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Trans activists fail to block research suggesting gender dysphoria is 'contagious'

Camilla Tominey
Activists and protesters with the National Center for Transgender Equality rally in front of the White House, Feb 2017 - Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

An Ivy League academic has had research republished suggesting gender dysphoria is spreading among children in a victory over transgender activists who campaigned for the study to be pulled.

In a triumph for free speech, Brown University acknowledged on its website the republication of the controversial peer-reviewed paper, which hypothesised that teenagers who came out as transgender were more likely to have friends who were transitioning and were influenced by YouTube videos and social media.

The research concluded "social and peer contagion" was a plausible explanation for "cluster outbreaks" and a high number of cases where the majority of children in a friendship group became "transgender-identified".

Although an apology was issued for failing to make clear the research was “observational” rather than providing a clinical diagnosis for “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD), the publishers confirmed “the study and resultant data reported in the article represent a valid contribution to the scientific literature”.

The report’s author Dr Lisa Littman of Brown University’s School of Public Health told the Telegraph: "It is a reframing of the presentation to clarify this was an observational study of parental reports to avoid any misinterpretation of ROGD as a clinical diagnosis but the findings remain the same. I am delighted my work has withstood this extensive peer review process."

Dr Littman's research was originally published in August last year by PLOS ONE, an open access academic journal. But it was almost immediately withdrawn following a fierce backlash from transgender activists who complained the research was flawed. Brown University in Rhode Island removed a news story about the original paper from its news distribution list but has now linked the revised study to its official website. 

The paper has been republished with a different headline - reflecting that ROGD was “perceived” in children and clarifying the language used. 

A PLOS ONE spokesman said: “We stand by the paper but felt it needed additional context because ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria’ is not a validated clinical term. We asked Dr Littman to revise the article so as not to overreach what could be concluded from this story of parental reports. This included changes to the title, abstract, introduction, and conclusions to clarify the study’s limitations and the implications of its results.”

The Tavistock Centre, Hampstead, London Credit: Jeffrey Blackler /Alamy

The move comes after the Tavistock Centre, the UK’s only gender identity service (GIDS) for children, has seen a 2,500 per cent spike in referrals from 97 in 2009 to 2,519 in the year to April 2018.

In Dr Littman's study, 87 per cent of the parents reported that, along with the sudden or rapid onset of gender dysphoria, their child either had an increase in their social media/internet use, belonged to a friend group in which one or multiple friends became transgender-identified during a similar time frame, or both. 

In 37 per cent of cases described, parents said the 'majority' of their child's friendship groups were transgender identifying. Sixty three per cent reported at least one mental health or neuro-developmental disorder in their child. Forty one per cent said their children had expressed non-heterosexual orientations before identifying as trans. 

Critics raised concerns about the political stance of the 256 parents who took part because they had been sourced from online discussion groups including British site Transgender Trend and US site 4thwavenow. 

Comments on the original article described the sites as "politically bent websites" which hold a "variety of anti-LGBT stances common to the religious right". Susie Green, the CEO of British charity Mermaids, which supports young transgender people and their families, had complained that the methodology of the study was "completely flawed".

But Transgender Trend insisted on Twitter: "Desperate attempts to undermine Lisa Littman's important #ROGD study include defamation of the websites where parents were recruited, including the ridiculous claim that Transgender Trend is 'far right' and wants to 'criminalise' medical transition. We are not and we don't."

Dr Littman's paper acknowledged that the interviewees "might be more oppositional to transgender-identified individuals", but added that survey questions indicated they had a similar level of support for the rights of transgender people as the rest of the population.

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