Anti-LGBTQ media outlets peddle myths about autism and trans identity

About Heron Greenesmith

Support for transgender rights at the 2017 Women’s March. Photo: Ted Eytan/Wikimedia Commons.

The American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds), founded in 2002 in opposition to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) support for adoption by LGBTQ couples, was cited in one of several articles published by right-wing news outlets in late November in apparent concern over transgender people “taking advantage of” and “recruiting” people with autism. Church Militant, the Post Millennial, and the Federalist all published articles or op-eds based in some part on The Daily Mail’s mid-November expose on a teacher, Carol, who claims that students with autism are being “’tricked’ into believing they are the wrong sex”:

I’m now so alarmed by the force of the transgender agenda that I’m not sure how much longer I can go on for, as I can no longer be honest with the students. We are being dictated to by groups who don’t know these kids, to make decisions that are harmful to them. And we are giving children a huge amount of agency to make decisions when what they need are boundaries to make them feel safe and secure. It feels as if we are walking into a nightmare.

A concurrently published article from Spectrum, an online news outlet launched in 2015 to publish objective coverage of autism research, points out there are myriad reasons why people with autism are more likely to identify as LGBTQ including “decreased adherence to social conventions” and “greater forthrightness and honesty.” But the correlations are not important to those peddling in conspiracy theories.

Church Militant, a Steve Bannon-connected traditionalist Catholic blog headed by ultra-conservative Michael Voris, took up the story from the Daily Mail, looking at the narrative through a lens domestic to the United States. “They are just young people with mental health problems who want to be part of a group,” reads the sub-heading. Church Militant goes on to cite Dr. Michelle Cretella, executive director of the American College of Pediatricians, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a “fringe anti-LGBT hate group that masquerades as the premier U.S. association of pediatricians to push anti-LGBT junk science.”

Dr. Cretella told Church Militant that children with autism are “very aware of being different from their peers and/or isolated by them at a very young age. Consequently, when autistic children are exposed to transgenderism, it has a two-fold appeal. . . . Once they declare a transgender identity, they suddenly have a group of ‘friends’ the likes of which they have never experienced.” Dr. Cretella regularly espouses her anti-transgender views through the American College of Pediatricians and at conservative venues across the country, such as the Family Research Council-run Values Voter Summit.

As she did from the main stage at the Values Voter Summit, Dr. Cretella cited Dr. Lisa Littman’s discredited study on transgender identity among young people to Church Militant. Earlier this year Dr. Littman, who conducts her research at Brown University, published a paper that purported to have discovered a rash of youth transitioning in UK schools. In fact, Dr. Littman didn’t talk to any transgender youth at all—nor did she collect data on health outcomes for youth who are allowed to assert their gender identity. Instead, she interviewed parents who frequent three UK-focused message boards, message boards for parents critical of supporting children’s asserted gender identity. The results of the study were unsurprising: the research describes “clusters” of children asserting a transgender identity, frequently after an increase in internet or social media use. Dr. Littman coined the term “rapid onset gender dysphoria” to describe this phenomenon.

To be clear, “rapid onset gender dysphoria” is not a scientific term. Nor does it describe any phenomenon known to social science or pediatrics. After significant outcry, the report was discredited by Dr. Littman’s own institution Brown University and called under investigation by PLOS ONE, the journal who initially published it. But the research has become part of the rhetoric among those who most vocally oppose transgender equality, include Dr. Cretella and the American College of Pediatricians.

Two more right-wing publications picked up the Daily Mail article. The Post Millennial published an op-ed from a transgender person warning parents against their kids with autism being taught “confusing and yet ‘magical’ ideas regarding gender.” The Federalist also published an op-ed, this time by a queer person who identifies as non-neurotypical. They write: “So I do understand why many who live with the duality of feeling uncomfortable in their own skin would seek to change their skin instead of their mind. That would be a lot easier. Yet I didn’t have that choice.”

Fundraising card used by Anita Bryant, 1977. Courtesy of Stonewall Library & Archives/Wikimedia Commons.

At its heart, accusing transgender people of “recruiting children” has echoes throughout history, including the first religious campaign against gay rights — Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign against Miami-Dade County’s nondiscrimination protections in the 1970s. Bryant and “Save Our Children” claimed that because “homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children.” The myth of recruitment has been deployed in anti-LGBTQ campaigns ever since, leading to the dismissal of LGBTQ teachers and preventing adoptions.

Accusing transgender people of taking advantage of children with autism heightens the rhetoric and moves the center of the discussion towards the Right, forcing those attacked to defend themselves against absurd allegations. Moving the ball is an effective tactic and it is shared by anti-transgender activists and advocates across the ideological spectrum and across the world, with real consequences for transgender people.

Heron Greenesmith (PRA Senior Research Analyst) has worked in LGBTQ advocacy for over a decade with the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, the Movement Advancement Project, Family Equality Council, and the National LGBTQ Task Force. They specialize in advocacy for bisexual and pansexual people. Heron is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire and American University, Washington College of Law. Heron is admitted to the New York and Massachusetts bars. They are a board member of the Massachusetts LGBTQ Bar Association, a former board member of the National LGBT Bar Association, a former Rockwood Leadership Institute Fellow, and a returned Peace Corps Volunteer.