What’s going on with adolescents and gender identity?

Given my natural interest in gender issues, plus the fact that I spend a lot of time with high school and middle-schoolers, I’m particularly intrigued by the controversy over today’s teenagers and gender identity.  Given what we all know about the social contagion and social dynamics among kids this age, it seems insane to suggest that there’s not at least some element of social contagion in the dramatic rise in non-traditional gender identity among American teens.  And, yet, apparently, the radical gender ideology folks argue that to make any such argument is downright transphobic (and, in many cases, go on to pull out the “you are going to make trans kids kill themselves!” card). 

But we’ve all been teenagers and thus, intuitively understand the powers of social influence as well as just how many teens are totally confused about themselves and their place in the world.  In modern America, might that manifest in rebellious and/or uncertain takes on one’s own gender identity? Sound plenty plausible to me.

I bring this all up now because there was an absolutely awful piece of research published in Pediatrics recently (really, just a complete embarrassment for this journal).  I would like to think the manifest problems in the research would have led to a rejection from a 2nd or 3rd tier political science journal, but it reaches an ideologically popular conclusion (there is no teen social contagion on gender identity) so the extremely problematic methods and conclusions were seemingly overlooked. 

Jesse Singal has a thorough rundown on why this is so bad. I skimmed the actual article myself, and, yes it is that bad on so many levels. 

But, what I really appreciated was Singal’s theory on what actually is going on, which comports with much of my own hypotheses in this regard:

This is a misunderstanding of… well, everything. Let’s use an example we know is driven by social contagion to make this point: goths. I am not aware of any high-quality polling on goths, let alone representative polling, but it seems safe to assume goths are bullied more often than non-goths. Imagine the argument “You’re claiming being a goth is socially transmitted, but that makes no sense, because why would someone choose to be a member of a group that is bullied?” This would be supremely silly, because the sort of kid who is entering gothdom is probably already facing some level of ostracization or bullying or other social issues. That’s why the goth identity appeals to them! Then, once they’re a goth, it can both be true that they’re a member of a group that is looked down on by other, more popular cliques in their school, but also that membership in the group gives them a sense of meaning and social belonging they previously lacked. 

The problem is failing to make the right comparison. The question isn’t whether goths are more popular than non-goth; it’s whether an already unpopular non-goth might become a bit more popular, or at the very least gain a modicum of belonging and community, by putting on those weird dark clothes and mascara. (Plus, there’s some legitimately awesome music.)

I am not directly comparing being a goth to being trans, of course — I’m using an example that we know is 100% driven by social contagion rather than latent biological factors to make the point.2 But to engage honestly with the ROGD [rapid onset gender dysphoria] hypothesis would be to acknowledge that Lisa Littman and others have never presented this as, like, a video game character selection screen: “Instead of choosing to be popular cisgender kids who captain the football team, our thesis is that kids choose to be bullied trans teens instead.” That would be ridiculous. The whole point of the ROGD hypothesis is that it is more likely to affect kids who are already lonely and disillusioned, and that for kids going through that sort of stuff, embracing a trans identity might bring with it the promise of some degree of social and psychological relief.

Maybe ROGD’s proponents are wrong about this! But if you want to argue in print that they’re wrong, you need to engage with the actual substance of what they’re saying, not a caricature of it. And if you go online it’s immediately obvious that yes, kids find community and support when they come out as trans, even as one component of that group membership often involves complaining about bullying, adults not understanding them, and so on. It should be neither complicated nor controversial to claim that a lot of teenage subcultures are structured in exactly this way, where part of the point is feeling like an insider among outsiders.

It’s not quite as silly, but I also think Turban and his team are also misunderstanding the homosexuality argument in a pretty willful way. My understanding has always been that the argument is two-pronged: First, in some youth settings it might be perceived as cooler or higher-status to be (say) a trans boy than a cisgender lesbian, which could nudge kids in that direction. (It is plainly true that in some progressive adult settings, trans guys are seen as “higher status” than cisgender lesbians, and trans women as “higher status” than cisgender gay men, so I don’t see why we should be skeptical this could be true among some youth as well.) Second, due to internalized homophobia (and misogyny), some females (especially) might interpret homosexual feelings as evidence they are trans. It’s not uncommon for youth gender clinicians to encounter 12- or 13-year-old natal female patients who say things like “When I picture myself kissing a girl, I see a boy kissing a girl.” 

These are kids with no real-world experience with sex or romance, and they’re immersed in a very complicated, ever-swirling vortex of hormone-addled ideas about sex, gender, identity, status. The ROGD hypothesis is that in some cases, to the extent anyone has a “true” or “latent” or “innate” identity, they’re really lesbians, but just don’t feel comfortable landing at that conclusion. Whether or not this theory is true — I think it is in some cases, in part because I’ve read and listened to firsthand accounts from kids who say it’s happened to them and trans-affirming clinicians who insist it’s a real phenomenon — Turban’s and his team’s approach of simply looking at zoomed-out bullying data doesn’t engage with any of its actual meat. It goes without saying that “some trans kids identify as gay or lesbian” is not a response to the argument that other kids adopt a trans identity as a result of internalized or external homophobia. 

So throughout their study, Turban and his colleagues are responding to strawman arguments that no one in the ROGD camp is really making.

And, of course, it should go without saying, but, in this arena that’s never safe, so… none of this is to remotely suggest that all gender dysphoria is social contagion or that we shouldn’t treat all trans/non-binary persons with kindness, compassion, and respect. 

But, what’s going with adolescence and gender identity is important and complicated and deserves nuanced, thoughtful responses and research, not knee-jerk condemnation of trans kids nor a blanket embrace that ignores the complexities.  

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to What’s going on with adolescents and gender identity?

  1. Mika says:

    The other day I was surprised how casually my 14yo used the term “non-binary”. Times they are a-changing.

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