Controversy intensifies over Littman ROGD study; petition now signed by 3700, no word from Brown University or PLoS ONE

by Marie Verite

Update: 7 Sept 2018: Petition has now reached 4200 signatures. In addition to the articles linked below, new media coverage includes:  NBCNews, which covers the controversy as well as the petition, as does this San Diego Union/New York Daily News story; Ken Miller, biology prof and Brown alum in the Brown Daily Herald ; and Cathy Young in Newsday.


In the six days since the launch of the petition urging Brown University and PLoS One to continue supporting research into the sharp increase in youth—particularly females—who seek medical intervention for gender dysphoria, over 3700 have signed and over 1060 have written comments. The initial signature goal was 1000, which was quickly surpassed in less than 12 hours; the goal has since been continuously raised. As of this writing it stands at 4000.

The signatories include many families affected by rapid onset gender dysphoria (ROGD), medical professionals, therapists, doctors, and academics. You can read them all—and sign the petition, if you have not yet—here.  A small sampler of the 1000+ comments:


— Lee Jussim – Chair Psychology Department, Rutgers University “If it’s wrong, let someone produce evidence that it is wrong. Until that time, if the research pisses some people off, who cares? Galileo and Darwin pissed people off too. Brown U should be ashamed of itself for caving to sociopolitical pressure. Science denial, anyone?”

— Richard B. Krueger – Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons “Brown University’s actions in its failure to support Dr. Littman’s peer reviewed research are abhorrent.” 

— Nicholas H. Wolfinger – Professor, Department of Family and Consumer Studies, University of Utah “It’s extraordinary for a dean to withdraw support for a study, especially one by an untenured researcher. This is inimical to the spirit of open inquiry. The well-being of trans youth & other sexual minorities is best served by more research, not less.”


The petition was emailed to officials at Brown and PLoS ONE editors several days ago when it reached 2000 signatures, along with a personal letter requesting a response. As of this date, no reply email or even an acknowledgement of receipt has been received.

This week, parents who launched the petition will be mailing the hard-copy petition, with its over 3700 signatories and over 1000 comments, to the Brown University and PLoS officials named at the bottom of the petition, as well as to two WPATH officials located in the United States. A response from all recipients is being requested.

In addition to petition signatories, there have been many others who’ve stepped forward to express their concerns about this assault on academic freedom and the attempted muzzling of free and open discussion regarding the surge in new cases of gender dysphoria in youth and young adults. Press coverage of the exploding controversy is increasing.

This week, the US edition of The Economist ran a piece featuring a mother who completed Dr. Littman’s survey and her daughter, now a 21-year-old desister who identified temporarily as trans and demanded medical intervention at the age of 16. The piece also covers Littman’s study and the growing controversy around it. Entitled “Why are so many teen girls appearing in gender clinics?” the article appears online and in this week’s print edition.Economist cover

The Economist reports that the mother was fine with her daughter’s gender expression but drew the line at medical transition; Rachel and her mother Janette fought “for months.” In the end, Rachel desisted. The article concludes with this paragraph:

Squashing research risks injuring the health of an unknown number of troubled adolescent girls. Rachel, now 21, believes she latched on to a trans identity as a way of coping with on-off depression and being sexually abused as a child. After receiving therapy, her gender dysphoria disappeared. Had her mother affirmed her gender identity as a 16-year-old, as several gender therapists urged, Rachel would have embarked on a medical transition that she turned out not to want after all.

Despite the obvious caring and thoughtfulness demonstrated by the liberal mother and her daughter in the article, Dianne Ehrensaft, Director of Mental Health at the gender clinic associated with UC San Francisco’s Benioff Children’s Hospital and an internationally recognized gender therapist, told the Economist that Littman finding  research subjects on sites where skeptical parents like Janette congregate (such as 4thWaveNow)

“would be like recruiting from Klan or alt-right sites to demonstrate that blacks really are an inferior race.”

The Economist article is one of the first to center both the experience of a trans-identified teen who changed her mind and her mother. (Jesse Singal included such stories in his recent Atlantic story; Singal continues to undergo attacks by trans activists for what can only be described as a balanced piece on the matter of youth gender dysphoria).

