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How have we let scientific study become hate speech?

Credit: Spencer Platt / Getty images

September 5, 2018   5 mins

The growing trend in young people suddenly deciding they are “in the wrong body” and must “transition” to the opposite sex is alarming. It means that more and more kids are being sent down a path of drastic body and life changes. The consequences of getting this wrong could not be more serious. Study after study has shown that a majority of youth who claim to have gender dysphoria do not continue to experience this in adulthood. Yet the puberty blockers and the hormone treatments given to ‘trans kids’ eventually lead to permanent sterilisation. And yet as the trend takes hold, the attempts to shut down public debate also grow stronger – which is just as alarming.

Last month, Brown University assistant professor Lisa Littman published a paper looking at this “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” in adolescents and young adults. Through surveying the parents of these teens, she found that this sudden onset of “gender dysphoria” was taking place in peer groups in which one or more friends became gender dysphoric at the same time. In other words, this seemed to be kids following trends.

Academic studies and public debate should not be narrowly determined by those committed to the ideologies in question

From the 256 surveys Littman collected, she found that a large majority of these youths were female (82.8%), and 41% had identified as non-heterosexual prior to identifying as transgender. Almost two thirds had also been diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder or neurodevelopmental disability before they claimed to have gender dysphoria.

One might deduce, based on this evidence, that these (mainly) girls were not, in fact, transgender, but lesbians and/or struggling with other mental health issues beyond gender dysphoria. And crucially, that these factors should be explored before leaping to start “transitioning” — a process that eventually involves a lifetime of hormone treatments and a series of complicated surgeries.

These facts, though, have been deemed unspeakable. Those who dare question the concept of gender identity itself — that is that one can have, say, a male body, but be truly a woman ‘on the inside’ — are treated as blasphemers and bigots, viciously harassed, attacked, and even fired from their place of work.

Dr. Kenneth Zucker is a case in point. A sexologist and psychologist who ran the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) in Toronto for more than 30 years, he was fired after trans activists mounted a smear campaign against him. Zucker’s ‘crime’ was to suggest that rather than immediately start children who think they have gender dysphoria on the transition process, perhaps we should first try to “help children feel comfortable in their own bodies.” Zucker himself was not actually opposed to the transition process — if the dysphoria of the youth he was working with persisted, Zucker would support them in their path to transitioning.

But simply acknowledging that desistance happens was apparently unacceptable. Over 500 professional clinicians and academics signed a petition in support of Zucker, arguing that his dismissal was “politically motivated” and that this should “stand as a warning to any clinical researcher who is or considers working at the CAMH: In the event of a conflict with activists for a fashionable cause, the CAMH might well sacrifice them — and the individuals and families they serve in their clinics — for some real or imagined local political gain.” But the damage was done. Zucker had been fired, and his reputation tarnished.

The power trans activists hold not only in terms of controlling the narrative surrounding transgenderism itself, but also in determining legislation, policies, and even what research may be conducted and published, in relation to gender identity is astounding.

Which brings us back to Littman’s study. On August 22, Brown University published a press release about the research, which had been published in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Almost immediately, a small number of trans activists complained, both to Brown University and to the journal itself.

One transgender Twitter user dubbed the paper “anti-transgender hate speech”. Another individual, who goes by the name “Hailey Heartless” and identifies as a “sex worker” and “dominatrix”, tweeted:

“The author of the study just wanted it in writing, she didn’t want anyone to review her flawed methodology or bias. She’s happy to do harm to a marginalized group now and take the hit to her credibility later. @HealthyBrown would be wise to distance themselves…

… The linked article was written using transphobic dogwhistles (sex observed at birth, for example), so it’s most likely that they have a transphobic contributor who knows exactly what they’re doing.”

Rather than stand by the professor and the research, Brown University responded by removing the news story and publishing a statement: “The School of Public Health has heard from Brown community members expressing concerns that the conclusions of the study could be used to discredit efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate the perspectives of members of the transgender community.” PLOS ONE published a comment on Littman’s study, explaining:

PLOS ONE is aware of the reader concerns raised on the study’s content and methodology. We take all concerns raised about publications in the journal very seriously, and are following up on these per our policy and COPE guidelines. As part of our follow up we will seek further expert assessment on the study’s methodology and analyses. We will provide a further update once we have completed our assessment and discussions.”

This response is shocking – the initial complaints came from a small minority of people, none of whom are scholars or scientists. The two individuals who led efforts to have Littman’s research removed and discredited don’t have any particular expertise to offer on her study, beyond being males who choose to identify as women. They have not undertaken a scientific study. They are deeply committed to defending the notion of gender identity and insist that it is possible for males to become literal females, based on nothing more than an announcement of one’s preferred pronouns.

Academic studies and public debate should not be narrowly determined by those committed to the ideologies in question. No idea can be deemed to be intellectually sound or true, without any doubt, if it isn’t subjected to critique and rigorous study and discussion. And despite the fact that trans activists insist gender identity is not an idea, but a scientific fact, it is clear that this is not the case when the concept of gender itself remains the subject of debate.

Feminists, for example, consider gender to be the set of stereotypes imposed on people at birth, based on their biological sex – for example, the idea that men are unemotional and adventurous whereas women are emotional and passive. These ideas do not determine our physical bodies. Trans activists, on the other hand, along with many on the religious Right, believe that gender is hard-wired, and that these stereotypes are both natural and innate, intricately connected to one’s biological sex (and, in the case of trans activists, they believe these stereotypes and an individual’s feelings about gender actually determine one’s sex).

Those who dare question the concept of gender identity itself are treated as blasphemers and bigots, viciously harassed, attacked, and even fired

Littman’s research was subject to peer review, revised based on reviewer comments, accepted, then published; meaning her study was determined to be credible and ethical. This does not mean that research should be protected from critique, but, as a former Dean of Harvard Medical School, Jeffrey S. Flier, wrote recently, Littman’s critics “have not performed any systematic analysis of her findings, but seem principally motivated by ideological opposition to her conclusions.”

But regardless of the motivations and actions of these critics, what is more troubling is the cowardice demonstrated on this issue by so many today. Politicians and legislators are clamouring to appear politically correct by creating legislation and policies supporting the notion of gender identity, without considering the consequences. Those who speak out or ask questions about the ideology and activism behind the transgender movement are threatened, abused, no-platformed, fired, and smeared. And too many are simply watching this happen in silence for fear they will be targeted or ostracised themselves.

It should terrify all of us that what we may study, debate and question is being determined by a small group of ideologues, many of whom go so far as to advocate violence against those who don’t toe the line. Regardless of your opinion on transgenderism itself, for all of us, our right to free speech, to speak the truth, and to think critically is under serious threat.

Meghan Murphy is a writer in Vancouver, BC. Her website is Feminist Current.


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