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A Brown researcher published a flawed study about so-called "rapid-onset gender dysphoria" that relied on surveys from anti-trans websites. The report claimed that teens were coming out as trans due to “social contagion”; after concerns were raised, it is now under review.
Update (3/20/19): On March 19, PLOS ONE issued a correction and formal comment on Littman’s study. The journal’s editor-in-chief also issued an apology on PLOS ONE’s blog, noting, “We should have provided a better context of this research, its framing, and its limitations related to the study design.” The note continued, “In our view, the corrected article now provides a better context of the work, as a report of parental observations, but not a clinically validated phenomenon or a diagnostic guideline.”
In August, a researcher at Brown University published flawed research about so-called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” a concept that suggests that young people may be coming out as trans due to “social and peer contagion” and that has not been recognized by any mainstream medical organization. Among other flaws, the study was widely criticized for surveying only parents found on anti-trans parent communities rather than transgender people themselves, and Brown and the academic journal that published the study have since pledged to re-evaluate the work. Right-wing media and anti-LGBTQ groups responded by calling the reassessment “academic censorship” and saying Brown and the journal had caved to “transgender activism.”
A Brown University researcher published a study on so-called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” that suggested teenagers were identifying as trans due to “social and peer contagion.” In August, Brown University researcher Dr. Lisa Littman published a study on so-called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD) in the online journal PLOS ONE. The study suggested that transgender youth are experiencing a new type of “rapid” gender dysphoria due to social influences, asserting that both multiple peers in pre-existing friend groups coming out as transgender and “increased exposure to social media/internet preceding a child’s announcement of a transgender identity” raise “the possibility of social and peer contagion.” From PLOS ONE (citations removed):
The description of cluster outbreaks of gender dysphoria occurring in pre-existing groups of friends and increased exposure to social media/internet preceding a child’s announcement of a transgender identity raises the possibility of social and peer contagion. Social contagion is the spread of affect or behaviors through a population. Peer contagion, in particular, is the process where an individual and peer mutually influence each other in a way that promotes emotions and behaviors that can potentially undermine their own development or harm others.
Littman’s study surveyed the parents of transgender people ages 11-27, circulating the survey on three websites: 4thwavenow.com, transgendertrend.com, and youthtranscriticalprofessionals.org. Those websites are online communities primarily for parents of transgender people who deny their children’s identities, and the study acknowledged that the survey was specifically targeted to “websites where parents and professionals had been observed to describe rapid onset of gender dysphoria.” In fact, according to trans researcher Julia Serano, the phrase “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” and accompanying acronym originated on those very websites in July 2016, before Littman’s study or abstract were released. The term and acronym are frequently used by parents who do not accept their children’s trans identities; there is even a website called parentsofrogdkids.com. Prior to releasing her full study, Littman published an abstract in the Journal of Adolescent Health in February 2017 describing supposed parental experiences with ROGD.
Gender dysphoria is an established diagnosis involving “a difference between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender, and significant distress or problems functioning.” The American Psychiatric Association recommends affirming the gender expression of people with gender dysphoria, including through “counseling, cross-sex hormones, puberty suppression and gender reassignment surgery” as well as social transitions not involving medical treatments.
PLOS ONE is seeking “further expert assessment on the study’s methodology and analyses” after receiving complaints. On August 27, PLOS ONE announced that it would re-evaluate Littman’s study due to “concerns raised on the study’s content and methodology.” Slate’s Alex Barasch noted that “re-evaluating a study’s content and methodology doesn’t stymie the scientific process; it’s a natural and necessary extension of it.” From PLOS ONE’s announcement:
PLOS ONE is aware of the reader concerns raised on the study’s content and methodology. We take all concerns raised about publications in the journal very seriously, and are following up on these per our policy and [Committee on Publication Ethics] guidelines. As part of our follow up we will seek further expert assessment on the study’s methodology and analyses. We will provide a further update once we have completed our assessment and discussions.
