How a theory about transgender contagion went viral
The ROGD paper was not funded by anti-trans zealots. But it arrived at exactly the time people with bad intentions were looking for science to buoy their opinions.
The results were in line with what one might expect given those sources: 76.5% of parents surveyed “believed their child was incorrect in their belief of being transgender.” More than 85% said their child had increased their internet use and/or had trans friends before identifying as trans. The youths themselves had no say in the study, and there’s no telling if they had simply kept their parents in the dark for months or years before coming out. (Littman acknowledges 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 contagion” hypothesis in the consent document she shared with parents, opening the door for biases in who chose to respond to the survey and how they did so. She also highlighted that Littman asked parents to offer “diagnoses” of their child’s gender dysphoria, which they were unqualified 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] is a really common practice.” She also called attention to the corrected ROGD paper, which notes that a pro-gender-affirming parents’ Facebook group with 8,000 members posted the study’s recruitment information on its page—although Littman’s study was not designed to be able to discern whether any of them responded.
But politics is blind to nuances in methodology. And the paper was quickly seized by those who were already pushing back against increasing acceptance of trans people. In 2014, a few years before Littman published her ROGD paper, Time magazine had put Laverne Cox, the trans actress from Orange Is the New Blackon its cover and declared a “transgender tipping point.” By 2016, bills across the country that aimed to bar trans people from bathrooms that fit their gender identity failed, and one that succeeded, in North Carolina, cost its Republican governor, Pat McCrory, his job.
Yet by 2018 a renewed backlash was well underway—one that zeroed in on trans youth. The debate about trans youth competing in sports went nationalas did a heavily publicized Texas custody battle between a mother who supported her trans child and a father who didn’t. Groups working to further marginalize trans people, like the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, began “printing off bills and introducing them to state legislators,” says Gillian Branstetter, a communications strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ROGD paper was not funded by anti-trans zealots. But it arrived at exactly the time people with bad intentions were looking for science to buoy their opinions. The paper “laundered what had previously been the rantings of online conspiracy theorists and gave it the resemblance of serious scientific study,” Branstetter says. 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, largely through online dissemination. “It is astonishing that such a blatantly bad-faith effort has been taken so seriously,” Branstetter says.
Littman plainly rejects that characterization, saying her goal was simply to “find out what’s going on.” “This was a very good-faith attempt,” she says. “As a person I am liberal; I’m pro-LGBT. I saw a phenomenon with my own eyes and I investigated, found that it was different than what was in the scientific literature.”
One reason for the success of Littman’s paper is that it validates the idea that trans kids are new. But Jules Gill-Peterson, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins and author of Histories of the Transgender Childsays that is “empirically untrue.” Trans children have only recently started to be discussed in mainstream media, so people assume they weren’t around before, she says, but “there have been children transitioning for as long as there has been transitioning -related medical technology,” and children were socially transitioning—living as a different gender without any medical or legal interventions—long before that.
Many trans people are young children when they first observe a dissonance between how they are identified and how they identify. The process of transitioning is never simple, but the explanation of their identity might be.