A critical commentary on ‘rapid-onset gender dysphoria’

Florence Ashley
  • The Sociological Review, July 2020, SAGE Publications
  • DOI: 10.1177/0038026120934693

ROGD is scientific-sounding veneer for unsubstantiated anti-trans views: A peer-reviewed analysis

Photo by Kyle on Unsplash

Photo by Kyle on Unsplash

What is it about?

(Full version of the paper available under “Resources” on the right.) ‘Rapid-onset gender dysphoria’ (ROGD) first appeared in 2016 on anti-trans websites as part of recruitment material for a study on an alleged epidemic of youth coming out as trans ‘out of the blue’ due to social contagion and mental illness. Since then, the concept of ROGD has spread like wildfire and become a mainstay of anti-trans arguments for restricting access to transition-related care. This peer-reviewed article offers a critical introduction to ROGD theory, its history, its lack of empirical grounding, and structural flaws of ROGD discourse. Looking at discourse surrounding ROGD and at the main study purporting to support ROGD by Lisa Littman, it rapidly becomes evident that ROGD is not grounded in evidence but assumptions. Reports by parents of their youth’s declining mental health and degrading familial relationships after coming out are best explained by the fact that the study recruited from highly transantagonistic websites. Quite naturally, trans youth fare worse when their gender identity isn’t supported by their parents. Other claims associated with ROGD can similarly be explained using what we already know about trans youth and offer no evidence for the claim that people are ‘becoming trans’ because of social contagion or mental illness. The concept of ROGD is best understood as an attempt to circumvent existing research that shows how important gender affirmation is. Want to oppose gender-affirmative care despite all the evidence in favour of it? Just suggest that there’s a new social contagion and that the old data doesn’t cover it. Ultimately, ROGD deploys scientific-sounding language to make opposing trans people and their healthcare needs sound legitimate. It’s not.

Why is it important?

I began working on this paper in April 2018, four months before the initial ROGD study was published and long before a correction was issued. The hypothesis and its mobilisation of scientific form to carry the views of prominent anti-trans websites had interested me ever since a poster abstract was published relating some of its questionable findings. Back then, I had co-authored a critique with Alexandre Baril that had been endorsed by leading experts in trans health and medicine. Time takes its course and today the paper is published, much different from how it was initially. When I began, ROGD was emerging and had only been mentioned once or twice in mainstream publications. Today, it has widely circulated in mainstream media and Lisa Littman’s full study has undergone post-publication review, been re-published with a correction clarifying that it does nothing more than generate a hypothesis and led to an apology by the journal for the shortcomings of the initial review. Despite the correction and despite an important peer-reviewed methodological critique published by Arjee Restar, opponents of gender-affirmative care continue to appeal to ROGD as a justification to curtail access to transition-related care and cite Lisa Littman’s study as evidence of its existence. In a recent interview, Lisa Littman herself has claimed that the study supports the ROGD hypothesis even though her correction is clear that it merely develops a hypothesis. Given the continuing currency of ROGD in mainstream and social media, my peer-reviewed article’s thorough analysis of ROGD’s lack of empirical support and of its use of scientific-sounding language to commit epistemic violence is an essential contribution to the conversation and will hopefully help towards putting ROGD to rest. Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that ROGD is a construct mired in unfounded and prejudiced assumptions. It should be enthusiastically rejected.

Perspectives

Florence Ashley
University of Toronto

This paper represents much more to me than may be visible on the surface. When I was contacted by Ben Vincent in 2018 and invite to contribute to the anthology, I was a new scholar who had only published one major article, a sharp contrast to my current status as an established scholar with a plethora of publications. The invitation, which came in the wake of my general public writing on ROGD, was a tremendous vote of confidence. Me, being published alongside Julia Serano, Cristan Williams, and Emi Koyama?! My scholarship has come a long way since then and has indubitably improved, in part through the help of wonderful editors like Ben, whom I’m now proud to call a friend. Perhaps more than any other, this paper represents my growth as a scholar and my blossoming into the wonderful community of trans academia.

Read Publication

http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0038026120934693

The following have contributed to this page: Florence Ashley