Brown University removed a news article about the study after receiving complaints about Littman’s research and its methodology. After experts and advocates pointed out several flaws in the study’s methodology and PLOS ONE announced its own re-evaluation, “Brown determined that removing the article from news distribution is the most responsible course of action.” The next day, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health issued a letter confirming that the article had been removed “because of concerns about research methodology,” acknowledging concerns that the flawed study’s conclusions could harm the transgender community, and reiterating the university’s commitment to academic freedom and “the value of rigorous debate informed by research.” On September 5, the university released an expanded statement, proclaiming, “Brown does not shy away from controversial research.” The statement claimed that the article’s removal from the university’s news site was “not about academic freedom,” but rather “about academic standards,” noting that “academic freedom and inclusion are not mutually exclusive.”
The World Professional Association for Transgender Health urged restraint of the term “ROGD” and noted that it has not been “recognized by any major medical professional association.” The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), which publishes the internationally accepted Standards of Care and Ethical Guidelines for managing gender dysphoria, released a position statement about ROGD on September 4, noting that it “is not a medical entity recognized by any major professional association” and has not gone through “the deliberative processes by which diagnostic entities and clinical phenomena are classified and established.” WPATH’s statement said ROGD “constitutes nothing more than an acronym created to describe a proposed clinical phenomenon that may or may not warrant further peer-reviewed scientific investigation.” From the September 4 statement (emphasis original):
At present, WPATH asserts that knowledge of the factors contributing to gender identity development in adolescence is still evolving and not yet fully understood by scientists, clinicians, community members, and other stakeholders in equal measure. Therefore, it is both premature and inappropriate to employ official-sounding labels that lead clinicians, community members, and scientists to form absolute conclusions about adolescent gender identity development and the factors that may potentially influence the timing of an adolescent’s declaration as a different gender from birth-assigned sex.
WPATH also urges restraint from the use of any term—whether or not formally recognized as a medical entity—to instill fear about the possibility that an adolescent may or may not be transgender with the a priori goal of limiting consideration of all appropriate treatment options in accordance with the aforementioned standards of care and clinical guidelines.
Researchers writing in PinkNews: Littman’s study “was heavily biased towards specific groups” and “tells us less about trans teenagers than it does about the parents being surveyed.” Writing for PinkNews, researchers Florence Ashley of McGill University and Alexandre Baril of the University of Ottawa said Littman’s research “was heavily biased towards specific groups and in no way can be said to be representative of the general population” because it surveyed parents from specific anti-trans websites. Their report contended that “the study tells us less about trans teenagers than it does about the parents being surveyed.” They also pointed out that research suggesting that trans identities are the result of a “contagion” attempts to frame the narrative in a way that “distinguishes ‘good,’ true transgender people from ‘bad,’ fake trans people, allowing proponents to claim that they have nothing against trans people — well, at least the real ones.”
Slate’s Alex Barasch: “The sites that participants were culled from are full of damning evidence of bias” against transgender people. Barasch noted that Littman’s study was “purportedly about 256 trans-identified ‘adolescents and young adults,’” but it is “perhaps fairer to say that it’s about their parents, who participated in a 90-question survey about their relationships with and perceptions of their children—with no input from the kids themselves, and no controls to speak of.” Barasch identified several problems with the study’s sample, including that it sourced parental reporting from websites with anti-trans biases such as 4thwavenow.com, which “hosts long missives from parents who have strenuously denied their children’s identities for years.” He continued, “In exclusively surveying parents from these ‘gender critical’ spaces, Littman sharply limited both the relevance and the validity of her results.”
Barasch added that “one of the study’s most glaring flaws” is that Littman made no effort to substantiate the claims of the parents who participated in her study by speaking to their transgender children. He noted that the study’s findings about "the worsening of parent-child relationships" after the child came out and the children's preference to befriend other LGBTQ kids actually weakened its conclusions about trans identities being a “social contagion” because young LGBTQ people would be more likely to “flock together online or in-person” if they face “skepticism and hostility at home.”
Finally, Barasch noted that the concept of ROGD “treats the emergence of dysphoria around or after puberty as something new and unusual that should be treated with suspicion” when in fact the medical community recognizes late-onset gender dysphoria, which describes the emergence of dysphoria “around puberty or much later in life.” Barasch highlighted examples of PLOS ONE retracting several other studies that featured “questionable research” and pointed out that “peer review isn’t an automatic assurance of ironclad science” and that the review of the study “is both standard and vital.”
