Teen Transgender Identity: A Response to Critics

Ideology or scientific rigor?

Posted Nov 29, 2018

I have received numerous private comments from readers about my recent article on the rise of transgender identity among teens. 

Many of those comments were supportive, others inquisitive, while others still were very hostile.  Many among those who wrote to me expressed surprise at my reporting on a “flawed study."

Some readers pointed out that I did not mention the controversy and significant public backlash that ensued after the study was first published in August 2018. You may read about it here, here, here, and here

The bulk of the critique of Dr. Littman’s study has been directed at the methodology and population sample. Littman obtained her reports from websites where parents discussed their challenges in dealing with a trans teen. This was seen as biased by many. In other words, critics accuse Littman of cherry-picking her sample from a population that was already critical—by some accounts, dismissive—of transgender identities. 

Littman, however, is very explicit in her approach, which consists of a study of parental reports. The majority of Littman’s informants, as it happens, report being in favor of trans peoples’ rights. This is beside the point. Regardless of their political views on this topic prior to, during, or after their children expressed the desire to transition, the parents in Littman’s study all share personal stories about doing their best to deal with a challenging situation for them and their children. As the wealth and breadth of the data show, Littman’s study sheds light on in-depth stories of doubts and difficulties that do capture a consensus from a large group of parents. This consensus, which may not align with the moral goals of all parents and activists, speaks to the experience a fair share of families of trans youth and deserves to be studied and discussed. 

Littman’s findings also raise important epidemiological questions that had not been extensively observed and studied before. These findings point to rising rates of:

  1. natal females expressing a wish to transition.
  2. adolescents who wish to transition without having exhibited early signs of gender dysphoria.

The correlation between these novel phenomena and social media exposure is also clearly established in her study. Note again that the study, as the author herself acknowledges, points to a correlation, which may not necessarily imply causation. Littman’s hypothesis on mechanisms of social contagion and coping through social signaling, however, is consistent with a wealth of evidence on the role of sociogenic factors in distress and coping. I discuss these findings in my article on ROGD. As controversial as this view might be, it deserves to be discussed.  

As it stands, the dominant and politically correct view of transgender identity being broadcast on university campuses — a view which, in a general sense, is linked to a culture of absolute validation and accommodations of people’s feelings and preferences — leaves very little room, if any, for alternative perspectives to be presented and discussed. 

Many prominent scholars, including the former Dean of Harvard Medical School, have commented on the backlash against Littman’s study and raised concerns about ideologically- motivated efforts to suppress her findings. 

Professor Flier is worth quoting at length here:

Increasingly, research on politically charged topics is subject to indiscriminate attack on social media, which in turn can pressure school administrators to subvert established norms regarding the protection of free academic inquiry.

By exploring controversial topics that challenge prevailing orthodoxies, scientists always have faced professional risks. Pursuing unorthodox scholarship can lead to frustration and failure, to exciting breakthroughs, or anything in between. 


For centuries, universities struggled to protect the ability of their faculties to conduct research seen as offensive—whether by the church, the state, or other powerful influences. Their success in this regard represents one of the great intellectual triumphs of modern times, one that sits at the foundation of liberal societies. This is why the stakes are high at Brown University. Its leaders must not allow any single politically charged issue—including gender dysphoria—from becoming the thin edge of a wedge that gradually undermines our precious, hard-won academic freedoms.

Littman’s study passed the test of scientific review and was deemed worthy of publication in a reputable journal. The study has also remained in print after further scientific review was conducted after publication as a response the moral outrage. 

Readers interested in studies and opinion pieces with different views on the rising rates of transgender identity will find a wealth of information out there. The ROGD perspective is one among many models proposed to make sense of a new phenomenon. Consider my article one of the rare pieces that gives it full consideration.

Note: You may also read my third post, which gives updates on the controversy raised by my article, and in which I call for dialogue (not debate) and compassion between the different sides of the ROGD issue.