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Journalist Jesse Singal says he ‘goofed’ on interpreting trans study—and activists are infuriated
Franziska Neumeister/Flickr (CC-BY)
Lesson: Trans people make the best trans sources.
New York Magazine’s Jesse Singal’s views on transgender children have always sparked controversy, leaving Upworthy’s Parker Molloy to say he “doesn’t understand trans people.” Now, Singal is facing new scrutiny after he admitted he misinterpreted data from a study on trans children that was key to a feature story he wrote from 2016.
In a Medium post on Tuesday, Singal said that a 2013 study from the Center of Expertise in Amsterdam was misread by both himself and other writers. In the study, the clinic followed up on 127 adolescent patients with gender dysphoria, a condition where a person’s gender identity is incongruent with their assigned sex at birth.
Among those 127 patients with gender dysphoria, 80 adolescents did not return to the center for treatment. Therefore, the study concluded that those 80 patients with gender dysphoria “desisted” and “no longer had a desire for gender reassignment.” In a July 2016 piece, Singal made that exact claim, saying the children “now identified as cisgender.” But that isn’t exactly true, and it’s led him to correct the error.
I done goofed. This is nerdy but I think it's important for those following this debate.— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) March 28, 2018
"Everyone, Myself Included, Has Been Misreading the Single Biggest Study on Childhood Gender Dysphoria Desistance and Persistence" https://t.co/OqKPaAHS2q
2/ This is such a good case study of Read The Fucking Article Closely Before You Write About It (RTFACBYWAI) -- which I thought I did! But clearly not. I took at face value critiques made by people who are not careful about this stuff.— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) March 28, 2018
If you are a parent of a gender dysphoric kid you need accurate information about what's going to happen. Accurate information means— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) March 28, 2018
-some kids desist
-kids should never be shamed
-conversion therapy doesn't work
-transition relieves serious dysphoria
Rather, within those 80 “desisters,” only 46 sent in a response directly, 12 did not respond, 12 were totally “untraceable,” four suggested their gender dysphoria “remitted” but didn’t participate in the study, and six refused to fill out their survey but allowed their parents to fill out their replies.
In other words, there were never 80 dysphoric kids who changed their minds and identified as cisgender. Rather, the study proves 80 children didn’t go back to the clinic for treatment. And even though some children wrote in, or their parents wrote in, that they don’t have dysphoria anymore, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t experiencing dysphoria.
Furthermore, the study shows that those 80 patients in the “desister” category were significantly less likely to experience gender dysphoria from the very start of their intake period, whereas those who continued going to the clinic within the follow-up study showed significant signs of gender dysphoria from the very start of their intake and onward. Both groups were originally classified based on a “Gender Identity Disorder” diagnosis, an antiquated term used by the DSM that has since been replaced with a gender dysphoria diagnosis.
When reached for comment by the Daily Dot, Singal provided a two-paragraph explanation on his views regarding gender dysphoria and desistance, which can be read here. While Singal stressed transgender and gender non-conforming kids must be able to express themselves in a “safe, nurturing environment,” he also believes studies and interviews with medical professionals give credence to desistance.
“My skepticism that desistance is a ‘myth’ or is something only relevant for the purposes of transphobic arguments has been bolstered by my conversations with gender-affirming clinicians who have acknowledged that desistance occurs,” Singal told the Daily Dot. “On the other hand, I empathize with the fears I often encounter about this concept being used for bad ends.”
The Daily Dot's doing a thing on the Twitter controversy surrounding my gender-dysphoria desistance post later. I asked them to run my statement in full given how complicated this is but I couldn't get it anywhere near short enough (my fault, not theirs).— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) March 29, 2018
So here it is: pic.twitter.com/NQ8RNwfruA
But Singal’s reporting and his explanation have since sparked a controversy of their own. For one, trans activists warn focusing too heavily on desistance encourages people to take gender dysphoria in children less seriously. Many trans people fear extensive reporting on desistance that doesn’t include input from transgender people who experienced gender dysphoria in childhood can cause harm to trans children because it prevents dysphoric kids from receiving treatment.
Even if you think most kids who express gender dysphoria will eventually “desist”, wouldn’t you WANT them to have access to blockers so that they have time to come to that realization and not forever wonder if the only made their choice because puberty was inevitable?— Avery Edison (@aedison) March 29, 2018
No it's uncharitable to assert that people were arguing that desistance is a myth. That has never been the argument. The argument is that 1) desistance is given disproportionate weight, and 2) trans children are restricted or delayed from assessing treatment as a consequence.— Andi Grant (@Lumidingo) March 29, 2018
This is further highlighted by the flawed study that Singal himself admits he got wrong, which misrepresents children exhibiting 'cross-gender' behaviors as trans, and thus asserts that these children desist from bring transgender. Cross-gender behavior =/= being trans.— Andi Grant (@Lumidingo) March 29, 2018
Others argue that Singal’s larger body of trans coverage has problems. Many point to his flattering take on the immensely controversial Dr. Kenneth Zucker, an American-Canadian sexologist who argued for “curing” signs of gender dysphoria in certain children. Trans activists previously equated Zucker’s theories to “conversion therapy,” CBC News reports.
Let's take a moment to remember all the trans children who are bullied or abused because of their gender identity, then another moment to yell at them for ruining Jesse Singal's menchies every time he gets called out for writing something which further perpetuates that abuse— kill 💀 tim 💀 faust (@crulge) March 28, 2018
he says the study actually showed a higher rate of gender dysphoria desistance among kids than he previously thought. i don't care enough to find out if he's right. he still sucks ass though— libby watson (@libbycwatson) March 28, 2018
Most of all, desistance is complicated, and more studies are required to make firm conclusions on gender dysphoria in children. So activists think Singal should tread lightly moving forward and put trans voices first.
EVERYONE, MYSELF INCLUDED (and not including probably 90% of trans people, most of whom have told me that I'm wrong and got mocked & blocked for it) HAS BEEN MISREADING THE SINGLE BIGGEST STUDY ON CHILDHOOD GENDER DYSPHORIA DESISTANCE AND PERSISTENCE— colette arrand (@colettearrand) March 28, 2018
Two issues that all the trans ppl he's blocked have pointed out. Study counts gnc kids alongside trans, study is really small, & study counted kids who stopped showing up as having desisted. Extremely bad science & authors have said as much.— Sweet mother, I cannot weave (@Hierodule) March 28, 2018
You say brave but the link you gave has no evidence of dysphoria desistance. You have patients without GD to begin with, and GID is considered a usless diagnosis by DSM and apa because it’s lack of a dysphoria requirement. Jesse signal isn’t brave, he’s either lying or incapable.— snidephdcandidate (@snidephdcandid1) March 28, 2018
Gender dysphoria remains complex, and for many Americans, trans rights raise more questions than answers about gender identity. But when it comes to understanding gender, activists have a unified message: Transgender people should take the lead, lest studies end up enabling transphobia in the doctor’s office.
Ana Valens is a reporter specializing in online queer communities, marginalized identities, and adult content creation. She is Daily Dot's Trans/Sex columnist. Her work has appeared at Vice, Vox, Truthout, Bitch Media, Kill Screen, Rolling Stone, and the Toast. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and spends her free time developing queer adult games.