Researcher Julia Serano: The concept of ROGD originated in 2016 on three blogs “that have a history of promoting anti-transgender propaganda.” In an essay on Medium, biologist and transgender activist Julia Serano explained that the concept of ROGD was not new, but originated in 2016 on three anti-trans blogs -- the same blogs from where Littman drew her sample. Thus, Serano wrote, Littman’s study was “entirely based on the opinions of parents who frequent the very same three blogs that invented and vociferously promote the concept of ROGD.” She contended, “This is the most blatant example of begging the question that I have ever seen in a research paper.” Serano also refuted the study’s assertion that gender dysphoria in the surveyed parents’ children was “rapid,” writing that “the word ‘rapid’ in ROGD doesn’t necessarily refer to the speed of gender dysphoria onset. … Rather, what’s ‘rapid’ about ROGD is parents’ sudden awareness and assessment of their child’s gender dysphoria (which, from the child’s standpoint, may be long standing and thoughtfully considered).”
Brynn Tannehill in The Advocate: Transgender youth featured in the study may have avoided coming out to “hostile parents,” which could have led to parents perceiving their gender identity development as “rapid.” Responding to an abstract of Littman’s study released in 2017, transgender advocate and author Brynn Tannehill -- who recently published an explanatory book about transgender issues -- pointed out flaws in the hypothesis that young people may be identifying as transgender because of other LGBTQ friends and online LGBTQ media. She noted that “transgender youth in unsupportive homes are much more likely to share their thoughts and feelings with LGBT friends at school and peers online than family.” Tannehill added that those youth often “stick to ‘safe’ LGBT social groups” and “delay telling hostile parents until they cannot bear not to,” which could explain why the parents Littman surveyed from unsupportive online communities thought that their child’s identity came on rapidly.
Tannehill in INTO: “Littman failed to mention the viewpoints of the groups from which she drew her sample” and did not interview supportive parents or trans youth. Writing for the digital magazine INTO, Tannehill reiterated that the study “failed to address the much more realistic explanation that transgender teens with anti-trans parents look for support from other LGBTQ youth online because they fear the reaction of their families.” She also noted that Littman did not acknowledge the anti-trans viewpoints of the websites from which she drew or sampled, “nor did she make any attempt to reach out to groups for supportive parents” or interview transgender youth.
Family Research Council’s Cathy Ruse: Littman’s study “reveals trouble in transgender paradise.” Cathy Ruse of the extreme anti-LGBTQ group Family Research Council wrote a post in The Stream attacking Brown University for removing news about Littman’s study from its website. Ruse called the move “censorship” and asserted that “there’s an alarming trend of adolescents suddenly announcing they’re in the wrong body.” She also defended the study’s survey of parents rather than the actual transgender young people the study was about, writing that this “acknowledged limitation of the study” is a response to clinicians accepting what transgender patients tell them “at face value, never seeking the parents’ perspective.” Ruse has a history of disparaging trans identities, and she has previously suggested that affirming transgender children “can be child abuse.”
American College of Pediatricians’ Michelle Cretella: Littman’s study “was quickly silenced” because “transgender activists called for censorship.” Writing for The Heritage Foundation’s right-wing outlet The Daily Signal, American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds) President Michelle Cretella said that Littman’s study “was quickly silenced by activists and by Brown University,” which “disconnected its link to the study and issued an apology” for it because “transgender activists called for censorship.”
ACPeds is a small and extreme anti-LGBTQ group of physicians that broke off from the legitimate American Association of Pediatrics (AAP). Cretella and ACPeds have worked for years to discredit trans-affirming science and policy under the veneer of credibility offered by the group’s misleading name, which “is easily confused with the AAP.” Cretella has claimed that affirming transgender youth is child abuse.
ACPeds’ Dr. Andre Van Mol posted several times about ROGD on Twitter. ACPeds’ Dr. Andre Van Mol retweeted several posts about Littman’s study, including from two of the anti-transgender parent forums where Littman sourced her data. Van Mol promoted a tweet linking to a petition calling for Brown to “defend academic freedom and scientific inquiry” by supporting Littman and her study. He also tweeted a link to an article about Littman’s study and asserted, “Idealogues (sic) are trying to suppress a study that shows the effect of peer pressure on transgenderism.” Van Mol has a long anti-LGBTQ record, including advocacy in favor of forcibly changing sexuality or gender identity through the discredited and harmful practice of conversion therapy. He has actively worked to oppose measures to protect LGBTQ people from the practice.
