GLAAD Took False, Previously Disproven Internet Scuttlebutt And Used It To Justify Putting Me On A List Of Supposed Anti-LGBT Bigots (Updated)

This is infuriating

Update: The day after this post went up, GLAAD made all the entries on its Accountability List but two inaccessible and posted a tweet explaining that the list had gone up before an “internal review process” was complete.

“No entries are being removed from the project, but additional profiles will be added and an official launch will happen soon,” explains the statement. Can’t wait!

I should be able to keep this short because these are not difficult errors to correct. In fact, anyone who has read my work at all wouldn’t have made them. (I’ll explain.) (Update: I was not, in fact, able to keep this short.)

Here’s a description of the GLAAD Accountability Project:

The GLAAD Accountability Project catalogs anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and discriminatory actions of politicians, commentators, organization heads, religious leaders, and legal figures who have used their platforms, influence and power to spread misinformation and harm LGBTQ people.

The Project reveals these individuals’ own words and actions, to help all Americans evaluate whether to vote for them, or quote them, or support their point of view. As journalists, newsrooms and platforms write stories or book guests for interviews and segments, they can check the record, add context to stories, or help decide whether a person with this history should continue to be given unchallenged air time or ink.

I’m on it. Not sure when I was added but there I am, alongside Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and various other figures that make those two look like ardent social liberals. I guess things were so urgent they didn’t have time to add my first name to the pulldown menu:

GLAAD used a professional headshot I had taken for my book. I signed a contract limiting even my ability to use that headshot. You can’t do that! But it’s telling.

Here’s the blurb about me, with numbering added so I can take on the points one by one:

(1) —Wrote—without evidence—in a cover story for The Atlantic, that  “Trauma, particularly sexual trauma, can contribute to or exacerbate [gender] dysphoria in some patients.”

(2)—Admitted to wildly misinterpreting a study on trans kids that he relied on for the article. Singal had wrongly claimed that adolescent patients who did not return to a clinic for gender dysphoria had "desisted" and no longer desired to change genders. There was never any evidence that any of the adolescents actually desisted. Singal says he "goofed" but clung to his belief that trans children can and do desist.

(3) —Parrots the notion of “social contagion” the baseless theory that kids are somehow being “influenced by the gender-identity exploration they’re seeing online and perhaps at school or in other social settings, rather than experiencing gender dysphoria.” [Note that by the time I was done writing this, the wording of this bit had changed slightly — out was “Parrots…” and in was “Explains the unproven theory of ‘social contagion’ that kids…” I have to wonder why they are editing this post, what the process looks like, and what other changes they will hastily adopt.] (Update: Edited again! ‘Baseless’ has been softened to ‘unproven.”)

Okay, GLAAD. Let’s go.

(1) —Wrote—without evidence—in a cover story for The Atlantic, that  “Trauma, particularly sexual trauma, can contribute to or exacerbate [gender] dysphoria in some patients.”

As is true of two out of three these claims, I’ve already addressed, at length, why this is a ridiculous knock on me. In 2018 I published “Gender Dysphoria, Trauma, and Online Misinformation,” a Medium post in which I noted that Slate and ThinkProgress had both criticized me for writing this very line. As I argued at the time, and as I continue to believe, these folks have no idea what they’re talking about because they are completely unfamiliar with the literature on gender dysphoria and rarely, if ever, talk to the youth gender clinicians I’ve spent dozens of hours interviewing and otherwise interacting with.

One of those clinicians is Diane Ehrensaft. She is one of the leading youth-gender clinicians in the world. She is beloved among trans rights groups and seen as a fierce proponent for gender-affirming care for young people. She is widely disliked by people who are skeptical of youth medical transition. Just Google her! You will quickly see what I’m saying is undeniably true.

(Everything that follows in this section is plucked directly from the aforementioned Medium post, which is two and a half years old.)

Here’s Diane Ehrensaft in her 2011 book Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-nonconforming Children:

Studies have shown that children have been known to insist on a change in gender or become gender-confused after a trauma or major disruption in their attachments. For example, a three-year-old boy survived a serious car accident that his mother did not. Afterward, he started insisting he was a girl. Before that, he never indicated any gender-nonconforming behavior. Now, to reclaim his dead mother, he became her. There is no doubt that children like this little boy did not just roll into the world as gender non-conforming, like those in parents’ reports of their children who “just show up” that way, but were responding to intense emotional issues in or outside the family through their expression of gender. Another obvious example of what I will call “reactive gender dysphoria” is how a young girl who has been molested may go on to create an emotional equation that if she becomes a boy, no one will bother her anymore. Children with reactive gender dysphoria do present themselves, and it is our responsibility to first get to the root of the emotional problems causing them to express their gender in the ways they do, and then to untangle those underlying psychological knots so the children can evolve into their authentic gender, based not on trauma but desire. Yet I would argue that these children represent only a tiny minority of gender-nonconforming children. And often the strongest indicator of their “minority” status is that they did not gradually become that way but changed their gender expression, at times suddenly and radically, subsequent to a trauma or emotionally distressing experience. (30)

