National Geographic Gender Issue Review: Part I

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Part I: Social Causes?

National Geographic has recently been stealing headlines for it’s Gender Issue (Jan 2017), with 9 year-old transgirl Avery Jackson on it’s cover. In a Washington Post story by Ben Guarino, he cites the varied reactions editor Susan Goldberg has received, from “Kudos to @NatGeo for making #trans lives visible & sharing Avery Jackson’s story” to “National Geographic is trying to brainwash young people into thinking this kind of degeneracy is normal”.

The issue is, as Susan Goldberg says on page 6, “an exploration of gender–in science, in social systems, and in civilizations throughout history.” Although much of the issue is descriptive, even these descriptive stories dangerously normalize gender transition, perhaps contributing to what professionals are observing all over the world– a significant increase in gender dysphoria and the related risks.

In other places, however, the special issue is far worse than that, engaging not only in telling the “stories” of gender, but in unapologetically preaching a mainstream-media trans-ideology which ignores vast swaths of the medical literature. We hope that this rebuttal will find an audience and that perhaps Susan Goldberg may issue an apology concerning some of the egregious errors she has allowed to be presented in the pages of this venerable and well-loved magazine.

While it is possible we may move beyond the first few pages of the magazine in this series, I want to focus on page 14, “Helping Families Talk About Gender”. In this first installment we will look at the fascinating admission of “social” causes for gender incongruence. In the next we will focus on issues related to change and fluidity, and then in the third, on risks and realities surrounding gender nonconforming children.

Social Causes of Persisting or Desisting?

[Author’s note: Since publishing I have become aware of some older studies that are much more explicit about possible social causes of gender nonconformity. I doubt very much if these studies are being referenced in the article, as they would not fit into the carefully-crafted politically correct narrative Nat Geo presents.)

After introducing the idea of children declaring a gender identity, National Geographic broaches the subject of the persistence of gender nonconformity in children and adolescents in a statement that is bewildering, at least in relation to the rest of the article.

For some young children, identifying as another gender may be temporary; for others it isn’t. Some children who are gender nonconforming in early childhood grow up to become transgender adults (persistently identifying with a gender different from their assigned sex at birth), and others don’t. The causes for this are likely both biological and social; there is no evidence of a link to parenting or experiencing childhood trauma. There is no way to predict how children will identify later in life.

What does National Geographic mean when it says “the causes for this are likely both biological and social”? Contextually, it seems quite clear; both prior to, and after this statement, the topic is not the onset or initial causes of gender nonconformity, but of either the continuation or cessation of it, presumably in adolescence or adulthood. In an article that otherwise toes the line of the prevailing trans-ideology, to admit that there may be social variables for persistance/desistance is a radical statement to say the least! The prevailing idea in the mainstream media is that those children who persist in their gender nonconformity are those who are truly or immutably transgender and that this is something unchangeable–biology is the only factor. So what could they be referring to?

A survey of the literature reveals few social variables differentiating persisters from desisters; Devita Singh (2012) and Steensma (2012) found that social class was one of few predictive variables, with those of a lower social class more likely to persist in gender nonconformity than those of a higher social class (Singh p115, 174-175). On the whole I think it rather unlikely that Nat Geo would be alluding to this finding; it is recognized in the literature but not well investigated, and in an article that is extremely politically correct, alluding to a lower social class finding seems, well, very politically incorrect.

The more promising possibility for their allusion is Steensma, “Desisting and Persisting” in Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry 16(4) (2011). This is a well-known study in which Steensma mentions three factors which differentiate desisters from persisters when gender incongruent children hit adolescence; 1) Changes in their social environment, 2) Anticipation of, or actual physical changes in puberty, and 3) “Sexual” relationships and attractions. For instance, “Desister #10” [male] said,

“When I was younger, my interests were more feminine and I never had friendships with boys. I did not like boys’ stuff. When I was about 11, I became more interested in boys’ stuff and became friends with a boy for the first time. I started to seek the company of the other boys more often.”

However, Steensma does not draw the conclusion that these social and biological aspects of adolescence and puberty caused some to desist, but rather that they functioned like the fork in a river, forcing the persisters one way and the desisters another. In fact, the factor he identifies as predictive is the nature of childhood gender incongruence, with desisters tending to state, “I want to be a girl/boy” and persisters tending to state, “I am a girl/boy”. This conclusion is one of the most-cited ideas in the mainstream media trans-ideology, and it is on this basis that many state a reasonable certainty as to which children are “actually” transgender. This is important because puberty blockers almost always lead to hormones, which in turn very often leads to sex reassignment surgery, with each step becoming more serious and irreversible than the last. We’ll  come back to this “reasonable certainty” claim in a subsequent article, consider whether it truly represents Steensma or not, and survey the rest of the literature as well.

For now, suffice to say that though there are social variables which are recognized as having some relationship to whether children will continue in gender nonconformity or not, I am not aware of any studies that would state there are social causes for whether a child will continue or not. Steensma, and perhaps a couple others, could possibly be read that way, but as virtually no one does, and Nat Geo is otherwise very politically correct in their presentation, I find this slim possibility extremely unlikely.

Social Causes of Gender Nonconformity? 