Illinois Family Institute’s Laurie Higgins: Brown “cave[d] to cross-dressers and their collaborators.” Laurie Higgins of the extreme anti-LGBTQ state organization Illinois Family Institute wrote that Brown “cave[d] to cross-dressers and their collaborators” after feeling “the wrath of men in dresses with flowing tresses and bearded women in dungarees.” Higgins called Brown’s removal of its article about the study “censorship” and claimed, “No matter how well a study is designed and executed, if trannies don’t like the findings, ‘progressive’ universities will not draw attention to it even if the study is conducted by their own faculty.” Higgins previously called transgender identity a “superstition” and compared trans people and their allies to a cult. She has also praised the Trump-Pence administration’s plan to redefine “gender” to exclude the transgender community.
Proponents of ROGD launched a petition to “defend academic freedom and scientific inquiry” by supporting Littman’s research. Supporters of the ROGD concept launched a petition urging Brown and PLOS ONE to “defend academic freedom and scientific inquiry” in response to the study’s re-evaluation. The petition implies that the study was being censored, claiming that Brown and PLOS ONE should “resist ideologically-based attempts to squelch controversial research evidence.” The petition, which currently has 4,900 signatures, was shared by some of the same anti-trans websites where Littman collected data for her study, including 4thwavenow and Transgender Trend.
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson on Brown’s decision: “Acknowledging reality itself becomes a criminal act; superstition reigns. The dark ages have arrived.” Fox prime-time host Tucker Carlson claimed that Brown was “censoring” Littman’s study and stopped promoting it because “activists descended” and “were offended by the conclusions of the study.” Carlson claimed that activists found Littman’s conclusions “ideologically inconvenient and therefore unacceptable.” He also asserted that they “demanded that the data be suppressed, and remarkably, Brown caved to their demands.” Carlson has previously denied the existence of the trans community, claimed that trans-affirming policies would hurt women, and hosted anti-transgender guests like ACPeds’ Cretella on his show. From the September 11 edition of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight:
TUCKER CARLSON (HOST): Brown University is censoring a scientific study by one of its own researchers because political activists don't like it. In a paper published earlier this month, a tenured Brown professor called Lisa Littman found that teenagers who say they want to switch genders are often influenced, not surprisingly, by friends and social media like all young people are. Well, the study was solid enough to be picked up by a reputable scientific journal. In fact, Brown’s PR department sounded a press release promoting the study. But then activists descended. They were offended by the conclusions of the study, not because the conclusions were wrong -- no one even argued they were wrong -- but because the conclusions were ideologically inconvenient and therefore unacceptable. They demanded that the data be suppressed, and remarkably, Brown caved to their demands. The university yanked the press release and apologized for sending it in the first place.
This is not really about Brown. This is what it looks like when reason itself dies: Politics trump science; empirical conclusions are banned; acknowledging reality itself becomes a criminal act; superstition reigns. The dark ages have arrived. This is what they told you the Christian right wanted to do. They were lying. As soon as they took power, they did it themselves. Of course.
The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro: “The left went insane” over Littman’s study, “so Brown caved” in an act of “academic tyranny.” The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro claimed that “Brown immediately caved” by removing its article because “any effort to actually research the environmental component of transgenderism is met with raucous calls for censorship.” Shapiro alleged that PLOS ONE and Brown “turned against the study because it offended politically correct sensibilities about transgenderism” and called the situation “academic tyranny.”
Shapiro: “Science is taking a back seat to the realities of political correctness.” On his show, Shapiro repeated talking points from his Daily Wire post and claimed that Brown had “buried the study” and “caved” because “it offended politically correct sensibilities about transgenderism.” He called the move “insane,” claimed that “science is taking a back seat to the realities of political correctness,” and called leaders at Brown “cowards.” Shapiro then predicted that Brown would fire Littman, saying that the left “will go after anyone who does not follow the basic leftist consensus on politics, they will destroy science in order to do so, and they will censor people.” Shapiro has a history of anti-transgender bigotry, including calling transgender troops “mentally ill soldiers” and mocking transgender men and women who date them. He has also called being trans a “mental disorder” and “tyranny of the individual.”