There has been other prominent news coverage of the Littman controversy. Jeffrey Flier, Harvard University Higginson Professor of Physiology and Medicine at Harvard, and former Dean of Harvard Medical School, first reacted on Twitter to Brown’s removal of the press release of Littman’s’ study, and the university’s failure to support its own researcher:

flier sad day

A few days later, Flier penned a piece for Quillette (an online journal fast becoming one of the most respected outlets for nuanced and incisive writing), taking Brown University to task for its disgraceful treatment of Dr. Littman, an untenured professor, as well as its abdication of responsibility to defend academic freedom via its craven actions in the face of agenda-driven activists. In response, many prominent physicians have retweeted Flier’s piece, as well as Brown faculty members. In Quillette, Flier took no prisoners:

“In all my years in academia, I have never once seen a comparable reaction from a journal within days of publishing a paper that the journal already had subjected to peer review, accepted and published.”

Reactions to the Littman debacle were everywhere on Twitter (for better or worse, the cyber-public square, referred to by some as the “Agora of the 21st Century”), including  from other medical professionals, such as Nicholas Christakis, physician, writer, and researcher at Yale.

flier christakis tweets

An article on Medscape on August 28, “Caring for Transgender Kids: Is Clinical Practice Outpacing the Science?” attracted comments from several physicians, most expressing serious concerns about the epidemic of young people identifying as transgender in the last few years. [Note: Some of these physicians signed and commented on the petition calling on Brown and PLoS ONE to support Dr. Littman’s work.]

 

 

Many journalists have also weighed in on Twitter, overwhelmingly in support of Littman’s work and also the petition to Brown and PLoS ONE.

cathy young peteition tweet

Jon Kay, Canadian editor of Quillette opined on Twitter

 

Tonight, Kay tweeted a letter by a WPATH clinician condemning the ROGD research. Based on WPATH’s previous hostility to any and everything to do with ROGD, we should expect to be hearing more from them in the very near future.

Other coverage of the Littman controversy (recommended) includes Science magazine, Inside Higher Ed, attorney-blogger Jonathan Turley, and the Volokh Conspiracy in Reason magazine.

The intense, swift reaction to the Littman matter–and ROGD–is stunning. Ironically, the pile-on intended to suppress Littman’s work may have had the opposite effect of that desired by activists. As of this writing, Littman’s study has been viewed on the PLOS ONE website nearly 59,000 times (this count would not include, of course, additional views of the paper via email shares of PDFs, etc). Indeed, the Littman affair seems to have not only brought the question of rapid onset of gender dysphoria in adolescence, finally, into the public eye. It has also stimulated a broad group of thinkers, professionals, journalists, and clinicians to start talking about the issues, under the banner of academic freedom and the pursuit of truth over the ideological dictates of one group of activists.

It’s heartening to see that defense of these core values is not dead, after all, in the West.  We now have not just parents, but public intellectuals, physicians, and ethical clinicians speaking up who recognize what is occurring for what it is: An assault on scientific inquiry and an attempt to squelch open discussion of a phenomenon which is becoming more obvious by the day, despite every effort by the usual suspects to insist it doesn’t exist.

As of this writing, there has been no further public response from either Brown University or PLoS ONE. The last reaction we are aware of was an obsequious response by PLoS ONE on Twitter to a self-described BDSM trans sex worker who goes by the moniker “SadistHailey”/Hailey Heartless.

PLOS One hailey

As we observed on our Twitter account,

hailey little babs 4th tweet

 

 

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Brown University and PLOS ONE: Defend academic freedom and scientific inquiry

We are urging Brown University and the editors of the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE to continue to support the research of Dr. Lisa Littman. Her recently published paper, “Rapid-onset gender dysphoria in adolescents and young adults: A study of parental reports,” explores the possibility that social contagion may cause some teens and young adults to incorrectly conclude they are transgender, and thereby undertake irreversible medical interventions that they may eventually regret.

