Understanding the Anti-Trans Parent Movement
We are currently in the midst of an all-out moral panic against transgender people. If I were to ask “who is driving this panic?” most people in the United States would likely say the far right and social conservatives who have traditionally been opposed to LGBTQ+ people. In the United Kingdom, they might say “gender critical” (GC) or “TERFs,” who frame their opposition to trans people as a feminist crusade. If you said “both,” well, that would also be correct, as these two groups have long been working together.
But there is a third faction driving this moral panic that has received far less public attention: the anti-trans parent movement. This movement is comprised of reluctant parents of trans children. They coalesce online to share stories, spread alternative theories that explain away their children’s transness, and exchange tips on how to coerce their children into “desisting.” Some of their theories are pseudoscientific (e.g., that trans identities are now spreading among children via “social contagion/ROGD”), while others are conspiratorial (e.g., children are being recruited via “gender ideology,” “grooming,” or “Jewish billionaires working to create a transhumanist future”).
Some parents come into these groups with strong pre-existing views on trans people (e.g., social conservative or GC/TERF), while many others are initially trans-unaware and simply seeking answers in the wake of their children coming out to them. Either way, because these online communities tell parents exactly what they want to hear (“your child isn’t really trans, they’ve just been influenced by an insidious outside force and we can help you dispel it”), many find these spaces and the misinformation they propagate to be quite compelling.
In a separate essay, I detailed why the gender affirmative model has become the scientifically established approach to treating trans youth (it includes a list of over 100 research studies and reviews). Thus, the anti-trans parent movement’s promotion of gender-disaffirming rationales and solutions is steeped in science denialism and distrusting the medical establishment. In this sense, the movement shares a lot in common with the anti-vaccination parent movement. And just as well-meaning parents sometimes fall down anti-vaxxer rabbit holes, parents of trans kids who are looking for answers sometimes inadvertently become immersed in these anti-trans parent online groups.
The rest of this essay is divided into three sections. First, I will share a brief history of how this anti-trans parent movement arose and stories of people who got caught up in it. Second, I will provide examples of seemingly “fair and balanced” mainstream articles that portray anti-trans parent activists as simply “concerned parents” rather than as science deniers or conspiracy theorists. The final section will suggest better ways of covering such stories in the future.
Origins of the Anti-Trans Parent Movement
Online communities for parents of trans children have existed since at least the mid-2000s, if not earlier (see e.g., Meadow, 2018, pp. 94–141). Generally, such groups were focused on supporting trans kids and their families more generally. The first evidence I could find of online parent groups centered on disaffirming their trans children’s identities was in 2015–16, when three websites (4thwavenow, Transgender Trend, and Youth Trans Critical Professionals) came into being. Run by and catering to trans-skeptical parents, these websites cross-posted one another’s writings and ideas, which were subsequently disseminated throughout the greater anti-trans activist landscape.
I chronicle the rise of the “three websites” in my timeline Origins of “Social Contagion” and “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria,” which focuses mostly on how these sites invented and propagated the pseudoscientific theory of “transgender social contagion.” Independently, Lee Leveille of Health Liberation Now! published The Mechanisms of TAnon: Where it Came From, a timeline chronicling the rise of anti-trans activism in the mid-2010s through today. If you search that timeline for “4thwavenow,” “Transgender Trend,” or “Lisa Marchiano” (founder of Youth Trans Critical Professionals), you will find that the anti-trans parent movement has played a central role within this anti-trans activist ecosystem.
A recent episode of the podcast The Anti-Trans Hate Machine (Season 2, Episode 3: Seduction of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria) includes a lengthy interview with a mother who discovered 4thwavenow, fell for their misinformation, and used that to justify disaffirming her trans daughter and denying her gender-affirming care for many years.
While two of the three websites (4thwavenow and Transgender Trend) are still active, many similar Facebook groups and online forums have since cropped up. In 2020, Heron Greenesmith wrote an exposé on the Gender Critical Support Board — an online comment board where parents seek out gender-disaffirming therapists in the hopes of “converting” their trans kids. The Gender Critical Support Board was founded by a father who became radicalized when his child came out as trans.
A similar story of radicalization may underlie the website Parents of ROGD Kids. In a post from 5 years ago, a Reddit user claimed that their gender-disaffirming mother created the site and based most of the initial stories on them.