One America News’ Liz Wheeler: “This is even creepier, I think, than just stifling free speech. This is akin to book banning and book burning.” On the September 7 edition of One America News’ The Tipping Point, host Liz Wheeler railed that Brown’s decision to remove its article on the study was “even creepier, I think, than just stifling free speech,” comparing it to “book banning and book burning.” She continued, “This is taking a scientific study because it doesn't substantiate your political view and erasing it. That's so creepy.” Wheeler’s guest Amber Athey, a Daily Caller contributor, asserted that Brown “decided to get rid of the study not because they think that it didn’t meet scientific standards but just because they don’t like the results of it.”
Wheeler: Brown is participating in “thought control. … That’s incredible scary. That is 1984.” In another segment, Wheeler repeatedly claimed that Brown’s removal of its post about the study was an example of “thought control.” Wheeler and her guest, The Daily Caller’s Anders Hagstrom, compared the situation to the dystopian novel 1984 and the Soviet era. Wheeler had previously criticized the Boy Scouts for accepting transgender youth and has suggested that affirming trans identities will lead to accepting “transracial, “transable,” and “transbaby” identities in which people believe themselves to be of a different race, ability or disability, or age. From the September 17 edition of One America News’ The Tipping Point:
ANDERS HAGSTROM (REPORTER, THE DAILY CALLER): I know there’s a study at Brown college where a similar thing happened where this -- I can't remember if it was a he or a she who did this study, but they basically found that something regarding transgenders and a gender dysphoria and the way that children may grow out of it. And people objected to what that study found, and they just said, “OK, you're not allowed to publish that anymore. You can’t do any more research.”
LIZ WHEELER (HOST): Right, because it might offend activists who are advocating for the transgender ideology.
HAGSTROM: Yeah, exactly, because it might offend people.
WHEELER: This is why I say this is thought control, because when you pick and choose what information is to be made public, and you pick and choose what you're going to hide from the American people because it might influence their thought in a way that you don't want. That's incredibly scary. That is 1984. That is thought control. It goes beyond the speech control.
HAGSTROM: It’s Soviet, yeah.
WHEELER: The way that you control speech is you control what people are allowed to put in their heads so that they can form those ideas. It's terrifying, and it’s sanctioned now by liberals on these campuses.
Breitbart’s Tom Ciccotta: “Brown University has decided that not displeasing the LGBT community is more important than having its professors research this phenomenon.” On August 30, Breitbart News’ Tom Ciccotta wrote that Brown had “censored a research paper on gender dysphoria” because the university “decided that not displeasing the LGBT community is more important than having its professors research this phenomenon.” Breitbart often pushes anti-transgender narratives and cites ACPeds’ anti-transgender positions as credible.
The Federalist’s Robert Tracinski: “Is transgender the new anorexia?” The Federalist’s Robert Tracinski called Littman’s study a “blockbuster” for arguing that transgender identities “might be a ‘social contagion’ -- a maladaptive coping technique for troubled teens, spread by peer groups and the Internet.” Tracinski claimed that Brown retracted its press release “in response to a furious outcry from transgender activists” who saw the research as a “threat.” He also posited that the study began because researchers saw “eerie parallels” of “social contagion” between eating disorders such as anorexia and transgender identities, and then highlighted the study’s assertion that so-called ROGD, “with the subsequent drive to transition, may represent a form of intentional self-harm.” He further claimed that medical professionals who offer gender-affirming care are “ideologically motivated gender dysphoria specialists” who “have engaged in massive malpractice in their zeal to ‘affirm’ their young patients’ self-diagnosis.”
The Federalist’s Joy Pullman: Brown “repressed” the study because it reinforces the idea that “transgenderism looks a lot like a dangerous fad.” Federalist Executive Editor Joy Pullmann wrote that Brown had “repressed” Littman’s study “after a transgender activist feeding frenzy.” She continued, “The reason trans activists went nuts is that the study reinforces what plenty of parents, public health experts, and doctors have been saying: Transgenderism looks a lot like a dangerous fad.” She also said that transgender advocates “demand[ed] suppressing the results” and that Brown “chose to prioritize the unreasonable demands of a tiny minority above the potential well-being of children and the process of scientific inquiry.” Pullman admitted that “the study design has many flaws — self selection and self reporting among them.” However, she claimed that it was “comparable in quality to studies that LGBT activists amplify when it serves their narratives.” Despite its flaws, Pullman still praised the study because “Littman found a number of things that make transgender narratives look terrible.” The Federalist is a go-to outlet for conservatives to push anti-LGBTQ stories, compare transgender inclusion to “transgender authoritarianism,” and call gender-affirming procedures “mutilation.” From the August 31 post:
This makes it obvious why transgender activists do not want this information public. It suggests many gender dysphoric young people hit a rough patch in life (or several), have poor or immature coping skills, and got the message from peers, online, or both that transgenderism was a handy, simple explanation for their feelings that also offered instant social acceptance and attention.
