The author of Gulliver’s travels, Jonathan Swift, once wrote, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.”

That certainly is the case with new “research” published last month in JAMA Psychiatry. While the report was flying through the media, the truth was limping slowly behind.

The report was titled, “Association Between Recalled Exposure to Gender Identity Conversion Efforts and Psychological Distress and Suicide Attempts Among Transgender Adults.”  It allegedly shows that when transgender or gender dysphoric individuals try change – to accept and live as their birth sex – they are harmed for the rest of their lives.

The Fenway Institute is an LGBT health, research and policy group in Boston. They participated in producing the report and explained the results this way, “Lifetime exposure to gender identity conversion efforts was associated with a broad range of adverse mental health outcomes, including suicidal ideation in the previous 12 months and severe psychological distress in the previous month.”

These results were loudly promoted by the media. They were reported, without question, in numerous medical and science news outlets. Here are just a few of the headlines from when the study came out:

  • The Washington Post: “Conversion therapy associated with severe psychological distress in transgender people, study says”
  • Science magazine: “New study reveals risks of transgender ‘conversion therapy’”
  • The New York Daily News: “Trans adults who try professional help to change gender identity are twice [as] likely to commit suicide, new study finds”

The research was touted as proof that transgender or gender dysphoric individuals who try to change are irreparably harmed. The study was even used by the city of Tampa, Florida, in a recent failed attempt to support the city’s censorship of therapy for minors with unwanted homosexual or transgender struggles.

The reality is that the research was deeply flawed. It was unscientific, badly designed, and had an obviously political motivation. Mark Regnerus, Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote a scathing review in Public Discourse only a week after the study was released. But his critique has received little attention.  

Researchers asked 27,715 transgender identified people – “Did any professional (such as a psychologist, counselor or religious advisor) try to make you identify only with your sex assigned at birth (in other words, try to stop you from being trans).” Regnerus explains the problem with this question, “First, the study fails to define or better distinguish what it means by GICE – that is, gender identity conversion efforts – its key variable and a term the authors appear to have invented.”

Did the gender dysphoric individuals meet with a medical doctor who explained the life-long consequences of puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and surgery? Did they simply talk with a pastor who said, “Perhaps you should accept your biological reality?” Did they meet once with a licensed counselor who helped them explore their gender dysphoria? Or for six months? What kind of “conversion efforts” did they experience? We don’t know, because researchers did not define what they were trying to measure.

Regnerus also notes that the researchers did not use a random sample, but “the data come from a nonrandom, opt-in survey – the USTS [“U.S. Transgender Survey”] – that only targeted networked, self-identified transgender or nonbinary persons by advertising their survey among “active transgender, LGBTQ, and allied organizations.”

The USTS was created by another LGBT activist group with a social and political agenda, the National Center for Transgender Equality. They recruited a self-selected group of individuals who identified as transgender, trans, genderqueer, gender fluid, non-binary, agender, non-binary, drag performers – and more, as “respondents wrote in more than 500 unique gender terms with which they identified.”

Regnerus writes, “And you can’t extrapolate the results of a non-random sample to the general population as a whole. (But you can hope that the media and readers will.)”

He then explains how the authors play with statistics from this nonrandom sample: “[T]he authors report ‘confidence intervals” for their statistical ‘estimates.’ Why they do so is beyond me. It’s a charade. Those terms are only truly sensible and appropriate for probability samples.”

As noted above, two of the groups involved are political advocacy groups. A third participant, Boston Hospital, has run a clinic for gender dysphoric children for the past decade. They are heavily invested in “transitioning” children to the opposite sex.

Commenting on the politicized nature of the study, Regnerus describes that the lead author, Dr. Jack Turban stated his goals for the report, “We hope our findings contribute to ongoing legislative efforts to ban gender identity conversion efforts.”

Regnerus writes, “Rarely have researchers been so explicit about the political aims of their research. If this study is really ‘the first study’ to show ‘adverse mental health outcomes’ related to ‘conversion therapy,’ how can it be sufficient—even if it were high-quality—to justify government bans? And how could researchers have supported such bans prior to any study at all? Simple: it was never about science.”

He’s correct. Real research has demonstrated that those struggling with gender dysphoria do have higher rates of a host of issues, including mental illness, suicidality and depression. But these researchers did not look for real explanations for these problems, such as childhood trauma, sexual abuse, relational difficulties, or gender dysphoria itself.

Instead, this biased, unscientific research is part of a larger campaign to blame religion and therapy for the mental health problems that gender dysphoric individuals struggle with. One wonders why JAMA Psychiatry even chose to publish this.