There has been a rash of anti-transgender articles published in the UK press over the last couple of weeks (I have no desire to link to them, but you can read rebuttals here and here and here). They warn readers about “transgender zealots” pushing “transgender agendas” designed to coerce young children into becoming transgender, and they are full of fear-mongering over “children sacrificed to appease trans lobby,” and claims that “transgenderism has become ‘an industry’.” These pieces, written from a politically conservative and blatantly trans-antagonistic standpoint, share something in common with their supposedly “trans-friendly” counterparts: You know, the articles that start out by acknowledging that transgender people exist and should not face persecution, but then pivot (under the guise of scientific and/or journalistic objectivity) to the possibility that some (perhaps many?!) children who socially transition may not be “really transgender.” These latter pieces will likely cite statistics about desistance, point to instances of people detransitioning, and/or raise the possibility that the apparent increase in transgender children may be due to “peer pressure” or “social contagion.”
I have critiqued these latter articles in Stop pitting detransitoners against happily transitioned people, and more thoroughly in Detransition, Desistance, and Disinformation: A Guide for Understanding Transgender Children Debates (and this follow up), so I will not be reiterating those arguments here. But one issue that I do want to address in more depth is transgender prevalence, as this seems to (mis)inform both the “transgender agenda” and “social contagion/peer pressure” charges.
It was not that long ago that trans activists constantly had to grapple with the (false) notion that being transgender was an extraordinarily rare phenomenon. When I was doing research for my book Whipping Girl in the mid-’00, the most often quoted statistics were from research carried out in the ’60s and ’70s claiming that the prevalence of transsexualism (basically, people who desire to transition) was 1 in 30,000 for those who were assigned male at birth, and 1 in 100,000 for those who were assigned female. More recent studies from the ’80s and ’90s suggested that those figures were more in the range of 1 in 10,000 and 1 in 30,000, respectively. But even these latter figures were still preposterously low; if they were true, it would mean that statistically there should only have been about 26 trans men in all of San Francisco at the time! (As someone who was active in the Bay Area’s trans communities, I can assure you that this would be a gross underestimate). Despite these inaccuracies, the cisgender majority seemed really attached to those statistics — they were cited and quoted over and over again — likely because they portrayed trans people as an extremely rare anomaly, one that could be easily discounted and readily ignored.
Part of the reason why those previous studies so greatly underestimated the trans population is that they were not counting trans people per se, but rather the number of people diagnosed with Transsexualism/GID from one of the few Gender Identity Clinics that existed at the time. Very few trans people could financially afford or logistically access these clinics, and those who did found that there were strict criteria one had to meet in order to obtain that diagnosis. I discuss those standards in detail in Whipping Girl, but here I will mention two particularly relevant criteria: You had to be able to pass as cisgender, and be willing to hide your trans status post-transition. This point is crucial, given how much of today’s anti-trans fear-mongering seems to be driven (or enabled) by the following false logic: 1) there were hardly any transgender people twenty or thirty years ago, 2) now suddenly they are everywhere, 3) therefore, there must be some external unnatural force (e.g., transgender agendas, peer pressure, social contagion) that is artificially creating all these newly minted trans people. However, the reality is that trans people have always existed; it’s just that during that time period, most were not allowed to transition, and the few who did were forced to hide that fact from the world.
An early challenge to those old dubious statistics was Lynn Conway’s work[PDF link] in 2001–2007 examining multiple lines of evidence (other than diagnoses from Gender Identity Clinics), which led to the conclusion that “the lower bound on the prevalence of transsexualism is at least 1:500, and possibly higher.” Further support for such higher figures was provided by a 2011 Williams Institute report (derived from population-based surveys in California in 2003 and Massachusetts in 2007 and 2009) that estimated that 0.3% of the population is transgender. (Note: many people who self-identify as transgender do not take steps to socially or physically transition, so this estimate would be expected to be somewhat larger than the prevalence of transsexualism.)
More recently, a 2016 Williams Institute report surveying all fifty U.S. states estimated that 0.6% of the population identifies as transgender, with some states (e.g., Hawaii, California, Georgia, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida) in the 0.7 to 0.8% range. Given current trends, I would not be surprised if these numbers continue to increase somewhat over time. After all, these studies are not actually measuring the prevalence of discomfort with one’s birth-assigned gender, or a desire to be the other/another gender. They are simply tallying the number of people who currently identify as transgender and are willing to state that in a survey. And despite all the manufactured fears about peer pressure turning people transgender, the brunt of societal pressure continues to push people toward cisgender identities, and coerce them to repress gender non-conforming tendencies.
But of course, many people don’t want to believe this. And (as exemplified by the aforementioned anti-trans fear-mongering articles) these people will go out of their way to invent all sorts of make-believe causes (the transgender agenda! social contagion!) to explain this increase in transgender self-identification. To these people, I would say this: Remember all those trans narratives you’ve heard over the years — the ones that trans people have historically been forced to share anytime we are interviewed on television or elsewhere? And you know how they almost always begin with a statement like: “I first realized that I was trans back when I was a child . . .” Remember those? Well now, ask yourself: What would the world look like if all those trans people felt safe enough to act on those feelings as children? And what if their parents and schools actually took them seriously, rather than forcing them to suppress their gender? Well, that’s basically what is happening now. You don’t need to invent any alternate reasons or hypotheses, just simply use Occam’s razor.