National Review’s Madeleine Kearns: Brown “succumbed to political pressure” and “sacrificed its core principles of scientific inquiry and truth-seeking.” In a post titled “Why Did Brown University Bow to Trans Activists?” National Review’s Madeline Kearns claimed that Brown and PLOS ONE “succumbed to political pressure” by re-evaluating the study and that the university “appears more concerned with its marketability than with finding truth,” which she said “undermines academic freedom.” Though she acknowledged that there were concerns about the sample of parents coming from 4thwavenow and other biased websites, Kearns suggested that Brown’s removal of its article about Littman’s study was “cowardice” and “part of a bigger trend” -- an example of how “a radical ideological lobby has, once again, been highly effective in bullying dissenters into silence.” She concluded that Brown “sacrificed its core principles of scientific inquiry and truth-seeking to the feelings of ‘some members’ of their community.” National Review has a history of providing a platform to anti-LGBTQ figures such as anti-transgender conservative commentator David French, who in a May 9 article repeatedly misgendered Chelsea Manning and declared, “He’s a man.”
National anti-LGBTQ groups are aligned with and have worked alongside a campaign in Massachusetts that would repeal the state’s trans-inclusive nondiscrimination protections, which protect transgender people from discrimination in housing and the workplace and give them equal access to public facilities such as bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity. The anti-trans Keep MA Safe campaign was started by Massachusetts Family Institute, a state anti-LGBTQ group with direct ties to major national groups Family Policy Alliance, Alliance Defending Freedom, and Family Research Council.
While MSNBC aired segments featuring six LGBTQ people, Fox News hosted anti-LGBTQ group leader Tony Perkins and two anti-trans gay women
The Trump-Pence administration is “considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth,” which would be “the most drastic move yet in a governmentwide effort to roll back recognition and protections of transgender people,” according to an October 21 New York Times report. When TV news reported on the proposal, only MSNBC hosted LGBTQ guests to condemn it, while Fox hosted primarily anti-trans voices, including two gay women and major anti-LGBTQ group leader Tony Perkins.
The Times reported that the definition would be established under Title IX, which bars “gender discrimination in education programs that receive government financial assistance.” Title IX is enforced in part by the “Big Four” federal agencies -- the departments of Education, Justice, Health and Human Services, and Labor -- most of which currently employ anti-LGBTQ group alumni who would potentially implement the policy. According to the Williams Institute, there are roughly 1.4 million American adults who identify as transgender, all of whom would be impacted by the proposed change. CNN reported that “if adopted, such a definition could exclude transgender people from existing federal civil rights protections in education, employment and access to health care.” The move is part of a greater trend of the Trump-Pence administration going after transgender people, and transgender advocates and their allies have sounded the alarm about the proposal and are fighting back.
Following the Times’ reporting on the Trump-Pence administration’s proposal, broadcast and cable TV news spent a moderate amount of time covering the issue. MSNBC turned to transgender and queer guests to discuss the impacts of the proposal, while Fox News hosted primarily anti-transgender guests, including Perkins. Though generally critical of the proposal, CNN’s segments relied entirely on CNN hosts, commentators, and reporters, none of whom openly identify as LGBTQ.
In discussing the proposal, MSNBC hosted six LGBTQ people, four of whom identify as trans, who were able to explain the personal impact the Trump administration’s proposal would have on the trans community.
On October 23, MSNBC Live with Hallie Jackson hosted Laverne Cox, a transgender actress and activist, who outlined the Trump-Pence administration’s history of anti-trans policies, as well as those proposed around the country in state legislatures. Cox said that state legislatures “are continually trying to introduce legislation banning transgender people from public life” but noted that “we have fought those battles, and we have won.” She explained that “over and over again the courts have held that transgender people are covered by Title IX and Title VII.” Cox said, “They want to make us afraid, but we need not be afraid.”
