“Rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD): A pseudo-scientific hoax targeting transgender youth and their families

“Rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD) is a recent alternative theory of gender dysphoria in adolescents which proposes that many such youth are actually cisgender and have been led to believe falsely that they’re trans. This false belief of dysphoria is alleged to be transmitted between friends in social groups as well as via online material about transness and transitioning found on sites such as YouTube, Reddit, and Tumblr. These findings and more were presented at an earlier poster session in 2017 (Littman, 2017), and again in 2018 in the first published study of this supposed condition (Littman, 2018).

ROGD is notable not only for the the hypotheses it proposes, but for the processes by which they were arrived at, and the controversy surrounding this. In surveying only parents to provide secondhand reports on their trans or gender-questioning youth, recruiting these parents from anti-trans communities of those who already believe “rapid onset gender dysphoria” is real, and ignoring a great deal of existing literature that already accounts for these reported experiences of gender dysphoria, the study claims to observe a new condition that is likely only an illusion created by this particularly poor methodology. Moreover, the construct of ROGD is so vaguely defined that it runs the risk of incorrectly ensnaring trans youth suffering from gender dysphoria under this new diagnosis and dismissing their gender identity as inauthentic and invalid – a function that may be by design.

Understanding the many details of “rapid onset gender dysphoria” study, its shortcomings, and the arguments and counterarguments can seem imposing. The hypothesis involves wide-ranging claims that touch on many areas of transgender science, with an analysis that is often faulty or distorted in subtle ways. At Gender Analysis, we’ve been continuing to examine the flaws of the study in depth, with a number of articles reviewing the specific issues with the paper and its findings – including areas where the paper misused our own work in the service of propping up its weak theory. It’s our hope that these detailed explorations will serve to increase public understanding of the highly questionable “rapid onset gender dysphoria” hypothesis.

 

Surveying only parents about their awareness of their child’s transgender identity will produce a distinctly different picture from what is already known about the course of trans and queer identity development. Previous studies have shown that youth are typically aware of their identity for years prior to disclosing this to family members and others, indicating that relying solely on parental reports does not provide reliable information about the actual identity development of these youth.

The published study of rapid onset gender dysphoria recruited survey respondents from three websites that serve as host to overtly anti-transgender rhetoric, with community members openly endorsing the belief that trans youth are inauthentic or incorrect in their identities. This substantially biases the study’s sampling, skewing it toward parent respondents who are likely to doubt their child’s gender identity and believe in alternative, often conspiracy-minded explanations.

The construct of “rapid onset gender dysphoria” as defined by the study shows significant overlap with the diagnosis of gender dysphoria as already recognized in the DSM-5, calling into question whether this is a new or separate clinical entity at all.

The “rapid onset gender dysphoria” study cites, without proper attribution, our earlier article on symptoms of depersonalization disorder in trans people. Apparently not realizing that depersonalization disorder is a well-defined condition that occurs at elevated rates in trans people and often remits following transition, the author inaccurately describes this as “vague and nonspecific symptoms” that supposedly mislead cisgender people into believing falsely that they are gender-dysphoric.

After the issue of her mischaracterization of depersonalization in gender dysphoria was raised with the study’s author, she claimed that her citation of our article as an example in her paper was not intended to be a “comprehensive list” of online materials allegedly misleading cis youth into a false belief of transness. However, she provided no other examples of such material, and is seemingly unaware that our own article has been previously cited by gender therapists as potentially beneficial in helping trans people recognize their symptoms of gender dysphoria.

The study’s inappropriate use of our article on depersonalization symptoms later received coverage in Slate, with additional detail on the nature of dissociative conditions in trans people and the weaknesses of the study’s methodology and claims.

The ROGD study claims that online transgender support communities are coaching individuals in how to mislead clinicians in order to obtain transition treatment. However, this is hardly characteristic of a new condition distinct from gender dysphoria: from the 1960s onward, it was already well-documented that trans people had learned which approaches were most effective in navigating medical gatekeeping, long before any supposed emergence of “rapid onset gender dysphoria”.

Many commentators have suggested that “rapid onset gender dysphoria” is the cause of a recent increase in assigned-female trans youth presenting for treatment. However, this too is not characteristic of a new condition, as sex ratios among trans people have varied substantially around the world and across decades, with assigned-female trans people often outnumbering those assigned male.

The study of “rapid onset gender dysphoria” suggests that apparent symptoms of gender dysphoria may instead be the result of any number of other factors, ranging from depression and anxiety to relationship breakups and sexual harassment. However, the study presents no evidence to show that any of these common experiences in the general population can result in gender dysphoria.

The study suggests that many youth may be mistaking normal and common feelings in adolescence for symptoms of gender dysphoria. This claim is contradicted by existing studies showing that gender-dysphoric symptoms are extremely uncommon in the general population of adolescents.

Many media outlets have chosen to frame their coverage of the study as primarily an issue of academic and scientific freedom versus censorious forces of activism. Such a lens has neglected to recognize the serious flaws in the study itself, and mischaracterizes critical engagement with the substance of the study as instead being an attempt at suppression.

 


Last updated: November 30, 2018

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