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Criticism of methodology or censorship? We look at Brown University professor’s gender dysphoria study and ensuing backlash

Hundreds protest a Trump administration announcement at the Stonewall Inn on February 23, 2017 in New York City.
Hundreds protest a Trump administration announcement at the Stonewall Inn on February 23, 2017 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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A study on gender dysphoria published last month in scientific journal PLOS ONE has sparked controversy among both among conservative and progressive circles.

Conducted by Brown University Professor Lisa Littman, the descriptive study looks at “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” which is described as gender dysphoria experienced for the first time during puberty in the context of “multiple, or even all of the friends have become gender dysphoric and transgender-identified during the same timeframe.”

It was based on anonymous survey responses from 250 parents of teenagers and young adults who expressed gender dysphoria, and raised questions about whether social pressures can influence a child’s gender identity. Following backlash to the study, Brown rescinded a news story on the research and PLOS ONE issued a statement saying it was looking into the criticisms.

Some have criticized Brown University’s decision to not stand by Professor Littman’s study, saying this was an example of a university suppressing scientific inquiry because of pressure from trans activists and idealogues. Critics from the other side have said that the study was illegitimate because of its flawed methodologies -- for example, that it interviewed parents and not the kids themselves and that the pool of parents used was biased.

We hear from both sides. Plus, we talk to a clinician about the protocol for screening a child who says they are experiencing gender dysphoria.

We reached out to Professor Lisa Littman. She declined our request for an interview.

PLOS ONE’s Statement:

PLOS ONE is aware of the reader concerns raised on the study’s content and methodology. We take all concerns raised about publications in the journal very seriously, and are following up on these per our policy and COPE guidelines. As part of our follow up we will seek further expert assessment on the study’s methodology and analyses. We will provide a further update once we have completed our assessment and discussions.


Jillian Kay Melchior, editorial page writer at The Wall Street Journal; she wrote the piece “Peer Pressure and ‘Transgender’ Teens”; she tweets @JillianKayM

Aydin Olson-Kennedy, licensed clinical social worker and executive director of the Los Angeles Gender Center, a nonprofit that provide identity affirming mental healthcare for the trans and gender non-conforming communities and their families  

Aron Janssen, M.D., clinical director of the Gender and Sexuality Service at NYU Langone’s Child Study Center, a mental health clinic that services gender diverse youth; he is also an associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone