In their quest to find any tool to facilitate their ongoing hate campaign against trans youth, right-wing media are uplifting a recent study by right-wing think tank The Heritage Foundation to claim — in direct opposition to peer-reviewed research — that access to gender-affirming care leads to an increase in suicide rates. In contrast to the studies it aims to refute, The Heritage Foundation study was not peer-reviewed.
The Heritage Foundation, an organization that promotes conversion therapy, anti-trans hate, and flawed research to push for anti-LGBTQ policies, released a study on June 13 titled “Puberty Blockers, Cross-Sex Hormones, and Youth Suicide.” The study provides “data” supposedly showing — in contrast to numerous scientific studies — that greater access to gender-affirming care increases rates of suicide among trans youth. In an attempt to prove this point, it compares statistics on youth suicide from states with and without policies allowing minors to see doctors without parental permission.
The study was written by Jay Greene, a senior research fellow at Heritage’s Center for Education Policy. Greene has no background in medical research and has spent his career attacking diversity initiatives and public school funding. He uses the study to push for states to adopt “parental bills of rights,” which GOP politicians like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have used in pursuit of their bigoted agendas, such as the removal of books “about race and sexuality” from schools.
The political purpose of the study was further clarified during a press conference promoting its release. The Heritage Foundation’s Jay Richards claimed advocates for trans youth are concerned about the high rate of suicide attempts among trans youth only because it's the only argument that could make parents “overcome our natural opposition to putting children on a pathway to sterilization.” He added that the issue of suicide among trans youth “lands right in the middle of a policy debate we're having in the United States right now." And, he said, by attempting to refute the established research on the issue, they could push for more bans on gender-affirming care, like the ban recently enacted (but later blocked) in Alabama. This strategy of haphazardly shaping data in an attempt to diminish established medical consensus and appropriate the legitimacy of scientific research was also recently seen in a misinformation campaign launched by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration. Like Heritage, the target of DeSantis’ deception is gender-affirming care for trans youth, a proxy for his broad affront on the LGBTQ community.
Deeply flawed methodology behind study rebutted by experts
Immediately following the publication of the report, researchers pointed to clear and significant flaws in the study. Chief among the criticisms is that rather than divide states according to their policies specific to gender-affirming care, the study looks at whether a state allows minors to simply visit a doctor’s office for any type of general medical care without parental consent. By doing this, the study presupposes that states like Texas, Idaho, and Alabama, all states that this year sought to enact the most extreme policies against gender-affirming care in the nation, have ready access to gender-affirming care.
In reality, no state in the nation allows underaged individuals to access gender-affirming care without parental consent. As noted by Dr. Jack Turban, chief fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, both the Endocrine Society and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health have guidelines requiring parental consent for gender-affirming care.
Turban also pointed out that the conclusions the study arrives at make no sense: The increase in suicides reflected in the data — which looked at the rate across all teens — cannot be attributed to trans youth who seek and acquire gender-affirming care, a group that makes up a markedly small share of the population.
Joining the chorus of researchers criticizing the study was Alberto Cairo, the director of the Center for Visualization, Data Communication, and Information Design at University of Miami’s Institute for Data Science and Computing, who tweeted, “You can build an *entire* course on reasoning fallacies based just on this ‘study.’”
Right-wing media are using the junk study to spread familiar transphobic propaganda and push for extreme anti-trans legislation
Showing an apparent lack of interest in the multitudinous flaws contained within the study, and predictably eager to find the latest cudgel to wield against trans rights, right-wing media excitedly brandished the junk research to further demonize the trans community and its allies.
The same day Heritage published the study, right-wing blog Just the News ran a story on it, taking the opportunity to attack the Biden administration’s support for best practice medical care for trans youth and to push the played out and false narrative that conservatives are being censored.
Also on June 13, Newsmax’s Rob Schmitt cited the study on his show during a segment playing into the far-right outrage over Fox News running a positive segment on a trans teenager. Schmitt mocked the mother of the teenager for saying she would “rather have a living son than a dead daughter,” saying, “If you look at data, well, some of it shows exactly the opposite.”
The National Desk, the national arm of the conservative media conglomerate Sinclair Broadcast Group, also published a story that day on the report that uncritically echoed Greene’s supposed findings and criticized the Biden administration for supporting gender-affirming care. The article then said Assistant Secretary of Health Adm. Rachel Levine “infamously endorsed” gender-affirming care before ending on a quote from Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, a key figure in the aforementioned misinformation campaign against gender-affirming care in Florida. A Google search of the article’s title shows it was subsequently carried on the websites of dozens of Sinclair-affiliated stations. Sinclair also produced a national televised segment it aired in multiple media markets later in the week that uncritically cited the study and claimed it showed there were “many unanswered questions” before playing a clip of Richards promoting the study.
That night, Fox News host Laura Ingraham brought Greene on her show to promote his study, which Ingraham claimed “completely debunks” existing research on the correlation between improved mental health and access to gender-affirming care. During the segment, Ingraham claimed people were “encouraging and glamorizing this [medical transition] in children” and called gender-affirming care “sanctioned child abuse.”
On June 14, The Daily Wire, an outlet often at the forefront of pushing misinformation designed to spark anger against the trans community, ran an op-ed by Greene. In it, Greene (ironically) claims, “the Left has a bad habit of putting on its figurative lab coat, conducting lousy research, and then declaring that Science has resolved the dispute in its favor." He adds that health safety measures passed during the COVID-19 pandemic relied on similar “faux” science and concludes by surmising that states should push to restrict gender-affirming care for trans youth.
On Twitter, multiple anti-LGBTQ organizations, including the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, and the American Principles Project, shared the report, using it to attack gender-affirming care for trans youth.
Uncritical promotion of such a flawed study reveals the lengths to which anti-trans pundits will go to attack lifesaving care for trans youth
There is in fact a mental health crisis among LGBTQ youth, precipitated not by access to the gender-affirming care that so many trans youth rely on but instead by the very sort of extremist rhetoric peddled by professional alarmists in the media.
This study is just the latest effort by those intent on politicizing science and medicine in order to stoke outrage against the trans community. The fact that such a tactic has devolved to the point of lying about the mental health of trans kids shows they are willing to uplift any narrative, no matter how flawed and dangerous, in their effort to fearmonger about the mere existence of LGBTQ Americans.