How to Detect and Debunk Anti-Trans Propaganda in the Media

How to Detect and Debunk Anti-Transgender Propaganda in the Media

There is no shortage of articles for me to debunk these days. I could write articles dissecting material produced attacking transgender people as a class for a living, and still only touch a small fraction of them.  At the same time, I see transgender people and parents of transgender people asking me all the time, “Have you seen this?” every time a new one pops up.

So today, instead of giving you a fish, I’m going to teach you how to fish. Here’s the things you should ask yourself, and answer every time you see one of these nasty articles come up. The answers will allow you to effectively debunk the articles, and do so in a comprehensive way.

1. Who wrote it?
Would anyone take an article on how to deal with racial issues written by David Duke seriously?  Or an article on American Jewish history written by Richard Spencer? Of course not, unless they were a raging bigot to begin with. Therefore, you look at who the authors of anti-transgender articles are.

When you find out that the author implies that transgender people were responsible for the rise of neo-Nazi riots, or that they generally agree with the statement that transgender people should be morally legislated out of existence, you can safely call them bigoted kooks who should not be taken seriously by anyone who isn’t also a raging bigot.

2. Who does the author hang out with?
Let’s apply the white-nationalist analogy again. Suppose someone claimed not to be a white nationalist. They just write books and articles that white nationalists love and quote all the time. They hang out on white nationalist internet forums, and generally support the statements made by white nationalists in the comments section. They also give away links to free electronic copies of their works on white nationalist websites. Almost all of their followers on Twitter are white nationalists and people who really hate black people. Would you really take their claims of not being a white nationalist seriously?

The same applies to the concern trolls who claim to support transgender people, but who are the darlings of those who want to “morally legislate us out of existence.” The white nationalist example above also describes a number of prominent people who seem to make a living off of attacking transgender people. If they walk like a bigot, talk like a bigot, and hang out with bigots, they’re probably bigots.

3. Where is it published?
Would you ever take an article published on Der Sturmer or Stormfront about Jewish conspiracies seriously (besides someone who’s obviously comfortable with their own anti-Semitism)? Obviously not — neither publication has ever had anything nice to say about Jews, and their bias isn’t hidden.

So why on Earth would you give any credence to an article about transgender people on The Federalist, The Daily Caller, Breitbart, or any other far-right-wing site seriously either?  None of them has ever had a nice thing to say about transgender people, and have consistently treated us as a public health hazard that needs to be removed from the public consciousness.

4. Does it blatantly misuse (or cherry pick) real research?
One of the quickest ways to spot biased and unreliable articles about transgender people is when they misuse actual research. Most commonly this occurs when they cite a 2011 study by Dr. Cecillia Dhejne to argue that medical care for transgender people is ineffective, or that it makes them suicidal. The problem is, the research actually says no such thing, and Dhejne has gone on the record saying that attempts to use it to make these points are both wrong and unethical.

As such, articles which deliberately misrepresent (lie) about the findings of actual academic work to support anti-transgender positions aren’t just wrong, they are unethical from the get-go. I’ve met Dr. Dhejne, and she finds the use of her work to these ends disgusting.

5. Does it blatantly misrepresent the actual positions of people?
Dr. Kenneth Zucker is a problematic figure. He has been the biggest proponent of the 80 Percent Desistance Myth, and been completely opposed to supporting kids in any gender variant behavior whatsoever, even if the kids are otherwise emotionally healthy and happy. This is why he is frequently cited by people and organizations opposed to letting transgender and gender variant kids be themselves.

However, what they never acknowledge is that even Zucker supports the use of puberty blockers for adolescents (i.e. those who have started puberty) who are gender dysphoric, because in an interview with a conservative outlet he conceded that, “By age 11 or 12, trans kids are typically 'locked in' to their gender identity” and for them, “I very much support that pathway, because I think that is going to help them have a better quality of life.” (i.e. even Dr. Zucker thinks that kids older than 11 or 12 are unlikely to to desist.)

As a result, any person or article that tries to apply the 80 percent desistance figure to transgender teens are transgender teens is either ignorant, or lying. In either case, this makes it unreliable and unworthy of further consideration.

6. Does it misrepresent the positions of mainstream organizations?
One of the most common examples of this is the breathless assertion that, “They’re giving hormones and sex change surgery to 6 year olds!” “They” in this case meaning medical practitioners who fall under the World Professional Association of Transgender Health Standards of Care. WPATH sets the standards followed by the vast majority of health care providers who specialize in transgender medicine. These standards do not recommend blockers (a reversible intervention) until the age of 12 and hormones until the patient is 16.

Another blatant example is the assertion that care providers are railroading children into transitioning. Dr. Dan Karasic, a member of the Board of Directors for WPATH, states "WPATH Standards of Care 7 supports allowing children to explore and express gender freely. Whether not a young person needs to transition should be determined by that person."