There are also children who suddenly show up with a gender issue after a trauma and with no previous history of gender bending. Here, too, we may be seeing children who are expressing other troubles through gender. For example, the three-year-old who suddenly announces that he is a girl after losing his mother to sudden death may be in a desperate emotional search to reclaim his lost mother by becoming her, rather than in a journey toward discovering his true gender self. (222–223)

And here she is in her second book on trans and gender non-conforming kids, 2016’s The Gender Creative Child: Pathways for Nurturing and Supporting Children, making similar points:

Let’s think a little more about the relationship between trauma and the gender self. If gender is a mix of nature, nurture, and culture, and we have a child who has been repeatedly abused, sexually, to the point that the child would prefer to repudiate the gender that caused all that harm and enter life in another gender, is that any less authentic than the child who is persistent, consistent, and insistent since toddlerhood about their cross-gender identity? To test this out, we can help this child heal from the trauma of the abuse and pay attention to whether gender as a solution to those ills goes by the wayside as the child works through the horrors of what happened. This process is best guided by a trusted adult (or hopefully, more than one — parent, caregiver, therapist, teacher, support group leader) and should be accompanied by a revisit to the gender issue if it’s still there. But supposing that child will then feel that along the way, no one ever took the gender identity issue seriously. So here’s a question for all of us: If a child composes a unique gender web in a way that also serves as a salve for past injuries, why would we want to take that away from the child? (88)

Ehrensaft’s argument here reminds me a bit of what one experienced clinician told me during an an interesting exchange on this subject. Since I didn’t actually quote them, I’m not going to drag their name into this, but this is straight from the audio file:

CLINICIAN: I take that trauma history at every clinical intake. I take a full, complete review of systems, and I always take a trauma history. And the vast majority of my patients have trauma histories. And some are linked to their gender development, some aren’t, and some have really worked on their trauma and healed from it, and still are identifying as the gender they’re identifying and still having gender dysphoria. I think, you know, you can work on trauma-related distress, but identity is what it is at the end of the day. And while one piece of identity may be the trauma history, it doesn’t necessarily always mean it’s the only component, and/or that gender identity just hasn’t landed and stuck and it is where it is, and it should just be honored — regardless of if it came from [the audio’s indistinct: either “the ashes” or “reaction”], so to speak. And if a person’s really struggling with exploring their gender identity and there’s trauma related to it then you need to slow it down and explore it with them. Just like I wish someone had explored that trauma history with that one patient [who this clinician had mentioned earlier in our conversation] who had started testosterone and then began to resemble their father, their perpetrator — you know, someone should have explored that with them and talked about it a little bit more. I just — I don’t see the treatment of trauma typically resulting in someone altering their gender identity or their desire to change.

SINGAL: Gotcha. Okay, but it sounds like you don’t disagree that a competent clinician will take that into account. The problem is it’s such, like, a noisy signal because basically anyone in the transgender or gender nonconforming category is likely to have some degree of trauma.

CLINICIAN: Right. You’re gonna get too many false positives if you say, “This distress is only related to trauma, not gender dysphoria, and any patient with trauma doesn’t have gender dysphoria — they just have trauma.” You’re going to really hurt a lot of people — you’re going to ignore their gender dysphoria and you’re going to attribute [it to] something that’s not relevant.

I do my research on this. I don’t make shit up. I have higher standards than GLAAD. If they know something that Diane Ehrensaft doesn’t, and that multiple other clinicians I have interviewed who have told me the same thing also don’t know, they should share this information with the world, because it would permanently alter everyone’s understanding of youth gender dysphoria.

(2)—Admitted to wildly misinterpreting a study on trans kids that he relied on for the article. Singal had wrongly claimed that adolescent patients who did not return to a clinic for gender dysphoria had "desisted" and no longer desired to change genders. There was never any evidence that any of the adolescents actually desisted. Singal says he "goofed" but clung to his belief that trans children can and do desist.

This one’s particularly infuriating because GLAAD is just straightforwardly parroting a false claim about me that has been circulating for years. This refers to a genuine error I made that I explained, in depth, in a Medium post headlined “A Lot of People, Myself Included, Have Been Misreading the Single Biggest Published Study on Childhood Gender Dysphoria Desistance and Persistence — It Offers Stronger Evidence for Desistance Than We Thought.” 

