In many societies today, children are not the future so much as their parents’ self-realization projects. For example, what are we to make of the news from Australia that a four-year-old is receiving help to undergo a sex change? An autistic American teen got her breasts amputated, in a “trans” phase when she turned eighteen. Pope Francis, we are told, is now no longer “cool “ because he does not believe that vulnerable children should be indoctrinated in transgender theory.

Attitudes have hardened. Recently, we were informed that students and faculty at Johns Hopkins have demanded that the university repudiate a massively documented study that showed that genetics plays no significant role in whether people consider themselves straight or gay (or transgender). The students and faculty consider the study, Special Report at The New Atlantis (A Journal of Technology & Society) Fall 2016, by Johns Hopkins biostatistician Lawrence S. Mayer and Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Paul R. McHugh, “a misguided, misinformed attack on LGBT communities.”

The study’s executive summary provides a helpful structure for considering the claims of childhood transsexualism and makes for an interesting comparison with “recovered memories” syndrome. Are these “transgender tots” another instance of poster children for a social belief with little science backing?

The science-based researchers who have critiqued either “recovered memories” claims or “innate transgender” claims have not typically shown hostility to the individuals making the claims. They simply could not find much hard evidence for them, which is a different matter.

The Johns Hopkins researchers into transsexualism stirred controversy for saying that

“While there is evidence that biological factors such as genes and hormones are associated with sexual behaviors and attractions, there are no compelling causal biological explanations for human sexual orientation. While minor differences in the brain structures and brain activity between homosexual and heterosexual individuals have been identified by researchers, such neurobiological findings do not demonstrate whether these differences are innate or are the result of environmental and psychological factors.”

Their finding is controversial because a political lobby has deemed it inconvenient. In the same way, the recovered memories lobby had vilified researchers who doubted the claims about unconscious early childhood memory.

Longitudinal studies of adolescents suggest that sexual orientation may be quite fluid over the life course for some people, with one study estimating that as many as 80 percent of male adolescents who report same-sex attractions no longer do so as adults (although the extent to which this figure reflects actual changes in same-sex attractions and not just artifacts of the survey process has been contested by some researchers).

Many children would like to be members of the opposite sex at one time or another and do not adjust to their personal biology until puberty (at which point biology becomes more compelling—for example, shaving vs. periods). Thus, some children could easily be persuaded that they “really” belong to the opposite sex and encouraged to pursue that idea at a vulnerable stage of life.

In the same way, some adults who had had traumatic childhoods might be persuaded that unconscious memories of incest, recovered through hypnosis, were the cause of their misfortunes, only to retract the claim later.

“Members of the transgender population are also at higher risk of a variety of mental health problems compared to members of the non-transgender population. Especially alarmingly, the rate of lifetime suicide attempts across all ages of transgender individuals is estimated at 41 percent, compared to under 5 percent in the overall US population.”

A celebrated transgender activist, Alexis Arquette, died of AIDS complications recently at 47. 

In the case of “recovered memories,” the main risk was not suicide but growing old alone because relationships with families were often fatally damaged. In old age, good relations with younger kin matter because personal friends, however emotionally close, tend to be of the same age as oneself.

There was little hard science evidence behind the media frenzy and changed laws dealing with recovered memory, and many bases for concern. The same will likely be true, I suspect, of child transgender claims. These latter claims are more serious because they risk irrevocable surgery and drugs. As did the recovered memories movement, the transgender movement seems to make science-sounding claims without the discipline.

Denyse O’Leary is an Ottawa-based author, blogger, and journalist.

See also: Transgender tots? Part I: The “recovered memories” hysteria is a warning from recent history and Transgender tots? Part II: How did cognitive psychologists go about unravelling the increasingly frenzied story of “recovered memories”?

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Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...