[content warning: brief discussion of suicide statistics]
Like anyone with a hobby of arguing about transness, I am used to debunking people’s dumb interpretations of studies. For instance, there’s the famous Swedish study which shows that post-transition transgender people have a higher suicide rate than cisgender controls, which is used to argue that transition increases suicide rate. There is also the National Transgender Discrimination Survey’s finding that people who have more transition-related health care are more likely to have had suicidal ideation, whch is interpreted as transition increasing one’s chance of committing suicide, even though people who are suicidal about dysphoria are probably more likely to seek transition-related health care.
But rapid onset gender dysphoria is unique. The Swedish study and the National Transgender Discrimination Survey are both good studies, and their actual findings are important: it’s useful to know that trans people are more likely to be suicidal than cis people and that people who have had transition-related health care are more likely to have a history of suicide attempts. They just don’t show the thing that people desperately want it to show. The study that allegedly shows the existence of a condition called rapid-onset gender dysphoria, however, was not even a good study in the first place.
The argument of the article is that sometimes people weren’t feeling gender dysphoric until they start hanging around with a lot of transgender people, at which point they suddenly experience gender dysphoria. How did they find evidence for this, you ask? Did they do a retrospective survey of transgender people asking how they became transgender? Did they identify transgender people, give gender dysphoria questionnaires to their friends on a regular basis, and discover that gender dysphoria increases over time if you have a transgender friend but not if you have, say, a lesbian friend?
No, they asked adolescents and young adults’ parents.
I do not think there is a transgender person in the world who disagrees with the claim that transness often comes as a surprise to one’s parents. Nor is it particularly surprising to transgender people that coming out typically worsens your relationship with your parents, that transgender people typically trust other trans people more than cis people as sources of information about being trans, and that transition often leads one to spend less time with your family and cisgender friends, particularly if they don’t accept your gender.
But here’s the question. If you’re a teenager or young adult, or you remember having been a teenager or young adult, think back to that time in your life. (My apologies for excluding any precocious eight-year-olds who read this blog; I hope this post will help you anticipate what you have to look forward to.)
For most people– even people who had pretty good relationships with their parents– it’s something like this. You carefully filtered the information about your life you gave to your parents. Band practice, favorite movies, and interesting college classes, yes; inner turmoil and struggle, not so much. You felt that your parents were probably as likely to attack or lecture you if you were vulnerable with them as they were to actually be helpful. The deceptions of ordinary teenagers are many: that some of their friends drink; that they sometimes finish their homework in homeroom; that sometimes when they’re going to the mall they’re actually getting felt up by their boyfriend.
A lot of teenagers and young adults who are facing hard times face them on their own or with the help of their friends. There are a lot of parents out there who believe they have a happy, carefree, well-adjusted teenager who happens to be unusually prone to not overheating, while the lives of three of that teenagers’ friends are oriented around helping them not to cut. Teenagers who are depressed, anxious, and suicidal are often afraid that if they told their parents they would be punished rather than supported; these beliefs are often correct. Fortunately, by the time you’re a young adult, you have medical confidentiality, so you may be able to seek therapy and psychiatric medication without your parents’ consent; unfortunately, that means that parents are likely to be even more oblivious about mental illness, since a major reason to tell them has been removed. In short, the parents of many mentally ill teenagers and young adults simply have no idea that their children are mentally ill.
Teenagers who are questioning their gender identity or sexual orientation, in general, don’t share that with their parents. You are unlikely to share with your parents your discovery of how hot gay porn is or your sneaking suspicion that your girl crushes were actually real crushes. Transness is even more unlikely to go unnoticed, because even today many transgender people experience gender dysphoria for years before they know they’re gender dysphoric; how do you explain to your mom “Mom, I keep having fantasies about having breast cancer so I don’t have to have breasts anymore and I don’t know why”? Even once a teenager has come to a stable identity, many teenagers are acutely aware that forty percent of homeless youth are LGBT; even if their parents almost certainly wouldn’t disown them, that “almost” makes the closet a very attractive proposition. A teenager often knows they’re LGBTQQA+ for years before they gather the courage to tell their parents.
You may have or have had a good relationship with your parents where you felt like you could share literally everything with them, as if they were more like a best friend than like a parent; many people do. But even if you did, probably many of your friends had the more ordinary sort of parent-teenager/young adult relationship. Most parents have inaccurate ideas of what their teenagers’ life is like, in at least some aspects; for mentally ill and queer teenagers, parents’ views are even more inaccurate. It’s no wonder that gender dysphoria– which is both a mental illness and a form of queerness– seems to come out of nowhere for many parents. And that doesn’t mean that the child hasn’t been gender dysphoric for years or even a lifetime.
Consider the finding that teenagers and young adults often have friend groups full of out transgender people before they come out as transgender. There are several perfectly reasonable, non-contagion-related explanations for this. The most obvious one is that trans people want to befriend other trans people. If a person starts questioning their gender months or years before they come out to their parents, they may have trans friends for months or years before their parents know anything about it.
Similarly, the exact same things that attract one self-closeted trans person to a group of friends may attract other self-closeted trans people. Trans people are disproportionately likely to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or asexual, and many straight trans people identify as lesbian or gay before they come out to themselves; the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance will probably have a lot of self-closeted trans people in it. Trans people have a lot of traits in common, often ones you wouldn’t really expect: it’s not very surprising if the school’s anime club has a couple of trans people. Self-closeted trans people often find out trans people strangely magnetic.
I don’t want to say that there’s never been a case of a person who believes they experience gender dysphoria when they don’t; I’ve personally known several cases. Having transgender friends may very well lead someone to believe they experience gender dysphoria when they actually experience depression, dissociation, feelings of insecurity about their gender non-conformity, or something else. But, first of all, that is clearly not “rapid-onset gender dysphoria”; it is a person being mistaken about whether they are gender dysphoric, which is a different thing. It’s a case of “I have chronic fatigue syndrome and a lot of depressed friends, so now I think I’m depressed too”, not a case of “being around depressed people is really depressing.”
Second, in my experience, people usually figure it out. Six months or a year later they sheepishly go around saying “yeah, I’m on antidepressants now and I feel a lot better and I really don’t think I’m actually a guy, go figure.” There is not an epidemic of people mistakenly transitioning for two decades because they got confused about what depression is. Of course, hormones and surgery can have long-term consequences. In my experience, while some pressure comes from overenthusiastic trans people convinced what worked for them is the universal solution for everyone, the pressure is most likely to come from people who don’t really accept trans people. If you’ve ever found yourself saying “I don’t see why I should respect his pronouns if he’s not even making the slightest effort to be a woman,” then the difficulties people who are mistaken about being trans face are on you. If we respect people’s gender identities regardless of whether they physically transition, mistaken people are far less likely to physically transition.