WSJ op-ed pushing flawed anti-trans research inadvertently reaffirms that trans people are who they say they are

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by conservative columnist Abigail Shrier pushing flawed research about transgender youth and a dubious concept called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” which purports that young teens are coming out as trans because it is “fashionable.” Shrier wrote that she spoke with 18 parents concerned that their children were dealing with so-called “ROGD,” but she acknowledged that most of their children remained transgender, inadvertently demonstrating the flawed research driving this anti-trans fearmongering.

The concept of so-called rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD) originated in 2016 on anti-trans blogs, and Brown University researcher Lisa Littman surveyed those same blogs for a flawed study published in 2018. The study suggests that transgender youth -- primarily transgender boys who were assigned female at birth -- are experiencing a new type of “rapid” gender dysphoria due to social influences, asserting that they are coming out due to increased exposure to transgender friends and media figures and claiming that they had shown no signs of gender dysphoria in the past. Both the journal that published the study and Brown University announced they would re-evaluate it due to methodological concerns, including that it relied on parental reports from biased, anti-trans blogs. (One of the two on-the-record sources Shrier cited in her op-ed was a spokesperson for one of those blogs, Brie Jontry from 4thWaveNow.)

Shrier’s recent piece reaffirmed what was already apparent in Littman’s study: The vast majority of the young people whose parents are being surveyed to push this concept have persisted in being trans. In Littman’s study, less than 6 percent of transgender youth whose parents were surveyed no longer identified as trans (for about another 11 percent, it was unclear whether they still identify as trans). And in Shrier’s op-ed, she could point to only “two mothers whose daughters have desisted” out of the 18 parents she interviewed. But whether parents perceive their children’s coming out as “rapid” or not is beside the point; even when parents are surprised by their children’s gender identity, trans youth remain who they say they are.

Shrier used many right-wing buzzwords and comparisons to describe ROGD’s flawed concept that being transgender is “fashionable,” a “social contagion,” and similar to “cutting and bulimia.” She also claimed that ROGD “comes on suddenly in adolescence, afflicting teens who’d never exhibited any confusion about their sex,” and is thus different from the established definition of gender dysphoria, which Shrier describes as beginning “in early childhood.”

In fact, Slate’s Alex Barasch has noted that the medical community instead recognizes late-onset gender dysphoria, which describes the emergence of dysphoria “around puberty or much later in life.” The parents cited by Shrier and Littman may also have perceived their children coming out as sudden because these young people avoided coming out to “hostile parents” and instead sought advice and support online or from circles of friends. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) has urged restraint from pushing the idea of “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” and noted that it has not been “recognized by any major medical professional association.”

Shrier also relies on fearmongering about often medically necessary care such as top surgery and other gender affirmation procedures, describing them as “irreversible physical trauma” and “voluntary disfigurement.” There are a number of flaws in this description; it not only makes the false assumption that all trans people need or want surgery as part of their transition, but it also gives the false impression that transition-related surgeries are routinely performed on trans youth. In reality, WPATH’s internationally accepted “standards of care” describe surgery as “often the last and the most considered step in the treatment process for gender dysphoria” while also noting that it is “essential and medically necessary” for many in the transgender community “to alleviate their gender dysphoria.”

The standards of care note that many interventions for trans adolescents are reversible, including social transitions -- in which the young person begins living in their stated gender identity -- and puberty blockers, which delay the onset of puberty. It also says that chest surgery for transgender boys -- the subset of youth who were assigned female at birth, which is the group ROGD predominantly claims to address -- should be carried out “preferably after ample time of living in the desired gender role and after one year of testosterone treatment” to give “adolescents sufficient opportunity to experience and socially adjust in a more masculine gender role, before undergoing irreversible surgery.”

Rather than acknowledge the multipronged and varied processes in which trans people affirm their identities, Shrier resorts to using scare tactics and simplifying a lengthy and thought-out process that generally involves the transgender individual, medical and mental health professionals, family, and friends. Furthermore, there is no indication that any of the very small number of trans youth supposedly studied in Littman’s survey or Shrier’s op-ed underwent any irreversible procedures, demonstrating that the transition process already has measures in place and is safe for the small number of adolescents who may determine that they are not transgender.

The Wall Street Journal is one of the most high-profile news outlets to push the flawed concept of ROGD (though right-wing media have run wild with it). In September, the paper published another op-ed criticizing the academic journal and Brown University for re-evaluating and backing away from Littman’s study and calling their action “suppression.” Shrier has written about gender and transgender issues for the paper before as well, including an August op-ed called “The Transgender Language War” and a July one titled “Masculine Dads Raise Confident Daughters.” Breitbart News is already promoting her latest piece.

Ultimately, pieces like this are dangerous for both trans youth and the community at large. Not only does Shrier recommend the ineffective and dangerous practice of conversion therapy for trans youth, writing that protections from the discredited practice threaten “counselors who might otherwise dissuade teens from proceeding with hormone treatment or surgery,” but the concept of ROGD itself also essentially calls on parents to doubt their children when they come out as trans. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth whose families reject them are already “8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide” as their LGB peers with accepting families, and the number is likely higher with trans youth, who already experience disproportionately high rates of suicide (particularly transgender boys and men). For them, flawed research like that pushing so-called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” can be a matter of life and death.