Recently, some transgender adolescents and young adults have begun reporting a disturbing new trend.
In recent years, a number of transgender adolescents have been reporting in online discussion groups that their parents suddenly have begun misgendering their children, disrespecting their children’s self-identified gender, and espousing anti-trans beliefs. We believe this may reflect a new clinical condition: rapid onset gender denial (ROGD).
Adolescents have described clusters of these beliefs occurring in pre-existing friend groups, such as the popular parenting website Mumsnet. Adolescents typically notice a process of immersion in social media immediately preceding their parent’s lack of acceptance: “binge-watching” trans-exclusionary feminist YouTube channels, excessive use of websites such as FourthWaveNow and TransgenderTrend, and accounts on self-identified “gender critical” subreddits. These descriptions raise the question of whether social influences may be contributing to or even driving this lack of acceptance in some populations of parents.
The adolescents and young adults that report this disturbing behavior are not in any way bigoted against anti-trans people. The vast majority of adolescents and young adults whose parents have ROGD support the right of radical feminists to found organizations that reflect their beliefs and believe that anti-trans individuals deserve the same rights and protections as other individuals in their country.
In proposing the existence of rapid onset gender denial, we by no means intend to disrespect people with real, valid anti-trans beliefs. We recognize that a small minority of people struggle with a crippling inability to accept trans people for religious or political reasons, and we support tolerance and accommodation of these uncommon beliefs. But this minority have had anti-trans beliefs for their entire lives. Parents with rapid onset gender denial are no hairy-legged bra-burning radical feminists or church-going anti-gay Christians. Even parent-affirming clinicians agree that most ROGD parents favor gay marriage— hardly what you would expect from someone genuinely anti-LGBT! On online fora, parents regularly discuss their “peak trans” moment: the moment when they “realized” that they were anti-trans. Most of these “peak trans” moments are inspired by stories spread by other ROGD parents– proof positive that it is a social contagion.
We recognize that parents with ROGD face real problems. Their children report that parents with ROGD are sensitive, intelligent people who often struggle with anxiety and depression. ROGD is a way of expressing very real distress. Many parents with ROGD are trying to cope with the stress of their child individuating, a difficult time for any parent. It may be particularly difficult for parents who put psychological weight on their children growing up to be a particular kind of person or who invest much of their self-worth in their child agreeing with them. Many other parents may simply be seeking attention: after all, their children are developing lives separate from them, which can be a difficult adjustment, and it’s perfectly normal for parents to be attention-seeking in this developmental stage. Still others may be using ROGD as a coping mechanism for other stresses in their life, such as depression or divorce. After all, it can be easier to blame these stressors on a child’s transition than to accept the harsh reality. Many ROGD parents engage in magical thinking: if their child simply detransitions, then all of the depression and anxiety the parents experience will go away.
Several children have noticed that their parents with ROGD have autism or “autistic traits.” Could ROGD be caused by autism? The rigid, black-and-white thinking associated with autism may lead parents to struggle with the idea of gender fluidity or the concept that someone they previously thought of as a girl might in fact be a boy. And people with autism often struggle with finding friends: the social acceptance they find in ROGD communities may have been the first social acceptance they’ve found in their entire lives.
Supporters of parents with ROGD say that recognizing that transness “isn’t real” improves parents’ lives. But the evidence from their children says otherwise. Many parents with ROGD appear angry, sullen, and withdrawn: they yell at their children, dish out unreasonable punishments, and petulantly refuse to call their children by the correct name and pronouns. It can be impossible for adolescents to have a civil, open conversation with their parents without their parents indignantly spewing insults or accusing them of making up their gender. Many others are depressed. Not only do ROGD parents openly admit their despair about their children’s transition, they have the distorted thoughts characteristic of a struggle with depression: for example, many grieve the “mutilation” and “death” of their children, who are in fact still alive and trying to talk to them. Worst of all, ROGD typically ruins parent-child relationships, with many parents alienating their children so much that a normal-parent child relationship is impossible and the child must go low- or no-contact to preserve their sanity. To any parent, their children are one of the most important things in their lives; this pernicious ideology destroys the precious parent-child relationship, one of the foundations of society and a bond any parent cherishes.
It makes sense that ROGD would cause such difficulty in parent-child relationships, because of the nature of the ideology itself. Parents with ROGD are known for their irrational and science-denying beliefs, such as that a twenty-two-year-old is a child if the parent identifies them as such. Unfortunately, you can’t identify out of biological reality. These beliefs will likely lead them to great distress if they don’t learn to accept and work with the reality that, whatever their friends say, some things– such as the fact that their adult children are fully competent to make their own medical decisions without parental input– won’t change.
Fortunately, treatment is available for ROGD. Several therapists have begun to specialize in the treatment of parents with ROGD. Unlike ROGD parents, we believe in scientific and biological reality, which is why our therapists practice CBT and other evidence-based therapies instead of Jungian psychoanalysis. It is a nonjudgmental course of therapy intended to explore the reasons that parents have ROGD. If, after a long course of therapy, it turns out that the parent genuinely has anti-trans beliefs, of course we will accept this. But it’s simply irresponsible to think that these parents might genuinely be anti-trans– making possibly irreversible decisions such as destroying their relationship with their children– unless we have explored all the other options.