The late trans activist Leslie Feinberg once said, “I view science as the priceless legacy of humanity’s search for understanding of the material world. But in an unequal economic system, science cannot avoid being stained by prevailing prejudices and bigotry — not only social sciences, like anthropology, but the so-called hard sciences like biology.” In context, Feinberg was expressing her fear that the discovery of a so-called “gay gene” might lead to eugenics and the murder of LGBTQ children. While Feinberg’s nightmare thankfully did not become reality, history is filled with other examples of pseudoscience being misused to invalidate LGBTQ people.
The most recent example is the controversy over Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD). According to Brown University researcher Lisa Littman, ROGD is a recent phenomenon where youth experience gender dysphoria — which the American Psychiatric Association defines as “a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify” — despite not experiencing any symptoms of dysphoria in the past. “The onset of gender dysphoria seemed to occur in the context of belonging to a peer group where one, multiple, or even all of the friends have become gender dysphoric and transgender-identified during the same timeframe,” Littman writes. Of course, as the paper concludes, more research is needed.
There’s just one problem: the science behind ROGD is sketchy. For starters, most of the subjects interviewed in Littman’s study were recruited from blogs that, according to Zinnia Jones, “contain a variety of claims regarding transgender identities and gender dysphoria that are not supported by contemporary medical consensus.” Second, according to the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s (WPATH) Standards of Care, many transgender adolescents don’t show symptoms of gender dysphoria until puberty, so Littman’s claim that ROGD suddenly occurs during adolescent years is nothing out of the ordinary. Third, WPATH recently released a statement to remind everyone that ROGD is not formally recognized by any health professionals yet, so it’s way too early to accept it as a legitimate condition.
The knee-jerk reaction to hastily accept ROGD as a scientific fact based on just one published study is, according to trans activist Julia Serano, a classic example of the “Begging the Question” logical fallacy. “Basically you argue something exists starting from a premise that it already exists,” she told me recently on my Bi Any Means Podcast. Serano has a background in biology, and she said that if she were researching ROGD, she would have also interviewed parents outside of the ones from 4thWaveNow.com and Transgendertrend.com. “A sampling from lots of parents could have given some insight into whether this is a real condition,” she said, “or whether this is basically just general gender dysphoria but these parents are reluctant to accept it or feel surprise that it’s occurred.”
Despite being the B in LGBTQ, sketchy science has also been used to discredit bisexuality. In a 2005 study, three researchers surveyed thirty straight men, thirty-three bisexual men, and thirty-eight gay men on how they reacted to both lesbian porn and gay male porn. The participants had sensors attached to their penises, and then the researchers showed them the porn. The experiment showed most of the bisexual men shared the same amount of erections to the gay male porn as did the gay men in the study, which suggested that self-identified bisexual men are really gay.
This study, too, had flaws. First, the sample group was too small. Second, only twenty-two out of the thirty-three bisexual men in the study had enough genital arousal to be counted for in the study. Third, the study didn’t look at romantic attraction, thus suggesting that bisexuality is just about sex. It’s interesting to note that a more recent study used neuroimaging to measure the responses gay, straight, and bisexual men had to erotic images, and the results were that the “desire-related brain activity” matched the men’s sexual orientations.
Then there’s the recent study that claims gay conversion therapy works despite all the evidence that says otherwise. As Zack Ford of Think Progress points out, “The researchers did not actually assess whether any particular treatment has any particular effect; they simply surveyed a group of 125 men who had undergone some form of sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) to see whether they believed it helped.” Plus, Ford continues, the study was published in an anti-LGBTQ publication put out by the anti-LGBTQ organization Catholic Medical Association, and one of the researchers, Paul Santo, got his degree in psychology from the Southern California Seminary, which the American Psychological Association does not accredit. In other words, this recent study is another example of data dredging in order to prove an already held belief.
Science is a wonderful tool for discovering how the natural world works, but just like with hammers and saws, this tool can be used for both good and bad. At its best, a hammer can build new things, but at its worse it can bludgeon someone’s brains out. It depends on how a person uses the hammer, and the same goes for science. Science can either help us discover new things and debunk previously held myths, or people can inject their own personal agendas into science and shape the data to affirm preconceived biases. Throughout history sketchy science has been used to dehumanize people of color, women, disabled people, and LGBTQ people, with consequences ranging from discrimination to murder. Thus, with the recent controversy surrounding ROGD, it’s best to remain skeptical for now.