Perhaps the most detailed reporting into the anti-trans parent movement can be found in Caelan Conrad’s three-part YouTube series “Gender Critical.” For the series, Conrad posed online as a skeptical mother of a trans child in order to join otherwise private gender-critical Facebook groups. The first episode, entitled “Recruitment,” is about how these groups win over and eventually indoctrinate newcomers to their anti-trans worldview. The most pertinent segment for our purposes is subtitled “Recruiting Parents” (beginning about 41 minutes into the episode). Much of it focuses on a Facebook group with the innocuous-sounding name “Concerned Parents of Transgender/Non-binary Children” and the tactics they use to encourage parents to view their children’s transness as a “sickness” or “threat” that must be purged at all costs.
Conrad’s second episode, “Conversion Therapy,” delves into how these anti-trans parent groups encourage do-it-yourself conversion therapy using Maria Keffler’s book Desist, Detrans, & Detox: Getting Your Child Out of the Gender Cult. It is, quite frankly, a difficult watch, especially if you understand the harms associated with conversion therapy. For those looking for a synopsis, this episode is summarized in a Los Angeles Blade article that also discusses the books promoted by these anti-trans parents.
I understand why the average person might not want to further investigate the videos, podcasts, articles, and timelines that I’ve highlighted here. But for journalists covering the current anti-trans moral panic and efforts to restrict access to gender-affirming care, understanding this anti-trans parent movement is essential for proper reporting.
Spotting Anti-Trans Media Bias: The “Concerned Parent” Trope
Anti-trans parent talking points are sometimes laundered into mainstream discourse via “just asking questions” articles and news stories. These pieces strike trans-unaware audiences as “fair and balanced” because they seem to show “all sides” of the story. But in reality, “all sides” means that the scientific consensus (i.e., gender-disaffirming approaches are harmful and gender-affirming approaches are beneficial) gets put on equal footing with outlier studies, anecdotal evidence, and contrarian doctors’ opinions. It also means that trans children’s identities and realities often receive less consideration than their trans-skeptical parents’ opinions of them.
What follows are three high profile examples of “just asking questions” articles that portray individuals who are clearly active in these anti-trans parent groups as simply “concerned parents.” That is to say, these articles make it seem as though these parents simply want what’s best for their child, when in actuality these parents are heavily invested in disaffirming and suppressing their child’s trans identity. Other writers have pointed out these specific incidents before (see e.g., here, here, here, and here), but hopefully sharing them all together here will make it clear that the “concerned parent” trope is a feature rather than a bug of “just asking questions” reporting on trans children.
Jesse Singal’s 2018 Atlantic cover story, “When Children Say They’re Trans,” may be the most influential article of this genre. There are too many problems with it to fully cover here. But pertinent to this essay, shortly after its release, one of the mothers who was featured in the article published a post on 4thwavenow entitled “What I wish the Atlantic article hadn’t censored.” The article, and the 4thwavenow editorial note that precedes it, claim that The Atlantic whitewashed all mentions of 4thwavenow from the article. In a separate tweet in response to someone wishing that Singal had consulted 4thwavenow for the article, the spokesperson for 4thwavenow replied: “Oh, he consulted. Heavily. Families profiled are 4th families. That was the censors’ line in the sand — removal of any mention of 4th.”
To be clear, 4thwavenow routinely compares trans communities and healthcare to “cults,” “brainwashing,” “lobotomies,” “mutilation,” “Big Pharma,” and “eugenics.” The fact that Singal and/or The Atlantic recruited parents from such a blatantly anti-trans parent website without divulging this crucial fact to readers is journalistic malpractice.
Emily Bazelon’s 2022 New York Times Magazine article, “The Battle Over Gender Therapy,” also exhibits numerous problems covered elsewhere. It includes a four-paragraph section that’s clearly about the anti-trans parent movement, but is never explicitly identified as such. Here’s how this passage begins:
In other families, a teenager’s decision to come out was a source of prolonged conflict. F., now 18 and living in Maryland, started identifying as a trans boy and binding his breasts in seventh grade. His mother told me that when she found out, she told F. she didn’t believe anyone was born in the wrong body. Later, she went to a protest at a gender clinic in Washington, D.C., which upset F.
