How a political movement manufactured scientific misinformation and legitimized hate.
By Simón(e) D. Sun and Florence Ashley
We’ve watched with horror, but not with surprise, as a frenzy of anti-trans, queer, and nonbinary actions have taken hold around the world. In 2023 alone, more than 500 related bills have been proposed or adopted in nearly every U.S. state, with the U.S. Congress following suit. They concern everything from sports participation, school inclusion policies, education departments, and drag performance to access to public spaces, legal identification, and family separation.
There are many motivations behind these cruel, discriminatory moves, but there is a consistent pattern in the way they are being promoted. In each case, anti-trans advocates—not just political activists and politicians, but also doctors and scientists—are twisting science to advance their political ideology.
Some laws, like ones passed in Montana and Kansas, define sex as a strict, unchanging binary, enshrining pseudoscientific ideas. Others, like those enacted in Texas and Florida, criminalize health care and separate families. All these policies rely on distorting and fabricating evidence and research to appear legitimate. For instance, supporters attempt to justify many of these policies by the false belief that a “new disease” is causing youths to become trans. Understanding the ways that deceptive claims can become encoded into public policy is critical for protecting trans, queer, and nonbinary people.
To advance their political agenda, anti-trans advocates exploit several kinds of misinformation. The first involves oversimplifying scientific knowledge to fit political values. Anti-trans advocates will claim that biological sex is binary and immutable, using a grade-school understanding of biology to argue that every human, by law, must fit into one of two distinct categories at the moment of birth.
The second kind of misinformation entails fabricating and misinterpreting research while deflecting valid criticism as politically motivated. Anti-trans advocates use this line of attack by repackaging old ideas into fake research with foregone conclusions. They then dismiss and decry any pushback by portraying scientific criticism as ideological activism gone too far.
The third kind uses false equivalences to misrepresent gender-affirming health care as unscientific. For instance, many anti-trans advocates distort technical medical terminology, invoking incorrect comparisons or skewed data to instill fear of “untested” medicine, despite decades of research supporting the safety, efficacy, and continual improvement of the treatments.
All of these tactics come straight from the same playbook used to defend scientific racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism. In the past, and still today, each hate movement has exploited illusions of scientific objectivity to lend legitimacy to its cause. In this case, the true goal is clear: to use scientific misinformation to justify the eradication of trans, queer, and nonbinary people from public life. Pushing back is crucial for ensuring the dignity, rights, and free existence of trans, queer, and nonbinary people—and ultimately, the rights of every human.
Anti-trans narratives depend on the myth of sex essentialism. Essentialism is the belief that any individual can be adequately defined by a few immutable, unchanging traits: their essence. Anti-trans advocates use essentialism by reducing sex to a single trait, the production of gametes of different sizes. Producing small sperm cells equals male. Producing large egg cells equals female. A Montana bill on its way to becoming law states that “there are exactly two sexes with two corresponding types of gametes.” Other bills refer to ova, sperm, ovaries, and testes as the determinants of sex. Bills like ones passed this year in Kansas and Tennessee assert that sex is “immutable.”
Anti-trans advocates insist that these laws merely reflect scientific consensus. There is no such consensus, however. Sex essentialism reduces all the biology of sex into two separate, unchanging categories based on sperm or egg production. But biologically, this superficial understanding of sex is, to put it bluntly, wrong. The production of sperm or eggs is not binarily determined by chromosomes or genetics. Nor do the sperm and egg determine hormones, anatomy, physiology, behavior, or psychology—all things that make up an individual’s sex, many of which change. But anti-trans advocates are not aiming for scientific accuracy. They are masking their political ideology as science to enshrine their exclusionary beliefs into law.
Sex essentialism is bad science that fails to describe the real, beautiful diversity and complexity of sex throughout life. Sex essentialism struggles to make sense of how “female” hormones like estrogen are necessary for sperm production; how some animal sexes are infertile; how the genetics of sex are not binary; or how animal sex arises in countless ways. For instance, many fish change sex during their life, and not just clownfish. Hundreds of species like angelfish and sea bass change sex based on social cues, and fish like gobies can change sex back and forth.
With almost nothing left for sex essentialism to adequately explain, anti-trans advocates assert that sex in mammals is essentially binary. But researchers are finding species of rodent with three combinations of sex chromosomes, female moles with ovotestes, rats with only X chromosomes, and hermaphroditic pigs. Variability and diversity of sex is a fact of life, and humans are no exception. Intersex, nonbinary, trans, and queer people may be uncommon, but they are natural outcomes of biological complexity. Anti-trans advocates try to bury this scientific reality with their oversimplified assertions.
