This article was first published on October 17, 2019 by Religion Dispatches.
This past weekend at the 2019 Values Voter Summit in Washington DC, the Family Research Council hosted a panel of anti-trans speakers who illustrated the evangelical-right’s continued shift towards storytelling as a tactic against health and justice for transgender people.
The panel began with Lynn Meagher, an activist associated with anti-trans Hands Across the Aisle and the parent of two trans children. Meagher described having a dream in which she held her children, fed them healthy food, and cared for them, only to wake up today feeling as if she had lost her children, who no longer speak to her. She retold what people have said her:
“You should be proud of your son for finding his true self.”
“Wouldn’t you rather have a live son than a dead daughter?”
“I’m sure if you worked a little harder, you could use his correct pronouns.”
“Don’t ever call him that name again. That’s his dead name. You’re traumatizing him.”
To her, that the comparison is not an apt one.
To Meagher, physicians and mental health professionals are too supportive of trans youth, for whom, in her opinion, the price of affirming care is too high. “There are young women with broken voices; permanent body and facial hair; male pattern baldness; scarred and flat chests; sterility; atrophy and permanent damage to their reproductive organs; their arms forever damaged, scarred, and weakened from radial phalloplasty surgery; mutilated genitalia; loss of sexual function; increased risk of heart disease; bone loss; and overwhelming psychological trauma.”
Aside from the fact that many cisgender “young women” have broken voices, body hair, scarred and flat chests from breast cancer survival, sterility, damage to reproductive organs, bone loss, and other symptoms from conditions completely unrelated to their gender identity, Meagher might be forgiven for buying into the myths of transition-related care for trans youth and the incidence of desistance (or de-transition). The myths of trans-affirming care for youth are fully supported by the network of anti-trans advocacy organizations that include the Family Research Council and the American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds), whose representative spoke next on the panel. Not to be confused with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the mainstream professional association of pediatricians, ACPeds is a longtime partner of the Family Research Council and an SPLC-designated hate group.
Then Dr. Andre Van Mol, co-chair of the ACPeds’ Committee on Adolescent Sexuality (ACPeds), repeated the litany of anti-transgender highlights, the same misinterpreted statistics and discredited studies that prop-up the infrastructure of anti-transgender advocacy, from anti-trans feminism to the Heritage Foundation’s new pamphlet on “How to speak up about Gender Identity.”
“Desistance. That’s the norm for gender dysphoria,” claimed Dr. Van Mol, citing a widely discredited, problematic body of research that lumps non-transgender children in with transgender children to study their gender identity over a number of years. Unsurprisingly, the majority of those children do not report a shift in their gender identity, allowing researchers to falsely record those youth among those who “desisted.” Equally problematic are the studies that counted youth who dropped out of their research groups as youth who must no longer experience gender dysphoria. “In other words,” reports Zack Ford at Think Progress, “[I]t’s the equivalent of a dentist who wrongly assumes that, if 24 of his patients stop coming back, it must mean that they’re no longer getting cavities.”
Dr. Van Mol confidently backed up all of Lynn Meagher’s fears, with no credible evidence behind his claims. I will touch on two more here. First, the assertion that many or most of transgender youth also have autism, implying either that they cannot make rational decisions about their own gender identity or that affirming adults are somehow leveraging their autism in order to convince them they are transgender. And second, that transgender youth who access affirming care have higher rates of suicidal ideation and attempts than youth who do not receive affirming care.
As I wrote for Political Research Associates in 2018, “A concurrently published article from Spectrum, an online news outlet launched in 2015 to publish objective coverage of autism research, points out there are myriad reasons why people with autism are more likely to identify as LGBTQ, including “decreased adherence to social conventions” and “greater forthrightness and honesty.” But the correlations are not important to those peddling in conspiracy theories. Dr. Michelle Cretella, executive director of ACPeds, told Church Militant that children with autism are “very aware of being different from their peers and/or isolated by them at a very young age. Consequently, when autistic children are exposed to transgenderism, it has a two-fold appeal… . Once they declare a transgender identity, they suddenly have a group of ‘friends’ the likes of which they have never experienced.”
Anti-trans advocacy groups like ACPeds and FRC leverage the myth of causation between autism and transgender status in order to accuse transgender people of recruiting children, and parents like Lynn Meagher believe them.
The second assertion I wanted to address—that transgender children who access affirming care have higher rates of suicidal ideation and attempts than youth who cannot access affirming care—is unequivocally wrong. The What We Know Project at Cornell University performed a meta-analysis of all peer-review articles published between 1991 and 2017 on the topic of transition-related well-being. Ninety-three percent of those peer-reviewed articles found that transition-related care improves well-being for transgender people, and the remaining 7% reported mixed findings. Not a single peer-reviewed study found that trans-affirming care had a negative impact on suicidality.
The final speaker on the panel was KathyGrace Duncan, who shared her story of detransition with the encouragement of her church. Duncan’s story was as moving as Meagher’s, about her rise through the ranks of her church as a leader and a religious educator, only to hear a message from her God that she was not living her full truth.
All stories of gender identity are valid, as are all journeys, including the stories of people whose gender identities may fluctuate over time, as perhaps Duncan’s has. It is therefore crucial to frame stories in context and with peer-reviewed data so that a listener such as Lynn Meagher can understand that the vast majority of transgender people do not desist, nor do their regret their transition.
At the end of her prepared remarks, Lynn Meagher told the audience that “the time is now to demand [that] rigorous, scientific research is done to examine the safety and efficacy of medical transition for children.” In fact, that research has already been done and shows without a shadow of a doubt that youth need trans-affirming care. But when organizations like the Family Research Council only share personal stories of fear and false data, parents looking to them for answers will be misled.