For crying out loud, this is not about a “teenager’s decision” causing family conflict. This is about a trans teen who had the misfortune of having a parent who is an anti-trans activist, one who literally attends protests of gender clinics!
The following three paragraphs share the perspectives of what Bazelon euphemistically calls “Genspect parents.” Genspect is blandly described as an international group that is critical of social and medical transition. In actuality, Genspect is an anti-trans activist organization with ties to religious fundamentalist groups and which actively spreads disinformation and promotes conversion therapy. Their “Our Team” page is a who’s who of prominent anti-trans activists, including Stephanie Davies-Arai and Lisa Marchiano, founders of Transgender Trend and Youth Trans Critical Professionals, respectively (i.e., two of the original three anti-trans parent websites). Genspect has publicly stated that no one should be allowed to transition until the age of 26 years old. In other words, they are not merely “critical” of gender-affirming care — they want to ban it for adults.
If Bazelon had been up-front about Genspect’s positions, then the following passage would read very differently:
Several Genspect parents told me their teenagers came out as trans after struggling for years with serious mental-health issues. One mother in Northern California said her child had previously been hospitalized for a suicide attempt and started identifying as trans while spending many hours online. The mother said yes to puberty suppressants at the recommendation of a local gender clinic, but her child became more volatile, she said. Around 15, her child wanted to progress to hormone treatment, which the gender clinic supported, according to emails I reviewed. When the mother refused, she became the object of her child’s fury. “What if I’m wrong?” she asked. “Knowing my kid sees me as the barrier to happiness — that’s the worst part. I feel like a monster.”
For readers who are unaware of the large body of research demonstrating that gender-disaffirming approaches are harmful (because Bazelon never shares this information), the mother’s concerns may appear valid. Indeed, the passage seems intended to elicit sympathy for her. But once you realize that this mother is associated with an anti-trans organization that is pro-conversion therapy and opposes anyone under the age of 26 transitioning, it takes on a completely different tone. The mother refusing doctor-supported gender-affirming care for her child due to her own ideological leanings now appears potentially harmful, not unlike an anti-vaxxer parent refusing to vaccinate their child. Once you understand what a “Genspect parent” really is (someone involved in the anti-trans parent movement), then Bazelon’s omission of the child’s side of this story becomes palpable.
A similar one-sidedness can be found in Katie J.M. Baker’s 2023 New York Times article “When Students Change Gender Identity, and Parents Don’t Know.” It opens with this anecdote:
“Jessica Bradshaw found out that her 15-year-old identified as transgender at school after she glimpsed a homework assignment with an unfamiliar name scrawled at the top. . . Mrs. Bradshaw was confused: Didn’t the school need her permission, or at least need to tell her?”
Oh my god, can you imagine the dual horror of finding out that your child is transgender and that their school withheld that information from you?! If that’s your initial reaction, then it’s only further reinforced by subsequent paragraphs detailing the Bradshaws’ “concerned parent” perspective. It’s not until ten paragraphs in that we get to hear the child’s side of the story:
“The student, now 16, told The New York Times that his school had provided him with a space to be himself that he otherwise lacked. He had tried to come out to his parents before, he said, but they didn’t take it seriously, which is why he asked his school for support.”
So in other words, the opening line of Baker’s article is misleading: Jessica Bradshaw already knew her child was transgender. She just dismissed that fact and disaffirmed her child.
The reason why schools often have policies like this is because many parents do not support their trans children. In a 2015 survey of over 27,000 U.S. transgender people, 40% reported that their immediate families were not supportive, 10% said that an immediate family member had been violent towards them because they were transgender, and 15% ran away from home and/or were kicked out of the house because they were transgender (which is part of the reason why up to 40% of homeless youth in the U.S. are LGBTQ+).
While Baker does explain this aspect of the story to a degree, she “both-sides” it with sympathetic tales of parents who want schools to disaffirm their children. And who are these parents?
There is a network of internet support groups for “skeptical” parents of transgender children, some with thousands of registered members. Detractors have called the groups transphobic, because some want to ban gender-affirming care for minors, or have amplified the voices of people who call transgender advocates “groomers.” But members say these groups are some of the only places to ask questions and air their concerns.