Replacing sex essentialism with a nuanced approach that is inclusive of natural variation provides a realistic and accurate view of biology. As evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden eloquently summarizes, “The biggest error in biology today is uncritically assuming that the gamete size binary implies a corresponding binary in body type, behavior, and life history.” For instance, despite the myths perpetuated by popular evolutionary psychology, there is no such thing as a male or female brain. Numerous recent studies have shown that sex differences in brain anatomy and activity, especially in humans, cannot be reduced to a binary. Each individual has a mosaic of female-typical, male-typical, and sex-similar characteristics. While actual scientists work to understand the complex biology of sex, anti-trans advocates dismiss the latest science to advance their political goals.
Even as a political agenda, sex essentialism makes no sense. The evolutionary difference between sperm and egg has nothing to say about which bathrooms people can use or which sports people can play. Children cannot produce gametes, and some people never will. In adults, sex traits such as hormone levels and gamete production can and do change. Even when doctors assign sex at birth, gamete size is irrelevant. Sex assignment is based on external genitalia, which do not perfectly correspond to a person’s gonads, the organs that produce gametes in adulthood.
In everyday life, sex essentialism hurts everyone. Any person outside of sex and gender norms can be subjected to intrusive investigation. Girl athletes are disqualified or harassed for having short hair, or they may be investigated for simply winning their competition. Sex essentialism is scientifically unsound, and shaping public policy based on pseudoscientific assertions that “sex is binary” is irrational, impractical, and unfair.
Oversimplifying biology is just one way that anti-trans advocates use scientific misinformation as a weapon. Borrowing from racist and sexist movements, these advocates also publish biased, flawed, pseudoscientific research that allegedly supports their beliefs. If the evidence doesn’t exist, make it up.
A major goal of anti-trans bills and laws is to criminalize gender-affirming care: the social, psychological, behavioral, and medical interventions that help bring a person’s gender identity into alignment with their physical self. Anti-trans advocates often cite research regarding a supposed social contagion that is causing youths to identify as trans and nonbinary. This idea came to mainstream prominence when solo researcher Lisa Littman published an article in 2018 purporting to document a new condition called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria.” She claimed that youths were suddenly coming out as trans and nonbinary due to a mental contagion they caught from their friends.
The problem? Littman’s one and only data source was a survey of parents recruited exclusively from anti-trans websites that were spreading fears of social contagion and disgust for trans people. Her flawed methodology betrays any semblance of scientific credibility. Parents are unreliable in gauging how long their child has questioned their gender. Selectively recruiting from anti-trans websites all but ensures a dataset of parents rejecting their child’s gender identity (behavior that also corrodes both the youth’s mental health and the parent-child bond). The dataset generated by her biased sample all but guaranteed a specific result that anti-trans advocates could easily exploit.
Littman’s study and its outcomes exemplify a type of intellectual attack known as epistemological violence. A term coined by psychologist Thomas Teo, epistemological violence refers to what occurs when researchers interpret empirical results in ways that devalue, pathologize, or harm a marginalized group even though equally good or better explanations exist. Epistemological violence is not exclusive to anti-trans movements. In their book The Bell Curve, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray claimed that racial disparities in IQ scores are due to inherent differences in genetics. They used flawed and fraudulent science to argue against efforts to address racial inequities, in much the same way that anti-trans advocates use Littman’s study to say trans people are deluded or ill.
Anti-trans research is rife with epistemological violence. During the 1980s and 1990s, sexologist Ray Blanchard proposed his “theory of transsexualism.” According to this theory, all trans women were either gay men who transitioned due to internalized homophobia or were confused heterosexual men with a cross-dressing fetish. Blanchard’s theory of trans people is speculative, contested, and harmful, as it unnecessarily pathologizes trans women while disregarding trans men and nonbinary people. Nevertheless, anti-trans advocates, including Blanchard, use this “theory” to deny health care for trans people.
Another set of flawed studies from the 2000s purported to show that 88 percent of children “grow out of” being trans. Other researchers pointed out
that the participants in those studies included a large number of
youths who never claimed a trans identity. In fact, up to 40 percent of
the participants did not even meet the technical criteria for
gender-identity disorder. In another study, it turned out that more than 90
percent of the youths reportedly diagnosed with gender-identity
disorder were not trans. If only 10 percent of participants expressed a
trans identity, is it any surprise that “up to 88 percent” of
participants did not identify as trans in adolescence?
