Debra Soh is really bad at trans science (part 3)

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Zinnia JonesSoh continues:

Why would this be the case? Along with the physical and emotional discomfort that is typical of undergoing puberty, it has become more socially acceptable to be a transgender man than a gay woman. The study’s findings also showed that transitioning increased students’ popularity among their peers and offered greater protection from harassment, because teachers were more concerned about anti-trans bullying than bullying that was anti-gay.

However, gender dysphoria is not at all equivalent to some broader “physical and emotional discomfort” that is supposedly “typical” of most or all adolescents. It represents a symptom profile that is specific to a given syndrome, and inventories of gender-dysphoric symptoms administered to the general population of adolescents have found that only 1.3% of that demographic report experiencing clinical levels of gender dysphoria. The experience of gender dysphoria is hardly “typical” among adolescents when 98.7% of adolescents do not experience it.

Her claim that “it has become more socially acceptable to be a transgender man than a gay woman” is presented with no supporting evidence whatsoever. The evidence that does exist shows that this is actually not the case at all: a 2016 Vox and Morning Consult poll found that 30% of Americans view trans people unfavorably, compared to 22% who view gay people unfavorably. And more directly coming to bear on Soh’s contention that parents would supposedly prefer a straight transgender child over a gay cisgender child, more reported that they would be upset if their child were trans than if their child were gay.

Studies have also found that individuals who hold homophobic views are more likely to hold negative views toward trans people as well (Norton & Herek, 2013). If someone doesn’t want their child to be gay, it’s unlikely that their child being trans would be seen by them as any kind of preferable alternative. Any supposed motivation to force likely-gay children to become straight trans children does not appear to exist in reality; conversely, transgender support forums are full of personal accounts from trans people whose family members wanted them to “just be gay”.

If any preference does exist here, it’s not in the direction of transness over queerness. The “ROGD” study’s notion that trans students have “greater protection from harassment” than queer students is ludicrous on its face: Are gay students regularly exiled from public restrooms and forced to use one private bathroom in their schools? Trans students are. Do gay students have to go to court simply to use the restroom of their gender? Trans students do. Were gay students at risk of being forced to wear colored wristbands in order to out them? Trans students were. What’s supposed to be so enviable about this?

Soh finally wraps this up:

Since I began writing about this issue several years ago, many of my friends have told me how relieved they were to not have grown up in today’s political climate. As children, they similarly voiced unhappiness about their bodies and felt that they identified with the opposite sex, but eventually grew up to feel comfortable living as gay men. They fear they would have decided to transition, because transitioning is now considered a viable, and almost commonplace, way to resolve this.

Transitioning is considered a viable way to resolve gender dysphoria because it is a viable way to resolve gender dysphoria. Once again, studies of trans youth indicate that medical transition in adolescence alleviates gender-dysphoric symptoms, with a negligible rate of regret. But what Soh describes here may not be gender dysphoria at all, and it is not clear whether her friends did indeed feel “similarly” to gender-dysphoric children or adolescents. Others, such as Julie Bindel and Rupert Everett, have likewise made guesses about whether they would have transitioned in their youth had this been an option – but these are no more than guesses, hampered by a lack of relevant knowledge and a failure of imagination.

In their speculation, they do not seem to have taken into account all of the events that would have needed to occur in order for them to reach an outcome where they medically transitioned. Were they ever evaluated for gender dysphoria in their childhood or adolescence? On what basis do they know that they would have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria? Are they aware of the vast range of psychological tests that are administered to youth being evaluated for gender dysphoria? How are they so certain as to the conclusions that clinicians and specialists would reach in their case? And if they had been treated with puberty blockers – a reversible treatment that temporarily delays any further development of secondary sexual characteristics – how do they know they would have chosen to go on to transition with cross-sex hormones rather than discontinuing puberty blockers? There are more “ifs” here than such individuals seem to have accounted for, and someone who knows so little about what this process entails is not entitled to any claim of certainty about how this would have played out in their own life.

Soh and her friends may not realize that this flimsy gratitude is also profoundly unsympathetic. Their appreciation for growing up in an era where affirmation of trans youth was unheard of, and earlier transition was simply unknown or unavailable, is not shared by the many trans people who also had to grow up in that era. For us, that is not at all a source of relief, because it was a source of decades of confusion, isolation, fear, and untreated gender dysphoria with its many accompanying comorbidities. That era stood for not having the words for who or what you are, not having the means to do anything about it, and not having the understanding or support of anyone in your life. To rejoice in such a thing is vulgar; to do so on the basis of nothing but your own ignorance is even worse. That era is not missed – instead, we’re relieved that trans people today increasingly do have access to crucial information, support, and treatment options, even if we did not. Soh and her friends should be too.

Debra Soh may not have offered a sound argument in her article. But what she does offer is an excuse: an excuse for individuals to rationalize their invalidation of trans youth, and opposition to the availability of affirming care for trans youth, as being not mere animus but instead a necessary outgrowth of their support for the gay community. It provides a means to cloak their transphobia, and its implications and impacts for trans people, in the guise of tolerance, acceptance, and even protection of queer people. It pits queer and trans people against each other, depicting our rights, recognition, and affirmation as zero-sum, one always coming at the expense of the other. It recasts anti-trans as pro-gay. And it’s thoroughly wrong.

Those who hold transphobic views should not have this dishonest shield to hide behind, and Soh should not provide it to them. The narrative she’s constructed would require many things to be true which are in fact false. It’s a neat and tidy story, and clearly appealing to many – but that is not the same as reality. Soh declares that “we must be resolute in following the scientific evidence”. She has not displayed such resolution here. ■


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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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