July 1, 2017
If, like me, you make a habit of trawling through the darker side of opinion pieces on trans issues, you might have come across a peculiar new term: “rapid onset gender dysphoria”. This supposedly recent occurrence is described by the National Review, the right-wing Alliance Defending Freedom, Robert Stacy McCain, and others as a phenomenon of teenagers “suddenly” coming out, sometimes “in groups”, after “total immersion” in social media related to transitioning. Even a recent article in The Stranger made reference to this alleged trend:
Increased visibility and societal acceptance are also logical explanations for the perceived growth in the trans population: More people are aware it’s an option now. But, as a study published this year in the Journal of Adolescent Health notes, parents have begun reporting “a rapid onset of gender dysphoria” in adolescents and teens who are “part of a peer group where one, multiple, or even all friends have developed gender dysphoria and come out as transgender during the same time frame.”
If researchers have potentially discovered a previously unknown type of gender dysphoria, this would certainly be a fascinating development. There’s just one problem: there is no evidence to suggest that this is any kind of distinct clinical entity. The various features of this purported phenomenon can already be explained within existing models and currently available evidence. And more than that, it appears that the very concept could have originated with a specific group of transphobic activists.
Let’s take a closer look at the “study published this year in the Journal of Adolescent Health”. As the full study does not appear to have been released yet, only a poster abstract is available in the February 2017 issue (Littman, 2017). The study is introduced as follows:
Parents online are observed reporting their children experiencing a rapid onset of gender dysphoria appearing for the first time during or after puberty. They describe this development occurring in the context of being part of a peer group where one, multiple, or even all friends have developed gender dysphoria and come out as transgender during the same timeframe and/or an increase in social media/internet use.
Obviously, “parents online” encompasses a rather large portion of the population, and further details on what distinguishes this particular group of parents and their online activity would certainly help to clarify this phenomenon. However, the occurrence of “gender dysphoria appearing for the first time during or after puberty”, as well as the surprise of parents, is already widely recognized in literature, to the extent that it is explicitly mentioned in the DSM-5’s description of gender dysphoria (American Psychiatric Association, 2013):
Late-onset gender dysphoria occurs around puberty or much later in life. Some of these individuals report having had a desire to be of the other gender in childhood that was not expressed verbally to others. Others do not recall any signs of childhood gender dysphoria. For adolescent males with late-onset gender dysphoria, parents often report surprise because they did not see signs of gender dysphoria during childhood.
The study’s abstract also does not provide definitions that would delineate a “rapid” appearance of gender dysphoria from a “non-rapid” appearance: how fast is rapid? Its methods have an additional weakness – only parents were surveyed, and not the children allegedly experiencing this “rapid onset”.