MSNBC Live with Hallie Jackson aired an October 22 segment featuring National Center for Transgender Equality's (NCTE) Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, who was the first out transgender person to be appointed to a White House job. Freedman-Gurspan called the proposal “an abomination” and highlighted that the new definition does not align with medical consensus or the lived experiences of trans people. She also noted the many anti-trans actions and rhetoric of the Trump-Pence administration and highlighted activism by the trans community and their allies who are ready to fight the proposal. Freedman-Gurspan ended the segment by saying, “We won’t be erased. We are standing up. … We are going to get through this.”
During other segments, MSNBC also hosted Mara Keisling, a trans woman and president of NCTE; Hannah Simpson, a trans woman and activist; Masha Gessen, an LGBTQ journalist; and Sarah Kate Ellis, a lesbian and president of GLAAD. Additionally, Rachel Maddow, an out lesbian, did a monologue on her October 22 show about the proposal in which she contextualized the history of Republican administrations rolling back LGBTQ rights.
While MSNBC turned to LGBTQ people who were either transgender or trans allies for their insights on the potential impact of the Trump-Pence administration’s proposal, Fox News hosted primarily anti-transgender guests, including two gay women and extreme anti-LGBTQ group Family Research Council’s (FRC) President Tony Perkins.
In Fox News’ first substantial segment about the proposal, Fox News at Night with Shannon Bream aired a debate between liberal radio host Ethan Bearman and FRC’s Perkins, who was also appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in May. During the segment, Perkins praised the proposal and resorted to fearmongering when presented with historical facts about gender identity. Perkins also pushed the the thoroughly debunked myth that trans-inclusive policies pose a threat to the safety of women and girls. From the segment:
What we’re doing by this policy that was put in place without an act of Congress -- this was the Obama administration -- we’re putting people at risk. We're actually denying people equal protection under the law, because under this, we would force women that are going to battered shelters for abused women, we would force them under government policy to be housed with men, biological men. This makes no sense.
On October 23, Tucker Carlson, who has an anti-transgender track record himself, hosted Tammy Bruce, an anti-trans lesbian and president of the conservative group Independent Women’s Voice. In the past, Bruce has criticized trans-inclusive restrooms and compared being transgender to “a child” thinking they are “a cocker spaniel. She has also defended Jack Phillips, the Christian baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple and who was represented by extreme anti-LGBTQ powerhouse Alliance Defending Freedom at the Supreme Court. During the segment, Carlson claimed that the government recognizing the trans community would hurt women, and Bruce leveraged her identity as a lesbian to dismiss the impact of the proposal on trans people.
Additionally, Fox News’ The Story with Martha MacCallum hosted Camille Paglia, also an LGBTQ-identified person who is critical of trans identities. During the segment, Paglia pushed anti-trans narratives about biology and said that trans-inclusive policies are “unfair” in areas like athletics. She also described herself as transgender while criticizing the trans community. Paglia has made similar comments in the past, saying, "Although I describe myself as transgender (I was donning flamboyant male costumes from early childhood on), I am highly skeptical about the current transgender wave." In other reporting, it appears that she identifies as gay and uses female pronouns.
CNN had at least eight separate significant discussions, news reads, or reports covering the proposal but failed to host a single LGBTQ person in its reporting. Though the network’s coverage was generally critical of the proposal, CNN’s shows only used staff commentators and reporters to discuss it.
Broadcast TV news outlets ABC and CBS barely covered the story at all, only airing news reads with no comprehensive segments or reporting, and both networks failed to feature any LGBTQ voices. NBC, however, aired a package on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt that included a clip from NCTE’s Freedman-Gurspan’s appearance on MSNBC Live with Hallie Jackson. It also aired a report on Today.
Additionally, PBS aired a segment featuring LGBTQ legal group Lambda Legal’s Sharon McGowan and was the only TV outlet so far to contextualize the anti-LGBTQ track record of Roger Severino, head of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights, the department spearheading the proposal.
Media Matters searched Nexis transcripts for cable TV coverage appearing between October 21 and 23 on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC -- as well as transcripts of broadcast TV coverage on ABC, NBC, and CBS -- for mentions of the words “transgender” or “health and human services” as well as mentions of the words or variations of the words “trans,” “sex,” or “gender” occurring within 10 words of the words or variations of the words “memo,” “policy,” “definition” or “Trump.” Additionally, Media Matters conducted searches on Snapstream for the same time frame for the same terms. “Significant discussion” is defined as two or more speakers in the same segment discussing the proposal with one another.
