Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

This past August, Brown University public health professor Lisa Littman had her woke moment. Littman studies sexual health concerns, from reproduction to substance use in pregnancy to gender dysphoria—today’s topic of intense scrutiny and politicization. Understanding how children and adolescents come to believe that they were born into the wrong bodies is a complicated process. But the right approach for a social scientist is to listen to accounts, watch actions, ask questions, and write down what you see and hear. And that is how Littman, presumably as liberal as the next professor, found herself on the wrong end of a scholarly mob.

While it barely registered on scholarly radars a mere ten years ago, after Obergefell the transgender phenomenon became the next frontier in the dissolution of “heteronormativity” and the queering of science, that is, tearing down the assumption that sex—whether you’re talking about physiology (male and female) or what you do with it—is any kind of standard. Resisting heteronormativity is the new norm, and it now extends to the scientific method, once thought immune to social trends. Max ­Weber, peddler of the strong fact-value ­distinction, turns out to have been rather naive.

In her study published online at the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, Littman documents the reality of a type of experience: the rapid onset of gender dysphoria (ROGD) in adolescents. By “rapid” she means that it happens suddenly either during or after puberty among teenagers who displayed no indications of such a tendency in their childhood. The point of the study was to note that this scenario exists and to describe the phenomena that co-occur with it by surveying parents of these adolescents. The teens’ parents, who in this case were overwhelmingly supportive of same-sex marriage and transgender rights, tended to note that ROGD occurred in groups of friends as well as alongside a surge in the kids’ Internet or social media use. In fact, only 13 percent of parents noted no evidence of a “social influence.” Moreover, 62 percent of parents reported their child had been previously diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, and 48 percent reported a traumatic or stressful event prior to the ROGD.

You get the point—and the obvious problem. The evidence doesn’t fit an immutability narrative, or even the “I felt it as a child” explanation. On the contrary, ROGD appears to be “infectious” in some post-pubertal social groups. Just how common is this? We don’t know, since studies like this one are not designed to tell us. It was exploratory. Littman didn’t draw any hard conclusions in her study, only documented the strong correlations of certain social and psychiatric conditions with ROGD. It was clear that more science was called for. But that isn’t what came next.

Littman’s employer, Brown University, issued a press release outlining the study’s findings on its website on August 22. Nearly overnight, an online outcry was raised, with critics targeting the study’s nonrandom sources of data collection, the fact that only parents were interviewed—not the teens themselves—and a lack of longitudinal data. Five days later, not only had Brown removed the press release from its website, but the dean of its School of Public Health followed with an apology. The journal editors, too, pledged to “seek further expert assessment on the study’s methodology and analyses”—in other words, a “post-publication re-review.” I may be one of the few who know what that’s like. It’s ridiculous. Former Harvard University Medical School dean ­Jeffrey Flier, writing at Quillette, thinks so, too. The Brown dean claimed that the study could be used to “invalidate the perspectives of members of the transgender community.” This is ­irrelevant. Flier asserts: “The idea that unnamed parties might apply conclusions from a study such as [Littman’s] to cause some vaguely defined harm to other third parties is a spurious basis for the university’s actions.” 

What is more, the takedown of Littman has no science to support it. On the contrary, even data from the Williams Institute, a pro-LGBT organization committed to demographic mapping of sexual minority populations, revealed a recent surge in the share of transgender Americans. What had once comprised around 0.3 percent of the population as recently as 2011 has vaulted to 0.6 percent by 2016, with adolescent transgender self-identification comprising 0.7 percent. But a new study in Pediatrics, leaning on a statewide survey in Minnesota, revealed a figure just under 3 percent, four times as large as the Williams estimate. In other words, the adolescent transgender population has grown extraordinarily quickly, as Littman claimed. 

Reactions to the study made clear that trans advocates believe that if gender dysphoria could have a social component, their whole enterprise—together with the rapid rise in gender clinics—is threatened. This is why some, like journalist Alex Barasch, hold that seeking ­scientific explanations for transgender identity does more harm than good.

Littman’s critics treated the very idea of social contagion as abominable, but this is hardly the first time we have seen evidence of shifts in teenagers’ gender or sexual identities. In 2017, sex researcher Kenneth Zucker observed “a recent inversion in the sex ratio” of gender dysphoria cases, noting the same surge in adolescent female cases that Littman did. In a 2013 study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the head of Cornell University’s Sex and Gender Lab reported that more than 70 percent of teens who had once claimed a romantic attraction to someone of the same sex later said they were straight. It only makes sense to investigate the social aspects of broad trends among adolescents. But here, too, the same denial happened. The author of the Cornell study contended such students either didn’t understand the question or were joking around. That’s a lot of jokers.

I have no position on the particulars of Littman’s study or the ­reality or unreality of the ROGD phenomenon, only on the treacherous nature of scientific work on sex and sexuality today. Any study that comes to conclusions or even raises evidence contrary to the taboos that have formed in recent years is taken hostage—first by pseudonymous strangers at keyboards; then by the opportunistic faculty who jump on the bandwagon displaying a methodological purism heretofore unknown in sexual science; and then by the universities themselves, whose interest has shifted from the pursuit of truth to the pursuit of virtue (signaling).

All this is an unmistakable sign of a weak, fearful, and politicized ­science, not a strong and intrepid one. Some things are agreed upon, to be sure. But what we don’t know with confidence is considerable, and instead of a healthy skepticism that marks most corners of science, this area of research is the locus of online assaults on efforts whose results look unfriendly, or at least risky, to nascent transgender dogmas. This displeasure is often couched in “concern” for the population being studied and how they might feel about the results. But let’s be honest: When was the last time you heard a university dean express concern about how a study of the effects of poverty on high school achievement made impoverished single parents and high school dropouts feel? Even the vast literature on divorce has matured. We don’t hide research conclusions from divorcees lest they feel bad about their situations.

This is different. This is the queering of science. Its academic roots have been around for decades, but it is now swelling in practice. A pair of colleagues at the University of Texas outline it in considerable detail in “Queering Methodologies to Understand Queer Families,” a federally funded review that appeared recently in Family ­Relations. Long-standard (or dominant) research methods, they hold, stand in need of adaptation: “Queering questions that which is normative.” They openly counsel tying science to politics, imploring scholars to put their research to work “in ways that best represent and strengthen (queer) families.”

On the other hand, comparing “marginalized” to “dominant” groups—which is what I suppose many believe I did in my 2012 study of adult children of parents who had been in same-sex relationships—is considered improper and “based on heteronormative assumptions that monogamous coupling and parenthood are more normal relationship characteristics.” Silly me. Such an approach stands in need of “interrogation.” Been there. The authors of “Queering Methodologies” call the politicized research they envision “compensatory work,” meaning it is intended to yield a comeuppance for those intersectional sites and powers that have historically “erased” or oppressed LGBT families. In other words, LGBT people must be shielded from data that could be construed as threatening. The next step, I suppose, is inviting them to give their endorsement of results before publication.

Let’s face it: The rapid onset of gender dysphoria among adolescents is odd. Social reality is sometimes odd. But for many in the social sciences today, reality has become queer. Hence Littman’s evidence had to be called out. 

Mark Regnerus is professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, and senior fellow of the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.