In recent years, the number of young people under the age of 18 identifying as transgender has increased in parallel with a growth in the numbers of adults doing so. One natural explanation for this phenomenon would be: as awareness of transness becomes more widespread, many individuals who were previously unable to put a name to their feelings now understand better who they are.
In addition, the idea that there are no trans kids, or that transness begins in adulthood flies in the face of research and commonsense. This is hardly surprising: all trans adults were once children, so it would be strange if transness were only to appear magically at age 18. And indeed, many trans people who transitioned in later life report that their sense of difference or transness was present from a very early age: in some cases, as early as four or five.
However, many mainstream media have been pushing the line that this increase in numbers is no more than youth fad or young people signing up to a fashionable trend. This attitude mirrors similar arguments used in the 1980’s to support measures to keep homosexuality “in the closet”, as anti-gay campaigners hid behind a facade of concern for the children and the possibility that awareness of gayness could lead to impressionable youngsters being seduced into a gay lifestyle.
ROGD: the myth gains academic credibility
Additional weight was given to this myth originated with the publication, in 2018, of a study by Lisa Littman, of Brown University on Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD). This claimed to have discovered evidence for this phenomenon – a sudden and unexpected manifestation of gender dysphoria – through parental diagnosis of trans-identified teens.
Backlash and Academic Critique
Criticism of this study was widespread1, both among academics and on the part of the trans community. Within a week of its publication in August 2018, PLOS One, the journal in which the study appeared, announced2 that it would seek “further expert assessment on the study’s methodology and analyses,” citing reader concerns.
Also in August 2018, Brown removed its original press release3 promoting the paper’s findings. In March 2019, PLOS One published a corrected version of the article, together with an apology4. However, they also noted that the study’s results were largely unchanged.
Despite the retraction and amendment of the original paper (a revised version is now available online 5 ), concerns remained that the study contains significant methodological flaws as well as being beset by ethical problems. These were tackled in a paper by Arjee Javellana Restar 6 – also a student at Brown University. This concluded: “Littman’s methodological flaws in the conceptualization and design of the study illustrate the importance of and need for more rigorous survey design and data analysis in descriptive studies”.
In sum, there is no significant evidence that ROGD exists outside the mind of some anti-trans campaigners. Despite this, the myth survives because Littman’s original paper was publicised widely in the media while her correction was mostly ignored.
Some newspapers continue to reference the original publication even though it has been discredited.
1 – Liz Duck-Chong, ‘Rapid-onset gender dysphoria’ is a poisonous lie used to discredit trans people, The Guardian, 21 October 2018
2 – Statement by PLOS ONE staff, posted by PLOS_ONE_Group, 27 August 2018
3 – Brown statements on gender dysphoria study, published 22 August 2018 and updated 19 March 2019
4 – Joerg Heber, Correcting the scientific record on gender incongruence – and an apology, 19 March 2019
5 – Lisa Littman, Parent reports of adolescents and young adults perceived to show signs of a rapid onset of gender dysphoria, published 16 August 2018, re-published with correction 19 March 2019
6 – Arjee Javellana Restar, Methodological Critique of Littman’s (2018) Parental-Respondents Accounts of “Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria”, 22 April 2019