Extreme anti-LGBTQ groups such as the Family Research Council and Liberty Counsel are unifying behind President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Trump nominated Kavanaugh to the court on July 9, and soon after, extreme anti-LGBTQ groups started pouring in praise. As a result, LGBTQ advocates and groups have sounded the alarm. The highly influential Family Research Council (FRC), whose president, Tony Perkins, reportedly was “involved in discussions with the White House” on the nomination, promoted Kavanaugh “heavily” when he was initially nominated to the D.C. Circuit in 2005, and Perkins quickly responded to his Supreme Court nomination by pledging “to help move the grassroots to gain the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh.” He also praised Kavanaugh for previous rulings on “religious freedom and free speech” issues and for his “long and praiseworthy history of judging as an originalist.” FRC’s position is that “homosexual conduct is harmful to the persons who engage in it and to society at large” and “is by definition unnatural,” and the organization promotes the idea that “every effort should be made to assist such persons to overcome those attractions,” including by actively working against efforts to protect LGBTQ youth from the harmful and discredited practice of conversion therapy.
Other extreme anti-LGBTQ organizations mirrored FRC’s messaging. Liberty Counsel praised Kavanaugh for a “pragmatic approach to judging” and compared his originalist judicial philosophy to that of notoriously anti-LGBTQ Justice Antonin Scalia. The group’s founder and chairman, Mat Staver, said, “I support the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court,” and called him “the right kind of judge we need on the bench.” Staver is known for using extreme rhetoric against LGBTQ people, including comparing them to pedophiles and saying that LGBTQ History Month is a “sexual assault on our children.”
The National Organization for Marriage, a group that was instrumental in rolling back marriage equality in California in 2008, called Kavanaugh an “outstanding pick” who “will be strong on our issues” and a “constitutionalist.” The group noted that it “intends to do everything [it] can to secure the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh,” including launching a “Marriage Hero campaign” to organize anti-LGBTQ people at a grass-roots level in favor of his nomination. A July 10 blog post outlined several reasons NOM supports Kavanaugh.
The Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), which in 2013 led a smear campaign against a transgender teenager who was harassed and received death threats after her name was leaked to the public, issued a statement calling Kavanaugh “fair and faithful to the Constitution” and noting that he had ruled in favor of PJI’s clients in a case about prayer at the presidential inauguration. PJI’s statement, however, was less enthusiastic than that of other groups and asserted that there are “important unanswered questions about his jurisprudence” and characterized his record on abortion issues as “mixed.” The American Family Association (AFA) showed a similar hesitation and initially called on its supporters to oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination. The following day, however, AFA issued another statement walking back its opposition and lining up more closely with other extreme anti-LGBTQ groups:
[A]fter hearing the concerns of some of our supporters, and after hearing the passionate defense of Judge Kavanaugh by many we consider to be friends in the pro-life movement, we are willing to let this process play out. We eagerly await the confirmation hearings when we hope to get clarification from Judge Kavanaugh on aspects related to our concerns.
Though extreme group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) claims to not “take a position on the merits of Supreme Court nominees,” its Twitter account posted a New York Times op-ed by a liberal law professor making the case to confirm Kavanaugh. Several ADF staff and board members have also tweeted in support of the nomination or shared articles backing the choice. ADF is one of the most influential anti-LGBTQ groups in the country and is leading the fight against LGBTQ equality at nearly every level, including working to combat transgender student equality, codifying discrimination against the community via religious exemptions, and exporting its anti-LGBTQ agenda abroad.
It’s clear that though a few anti-LGBTQ groups showed some initial hesitation toward Kavanaugh’s nomination, they have quickly coalesced behind him. These groups are highly coordinated and would not support a nominee who they did not think shared their extreme anti-LGBTQ values. AFA’s statement reversing its opposition to Kavanaugh due to “the passionate defense of Judge Kavanaugh by many we consider to be friends in the pro-life movement” is telling on its own; these groups know what they would be getting with a Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh, and it won’t be good for LGBTQ people.
Additional research by Rebecca Damante.
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