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.”
Brown University researcher Lisa Littman published a flawed study that claims teens may be identifying as trans due to social influences
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.
After fielding concerns about Littman’s methodology, Brown and PLOS ONE announced they would re-assess her research
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.”
Researchers, experts, and journalists have found several flaws with Littman’s research
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.
Extreme anti-LGBTQ groups have claimed Brown “is in denial about transgender identity” and “caved to cross-dressers”
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.
Right-wing media and proponents of the study have called the re-evaluation “academic censorship” and said Brown and PLOS ONE caved to LGBTQ activists
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.”