Controversy is exploding around a paper published earlier this month in PLOS ONE by a public health expert at Brown University describing reports by parents that their children suddenly experienced unease with the gender they were assigned at birth; the paper calls the condition “rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD). The paper, by physician-scientist Lisa Littman, is drawing fierce criticism from transgender advocates, who call it antitransgender because it suggests that some cases of gender dysphoria may be “socially contagious.” They say the paper has serious methodological flaws, noting that Littman interviewed only parents, not the young people themselves, and recruited from websites frequented by parents who were concerned about their children’s apparently sudden gender transitions. Meanwhile, the reactions of Brown and the journal are being assailed by critics who accuse them of caving to political pressure.Another researcher says there is no denying the upswing in sudden onset transexuals, though:
On Monday, PLOS ONE announced it is conducting a postpublication investigation of the study’s methodology and analysis. “This is not about suppressing academic freedom or scientific research. This is about the scientific content itself—whether there is anything that needs to be looked into or corrected,” PLOS ONE Editor-in-Chief Joerg Heber in San Francisco, California, told ScienceInsider in an interview yesterday.
Also on Monday, Brown officials removed the university’s press release highlighting the paper from its website. On Tuesday, Bess Marcus, dean of Brown’s School of Public Health, wrote in an open statement that the university acted “in light of questions raised about research design and data collection related to the study.” She added that people in the Brown community have raised concerns that the study’s conclusions “could be used to discredit efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate the perspectives of members of the transgender community.”
But Ray Blanchard, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto in Canada who worked for 15 years in a gender identity clinic that screened candidates for sex reassignment surgery, says the paper points to a clear phenomenon: a new subgroup of adolescents, mainly women, with gender dysphoria and no behavioral signs of such dysphoria during childhood.
“Many clinicians in North America and elsewhere have been seeing such patients,” Blanchard, who worked with adults, wrote in an email, “and it has been speculated that this subgroup is one reason for the predominance of adolescent females now being seen in North America and elsewhere (Aitken et al., 2015). No one can deny the clinical reality,” he wrote, that the documented increase in adolescent girls being referred to clinics for gender dysphoria is being augmented by those with no history of the condition in childhood.
In the study, Littman acknowledged its limitations, describing it as a starting point. “Like all first descriptive studies, additional studies will be needed to replicate the findings,” she wrote. She told ScienceInsider that in upcoming research she plans to recruit parent-teen pairs in cases where the teenager experienced ROGD that later resolved.