I had to add that bit after the em dash, the “stronger evidence” part, because a bunch of people were, three years ago, misrepresenting my post in exactly the same way GLAAD is now.

As I write (if you actually read the post), my error was overestimating the number of kids truly “lost to followup” in an influential study of gender-dysphoric youth in the Netherlands that seemed to show a high rate of desistance, or kids feeling gender dysphoric at one point no longer feeling that way at a later point. The more kids lost to followup, the weaker the study (because how can we be sure their gender dysphoria actually desisted if the clinicians were no longer in touch with them?). Once you acknowledge that fewer kids were lost to followup than some people, myself included, initially misreported, the evidence for desistance provided by this study becomes stronger.

Because Twitter is a psychotic hall of funhouse mirrors, a bunch of people online instantly took what I wrote, which boiled down to “Because of this error I made, I think the evidence for genuine desistance from gender dysphoria is stronger than I did previously,” and literally flipped it around to “Ah-ha! He is admitting that desistance study is bunk and therefore so is desistance! For all these years he pushed a false study supporting this bogus desistance claim!” The confusion entailed in this error is so extreme I don’t even have an analogy. It’s just astonishing. Literally all you have to do is read the thing I posted to understand that the error I made points in the exact opposite direction.

But, journalistic standards being what they are, The Daily Dot published a confused piece mangling the issue that was a big vector for this false meme:

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.

THIS ISN’T THE ERROR I CORRECTED IN 2018. Anyone reading this will think that in 2018, I noticed 80 kids were lost to followup and acknowledged the study was therefore weak. But in the July 2016 piece I already mentioned that critique and why I didn’t fully buy it as a reason to discount the study in toto. This just completely misrepresents my correction. It also passes on yet more misinformation through misleading phrasing, because while it’s true “80 adolescents did not return to the center for treatment,” most of them weren’t actually lost to followup — the clinicians were able to get in touch with them or their families and check in.

I remember emailing the Daily Dot to ask for a correction, but I can’t find that email so I can’t claim with 100% certainty I did — maybe I intended to but forgot. If I find proof of an actual email, I’ll update this.

Either way, I was clear that I saw it as an error.

I also know that the author of the piece is aware of my complaint (whether or not I emailed her editors), because she has, on multiple occasions, treated my attempt to get a correction as an instance of ‘harassment.’ In 21st century journalism, if you misrepresent someone and they ask for a correction, that’s ‘harassment.’ That’s where we are, and it can partially explain the prevailing quality standards. (I am keeping her name out of this so as to not distract from the main issue, but some readers will know what I’m talking about.)

But the error was left up for years, allowed to fester and spread. Jezebel noted in its in-depth, sophisticated takedown of my article in The Atlantic — “What’s Jesse Singal’s Fucking Deal?,” that I “publicly admitted to misinterpreting a study on trans kids that informed his work for years,” linking to — you already know this — The Daily Dot article rather than my much clearer explanation.

Sure enough, GLAAD’s “Admitted” links to the Daily Dot piece as well. GLAAD needs to correct this immediately. It isn’t a close call.

Even more disturbing is GLAAD’s insistence that mere belief in gender dysphoria desistance constitutes a bigoted belief in 2021 — bigoted enough to get you put on a list, in fact! After all, my entry also reads that “There was never any evidence that any of the adolescents actually desisted. Singal says he ‘goofed’ but clung to his belief that trans children can and do desist.”

GLAAD clearly believes desistance isn’t just overstated (meaning people overestimate how frequently it occurs, which is a common and not always unwarranted claim), but that it is fake. How else do you understand the accusation that I have “clung to his belief that trans children can and do desist.”

Here’s an excerpt from my piece in The Atlantic. This was published in 2018 but every word of it is still true.

This so-called desistance research has been attacked on various methodological grounds. The most-credible critiques center on the claim that some kids who were merely gender nonconforming—that is, they preferred stereotypically cross-sex activities or styles of dress—but not dysphoric may have been counted as desisters because the studies relied on outdated diagnostic criteria, artificially pushing the percentage upward. (The terms detransition and desist are used in different ways by different people. In this article, I am drawing this distinction: Detransitioners are people who undergo social or physical transitions and later reverse them; desisters are people who stop experiencing gender dysphoria without having fully transitioned socially or physically.)

The desistance rate for accurately diagnosed dysphoric kids is probably lower than some of the contested studies suggest; a small number of merely gender-nonconforming kids may indeed have been wrongly swept into even some of the most recent studies, which didn’t use the most up-to-date criteria, from the DSM-5. And there remains a paucity of big, rigorous studies that might deliver a more reliable figure.