Since its publication, there has been a concerted effort to suppress Dr. Littman’s groundbreaking study. Complete details can be found below. Readers who share our concern about this activist-driven attack on scientific inquiry and academic freedom are strongly encouraged to sign the petition at this link.

In addition,  please consider telephoning and/or writing a personal letter to the following individuals at Brown University and PLOS ONE. What’s at stake: The future of research into the unexplained increase in young people, particularly girls, presenting to gender clinics.

Bess Marcus, Dean of School of Public Health, bess_marcus@brown.edu, 401-863-9858

Christopher Kahler, Chair of Behavioral and Social Sciences, christopher_kahler@brown.edu, 401-863-6651

Brian Clark, Director of News and Editorial Development, brian_clark@brown.edu, 401-863-1638

Joerg Heber, PLOS ONE Editor-in-Chief, jheber@plos.org, 415-624-1200


Petition text

We, the undersigned, are writing in support of Dr. Lisa Littman of Brown University and her study on the topic of rapid onset gender dysphoria (ROGD).

Many of us are parents of teens and young adults who, having never expressed discomfort with their sex during childhood, experienced a sudden onset of gender dysphoria after exposure to the concept through peers and/or websites promoting transition. Some of the signatories to this petition are parents who completed Dr. Littman’s survey. The results of the study support the possibility that social contagion, rather than an innate, immutable sense of incongruence between body and mind, may be at work in some of these cases.

We are grateful that Dr. Littman’s research has been published and that this issue is finally beginning to get the attention it deserves. Although an abrupt adolescent onset of dysphoria has been mentioned previously in the scientific literature[1] , Dr. Littman’s study is the first to explore and document the phenomenon in detail. It describes what appears to be happening to many young people today.

We must be very clear: the parental reports in this study offer important and much-needed preliminary information about a cohort of adolescents, mostly girls, who with no prior history of dysphoria, are requesting irreversible medical interventions, including the potential to impair fertility and future sexual function. In any other group of children, these grave consequences would be seen as human rights violations unless there was significant and overwhelming evidence these procedures would be beneficial long-term.

Across the world in the last few years, researchers and clinicians have noted a sharp uptick in the number of young people, primarily females, who are requesting medical transition services. For example, in the United Kingdom gender clinic referrals have quadruped in the last five years. This constitutes an epidemic. As a leader in public health research, it is incumbent upon Brown University to investigate the causes and conditions leading to this sharp increase, as well as the long term outcomes.

Tavistock-referrals-of-boys-vs-girls-

Referral data from Tavistock GIDS: http://gids.nhs.uk/number-referrals

We are disheartened to see that Brown University has already removed a news release announcing the study from its website and replaced it with a letter to their community that states: “There is an added obligation for vigilance in research design and analysis any time there are implications for the health of the communities at the center of research and study.”

We, the undersigned, many of whom are parents who participated in Littman’s survey, agree wholeheartedly that the “scientific community holds an obligation for vigilance in research design and methodology.” There has yet to be a study that includes a cohort of youth offered mental health care in place of affirmation therapy. The glaring absence of a control group of youth who are supported by their families in their gender exploration but who are not affirmed in “wrong body” beliefs is a failure of the scientific community. As the number of girls and young women who desist from their trans identification grows, we must demand recognition for this cohort as members of the “communities at the center of research and study.”

The university has effectively caved to pressure from activists who claim that Dr. Littman recruited participants from “anti-trans” or “far right” hate sites. Similarly, the moderator of the PLOS One Twitter site promised to “investigate” the published study after trans activists mobbed their account. Trans activists  claim the parents who completed the survey were too transphobic to accept that their children were trans and too disconnected to have noticed that they had been suffering from dysphoria since childhood.

These claims are false in every respect. The three websites referenced are available for all to view, but the vast majority of contributors are secular, engaged, open-minded, mostly liberal-leaning parents.

These sites point to the probability that many kids who are today identifying as trans are in fact experiencing internalized homophobia. In other words, the contributors to these sites are concerned about the wellbeing of gay and lesbian kids, and they want to ensure that their children are not transitioning simply because they are ashamed of their sexual orientation.