Well, I guess I’m merely a “detractor” because I’ve actually spent time reading what these “internet support groups” (read: anti-trans parent websites) actually have to say. Baker goes on to discuss one such parent group that held an in-person meeting:
Most said they identified as liberal, and that [their meeting] was a rare safe space for them to voice their fears. Some parents didn’t think their teenagers were really transgender. Others thought it was too soon to know for certain. Most said their children had mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder, or autism.
Yes, most “identified as liberal,” which is also true for many anti-vaccination parents — that doesn’t undo the harm that their gender-disaffirming approach is likely to inflict on their children. And the rest of that paragraph — claims that their children aren’t “really transgender,” or maybe it’s the result of some other “mental health condition” (I unpack the latter claim in this essay) — are quintessential anti-trans parent talking points. As with Singal and Bazelon before her, Baker’s playing down or outright omitting the reality of the anti-trans parent movement prevents readers from fully understanding the dynamics at play here.
Rejecting the “Concerned Parent” Trope
As a general rule, adults tend to discount children’s and adolescents’ perspectives. This often leads the former to assume that the latter’s gender identities, gender expressions, and sexual orientations are the result of mere “trends,” seeking “attention” or “alternative lifestyles,” and/or “mental delusions,” rather than being authentic and a part of natural variation. On top of this, there are two other unconscious tendencies that most people — even well-meaning allies of trans people — are highly susceptible to that lead them to favor cis parents’ accounts over their trans children’s. Here are two personal anecdotes that illustrate these tendencies.
Twenty years ago, when I began coming out to people in my life as trans, one of the most common questions they’d asked me was “how did you parents react?” or “how is your family taking it?” The overwhelming majority of these friends and acquaintances had never even met my family, as they lived on the other side of the country. At first, I assumed that they were asking out of a concern for me and my potential loss if my family had rejected me. But then they’d often follow up with unsolicited remarks like “Wow, this must be really hard for your parents,” or “I don’t know what I’d do if I found out my [insert family member here] was transgender.”
It is an unfortunate fact that virtually all trans people can attest to: Most people find it easier to relate to our cisgender family members’ travails than our transgender ones, even when we are the ones they know personally. That is the first tendency.
Second, when I came out to my parents (as an adult), they reacted with utter disbelief. In their eyes, I couldn’t possibly be trans. They insisted that I must be confused, or that I hadn’t considered other possibilities, or maybe I should take even more time to consider the issue (as if spending twenty years of my life grappling with my transness was insufficient in their eyes). They would point to things that I did (or didn’t do) in the past and cite them as “evidence” that I couldn’t possibly be transgender. If I responded that lots of girls do (or don’t do) those same things, or if I told them how I was repressing my transness back then and/or pretending to be a boy for my own safety, it wouldn’t phase them.
They were deeply invested in preserving my assigned gender at all costs.
I have never met a trans person whose parents weren’t surprised when they first came out. Trans people who were overtly gender nonconforming as children are told “we just thought you were gay.” I know trans people who insisted that they were really a boy or really a girl from a young age (only to be disaffirmed by their parents at the time) and who, upon coming out as trans as adults, their parents still acted shocked. I know trans parents who were surprised when their own children came out to them as trans.
Almost without exception, parents never expect that their children are transgender. And that disbelief may persist for a very long time. In my case, it took about three to six months before my parents finally accepted the reality that I was trans. Some parents never accept it. According to the aforementioned 2015 survey, 50% of trans people say they’ve been rejected by one or more immediate family members because they are transgender.
If you understand the two tendencies that I just described — outsiders’ propensity to identify with cis parents rather than their trans children, coupled with parents’ tendency to disbelieve that their children are “really trans” (at least initially, and in some cases permanently) — then it becomes obvious how easy it is for journalists and media producers to manipulate audiences’ opinions of trans youth and gender-affirming healthcare with a few well-placed quotes from reluctant or skeptical parents.
I am not saying that journalists should never cover the difficulties and obstacles faced by parents of trans children — there are many and they can be recounted respectfully (see e.g., Meadow, 2018). But when journalists only tell the parent’s side of the story, or when they pit a parent’s trans-skeptical account against that of their trans child — implying that the former likely “knows better” than the latter — that should be a giant red flag for audiences.
And when articles and news stories mention trans-skeptical parents “seeking support” and finding “like-minded voices” online, that’s almost always a sign that said parents are involved in or interacting with the anti-trans parent movement.
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