Anti-trans advocates spread these biased studies and twisted interpretations to paint a false picture suggesting that trans people often regret transitioning. The truth is, there is plenty of research showing that gender-affirming care has some of the lowest regret rates of any form of medical care.
Poorly conducted and biased scientific studies have lasting effects, bolstered by anti-trans scientists who deflect reasonable criticism from their colleagues. For instance, researchers rightfully raised concerns about Littman’s methodology. In response, the journal that published her study conducted a post-publication review and issued a correction, a formal critique, and an apology to trans communities. However, the study is still cited as proof of “trans social contagion” by anti-trans legislators.
A 2023 article coauthored by J. Michael Bailey repeated Littman’s error and exclusively recruited parents from anti-trans websites. The study was also not approved by a research ethics board and was retracted after researchers again raised serious scientific and ethical concerns. Anti-trans advocates, including Bailey, framed the retraction as a journal’s kowtowing to an activist “mob” exploiting a “minor” technicality: By not acquiring consent of survey respondents, the researchers had violated standard research ethics practice. Bailey also claimed other “pro-trans” studies had not received consent from participants, when in fact those studies had. Anti-trans advocates deflect substantive scientific criticism by claiming, “No, you are the unobjective ideologue!”
To advance their claims of objectivity, anti-trans advocates also rely on false equivalences to manufacture convincing distortions and deflections. Littman defended her methodology by claiming that parental surveys are a standard data-collection method. This is true, but their appropriate use depends on the research goals, the questions, and the supporting data. Littman asked leading questions, queried only parents from anti-trans forums, and supplied no corroborating data. Bailey’s retracted follow-up study suffered from the same fatal flaws.
When scientific studies support gender-affirming care, anti-trans advocates use more misleading claims and false equivalences to attack those studies. For instance, Florida attempted to justify banning gender-affirming care by claiming such care was based on “low quality evidence.” The claim relies on a rhetorical sleight of hand. “Low-quality evidence” is a technical term in evidence-based medicine, not a subjective description in the colloquial sense. It does not mean there is insufficient evidence for gender-affirming care. Rather, it means that a medical practice has not been studied using one particular research methodology: a randomized-controlled trial, a study design wherein participants are randomly assigned to treatment or control groups to assess the effectiveness of a treatment.
Although randomized-controlled trials are valuable, they can also be inappropriate, biased, or unethical depending on the intervention being studied. According to Thomas Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such trials do not exist “for much, and perhaps most, of modern medical practice.” Most medical recommendations, including those of the World Health Organization, are not based on randomized-controlled trials. Such trials simply cannot be done in gender-affirming care, since those not receiving gender-affirming interventions would likely abandon the study once they noticed, biasing the outcome. This exact scenario occurred when researchers attempted a randomized-controlled trial of puberty blockers for youths who began puberty too early, before 8 or 9 years old.
Medical interventions based on “low quality” evidence (in the technical sense) are used left and right. Nothing about gender-affirming care departs from the way most of modern medicine works. Such care is safe, and considering the very low rate of regret, clearly safe and effective.
Simply put, the best scientific research does not support any of the proposed or enacted laws targeting trans, queer, and nonbinary people.
Oversimplified biology does not justify the oppression of marginalized people. Using the myth of sex essentialism to shape public policy is an illogical and cruel abuse of biological concepts. Speculative, outdated, contested, and pathologizing theories of transgender identity should not be the guidance used to formulate laws. And there is simply no substantive evidence for a trans social contagion, nor a high level of regret for gender-affirming care, which is safe, effective, and supported by decades of research.
Anti-trans advocates understand that a claim of scientific objectivity is a powerful tool to justify hate, so they game science to make it appear legitimate. They distort, cherry-pick, and fabricate to create scientific misinformation in service to their discriminatory, oppressive, and ultimately eliminationist political agendas.
Anyone who takes an honest look at science—with curiosity and compassion, without fear or hatred—can see what is undeniable and obvious: Trans, queer, and nonbinary people are a natural part of the beautiful variety and diversity of human existence. That is the real scientific truth.
This story is part of a series of OpenMind essays, podcasts, and videos supported by a generous grant from the Pulitzer Center's Truth Decay initiative.
November 6, 2023