothing more. Though he claims to care about transgender youth, his thesis throughout is nevertheless to cast doubt on the legitimacy of their experiences.

What Singal gets right

Singal’s article gets one major concept right, though it’s a bit lost in his framing. There are definitely young people who might be experiencing feelings they personally believe to be gender dysphoria that are actually the result of other mental health issues. This is a common theme among detransitioners, who often discover underlying mental health issues only after they’ve taken steps to transition.

There is a troubled history of “gatekeeping” in psychiatric care for transgender people, and, as Singal notes, the pendulum may have swung too far in the opposite direction. A therapist prescribing hormones after two or three visits may not be taking the proper time to work with clients to assess their mental health needs.

But this doesn’t justify the kind of skepticism Singal calls for, because that’s not what’s actually happening. It’s a myth perpetuated by anti-trans groups that kids with gender dysphoria are rushed into any kind of medical treatment. In the very exceptional cases when it does happen, as in some of the detransitioners’ stories, it’s actually not in keeping with the standards of care that medical providers are supposed to be following. Indeed, even the most trans-affirming therapists recognize that counseling is an important step before any transition occurs to properly establish a diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

According to Daniel Shumer, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Michigan, a diagnosis of gender dysphoria in children “must be made carefully by skilled mental health professionals.” Parents may be skeptical or cautious when their kids come out as transgender, but it’s often the case that the children have experienced feelings of gender identity difference for years.

“In these situations, we encourage families to work together, allow for a safe space for gender exploration, and take medical decisions slowly,” he explained to ThinkProgress. Shumer also noted that the diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria require that it’s been present for at least six months, contradicting the very premise of ROGD.

As a family therapist who has studied families with gender nonconforming children, Arlene Lev is familiar with the fear parents may have about what being trans might mean for their children. “When a teenager who never seemed to struggle with their gender comes out to a parent, they may worry that this is peer-influenced and that the teen is making a life-altering decision that they may come to regret,” she told ThinkProgress. She noted that gender dysphoria at any pace “can be destabilizing” for families, “which is why therapists must support families while they affirm children, an often complex balance.”

That’s why Lev, like Shumer, believes in working with a family as a team to carefully plan out a course of treatment. “In my experience, experienced therapists should recommend medical or surgical procedures to young people after careful assessment,” she said. “Medical transition requires consistent, insistent, and persistent gender dysphoria, and by definition that assumes that time is a factor in the assessment process.”

Dan Karasic, a psychiatrist at the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health, told ThinkProgress that he doesn’t think anyone believes that “transition is always the answer, though it often is.” The affirmative approach is about “supporting the young person in having an opportunity to explore what they are experiencing and understanding the risks and benefits of any medical or surgical treatment option.”

Karasic also dismissed ROGD and Singal’s allusions to the fake diagnosis. Some adolescents may suddenly announce to their parents that they’re trans, he acknowledged. but “most often they have had symptoms of gender dysphoria that have been persistent.” It’s just that they reach a point where they are “able to put a name to what they are experiencing and have worked up the courage to tell their parents.”

Parents might perceive the onset as sudden, but that doesn’t mean it was. Likewise, “It is not social contagion that makes youth trans, but peer support might help them feel able to come out to family,” Karasic said.

Singal actually interviewed Karasic, but didn’t include him in the article. Karasic had the impression that Singal had “started with an interest in understanding those for whom transition was not helpful.” Though it didn’t appear by name in the article, Karasic said Singal asked him about ROGD as well.

One other important point Singal glosses over is the reality that many young people might end up identifying as gender-nonbinary. They may experience some degree of gender dysphoria, but may find ways to resolve that dysphoria that don’t require medical interventions as part of a transition. But that doesn’t mean nonbinary teens in any way justify Singal’s skepticism of transitioning. The solution in either case is affirmation and allowing young people to be who they say they are.

Reactions tell the story

Rumors that Singal was working on a story for The Atlantic about transgender kids started circulating as far back as February. Several transgender activists called on The Atlantic and its owner, Emerson Collective, not to trust Singal with such a topic because of his past posts defending the desistance myth and those who are skeptical of letting kids transition. They received no response.

In addition to the anti-trans bias in Singal’s writing, several transgender women have expressed concern about the unprofessional — allegedly harassing — way he has interacted with them. The prolific transgender writer Julia Serano, who has countered Singal’s talking points herself, has publicly written about negative experiences she and other trans women have had with Singal. (He has responded to some, but not all, of these accusations on his Medium page.) Since his story was published, two more trans women have spoken out about similar interactions:

Transgender people thus had reason to oppose giving Singal a platform to espouse more of his anti-transgender perspectives long before the article was published. Since it went live Monday, reactions from transgender people and their allies have been harsh.

Some called out his misrepresentations of what treatment looks like for transgender kids and the harm those distortions could do.

Serano even “livetweeted” a reading of the article, critiquing its many flaws.

One of those flaws was the fact that the main image on the story appeared to show someone who may identify as a transgender boy or as nonbinary, but the headline read, “Your child says she’s trans. She wants hormones and surgery. She’s 13 years old.” In a tacit admission it had heard at least some of the negative feedback, The Atlantic later conspicuously changed the headline to read, “When Children Say They’re Trans.”

Others pointed out that trans writers rarely have the opportunity to write on such a platform. They questioned The Atlantic’s decision to elevate a writer with a known anti-trans bias who is not trusted by trans people to be the one writing on trans issues.

In contrast, many of the people defending Singal’s piece are themselves opponents of transgender equality, including — unsurprisingly — the very parent groups that invented ROGD.

The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher — who wrote a whole book encouraging conservative Christians to isolate themselves from society to avoid the advance of LGBTQ equality — also lavished praise on the story, calling Singal “a brave man.”

It would appear that opponents of transgender equality heard Singal’s anti-trans dog whistle, loud and clear. Though some might try to credit the story for having a “balanced” approach, the harmful rejection it enables will be its legacy.