The Discredited Brown Study on Trans Youth Isn’t Just Junk Science — It’s Dangerous

The latest tool in the effort to bring back conversion therapy doesn’t come out of the Bible Belt. Instead, it came straight from the Ivy League.

Lisa Littman of Brown University published an August 2018 article in the journal PLOS One which purports to show that transgender identities are nothing more than social contagion. In “Rapid-onset gender dysphoria in adolescents and young adults: A study of parental reports,” Littman argues that trans youth who choose to transition at a young age are merely copying their friends in school.

It has attracted a lot of attention from mainstream researchers and trans advocates for its shoddy methodology, biased sampling, and unsupported conclusions. This criticism was sufficient for Brown to pull the announcement of the article from its website and PLOS One to declare that it would be reviewing the paper’s problems.

However, the greatest danger isn’t merely the promulgation of bad science, but the reality that it represents a backdoor attempt to undermine trans lives. Bad science happens all the time. However, this is bad science with an agenda. It encourages parents to reject the identities of transgender youth and to subject them to conversion therapy, the discredited practice of seeking to treat the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ youth.

This isn’t speculative — it is right out in the open.

The study purports to show that transgender identities in teens are caused by interacting with other transgender teens online, referred to as “social contagion.” This erroneous conclusion was based on the observation that children seemed to come out suddenly after meeting other trans youth on social media websites. The article failed to address the much more realistic explanation that transgender teens with anti-trans parents look for support from other LGBTQ youth online because they fear the reaction of their families.

How Littman came to these false, damaging conclusions partially stems from the sources she used. The three websites from which Littman drew her research — 4thwavenow.com, transgendertrend.com, and YouthTransCriticalProfessionals.org — have ties to anti-LGBTQ hate groups, as well as organizations and figures that promote reparative therapy. This includes the fake medical organization American College of Pediatricians and the National Catholic Bioethics Center, as well as noted anti-trans psychiatrist Dr. Paul McHugh, professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins.

Her sources are effectively anti-trans lobbyists. These entities have compared affirming care for transgender teens to lobotomies and Nazi experiments while likening trans people to amputation fetishists. Meanwhile, the trio of websites cited post sponsored articles arguing that discrimination against transgender people is natural, are hostile to transgender youth, and advocate to prevent teens from transitioning.

Littman’s sources also promote the idea that a magic “cure” can change a person’s gender identity.

In her article, Littman failed to mention the viewpoints of the groups from which she drew her sample, nor did she make any attempt to reach out to groups for supportive parents. No interviews with trans youth were conducted.

But the biases don’t just extend to Littman’s methodology. Her co-contributor, Lisa Marchiano, advocates for reparative therapy. In the Psychological Perspectives article “Outbreak: On Transgender Teens and Psychic Epidemics,” she argued that “we ought to accept the material reality of the body while encouraging people to express themselves and their gendered feelings in whatever way they like.” In other words: Why can’t transgender people learn to accept their bodies and simply be happy as men in dresses and women in comfortable shoes? This ignores the reality that clothing does nothing to alleviate bodily gender dysphoria.

That language is nearly indistinguishable from rhetoric from anti-LGBTQ conservatives like Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation, a driving force behind the trans military ban, and Andrew Walker, a senior fellow at the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. These figures argue society should reject transgender people and subject them to therapy that makes them “accept the bodies God gave them.”

Ironically, Littman’s own research doesn’t support the conclusion that religious conservatives and promoters of reparative therapy want. Buried in her data is the fact that 91 percent of the parents responding to the survey reported their children persisted in their trans identities a year later, despite living in unsupportive homes where life would be a lot easier if they declared they weren’t transgender anymore.

These lines of attack are not new. Back in 2000, the religious right tried to blame homosexuality on “social contagion” in a Hofstra Law Review article titled “Homosexuality as Contagion: From the Well of Loneliness to the Boy Scouts.” Authored by Nancy J. Knauer, it argued that “children or young adults, are very easily lured into experimenting with homosexual practices, thereby accounting for homosexuality’s contagious quality.”

“Homosexuality is an immoral, unhealthy, and freely chosen vice [which] must be contained and, if possible, eradicated,” Knauer concluded about the contagion theory.  

In 2016, Dr. McHugh and Lawrence Mayer produced a non-peer reviewed paper in the religiously affiliated publication New Atlantis suggesting lesbians and gays frequently change their sexual orientation spontaneously; the article was a shoddy effort to undercut laws and legal cases protecting LGBTQ people. Just this year, the Catholic Medical Association published a study promoting conversion therapy on gay men. The paper was actually recycled from the 2011 book, The Effects of Therapy on U.S. Men with Unwanted Same-sex Attraction.

We also know that deliberately biased, misleading research can have profound, negative consequences. In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield wrote an article in The Lancet which supposedly linked vaccines with autism. It turned out, however, that Wakefield falsified the data. Despite the fact that the Lancet retracted the article and lost his license, the anti-vaxxer movement persists. As a result, diseases that had nearly been eradicated — like measles — have roared back. Thousands of children have died.

Littman’s study deserves every ounce of scrutiny for the real-world harm it will cause. The overwhelming majority of studies show transgender youth in unsupportive homes have much worse mental health outcomes than those who do. Rejecting a transgender individual’s identity, and trying to enforce the one you have chosen for them, is the antithesis of support.

Telling a gay person they’re just a confused straight person who needs to learn to like girls isn’t affirming — it’s gaslighting. Doing the same with trans youth is no different.

Image via Getty


Brynn Tannehill

Brynn Tannehill is a Naval Academy graduate and former naval aviator. She earned her masters in operations research from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 2008. Since 2012, she has written hundreds articles on LGBTQ+ issues for dozens of outlets, and is the author of the upcoming book, "Everything You Every Wanted to Know About Trans* (*But were afraid to Ask), due out in November 2018. She lives in Northern Virginia with her wife Janis and their three children.

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