At this point I can imagine an anxious National Geographic writer firing off an email to their contact at HealthyChildren.org: “remind me what we meant when we said ‘social’?!” As they mention in the introduction, this article is drawn largely from another one at Healthychildren.org and it is fascinating to compare the two, especially on this exact point. In the Healthychildren.org article this sentence on “biological and social” causes is in a very different context– the cause of gender nonconformity in the first place. It says,

While we do not understand why some children identify with a gender different from their birth sex, the cause is likely both biological and social. There is no evidence that parenting is responsible for a child having a gender identity that is not in line with his or her biological sex. Experiencing childhood trauma will not cause a child to become gender non-conforming, transgender, or homosexual. There is nothing “wrong” with your child.

There is a significant contextual difference between these two articles and it raises the question of whether the change by National Geographic is an intentional one or not. Perhaps the paragraph in Nat Geo is simply an example of shoddy writing and/or editing. All in all I find this suggestion, however unlikely, to actually be the most reasonable possibility; Nat Geo simply messed up. Whether I am correct or not, Healthy Children does state the likelihood of a “social” cause of gender incongruence (in addition to biological), and so to cover all our bases, let’s consider that as a possibility.

What does the literature say are the possibilities for a social cause of transgenderism? I know of only two possibilities, and neither of them fit the mainstream media trans-narrative that HealthyChildren.org and Nat Geo seem to espouse. The first is one that is well established in the literature, and yet is not as well known to those in North America (at least outside of the medical field). There is a recognized protocol for treating gender disordered children which is call the “Dutch Approach”. DeVries & Cohen-Kettenis (The Dutch Approach, 2012) state,

With the current state of knowledge, it remains most plausible that a complex interaction between a biological predisposition in combination with intra- and interpersonal factors… contribute to a development of gender dysphoria, which may come in different forms and intensities. Assuming, therefore, that gender dysphoria is most likely determined multifactorially, in clinical practice an extensive work-up weighing various symptoms and evaluating all kinds of potentially relevant factors seems indicated.

Cohen-Kettenis & Pfafflin, in “Transgenderism and Intersexuality in Childhood and Adolescence: Making Choices” say

…parental factors may be linked to atypical gender development. So it is useful to pay particular attention to often reported factors, such as the mother’s emotional or physical availability at the time of GID onset, gender issues in the individual parents’ family of origin (e.g., sexual abuse of mother by males), gender issues in the child’s family (e.g. father’s contempt of women and mother’s strong preference for a child of the opposite sex), certain family dynamics (e.g., a vulnerable mother and/or an aggressive, dominant father in the case of a girl with GID or problematic relationships with sibs). (p107-108)

You don’t hear much of this kind of thinking in the mainstream media trans-narrative! Yet it constitutes what is, arguably, the most accepted way of treating Gender Identity Disorder in children and adolescents in the world. 

So then, is this our answer? Is HealthyChildren.org, (and perhaps Nat Geo as well) recognizing the validity of this multi-factorial, therapeutic model, and that there are probably social factors related to the onset of gender incongruence in some children? Unfortunately, there is one major problem to this being our solution; they specifically negate these factors by saying “there is no evidence of a link to parenting or experiencing childhood trauma.” For the moment we will disregard that we have just quoted some of the world leaders in the field stating precisely the opposite, and merely conclude that they rule out what is seemingly the best candidate for a “social” cause.

Rise in Under-18 Gender Identity Disorder

There is another possibility however, although I’m not sure HealthyChildren or the mainstream-media trans-narrative will like it. There has been a very significant rise in the reported number of children being referred to Gender Clinics all over the world. At the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, “referral numbers have grown from one patient for every 2 years initially, to 104 new patients being referred in 2014” (Telfer, 2015). In the UK, “the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) said 969 under-18s have been referred in the UK in 2015-16….this compares to just 94 in 2009-2010.”

Could there be societal reasons for this significant rise in gender dysphoric children? A few researchers have been bold enough to  say so. In an April 2016 article, Tavistock & Portman (UK),  responded to questions about the substantial rise in referrals to the Gender Identity Development Service as well as the ratio of female to males.

It could be argued that we live in a society where there is a disproportionate emphasis on physical appearance and huge pressure to attain an ideal body type. In this context it may be disproportionately young women who hate their bodies if they feel that cannot attain these ideals, and who wish to act on their bodies in some way, for example through restrictive dieting and body modification

They went on to caution, however, that it would be premature to argue that this is the main reason for the increase. A recent Finnish study found that the most significant single variable in the onset of gender dysphoria among a group of adolescents was social isolation. They conclude,

Adolescents are more suggestible and submit more readily to group pressure to gain acceptance…. During puberty and adolescent development there may be some overlap between normative testing of sexuality and gender roles in the one end, and gender dysphoria as a disorder in the other end of the spectrum. This would implicate that GD in adults and in adolescence may not be the same issue in general. For these reasons it is more challenging to assess whether the gender identity of an adolescent is so firmly established that physical intervention is indicated than it is to assess this among adults.

These two examples are not isolated cases. Many researchers tip-toe around the edges of saying similar things, and given the newest data of rising numbers and greater percentages of girls, they are not going to be able to stay silent long. These data call for theories, studies, and solutions.

At the end of the day, I don’t know what HealthyChildren or National Geographic is referring to when they state “social” factors for either the onset or continuance of gender incongruence/dysphoria. There are options, as we have seen, and indeed I think some of these are very likely. The significant increase of both the sheer numbers of children being referred for gender identity disorder, and more specifically the percentage of these children skewing to natal girls almost demand that social factors be present.

Ironically, we will see in the next installment that the rest of the article shuts the door on the “social” causes, creating some inescapable contradictions, sometimes within the space of even a single paragraph. What can we conclude then? Let’s hold that question until our next installment, where we will tackle change and fluidity among gender incongruent children.

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