Meet the unbiased, reliable, not-at-all-transphobic parents from the “rapid onset gender dysphoria” study

The full “rapid onset gender dysphoria” study was published this month, with an evidence base consisting solely of anonymous responses to an online survey from parents who believe their kids are experiencing this new “condition”. The study’s author, Lisa Littman, confirms my original findings from June 2017: the survey respondents were recruited from three anti-trans sites that endorse “ROGD” as a genuine disease and more broadly oppose affirming transgender identity and transition treatment.

Recruitment information with a link to a 90-question survey, consisting of multiple-choice, Likert-type and open-ended questions, was placed on three websites where parents had reported rapid onsets of gender dysphoria. … In recent years, a number of parents have been reporting in online discussion groups such as 4thwavenow in the US (https://4thwavenow.com) and Transgender Trend in the UK (https://www.transgendertrend.com) that their adolescent and young adult (AYA) children, who have had no histories of childhood gender identity issues, experienced a rapid onset of gender dysphoria. … Recruitment information with a link to the survey was placed on three websites where parents and professionals had been observed to describe rapid onset of gender dysphoria (4thwavenow, transgender trend, and youthtranscriticalprofessionals).

In the wake of the study’s publication, members of these communities have been doing their level best to downplay the serious methodological issues inherent in studying likely trans-hostile parents’ perceptions of their trans kids rather than acquiring data from these youth themselves or their clinicians. The study itself makes a weak attempt to establish the credibility and tolerance of the parents surveyed: Littman simply asked the respondents whether they support equal rights for trans people, and – remarkably! – they said that they do.

However, some may argue that the parents recruited from the websites used might be more oppositional to transgender-identified individuals in general. To address this potential concern, respondents were asked specifically whether they believe that transgender people deserve the same rights and protections as others and 88.2% of respondents gave affirmative answers to the question which is consistent with the 89% affirmative response reported in a US national poll [63]. All self-reported results have the potential limitation of social desirability bias. However, comparing this self-report sample to the national self-report samples [63], the results show similar rates of support. Therefore, there is no evidence that the study sample is appreciably different in their support of the rights of transgender people than the general American population.

QED, right? Not quite. If Littman intends to argue that these parents are reliably free of transphobic bias because their self-reports of support for trans equality reflect levels of support in the general population – if this is the standard she is leaning on here – then we also need to look at what else the general population believes about trans people. And that’s not such a rosy picture.

In a 2015 YouGov poll, a mere 38% of respondents said trans people should be allowed to use the public bathrooms, dressing rooms, and locker rooms of their gender, with 36% saying they should not be allowed to do so. Additionally, only 38% said parents “should allow their children to identify as a different gender from the one they were assigned”, with 35% opposed. And a 2017 poll found that 39% of respondents believed being transgender was a choice, along with 21% who felt that being transgender was a mental illness.

Even if we agree that the ROGD study’s sample of parents reflects the general population in their level of support for transgender equality, this would still imply that a significant portion of these survey respondents do not support trans people’s access to public facilities, believe that being trans is a choice, and do not believe trans youth should be “allowed” to identify as their gender. A declaration that they support trans equality in the abstract is by no means a guarantee that they hold trans-supportive beliefs in the specific areas that affect our lives broadly and come to bear directly on the subject of the study: the validity of the identities of trans youth.

So: How do the parents surveyed really feel about trans people? Let’s ask Brie Jontry, the spokesperson of 4thWaveNow and a respondent to Littman’s survey.

Jontry’s current pinned tweet describes transitioning as “becoming a life-long medical patient”, which she says “is not liberating; it is enslaving.”

On 4thWaveNow, Jontry describes medical transition as “physician-assisted self-harm”, and speculates that youth identify as trans because “Their lives are boring, they’re isolated, the earth is dying, the economy is dying, their families are disintegrating”. Are we to believe these are the views and rhetoric of a genuinely trans-supportive parent?

The wider 4thWaveNow and TransgenderTrend communities are no better. On Twitter, 4thWaveNow:

  • Quotes a description of medical transition as “varying degrees of chemical & surgical damage”
  • Claims that “trans activism is hurting lesbians”
  • Attacks Brown University for offering a student health plan that covers medical transition treatment for legal adults
  • Describes affirming treatment for trans youth with autism as “a modern eugenics scandal”
  • Retweets the assertion that a trans woman isn’t a woman
  • Retweets a claim that a “transideology” “preys on” autistic youth

4thWaveNow additionally hosts an anonymous article encouraging readers to send baseless legal threats to healthcare providers offering gender-affirming care to trans youth. TransgenderTrend retweets a conservative who describes transition as “deliberately confusing young females, convincing them to be overdosed with drugs, and then hacking off healthy breasts and organs”, and quotes another person attacking the presence of gender-neutral restrooms in schools. These are the communities from which supposedly trans-supportive parents were recruited. Assuming that the surveyed parents must have the best interests of trans people in mind means assuming facts not in evidence – if these community members aren’t transphobic, they certainly have an interesting way of showing it. 

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender healthcare, public health, psychiatry, and history of medicine, integrating these many perspectives and guided by the lived experiences of trans people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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