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People noticed that anti-trans junk science is, in fact, junk. Conservatives aren’t taking it well.

"Rapid onset gender dysphoria" is not a thing.

CREDIT: Barry Winiker via Getty Images
CREDIT: Barry Winiker via Getty Images

Opponents of LGBTQ equality are in a tizzy this week, claiming Brown University is “censoring” a study about transgender kids. That research, however, is pure junk science designed to make parents feel justified in rejecting their children’s gender identity.

Conservative outlets like Fox News, The Daily Caller, The Federalist, Breitbart, and The College Fix are blaming Brown for “caving” to activists by rescinding its press release announcing the study by Lisa Littman, a Brown professor. In a statement, Bess Marcus, the dean of Brown’s School of Public Health, explained that “removing the article from news distribution is the most responsible course of action.” In addition to community concerns about the study’s anti-trans bias, Marcus also noted that even PLOS One, the journal that published it, “will seek further expert assessment on the study’s methodology and analyses.”

Littman’s study, “Rapid-onset gender dysphoria in adolescents and young adults: A study of parental reports,” was published in PLOS One earlier this month, having been initially published as a poster abstract last year. The study claims that adolescents are experiencing a new phenomenon called “rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD), in which they are motivated to become transgender by “social contagion.”

ROGD is not a real diagnosis according to any clinical guidelines, nor is there any prior research substantiating it as a valid scientific phenomenon. As the activist Zinnia Jones has thoroughly documented, the concept of ROGD was invented by online groups of parents distressed about their transgender kids “suddenly” coming out. There is nothing that distinguishes ROGD from the diagnostic criteria that already exists for gender dysphoria in children except parents’ perception that it has come about quite suddenly. Not coincidentally, it is only parents who wish to disabuse their children of the possibility that they are transgender who have observed ROGD and insist upon its validity.

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One might think that a researcher looking to understand or substantiate ROGD would actually find ways to work directly with the children who supposedly experienced it to document their experiences. Or perhaps one could simply reach out to a large swath of families with transgender kids to try to assess what distinguished supposed cases of ROGD from others. But Littman did none of that. All she did was anonymously survey parents from the exact same anti-trans online parent groups that invented the concept (4thwavenow.com, Transgendertrend.com, and Youth YouthTransCriticalProfessionals.org), codifying their totally bogus myth in the guise of a scientific study.

As the researcher Julia Serano points out in her detailed debunk of Littman’s study, all of the available guidelines for treating transgender children already account for the possibility that teens might present with gender dysphoria despite having no prior history of gender-nonconforming behaviors. Both the WPATH standards of care and the DSM-5 note that parents and other family members may be surprised by the diagnosis, but that doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate.

Serano also emphasizes that there’s nothing remarkable about the apparent increase in children experiencing gender dysphoria. It’s not social contagion, as the ROGD parents claim, but social acceptance for transgender people that easily explains the growth. The same exact thing happened with left-handedness. There used to be intense stigma against being left-handed and the 10-12 percent of kids who are naturally left-handed were forced to write right-handed. But as the stigma dissipated, there was a precipitous rise in people who identified as left-handed. It wasn’t because learning to write left-handed suddenly became the cool thing to do.

So all Littman did was prove that anti-trans parents believe that their own anti-trans views are legitimate. Unfortunately for the scientific merit of her paper, she also believed them. Her study presents the results as somehow validating the legitimacy of ROGD. “ROGD appears to represent an entity that is distinct in etiology from the gender dysphoria observed in individuals who have previously been described as transgender,” she asserts in her conclusion. She goes on to call it “plausible” that some adolescents use it as some sort of “coping mechanism” and are motivated to do so as a result of “social and peer contagion,” even though she has no direct evidence to substantiate these claims.

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Notably, PLOS One does not have a standard peer-review process. Rather than requiring articles to be assessed by a group of other experts in the field — as most scientific journals do — a single PLOS One editor assesses only the technical aspects of the study, ignoring any subjective or interpretative aspects. “Community-based open peer review,” as the publication calls it, only takes place after a study has been published. And that’s exactly what’s happening to Littman’s study and her unsubstantiated conclusions.

Though both PLOS One and Brown have backed away from her study, Littman has stood by it. She has insisted that it’s a “descriptive study” consistent with other such studies that are “a first description of a new condition or population.” Though she claims the purpose was to describe “a phenomenon that has been observed by clinicians and parents,” she somehow believed she could do that without speaking to any clinicians or any of the children supposedly experiencing ROGD. The phenomenon she actually documented was not ROGD, but how parents looking to justify rejecting their trans kids can convince themselves of valid reasons to do so.

In other words, conservatives are really just upset that people have noticed that pure anti-trans propaganda wasn’t valid science.