ROGD Journal was not funded by anti-trans zealots. But it came at a time when ill-intentioned people were looking to science to back up their opinions.

The results were consistent with what might be expected given these sources: 76.5% of parents surveyed “believed their child was incorrect in their belief about being transgender.” More than 85% said their child had increased internet use and/or had trans friends before identifying as trans. The youngsters themselves had no say in the study, and it’s impossible to tell whether they had simply kept their parents in the dark for months or years before coming out. (Littman admits that “parent-child conflict may also explain some of the findings.”)

Arjee Restar, now an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, didn’t mince words in her 2020 methodological critique of the paper. Restar noted that Littman chose to describe the “social and peer attachment” hypothesis in the consent document she shared with parents, opening the door to bias in who chose to answer the survey and how they did so. She also pointed out that Littman asked parents to provide “diagnoses” of their child’s gender dysphoria, which they were not qualified to do without professional training. It’s even possible that Littman’s data could contain multiple responses from the same parent, Restar wrote. Littman told MIT Technology Review that “targeted recruitment [to studies] it’s a really common practice.” She also drew attention to the redacted ROGD document, which notes that an 8,000-member Facebook parent group posted the study’s recruitment information on its page — although Littman’s study was not designed to be able to distinguish if any of them answered.

But politics is blind to nuances in methodology. And the paper was quickly seized upon by those who were already opposing the growing acceptance of trans people. In 2014, a few years before Littman published her ROGD paper, Time magazine profiled Laverne Cox, the trans actress from Orange is the new black, on its cover and proclaimed a “transgender turning point.” By 2016, bills across the country aimed at barring trans people from bathrooms that matched their gender identity had failed, and one that succeeded, in North Carolina, cost Republican Gov. Pat McCrory office.

By 2018, however, a renewed backlash was under way—one that belittled trans youth. The debate over trans youth competing in sports went national, as did a highly publicized Texas custody battle between a mother who supported her trans child and a father who did not. Groups working to further marginalize trans people, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, began “printing bills and introducing them to state legislators,” says Gillian Branstetter, a communications strategist at the American Union of Civil Liberties.

ROGD Journal was not funded by anti-trans zealots. But it came at a time when ill-intentioned people were looking to science to back up their opinions. The paper “cleaned up what had previously been the ramblings of internet conspiracy theorists and gave it the semblance of a serious scientific study,” says Branstetter. She believes that if Littman’s paper had not been published, a similar argument would have been made by someone else. Despite its limitations, it has become a crucial weapon in the fight against trans people, mostly through online distribution. “It’s amazing that such a treacherously evil effort is taken so seriously,” Branstetter says.

Littman clearly disputes that characterization, saying her goal was simply to “find out what was going on.” “It was a very good effort,” she says. “As a person I am liberal; I’m pro-LGBT. I saw a phenomenon with my own eyes and investigated, I found it was different from what was in the scientific literature.”

A reason for success of Littman’s paper is that it validates the idea that trans children are young. But Jules Gill-Peterson, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins and author of Stories of Transgender Children, says it is “empirically untrue”. Trans children have only recently begun to be discussed in the mainstream media, so people assume they weren’t there before, she says, but “there have been transitioning children as long as there have been transition-related medical technologies” and children were socially transitioning—living as another gender without any medical or legal intervention—long before.

Many trans people are young children when they first observe a discrepancy between how they identify and how they identify. The transition process is never simple, but explaining their identity can be.

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