OPINION: J. K. Rowling and her inaccuracies about trans youth

by Scott Leibowitz | Nationwide Children's Hospital
Sunday, 14 June 2020 16:03 GMT

A participant lies on a giant Transgender Pride Flag during the Equality March, organized by the LGBT community in Kiev, Ukraine June 23, 2019. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The “Harry Potter” author has misinterpreted studies about transgender young people, but any opportunity for dialogue is being lost amid understandable anger

Scott Leibowitz, MD, is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Medical Director of Behavioral Health at the THRIVE Gender Development Program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus Ohio. He is also Associate Clinical Professor at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

As a physician who has worked with transgender youth for over a decade, one might imagine the content of my social media feed when one of the most famous authors in the world, J.K. Rowling, published her recent piece about gender identity.

With news of U.S. federal healthcare protections being rolled back for trans people only a few days later, it is not hard to imagine why there is so much anger and hurt from a group that has been stigmatized in so many areas of life.  

Full disclosure: I have never read a Harry Potter book, nor have I seen the movies—a slight source of shame for me considering many of my patients are fans.  For me, Dumbledore sounds like the name of a city in a foreign country. So it feels odd to me that the first writings I have read from Rowling are her views on sex, gender, and trans youth.

I must also disclose: I am a cisgender white man. That is, not trans nor a woman in any sense.  So, part of me wonders: who am I to weigh in on the definition of a woman?  Who am I to weigh in on what constitutes transphobia?

However, as a child and adolescent psychiatrist working with trans youth, I have treated many of the people she referred to. I am also trained to view a situation through multiple lenses.

As I read Rowling’s piece, I felt it came more from a place of fear rather than intentional hate. Her open disclosure of past experiences of domestic and sexual violence demonstrated vulnerability. But that was overshadowed by the fact that she did not seem to appreciate the influence of her platform and the potential harmful impacts to the lives of young people I encounter every day.

Should this excuse Rowling from being insensitive to the way transgender people define themselves?  No. Do we have more insight about her underlying perspective? Yes.  Do I wish that people who aren’t doctors —especially celebrities with millions of followers—spoke to medical providers like me with thousands of hours of direct clinical experience with these families before interpreting research studies? Absolutely.

Often in this field, individuals hone in on research that confirms their original beliefs.  In her piece Rowling said, “60-90% of gender dysphoric teens will grow out of their dysphoria.”

But the longitudinal studies Rowling referenced have been widely misinterpreted and have significant methodological flaws. They included only pre-pubertal children, not teens - while Rowling conflated children and adolescents. They also included children who were not necessarily gender dysphoric in the first place. Some of the earlier studies looked at children who were feminine boys or masculine girls, many who never said they were, in fact, a different gender.

Someone of her status needs to understand the inaccuracy of this statement and the harm associated when someone like her makes absolute claims about controversial research. For a trans young person wanting acceptance from family members, a statement like this can give skeptical parents a reason to reject this aspect of them, thinking they will “grow out of it”, because a famous person said so.

Rowling mentioned that she might have been considered a trans man had she grown up in this time. However, clinicians such as myself spend a lot of time with patients and families, comprehensively understanding who they are, in order to ensure that appropriate clinical recommendations are made.

A similar point could be made for another study she cites, related to a survey of skeptical American parents. The study is thought to have been very overreaching in its conclusion that there is a new diagnostic entity entitled “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria”. Typically new diagnostic categories are developed over years of replicated research, not from one online survey that did not even assess the experiences of the youths themselves.

Rowling mentions the change in the sex ratio of youth coming to gender clinics, with more females-at-birth attending clinics.  The implication that sexism is causing more young people to identify as male is based in fear that negates other possibilities for young people - such as the visibility of trans people giving meaning to an experience that previously could not be defined. Or perhaps we are living in a time with evolving sociocultural definitions of masculinity and femininity.  The focus on one element of a larger multifaceted conversation is similar to narrowing the complexity of “Harry Potter” into what I would call “Scary Fodder”. That is dangerous.

Rowling also alludes to an overrepresentation of autism in these youth but elaborates no further. The relationship between autism and gender dysphoria, is itself a rather complex academic debate. A mere mention that some of these youth are autistic implies that autistic youth should somehow be excluded from any possibility of knowing themselves as a particular gender. This insinuation perpetuates the stigma around mental health itself - a stigma that can be harmful to all youth, trans or not.

Naturally when a famous author makes sweeping invalidating statements about trends with trans youth, an often-attacked, marginalized group and its allies are going to respond forcefully.  Rowling, who did not acknowledge her current power and influence, is viewed as no different than the discriminatory policies that attack the civil rights of those without the same power, privilege and stage. I find it unfortunate that the conversation stops there without dialogue or understanding. Even if Rowling has valid points, they will not be heard.

I would hope that anyone writing on the mental health treatment of trans youth would want to hear the perspective of those in the trenches, who listen to children and their families every day. Then we can start healing this divide together and do what’s best for all youth, among them those who are trans or still exploring their gender in this polarized world.

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