Heritage Foundation panelist accidentally acknowledges research affirming transgender kids

But she still egregiously misrepresented it.

CREDIT: Heritage Foundation
CREDIT: Heritage Foundation

This week, the Heritage Foundation — which has been described as “Donald Trump’s think tank” — hosted a panel featuring three doctors who reject transgender kids. Two days later, the organization posted a video clip from the event, claiming it showed one of the panelists who effectively “shut down leftists on giving children puberty blockers.”

In fact, the clip reveals that the panelist acknowledges the existence of scientific research affirming transgender kids — and distorts it to suit her own narrative.

The panelist featured in the clip is Michelle Cretella, who serves as the president of the American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds), an anti-LGBTQ hate group that masquerades as a legitimate medical organization so that it can peddle junk science to justify rejecting LGBTQ kids.

At the panel, ThinkProgress asked Cretella about her regular use of the term “child abuse” to describe parents affirming their transgender kids’ identities, especially in the face of research showing incredibly positive mental health benefits from that affirmation.

In her response, Cretella acknowledged that this research exists. But she went on to misrepresent the existing research to justify her anti-LGBTQ positions.

 

First, she referred to puberty blockers as “chemical castration.”

In fact, while puberty blockers delay puberty from making changes to a child’s body, they don’t prevent it. Research has found that they are reversible, so if a child stops using them, they will proceed through puberty exactly as they otherwise would have — just at a slightly different age.

If a child advances from puberty blockers to cross-sex hormones, it is true that they will not develop the reproductive capabilities of their natal sex. But the goal of these treatments is to help transgender children avoid permanent changes to their bodies that could exacerbate their gender dysphoria and be harder to reverse later in life. Families considering these treatments ultimately weigh concerns about reproduction and fertility against the consequences of gender dysphoria, which can be debilitating.

Cretella continued by characterizing “indoctrinating pre-school kids with the lie that you can be trapped in the wrong body” as “abusive.”

But this description does not align with the experiences of countless families, many of whom have spoken with ThinkProgress. Children as young as 18 months can begin to articulate aspects of their gender, and it’s the children themselves who tell their parents about their gender identity — not the other way around. In fact, as one study showed, these transgender kids identify as consistently and innately with their gender as their cisgender peers. And when they do, the social transition process is conservative — slow and gradual — allowing the children to explore their gender identity without having anything forced upon them.

Cretella attempted to discredit the research that exists on transgender identities in several ways. For instance, she suggested there isn’t enough research available on the subject, and criticized existing studies for being too small and too short-term.

Given that affirming transgender kids is a fairly new phenomenon in society, it’s true that it’s still a growing research field that can be a challenge to study on a large scale. But that doesn’t mean the results found so far aren’t valid. And several of the published studies are actually preliminary findings from a longitudinal study, the TransYouth Project, which will continue to follow the kids for 20 years, so more data is on the way.

Moreover, the studies most often cited to justify rejecting transgender kids were far smaller; most of them had fewer than five kids who actually identified as transgender. One of the most recent studies showing the benefits of affirming trans kids had 63 participants.

This line of logic is common in the anti-LGBTQ community. Opponents of marriage equality claimed there wasn’t enough research on same-sex parenting, but opposed allowing same-sex couples to be parents so that it could actually be studied.

Cretella also criticized some studies for including a control group that consists of siblings of transgender kids. This is actually a perk of the studies, not a flaw. It can be helpful to compare how a trans kid is doing in the same environment as other kids, so including siblings strengthens the validity of the findings. (Trans kids participating in these studies are also compared with all the other trans kids’ siblings, not just their own.)

Finally, Cretella criticized some of the studies for involving parents, suggesting that the parents of transgender children shouldn’t be “the ones evaluating the mental health of the children.”

This is a critique researchers have already responded to. In fact, parents are an important part of any research about kids, because there’s no way a researcher can analyze every moment of every trans kids’ home lives. A 2016 study based on the TransYouth Project, for example, did rely on parents, but the researchers followed up with a new study in 2017 that compared what parents were saying to the kids’ own responses. Not only did both studies find that the affirmed kids were doing extremely well, but it turned out that the parents were actually deflating the results, reporting higher levels of anxiety in their kids than the kids were reporting in themselves.

Cretella concluded, “That’s not science, that’s ideology masquerading as science.” But it is science — and Cretella is the one who’s trying to impose an ideology that the science doesn’t support.

This story has been updated to condense information about Cretella’s comments at the panel and correct for tone.