How a theory about transgender contagion went viral

The ROGD paper was not funded by anti-trans fanatics. But it came at exactly the time when people with bad intentions were looking to science to back up their views.

The results were in line with what might be expected given these sources: 76.5% of parents surveyed “believed their child was incorrect in their belief that they were transgender.” More than 85% said their child had increased internet use and/or had trans friends before identifying as trans. The youngsters themselves had no say in the study, and it’s impossible to say whether they had simply kept their parents in the dark for months or years before coming out. (Littman acknowledges that “parent-child conflict may also explain some of the findings.”)

Arjee Restar, now an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, didn’t mince words in her 2020 methodological critique of the paper. Restar noted that Littman chose to describe the “social and peer contagion” hypothesis in the consent document she shared with parents, opening the door to biases in who decided to respond to the survey and how they did so. He also noted that Littman asked parents to offer “diagnoses” of their children’s gender dysphoria, something they were not qualified to do without professional training. It’s even possible that Littman’s data contains multiple responses from the same parent, Restar wrote. Littman told MIT Technology Review that “targeted recruitment [to studies] it’s a very common practice.” He also drew attention to the redacted ROGD document, which notes that an 8,000-member pro-gender-affirming parents Facebook group posted the study’s recruitment information to their page, although Littman’s study was not designed to discern whether any of them responded.

But politics is blind to the nuances of methodology. And the paper was quickly seized upon by those already pushing back against growing acceptance of trans people. In 2014, a few years before Littman published her ROGD article, Time magazine had featured Laverne Cox, the trans actress of Orange is the new black, on its cover and declared a “transgender turning point.” In 2016, bills across the country that sought to ban trans people from bathrooms that conform to their gender identity failed, and one that succeeded, in North Carolina, cost his job Republican Governor Pat McCrory.

However, in 2018, a renewed backlash was underway, one that focused on trans youth. The debate over trans youth competing in sports turned national, as did a highly publicized Texas custody battle between a mother who supported her trans son and a father who did not. Groups working to further marginalize trans people, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, began “printing bills and submitting them to state legislators,” says Gillian Branstetter, communications strategist for the American Union of Civil Liberties.

The ROGD paper was not funded by anti-trans fanatics. But it came at exactly the time when people with bad intentions were looking to science to back up their views. The paper “washed away what had previously been the rants of online conspiracy theorists and gave it the semblance of a serious scientific study,” says Branstetter. She believes that if Littman’s paper had not been published, someone else would have made a similar argument. Despite its limitations, it has become a crucial weapon in the fight against trans people, largely through online outreach. “It’s surprising that such a blatantly bad-faith effort was taken so seriously,” says Branstetter.

Littman flatly rejects this characterization, saying his goal was simply to “figure out what’s going on.” “This was a very good-faith attempt,” he says. “As a person I am liberal; I’m pro-LGBT. I saw a phenomenon with my own eyes and researched it, I found it was different from what was in the scientific literature.”

One of the reasons for the success of Littman’s paper is that it validates the idea that trans children are new. But Jules Gill-Peterson, associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins and author of Stories of the transgender child, says it is “empirically false”. Trans children have only recently begun to be discussed in the media, so people assume they weren’t there before, she says, but “there have been children in transition for as long as there has been medical technology related to transition,” and children were socially transitioned—living as a different gender without any medical or legal intervention—much earlier.

Many trans people are young children when they first notice a dissonance between how they identify and how they identify. The process of transition is never simple, but the explanation of his identity could be.

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