Within a subset of trans advocacy, however, desistance isn’t viewed as a phenomenon we’ve yet to fully understand and quantify but rather as a myth to be dispelled. Those who raise the subject of desistance are often believed to have nefarious motives—the liberal outlet ThinkProgress, for example, referred to desistance research as “the pernicious junk science stalking trans kids,” and a subgenre of articles and blog posts attempts to debunk “the desistance myth.” But the evidence that desistance occurs is overwhelming. The American Psychological Association, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Endocrine Society, and [the World Professional Association for Transgender Health] all recognize that desistance occurs. I didn’t speak with a single clinician who believes otherwise. “I’ve seen it clinically happen,” Nate Sharon [a youth-gender clinician who is himself trans] said. “It’s not a myth.”

It saddens and disturbs the hell out of me that an organization like GLAAD — an organization parents and young people turn to for expert guidance on gender dysphoria — would adopt and eagerly disseminate what is honestly Trump-level scientific misinformation. I’m pissed off they went after me, but I’m even more pissed off they they are are taking such a harmful approach to such a sensitive subject. It honestly seems as though they are taking their cues on this issue directly from Twitter and Tumblr, and I cannot imagine a more disastrous approach.

(3) —Parrots the notion of “social contagion” [sic, missing comma, I can’t resist I’m sorry] the baseless theory that kids are somehow being “influenced by the gender-identity exploration they’re seeing online and perhaps at school or in other social settings, rather than experiencing gender dysphoria.”

Here’s the full excerpt in question from my Atlantic article:

When parents discuss the reasons they question their children’s desire to transition, whether in online forums or in response to a journalist’s questions, many mention “social contagion.” These parents are worried that their kids are influenced by the gender-identity exploration they’re seeing online and perhaps at school or in other social settings, rather than experiencing gender dysphoria.

Many trans advocates find the idea of social contagion silly or even offensive given the bullying, violence, and other abuse this population faces. They also point out that some parents simply might not want a trans kid—again, parental skepticism or rejection is a painfully common experience for trans young people. Michelle Forcier, a pediatrician who specializes in youth-gender issues in Rhode Island, said the trans adolescents she works with frequently tell her things like No one’s taking me seriously—my parents think this is a phase or a fad.

But some anecdotal evidence suggests that social forces can play a role in a young person’s gender questioning. “I’ve been seeing this more frequently,” Laura Edwards-Leeper wrote in an email. Her young clients talk openly about peer influence, saying things like Oh, Steve is really trans, but Rachel is just doing it for attention. Scott Padberg did exactly this when we met for lunch: He said there are kids in his school who claim to be trans but who he believes are not. “They all flaunt it around, like: ‘I’m trans, I’m trans, I’m trans,’ ” he said. “They post it on social media.”

I heard a similar story from a quirky 16-year-old theater kid who was going by the nickname Delta when we spoke. She lives outside Portland, Oregon, with her mother and father. A wave of gender-identity experimentation hit her social circle in 2013. Suddenly, it seemed, no one was cisgender anymore. Delta, who was 13 and homeschooled, soon announced to her parents that she was genderqueer, then nonbinary, and finally trans. Then she told them she wanted to go on testosterone. Her parents were skeptical, both because of the social influence they saw at work and because Delta had anxiety and depression, which they felt could be contributing to her distress. But when her mother, Jenny, sought out information, she found herself in online parenting groups where she was told that if she dragged her feet about Delta’s transition, she was potentially endangering her daughter. “Any questioning brought down the hammer on you,” she told me.

Delta, it turned out, was not trans — she eventually detransitioned. Her not being trans does not impinge on anyone else’s gender identity, nor does it mean we can say, confidently, that a given kid will or won’t be trans in the long run — this is a very complicated subject and we are lacking in data. But these stories of social influence absolutely exist. If GLAAD wants to talk to the kids or families who have gone through this experience, I can connect them directly. Most of these kids turn out to be gay, meaning they are a member of a group GLAAD purports to be looking out for. Instead, GLAAD is aggressively trying to disappear them out of some misguided belief they are politically inconvenient.

Again, I don’t make shit up. I take my job seriously. The Atlantic article was rigorously fact-checked and also had two trans sensitivity readers. It could be that GLAAD knows something that a leading gender clinician, a young trans man, and a former trans boy don’t know (to take the evidence from the above excerpt alone), but if so, the organization should actually lay out and defend the stance that gender identity, unlike every single other aspect of adolescent life, is completely immune from social and cultural influence.

GLAAD should absolutely take down this entire page on me. It’s irresponsible nonsense and I’m furious I had to take time out of my day to respond to it.