Consider the study results:

  • 85.9% support same-sex marriage.
  • 88.2% believe trans people deserve the same rights and protections as everyone else.

Clearly, those who claim the respondents are from the far right are either misinformed or disingenuous.

And what of the claim that the parents were “unsupportive” or too disconnected from their children to recognize they had felt dysphoric during childhood? Dr. Littman acknowledges this possibility in her paper. However, she also notes that “the 200 plus responses appear to have been prepared carefully and were rich in detail, suggesting they were written in good faith and that parents were attentive observers of their children’s lives.”

Littman’s study offers, for the first time, a glimpse into families who hold space for their dysphoric children while also seeking out mental health care that focuses on underlying conditions. Consider some of her findings:

  • 204 out of 256 youth reported on in the study claimed alternative sexualities to their parents prior to coming out as transgender
  • Over 200 youth were supported in changing their presentation in terms of hairstyle and dress
  • 188 had changed their names
  • 175 had changed their pronouns
  • 111 youth told their parents they wanted to see a gender therapist; 92 were taken to see one

Moreover, of Dr. Littman’s respondents, there were only eight cases of estrangement: six by the youths themselves and two “where the estrangement was initiated by the parent because the AYA’s outbursts were affecting younger siblings or there was a threat of violence made by the AYA to the parent.” [AYA = “adolescent or young adult.”]

These are clearly parents who supported their children in their distress and through exploration of identity. Littman’s study also found that 119 youth requested medical interventions at the same time they announced their new gender identity or within the first month of their announcement. Remember, 100% of the youth discussed in her survey did not qualify for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria at any point in their childhood or  prior to coming out. Yet, 17 youth were offered an Rx on their first visit with a clinician. Perhaps even more concerning, “For parents who knew the content of their child’s evaluation, 71.6% reported that the clinician did not explore issues of mental health, previous trauma, or any alternative causes of gender dysphoria before proceeding and 70.0% report that the clinician did not request any medical records before proceeding.” This is in a cohort of young people of whom 62.5% had been diagnosed with at least one mental health or neurodevelopmental disability prior to the onset of gender dysphoria, which mirrors data from other affirmation-focused clinics.[2]

Another notable criticism of the study is that Dr. Littman sought input only from parents, not from their children. Here again she acknowledges the limitation: “Although this research adds the necessary component of parent observation to our understanding of gender dysphoric adolescents and young adults, future study in this area should include both parent and child input.” We understand that Dr. Littman plans future surveys specifically for dysphoric youth and we cannot emphasize enough how important this research will be for this particular group of young people and their families.

We, the signatories to this letter, overwhelmingly support the rights of transgender people, but we want better diagnostic and mental health care for youth who suddenly demand serious medical interventions, particularly in the absence of a history of dysphoria.  We believe that medical interventions that may benefit some individuals may not help, and may even harm, others, as already evidenced by the growing number of desisters and detransitioners, many of whom have already suffered from irreversible side effects of their earlier medical transition . We support more research to help distinguish between the two groups, and Dr. Littman’s study is an important first step.

We strongly urge Brown University and PLOS ONE to resist ideologically-based attempts to squelch controversial research evidence. Please stand firm for academic freedom and scientific inquiry.  We urge you to support Dr. Littman in this important line of research.


[1] See, for example, Bonfatto, M. & Crasnow, E. (2018) Gender/ed identities: an overview of our current work as child psychotherapists in the Gender Identity Development Service, Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 44:1, 29-46, DOI: 10.1080/0075417X.2018.1443150. Also see Byne, W., Bradley, S. J., Coleman, E., Eyler, A. E., Green, R., Menvielle, E. J., . . . Tompkins, D. A. (2012). Report of the American Psychiatric Association Task Force on Treatment of Gender Identity Disorder. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41(4), 759-796. doi:10.1007/s10508-012-9975-x.

[2] “In all diagnostic [mental health] categories, prevalence was severalfold higher among TGNC youth than in matched reference groups.” http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2018/04/12/peds.2017-3845