Editors' Note: Guest blogger Dr. Jack Drescher is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and a member of the DSM-5 Workgroup on Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders.
I found myself puzzling over recent comments made by Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist-commentator on Fox News. Apparently perturbed by the announcement that Chaz Bono would dance with a woman partner on television's Dancing with the Stars, he warned parents to keep kids from watching the show. His reason: protecting children who might be struggling with gender confusion from unwanted influences.
Dr. Ablow apparently believes that watching a transman dance with a woman might cause somebody's confused child to become trans. I suppose some people still believe watching Will and Grace made kids gay.
Although this "monkey see, monkey do" warning might come across as common sense advice, this is another instance where "common sense" does not square with science. While science has yet to explain what causes gender dysphoria, as my colleague, APA President, Dr. John Oldham affirms, "There is no evidence that viewing a television game show with a transgender contestant would induce Gender Identity Disorder in young people."
Yet without much scientific evidence, Dr. Ablow asserts, "It would be wrong to think that gender dysphoria cannot be kindled by celebrating those who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery. . . By broadcasting, applauding and mainstreaming the journey of a very disordered person who endured, and likely will continue to endure, real suffering based on extraordinarily deep psychological problems, we suggest that that journey is a smart--even heroic--one to take."
Wouldn't it be more helpful to offer scientific data rather than sensationalized, detailed descriptions of sex reassignment surgery or metaphors about double amputees to support the views Dr. Ablow "believes to be true?"
Contrary to his claims, most people establish a gender identity at a very early age. There are exceptions but they are not very common. When gender dysphoria does appear before adolescence, most psychiatrists call this Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood (GIDC). This diagnosis applies to children, in some cases, as young as three, who tell their astonished parents they are not the boys or girls the parents believe them to be.
GIDC is relatively rare, and children whose gender dysphoria persists into adulthood even rarer. Existing research indicates that children with GIDC grow out of gender dysphoria, do not grow up to be transgender, and most of them grow up to be gay! Again, no one knows why.
For children whose gender dysphoria persists into adolescence, transition to the other sex when they reach adulthood is often the medical treatment of choice. Doing so is rarely a decision made lightly and these individuals may become suicidal if refused transition. The adolescents and their families who elect to go this route are not the ones Dr. Ablow describes: "tomboyish girls and sensitive, less stereotypically 'masculine' boys" or children who recently lost a parent and are "wondering who they are absent their deceased mothers or fathers." His views on gender confusion mix apples with oranges and have little basis in current clinical practices.
Dr. Ablow is within his rights to express personal opinions about transgender people. However, as a psychiatrist speaking in a public forum, his audience is entitled to accurate scientific knowledge of a complex subject rather than opinions, scare tactics and inflammatory language.
Dr. Ablow, seeing Chaz Bono's life as a tragedy, wants others to agree and his "prescription" is scaring people away from tuning in and seeing for themselves. Yet parents should not be afraid to learn something new. Tuning out uncomfortable information and maintaining silence only makes children (who cannot be shielded from this information in the modern age) more anxious. Children sensing parental anxiety become anxious as well.
Chaz Bono's highly publicized transition can be a teaching moment about the lives of transgender people. Parents who don't want their children to be confused should watch Dancing with the Stars and try to learn more about trans people themselves. Families watching the show together can become more informed about and sympathetic to trans people.
If he ends up watching it, perhaps Dr. Ablow will learn something as well.