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A Brown University study published in Public Library of Science in August, “Rapid-onset gender dysphoria in adolescents and young adults,” has stoked a sense of panic among parents, and many have begun using its results to fuel the narrative that a growing number of transgender teens have been brainwashed or confused by transgender people they have encountered online or in school. They blame popular YouTube vloggers like Miles McKenna and Jazz Jennings for glamorizing the “transgender lifestyle,” and blame transgender users of blogging sites like Tumblr.com for suggesting to anxiety-ridden youths that transition will solve all of their mental health issues.
The term “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” reads more official than it is. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), which sets standards for health care for trans people, issued a statement following the study. It said in part: “The term ‘Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD)’ is not a medical entity recognized by any major professional association ... Therefore, it constitutes nothing more than an acronym created to describe a proposed clinical phenomenon that may or may not warrant further peer-reviewed scientific investigation.”
Local gender therapist Paul Gross of 4Square Counseling, who has facilitated or volunteered with local trans youth support groups BRIDGE and PAGE, calls this study “incomplete,” and says releasing it without further investigation was “irresponsible.”
This study, which relies on 256 responses to a 90-question online survey, only targeted parents who had visited websites that collect testimonials of other worried parents, seeking to raise doubts about the validity of their children’s transgender identities.
“They [those who conducted the study] didn’t go to the main source,” Gross said. “They went to the parents. ... The APA [American Psychological Association] said they don’t want people, i.e. therapists, psychologists, etc., to try and diagnose Donald Trump unless they’re actually seeing him. It’s the same thing with this study. They don’t actually talk to the kids themselves. They’re talking to the parents who may or may not have a clue. And that’s damaging.”
These parents assert that their children’s coming out as transgender felt like it came out of the blue, and many say it felt scripted, like their children were reading something they had been told to say, rather than using their own words. A good number also claim that the coming out happened after a child’s friend came out as trans, or after an increased amount of time spent online where the child could easily access narratives about transgender life, and tips for addressing gender identity with parents.
Gross says children likely do not begin to identify as transgender because they’re exposed to transgender people, but that they seek out transgender people because they already feel a connection to that life: “If you come to a school and you play football, are you going to hang out with the chess club? No, you’re going to find the people that do the things, or feel the same way, or think the same way you do... Is it that social media has made it more prevalent? No. It’s made it more known.”
Parents in this study also suggest that their children identified as transgender for the sake of popularity, but it’s not easy to be transgender in this world. Transgender youths report higher rates of bullying, suicidal ideation, self-harm and eating disorders than their cisgender peers, just to name a few challenges. Should popularity be the goal, it would be easier to join a club.
Is it possible that some of these kids who identify as transgender in adolescence may change their minds? Of course. Many LGBTQ people try on a variety of identities before finding one that fits. Gross has treated children as young as 6 who experience gender dysphoria, and he says people have so much growth ahead of them at that point that committing to medical care (which requires parental consent) could be premature.
He suggests all young children and adolescents should start the transition process with socialization and presentation, changing pronouns, their name and the way they dress. “Let them experience what it’s like ... But at the same time, you don’t want to do anything irreversible.”
The policies of informed consent (as long as a patient and their parents understand the risks involved, they may move forward with gender reassignment-related medical care) and affirmative care (the validation of a patient’s stated identity) have been hard-fought victories for the transgender community, which historically has struggled to access basic transition-related health care. Gross says he agrees with and believes in those policies, “however I believe it needs to be tempered with common sense” in the case of minors. The onus, he says, is on the therapist or the doctor to counsel patients and their parents through the process. Gross says the fear stems from parents’ belief that they must go “gung-ho all the way” right away, but he asserts that there are gray areas, and reasonable paces.
It’s possible, vital even, to acknowledge that some people find they are not transgender after originally identifying that way, and psychologists and parents alike can prepare for that. But studies show that the majority of people who identify as transgender will successfully follow through with transition.
Rather than questioning every teen who comes out as transgender, we should promote education and communication. Parents may only believe their child’s coming out was sudden because the child hid the truth, struggling privately with their identity for years. In many cases, a child may not have realized the identity issues they were experiencing had anything to do with gender until they encountered transgender people who shared their feelings and experiences.
“If people listened to their children,” Gross says, “this report would never have happened. Because children would be more apt to talk to their parents, be open and frank about things.”
But rather than fostering education and communication right now, the conversation growing around this study has become inflamed. Parents who believe in ROGD blame the brainwashing of the “transgender lobby,” putting the LGBTQ community on the defensive once again, trying to prove their identities are valid.
Some people know they are transgender as children and live fulfilling lives post-transition. And some may identify as transgender before finding a different label or identity that fits them. Absolutist thinkers may try to use the latter to invalidate the former, but to do that would be to ignore the particularities of each individual’s identity, and the healthy exploration of gender we should nurture in kids.
“It’s been my experience,” Gross says, “that kids do not want to tell their parents this because they look at all the crap that happens to other kids. But they do get the strength from their friends to say: ‘You know, I am.