7. What organizations does the author represent?
Ask what organizations the writer belongs to, or is representing. Do they belong to a hate group, as defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center? Or speak for fake medical organizations that are routinely produce recommendations driven by religious beliefs rather than peer-reviewed science and medical consensus? If they do, they cannot credibly claim to be unbiased, or acting in the best interests of transgender people. (Seriously, if someone is a spokesperson for the Klan, you can’t take their claims that they’re acting on behalf of the best interests of black people. Why should we think about it differently when the group being targeted is transgender people?)

8. Who does the article cite?
Does the article rely on sources that are biased and/or discredited? Dr. Paul McHugh would be an example of someone who is both biased and discredited as a source. Be able to describe why this source is biased or discredited. For example, Johns Hopkins has implicitly repudiated McHugh’s work by reopening the gender clinic. If the article relies on biased and disreputable sources to make its point, it's no good.

9. Does the article go against the scientific consensus?
There is currently an overwhelming consensus by professional organizations for mental and medical care providers on the necessity and efficacy of health care for transgender individuals. These organizations include the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Association. These organizations studied the matter in detail before taking these positions.

Thus, if the author contradicts all of these organizations, they must adequately explain why they are more qualified or smarter than the vast majority of experts who have studied the issue based on peer-reviewed evidence. Alternately, they must explain why all the peer-reviewed evidence is wrong (in a way that would survive peer review.) Otherwise, it’s merely an opinion piece with little in the way of (cherry-picked) research to support it, by someone with very few qualifications, and probably an axe to grind based on personal beliefs as well.

10. Does it substitute anecdotes for research?
Many of the articles that have come out recently about detransitioning and regrets are based on anecdotes, not actual research. This is because the actual research shows that when the Standards of Care for mental health care professionals is followed, regret rates are very low, and even then often caused by factors external to the patient (e.g. surgical complications, mistreatment, and abandonment after transition). Often, anecdotes leave out or ignore key details as well, which brings us to the next question you should be asking…

11. Are crucial details left out or ignored?
Here’s some facts about Senator John McCain. He joined the Navy, and tried to commit suicide as an indirect result of joining the Navy. From this statement, one could be led to draw the conclusion that the Navy makes people suicidal, or that McCain was mentally unstable, and should never have been allowed in the Navy in the first place.

However, it leaves out the key detail that he attempted suicide after being shot down, becoming a POW, held in solitary confinement for two years, and having his arms torn out of their sockets (leaving him permanently crippled) by his Vietnamese captors.

Similarly, most of the anecdotes about detransitioners leaves out crucial details. Chief among these omissions is that there seems to be a common thread that most of them did not have access to competent mental health care before transitioning, or did not avail themselves of it. Others detransition, but do not regret having done transitioned. Another frequent omission is that people often detransition due to being abused for transitioning in the first place. Systemic abuse can lead to very unhealthy mental states and poor decisions, whether by John McCain or a random transgender person.

12. Does it make unsupportable assumptions?
A prime example of an unsupportable is that transgender people can (and should) just stop being transgender because of higher health risks, as if it was like quitting smoking or eating carb-loaded snacks before bedtime. This assumption first ignores that the medical and mental health care communities regard efforts to change sexual orientation and gender identity as ineffectual and unethical. It also ignores the fact that the only people promising to “fix” someone’s gender identity are the same people who failed so miserably at “curing” gay people while using the same “embrace your God-given masculinity” snake oil. Or, conversely, it’s a lot easier to reasonably assume based on the peer reviewed evidence that if transgender people weren’t ostracized, abused, and legally marginalized they’d have better mental health outcomes.

13. Does it make unsupportable conclusions? And ignore the supported ones?
Examples of unsupportable conclusions in anti-transgender articles are myriad. Many of the anecdotes about detransitioners essentially conclude that no one should ever be allowed to transition (which ignores the peer reviewed evidence showing the vast majority of transgender people report improvement in quality of life after transition). A far more logical conclusion would be that people should have better access to competent mental health care providers, which is something the APA is recommending anyway.

14. Does the article make wild accusations and predict ludicrous outcomes?
Wild accusations (that have actually happened) include that accepting transgender people will destroy humanity, cause people to forget how to procreate, cause hurricanes and terrorist attacks, destroy legal rights for LGB people, and destroy the LGB community by stealing all queer kids and forcing them to transition.

15. Does the article imply religion is a cure for gender dysphoria?
This is a theological argument, and not a scientific one. If there was peer-reviewed evidence that prayer was more powerful than medicine, we wouldn’t need hospitals. Indeed, they’ve actually extensively studied whether prayer is any good at curing people (hint: it’s not). On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that religious counseling and conversion therapy is harmful to queer people. The Bible has very little to say about transgender people directly, and what exists is contradictory. The Bible is much more clear on things like divorce and adultery. Indeed, the Bible pretty explicitly endorses things we accept as social evils now, such as slavery and polygamy. In other words, the Bible is a poor manual for setting public policy, and especially policy for health care.

BRYNN TANNEHILL graduated from the Naval Academy in 1997 before serving as a campaign analyst while deployed overseas. She later worked as a senior defense research scientist in private industry; she left the drilling reserves and began transitioning in 2010. Since then, she has written for OutServe, The New Civil Rights Movement, Salon, Everyday Feminism, The Good Men Project, Bilerico, and The Huffington Post.

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