Reframing “Transgender Desistance” Debates

photo by FreeImages.com/Stephen J. Sullivan

If you are familiar with contemporary anti-transgender propaganda, then you have likely come across the word “desistance.” As pointed out in one of the papers I will discuss below, the term is generally relegated to the field of criminology, where it refers to “the cessation of offending or other antisocial behavior.” I first came across the term in articles by Ken Zucker and other researchers who have used it in reference to transgender and gender-nonconforming (GNC) children who over time (and often in response to gender-reparative therapies) appear to relinquish those identities and behaviors. Zucker and others have promoted the idea that as many as 80% of trans/GNC children will ultimately “desist,” which (if it were true) would seemingly provide justification for the gender-reparative approaches he favors, but which most trans health professionals now consider to be unethical.

Unsurprisingly, groups who are opposed to, or suspicious of, transgender people and perspectives have since latched onto this statistic in their attempts to undermine gender-affirming approaches to trans/GNC children, and to push for reinstating gender-reparative therapies. The appeal of the “80% desistance” narrative is that it taps into a “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”-type mentality: If we can prevent 80% of these children from being “turned transgender” (as this line of thinking goes), then it’s worth it, even if the remaining 20% are made to suffer (via traumatic conversion attempts and being forced into unwanted gender assignments and puberties). And if you’re inclined to believe that even happy well-adjusted trans people constitute a “bad outcome” (as is strongly implied by the use of the word “desistance” in these cases), then this latter group’s well being (or lack there of) will likely seem inconsequential to you.

However, as many trans activists, advocates, and health professionals have pointed out, “80% desistance” arguments are riddled with unfounded presumptions, misconceptions, and logical fallacies. I detailed many of these in my 2016 essay Detransition, Desistance, and Disinformation: A Guide for Understanding Transgender Children Debates (particularly in sections 6, 8, and 9), with an emphasis on how the very framing of these arguments values cisgender identities, lives, and bodies over transgender ones at every step along the way. In the course of that essay, I cited articles by Brynn Tannehill, Kelley Winters, and Kristina Olson and Lily Durwood that make similar points, but which also delve more into the methodological flaws that lead to the “80%” figure and arguments made in support of it. In 2017, articles by Zack Ford and Zinnia Jones added to these efforts. Despite the thoroughness of these critiques, supporters of the “80% desistance” statistic would often raise the complaint that these articles all appeared online or in media outlets, and thus should not carry the same weight as the peer-reviewed research articles they were critiquing.

But thankfully, this has now changed. The International Journal of Transgenderism has recently published a peer-reviewed article by Temple Newhook et al. entitled A critical commentary on follow-up studies and “desistance” theories about transgender and gender-nonconforming children. Unfortunately, it lies behind a paywall, but from that link you can read the abstract. [note 6–26–18: the article has been made “open access” for 60 days; it can also be accessed at Trans Policy Reform Blog and Academia.edu] It comprehensively addresses the many methodological, theoretical, ethical, and interpretive problems with the “80% desistance” statistic, the research cited in support of it, and arguments that rely on it.

A second article by the same set of authors — entitled Teach your parents and providers well — has just been published in Canadian Family Physician, and it is freely accessible via that link. It provides a brief overview of the main points covered in their previous article, but more importantly, it makes a compelling case for shifting the focus of these debates away from attempts to “guess” or “predict” children’s adult gender identities, and toward supporting the health and well-being of gender-diverse children. Of course, advocates of gender-affirming approaches often cite studies demonstrating positive outcomes for children who socially transition (e.g., this and this and this). But Temple Newhook et al. add to this work by reviewing the growing body of evidence chronicling the many negative outcomes (with regards to self-esteem, life satisfaction, PTSD, suicidal thoughts, and mental health more generally) experienced by children whose gender identities and expressions are not supported by their families. For instance, one of the studies they cite found that “young people whose gender identities are not strongly supported by their parents face an attempted suicide rate 14 times higher than their supported peers do.”

Some of the more extreme anti-trans voices in these debates often attempt to equate gender-affirming approaches with “child abuse.” But given the totality of the evidence that 1) “80% desistance” is a myth (or at the very least, a gross overestimate), 2) the documented positive outcomes for children who socially transition, 3) the documented negative outcomes for trans/GNC children whose families do not support their gender identities and expressions, and 4) the fact that upwards of 20% of trans youth are homeless (with LGBT folks comprising about 40% of U.S. homeless youth more generally) largely due to family rejection, it seems to me that the shoe is now squarely on the other foot. Rather than us having to counter their false and distorted claims again and again, they now need to answer the following question: How is refusing to support a trans/GNC child’s gender identity and expressions *not* child abuse?

I don’t expect these two new papers (and the increasing body of evidence cited therein) to shift the opinions of die-hard transphobes. But they should be clarion call to more mainstream and supposedly moderate media outlets and pundits — the one who love to position themselves as the “sensible middle” — to recalibrate their framing of this matter.

To be specific, from this point forward, anyone who raises concerns about gender-affirming approaches to trans/GNC children without substantially addressing both the well-documented positive outcomes of such approaches *and* the many negative outcomes associated with gender-disaffirming approaches, is loudly and clearly signaling their own anti-trans biases and/or their lack of knowledge regarding these matters. Either way, no respectable media outlet should provide them a platform to spread such nonsense.

This essay is free & accessible thanks to the support of my Patreon supporters — if you liked it and want to see more like it, please consider supporting me there. You can learn more about my writings and activism at juliaserano.com.

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