If you happen to be one of those people who are concerned about the seemingly sudden appearance of transgender children, then the following graph should really freak you out:
During the twentieth century, in many Western countries, there was a precipitous rise in left-handedness. For instance, in Australia, the prevalence of left-handed people increased from 2.0 percent to a whopping 13.2 percent! Apparently, a social contagion swept through these nations, and children suddenly began feeling peer pressure to experiment with handedness and to adopt left-handed identities. Then, the left-handed deviants began pushing their “left-hander agenda” in order to recruit . . . oh, wait, sorry, that’s not what happened at all.
In actuality, left-handedness (like being transgender) is a part of human variation — both are pan-cultural trans-historical phenomena. In the case of left-handedness, roughly 10 to 12 percent of children inexplicably express this tendency from as early as infancy. In the beginning of the twentieth century, there was intense stigma targeting left-handedness, which led parents and schools to force all children to be right-handed, often against their intrinsic preferences (this still happens in many places). But eventually, there was a realization that this stigma was unnecessary and unfair, and people started letting children decide for themselves which hands to use. In other words, there wasn’t really a rise in left-handedness so much as there was a rise in left-handed acceptance.
Granted, it’s not a perfect analogy. For starters, I highly doubt that 10 to 12 percent of the population is predisposed toward being transgender! Also, it appears that children who display early left-handed tendencies can often be trained to use (perhaps even favor) their right hands without experiencing overwhelming dysphoria. (In contrast, we know from the countless trans narratives that I alluded to earlier, the same is not true for many trans people who are forced to adopt an unwanted gender.) Despite these differences, this parallel does hold true in the following sense: You don’t need to concoct half-assed theories to explain the mysterious appearance of transgender children. All you need to do is recognize that we have always existed. It’s just that we were long rendered invisible via stigma, punishment, and ostracization.
Can I share a secret with you? When I was a young child, I experimented with left-handedness. Seriously. In elementary school, I had a few friends who were left-handed, and in art class they got to use these special scissors. I was intrigued, so I tried them out, using my left hand, but they didn’t really work for me. A few years later, inspired by my favorite baseball player, I tried batting left-handed. It didn’t go particularly well. It felt awkward, uncomfortable, so I eventually gave it up.
I also experimented with being a boy (an excruciatingly long experiment!), but not because I was intrigued or inspired to give it a try. If you are concerned about peer pressure, well let me tell you, what I experienced was EVERYBODY PRESSURE — the entirety of society poked and prodded and pushed me to embody male masculinity. But it did not take. Not at all. Because gender identity is complicated and not easily manipulated. And my predisposition (i.e., the understanding that I wasn’t supposed to be a boy, that I should be a girl) never went away. It prevailed, despite that overwhelming EVERYBODY PRESSURE.
One of the recent UK article headlines read: “Are you transphobic? No, me neither. We’re just worried about our children.” But here’s the thing: If you are opposed to schools adopting policies that accommodate transgender children because of make-believe pet theories you harbor about transgender agendas, social contagions, peer pressure, and the like, then you are most certainly engaging in anti-trans discrimination (along with other logical fallacies). And if you believe that your child’s gender identity is so fragile and malleable that the presence of one transgender child, or the implementation of some trans-accommodating school policy, will “turn your child transgender,” then you seem to be espousing a strict nurture/social constructionist view of gender, in which case I will ask you: If gender itself is so capricious and unnatural, then why should we even care about cisgender versus transgender outcomes?
Honestly, even if transgender activists worked tirelessly to pen a compelling “transgender agenda,” and even if we encouraged your children’s peers to pressure them to flout gender norms, they would still, in most likelihood, wind up cisgender. Alternatively, if they insistently, consistently, and persistently asserted that they should be the other/another gender, then it’s highly unlikely that we could have caused that. And if, on the other other hand, we managed to intrigue or inspire your child to experiment with gender a bit, no worries, no actual harm will come of it — exploring different clothes, toys, hobbies, etcetera, is far safer than letting a right-handed child play with lefty scissors. And if this gender experimentation continues, and leads them toward even more gender non-conformity, and perhaps even shifts in their public gender identity, it’s most likely something that deeply resonates with them, rather than them merely “following a trend” or “trying to fit in.” I encourage you to let them figure it out for themselves.
And finally, if your response to all of this is: But what about all the young children being rushed into irreversible genital surgeries! then you, my friend, have been consuming way too many anti-trans conspiracy theories, and I suggest you start with this article instead.
Note after publication: I have since chronicled the history of the notion that “social contagion” causes children to become transgender — see Origins of “Social Contagion” and “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria.”
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