The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Are All Transgender People Born that Way?

One Brown University researcher thinks "maybe not" and got thrown under the bus for it by the university.


A few days ago Lisa Littman, a Brown University assistant professor who wrote about "rapid-onset gender dysphoria," found herself and her work getting more attention than she bargained for.

In her study, she asked questions of the parents of teens and young adults who suddenly, after no previous history, identified as transgender. About 21% of those parents reported that their children had one or more friends who came out as transgender at around the same time; 20% reported an increase in their child's social media use; and 45% reported both. In addition, 62% reported their child had been diagnosed with one or more psychiatric disorders or neurodevelopmental disabilities before the transgender issue suddenly arose.

Note that Littman's finding applies only to "rapid-onset gender dysphoria" and not to all cases of gender dysphoria. Her study also had various limitations that stem from the difficulty of finding a large sample of parents whose children had experienced rapid-onset gender dysphoria. But the problems were not out of the ordinary for this kind of research, and she acknowledged them, calling for more research on the topic.

Transgender activists were apparently irate at the suggestion that maybe not all transgender people are just "born that way" (as the slogan goes). They cranked up the outrage machine. Brown University, which had published a new note highlighting the study, caved in to pressure to withdraw the news note and issued what was essentially an apology.

This reminded me of when I drew the ire of transgender activists two years ago. You can read about that whole ridiculous incident here. I got all sorts of nasty emails for about a day and a half. One charmer, who claimed to be in San Diego, wrote, "Your days are numbered and we're coming after you! UCSD will soon be free of your ignorant bigot ass!" (Of course, I don't work for UCSD; I teach at USD, but whatever.) Another wrote, "Can't wait for the shaming to begin, Gail. You will never be off the hook, you will always be shamed for being a racist ignorant bigot. Kill yourself now because these next years will be brutal. You will be fired professor [c-word]." And there were plenty more. (And this fuss was for testimony that was generally supportive of the idea that one's unwillingness to conform to conventional notions of masculinity or femininity is no business of the government's. My main point relating to transgenderism was simply that Title IX's prohibition on sex discrimination does not require schools to assign transgender students to any particular locker room or bathroom. But mobs tend not to have read the things that they claim set them off.)

One difference between my case and Littman's is that, despite numerous calls for my firing, USD never did anything other than quietly support my academic freedom. But here's something that probably won't be different for Littman: By the second day, supportive messages from around the country started rolling in for me. My law school even got a lovely contribution from an alumnus. Pretty quickly those supportive messages vastly outnumbered the critical ones. I suspect they will for Littman too. Brown, on the other hand, needs to learn that not everyone thinks it covered itself in glory.

If you've a mind to you can register your support for free inquiry (or your lack of support for a university that caves to howling mobs) by signing this petition. There is also contact information there if you would like to send your own message.