Trans Youth Moral Panic Debunked.
The recent anti-trans directive in Texas is the newest chapter in a long line of anti-trans legislation fueled by myths and media. Harmful myths and imagined pathologies such as the Desistance Myth and R.O.G.D. (rapid on-set gender dysphoria) are driving a destructive moral panic about the increasing number of trans youth.
In a 2020 article, researchers explored the stages of coming out in attempts to better understand early gender dysphoria. Their research suggests that not only do trans children experience gender dysphoria before they have words for it, but that they also play an active role in constructing their gender identities.
Transness is not something that young people “catch.” Exposure to trans representation offers young people important vocabulary and community, facilitating the complex and often difficult journey that young trans people must undertake as they come out and begin their transition.
Anti-trans legislature creates dangerous barriers to accessing queer communities and gender affirming care which are often lifelines to young trans people. Debunking the myths that fuel these hateful ideas is necessary to trans liberation.
A recent moral panic in right-wing media suggests that trans youth are something new, dangerous, and somehow threatening to American life. This idea relies on the concept of trans youth as passive victims to their transness. Passive victimhood suggests that transgenderism as a kind of disease that someone “catches.” This harmful idea has deep roots in the history of LGBTQIA+ folks being criminalized, institutionalized, sterilized, etc. as a way of correcting or protecting society from their sexualities and gender identities.
This harmful idea is also based on discredited studies and false data. For instance, the often cited Desistance Myth (which has been incredibly debunked) claims that most trans children do not become trans adults. In reality, less than 4% of trans children detransition (i.e. do not become trans adults). And detransitioning is not a worst case scenario. Gender identity is fluid, and sometimes detransitioning can be just as life-saving for people as transition.
Another commonly cited myth is rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD). First proposed by Littman in 2018, ROGD is a highly criticized pathology that describes a very short time span between epiphany and coming out. ROGD is not recognized by any medical authority. In fact, it has been explicitly rejected by WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health). The original study that proposed ROGD relies on data only from the parents of trans children, and not the trans children themselves. The parents of trans children reported a short time between when their child came out and when they began transitioning. This data completely ignores the length of time that trans youth were in the tacit deferral and discursive deferral (see: Stages of coming out.) stages of coming out; i.e. the time that they were experiencing gender dysphoria without vocabulary to describe it, realizing they were trans and trying to ignore it, accepting their trans identity but remaining “in the closet,” working up the energy and courage to selectively come-out, and usually lastly coming-out to their parents.
“Teachers and parents need to understand that, while a child coming out as trans may seem sudden to them, the likelihood is that, in one way or another, they have understood themselves to be trans for a significant time period and experienced gender dysphoria for considerably longer than that.” (Kennedy, 2020)
Young trans children experience gender dysphoria before they have words for it. In other words, trans children “become” transgender all on their own; they are not being brainwashed. “Kuper et al (2018) recognised that dysphoria can exist in children and young people before they can attach any words to describe it” (Kennedy, 2020). Studies, stories, and autobiographies suggest that trans children experience gender dysphoria before they have words for it. Researchers have even outlined the different stages of coming out, which describe how transness as an identity is constructed.
Stages of coming out:
Tacit Deferral - the time before the trans epiphany. (Youth will typically experience gender dysphoria but not have any words for it.)
Discursive Deferral - the time between the trans epiphany and coming out. (Youth acquire trans terminology and being self-assessing and reflecting. This usually occurs through accessing queer communities semi-anonymously, usually online.)
Epiphany - the transition between tacit and discursive deferral.
Coming-out is an on-going process. Trans adults report recognizing their trans identity at a young age, but facing a cultural barrier that made it difficult to come out. (cultural cisgenderism). Cultural Cisgenderism is “a highly institutionalised (ie regular or ubiquitous) but weakly discursively saturated (ie tacit or unspoken) cultural process of passive discrimination against trans people.” (Kennedy, 2020). “Fausto-Sterling (2012) suggests that explaining to parents the psychosocial processes of gender identification may help parents accept their children’s (trans)gender identities.” (Kennedy, 2020)
One of the pillars of the trans youth moral panic is the idea that exposure to the queer community, often through virtual platforms like TV and film or social media, is “making kids trans.” In contrast to this truly ridiculous myth, researchers proposed the idea of . screen births (Raun, 2016; Eckstein, 2018). “Screen births” refer to the moment when young trans people recognize their own trans identities by engaging with the queer community. Often, this happens online by using resources like YouTube to watch other trans people document their transition. “...This process [is] profoundly empowering as well as political… a process that demonstrates their transitions, by showing, and making visible their transitions over time, the way trans people had previously been encouraged to conceal their prior identities” (Kennedy, 2020).
Exposure to the queer community isn’t “making kids trans,” but rather it’s allowing young people to feel safe in their trans identity through finding words to describe their experiences, and finding community with people who are experiencing the same thing. Vocabulary acquisition and gender identity are incredibly interconnected. Many trans folks’ epiphany experience coincides with vocabulary acquisition.
“This acquisition of vocabulary is significant because the existence of a term that describes their experience also suggests there must be others like them” (Kennedy, 2020).
Our hot take.
Queer and trans representation is increasing. In turn, language and vocabulary describing trans experiences is more available than ever before. Thus, young trans people are accessing (and identifying with) these terms in greater numbers than ever before. The passive victim narrative assumes that young trans children have no agency. However, studies suggest the opposite. Young trans people actively participate in their own identity construction.
We have to listen and believe young people when they come-out. Coming-out takes bravery, and it’s not typically a safe or enjoyable thing to do. When adults respond to a young person’s transition by trying to figure out why and when they “turned trans,” they are sending the message to that young person that their trans identity is something bad that happened to them, like a disease. Transnsess is not a disease, and it’s not something that can be spontaneously required. Young people should be nurtured as they explore their gender identity, and a big part of that is trusting them. Agency is essential to young trans peoples’ survival.
Eckstein, A (2018) Out of Sync: Complex Temporality in Transgender Men’s YouTube Transition Channels QED: A Journal in LGBTQ Worldmaking 5.1 24-47 Family Court of Australia. 2017. Re: Kelvin Family Court of Australia  CAFC 258.
Kennedy, Natacha. 2020. Deferral: The Sociology of Young Trans People’s Epiphanies and Com- ing Out. Journal of LGBT Youth, pp. 1-23. ISSN 1936-1653 [Article]
Raun, T. (2016) Out Online: Trans Self-Representation and Community Building on YouTube. New York: Routledge