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No, this anti-LGBTQ hate group leader did not just ‘shut down leftists’

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On Wednesday, the Heritage Foundation — which has been described as “Donald Trump’s think tank” — hosted a panel featuring three doctors who reject transgender kids. ThinkProgress was in attendance and apparently ruffled some feathers.

Friday morning, Heritage posted a video clip from the event showing panelist Michelle Cretella responding to a question ThinkProgress asked, claiming she “shut down leftists on giving children puberty blockers.” Cretella serves as president of the American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds), an anti-LGBTQ hate group that masquerades as a legitimate medical organization so that it can peddle junk science to justify rejecting LGBTQ kids.

The clip notably doesn’t include the question ThinkProgress asked, which referred to Cretella’s regular use of the term “child abuse” to describe parents affirming their transgender kids’ identities, especially in the face of research showing incredibly positive mental health benefits from that affirmation.

In her response, Cretella actually acknowledged that the research exists, but attempted to misrepresent it to justify her points. In a short answer, she said many things that were incorrect.

First, she referred to puberty blockers as “chemical castration.” This is false. Puberty blockers delay puberty from making changes to a child’s body, but they don’t prevent it. Research has found that they are totally reversible, so if a child stops using them, they will proceed through puberty exactly as they otherwise would have — just at a slightly different age.

It is true that if a child advances from puberty blockers to cross-sex hormones, they will not develop the reproductive capabilities of their natal sex. The goal of these treatments is to help transgender children avoid permanent changes to their bodies that would exacerbate their gender dysphoria and be harder to reverse later in life. Families have tough conversations about the impact of this on fertility and the possibility of preserving reproductive capability, but they weigh those concerns against the consequences of gender dysphoria, which can be debilitating.

But Cretella rejects the validity of transgender identities, which is why she proceeded to rattle off a list of changes a teen might make to their body to treat their gender dysphoria. Affirming a gender identity, she claimed, is “not how you treat depression or anxiety.” But affirming trans youth doesn’t treat depression or anxiety directly; it treats the gender dysphoria that can cause other mental health issues. It’s a distinction that Cretella either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care to understand.

“Indoctrinating pre-school kids with the lie that you can be trapped in the wrong body,” she continued, “again, that’s disrupting their normal reality testing and cognitive development. Those things are abusive.” This description in no way matches up with the experiences of countless families, many of whom have spoken with ThinkProgress. Children as young as 18 months can begin to articulate aspects of their gender, and it’s the children themselves who tell their parents about their gender identity — not the other way around. In fact, as one study showed, these transgender kids identify as consistently and innately with their gender as their cisgender peers. And when they do, the social transition process is conservative — slow and gradual — allowing the children to explore their gender identity without having anything forced upon them.

Cretella then launched into the studies on parental affirmation, claiming to know of only two. It’s true that it’s a growing research field since it’s so novel for transgender kids to come out and be supported in their identities, but there are more than two such studies. It’s thus unclear exactly which studies she’s referring to, but her critiques don’t hold up for any of them.

“Number one, it assumes that coaching a child into a fixed false belief is mentally healthy,” she said. “Science doesn’t allow you to assume your conclusion.” Besides the fact no such coaching takes places, that’s actually exactly how science works. There’s no way to study the impact of parents affirming their trans kids if there aren’t actually parents affirming their trans kids to study. This argument mirrors the duplicitous way opponents of marriage equality claimed there wasn’t enough research on same-sex parenting, but opposed allowing same-sex couples to be parents so that it could actually be studied.

“Number two, those studies are extremely small.” That’s not untrue, especially given affirming transgender kids is a fairly new phenomenon in society, thus making it a challenge to study on a large scale. But that doesn’t mean the results aren’t valid. Moreover, the studies most often cited to justify rejecting transgender kids were far smaller; most of them had fewer than five kids who actually identified as transgender. One of the most recent studies showing the benefits of affirming trans kids had 63 participants.

“Number three, those studies are very short term.” This argument is actually irrelevant to the studies’ findings. The studies show that when parents affirm their transgender kids, those kids are just as mentally healthy as their non-transgender peers. It doesn’t really matter how long that lasts, because the findings have already proven the point that the affirmation produces positive results. Moreover, several of the published studies are actually preliminary findings from a longitudinal study, the TransYouth Project, which will continue to follow the kids for 20 years, so more data is on the way.

“And number four, the control group of ‘mentally healthy’ children are the siblings — most of them were siblings of the trans-identifying child.” This is actually a perk of the studies, not a flaw. First of all, the studies have used non-sibling controls, but even if they didn’t, it’s not like all the trans kids in the study were siblings with each other. Each trans kid would also be compared with all the other trans kids’ siblings. But it’s also helpful to compare how a trans kid is doing in the same environment as other kids, so including siblings actually strengthens the validity of the findings.

“Oh, and there’s a number five, the parents were the ones evaluating the mental health of the children.” This is a critique researchers have already responded to. Parents are an important part of any research about kids, because there’s no way a researcher can analyze every moment of every trans kids’ home lives. A 2016 study based on the TransYouth Project, for example, did rely on parents, but the researchers followed that up with a new study in 2017 that compared what parents were saying to the kids’ own responses. Not only did both studies find that the affirmed kids were doing extremely well, it turned out that the parents were actually deflating the results, reporting higher levels of anxiety in their kids than the kids were reporting in themselves.

Cretella concluded, “That’s not science, that’s ideology masquerading as science.” Actually, it is science, and Cretella is the one trying to impose an ideology that the science doesn’t support.

Watch the full exchange, including ThinkProgress’ question and the other panelists’ responses:

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