Child Psychiatry Consult

Transgender youth: Bringing evidence to the political debates


In 2021, state lawmakers introduced a record number of bills that would affect transgender and gender-diverse people. The vast majority were focused on transgender and gender-diverse youth in particular. We’ve seen bills that would take away gender-affirming medical care for minors, ones that would force trans kids to play on sports teams that don’t match their gender identity, and others that would ban trans kids from public facilities like bathrooms that match their gender identities.

These bills aren’t particularly new, but state lawmakers are putting more energy into them than ever. In response, some public figures have started pushing back. Ariana Grande just pledged to match up to 1.5 million dollars in donations to combat anti–trans youth legislative initiatives. However, doctors have been underrepresented in the political discourse.

Dr. Turban is chief fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford (Calif.) University.

Dr. Jack L. Turban

Sadly, much of the discussion in this area has been driven by wild speculation and emotional rhetoric. It’s rare that we see actual data brought to the table. As clinicians and scientists, we have a responsibility to highlight the data relevant to these legislative debates, and to share them with our representatives. I’m going to break down what we know quantitatively about each of these issues, so that you’ll feel empowered to bring that information to these debates. My hope is that we can move toward evidence-based public policy instead of rhetoric-based public policy, so that we can ensure the best health possible for young people around the country.

Bathroom bills

Though they’ve been less of a focus recently, politicians for years have argued that trans people should be forced to use bathrooms and other public facilities that match their sex assigned at birth, not their gender identity. Their central argument is that trans-inclusive public facility policies will result in higher rates of assault. Published peer-review data show this isn’t true. A 2019 study in Sexuality Research and Social Policy examined the impacts of trans-inclusive public facility policies and found they resulted in no increase in assaults among the general (mostly cisgender) population. Another 2019 study in Pediatrics found that trans-inclusive facility policies were associated with lower odds of sexual assault victimization against transgender youth. The myth that trans-inclusive public facilities increase assault risk is simply that: a myth. All existing data indicate that trans-inclusive policies will improve public safety.

Sports bills

One of the hottest debates recently involves whether transgender girls should be allowed to participate in girls’ sports teams. Those in favor of these bills argue that transgender girls have an innate biological sports advantage over cisgender girls, and if allowed to compete in girls’ sports leagues, they will dominate the events, and cisgender girls will no longer win sports titles. The bills feed into longstanding assumptions – those who were assigned male at birth are strong, and those who were assigned female at birth are weak.

But evidence doesn’t show that trans women dominate female sports leagues. It turns out, there are shockingly few transgender athletes competing in sports leagues around the United States, and even fewer winning major titles. When the Associated Press conducted an investigation asking lawmakers introducing such sports bills to name trans athletes in their states, most couldn’t point to a single one. After Utah state legislators passed a trans sports ban, Governor Spencer Cox vetoed it, pointing out that, of 75,000 high school kids participating in sports in Utah, there was only a single transgender girl (the state legislature overrode the veto anyway).

California has explicitly protected the rights of trans athletes to compete on sports teams that match their gender identity since 2013. There’s still an underrepresentation of trans athletes in sports participation and titles. This is likely because the deck is stacked against these young people in so many other ways that are unrelated to testosterone levels. Trans youth suffer from high rates of harassment, discrimination, and subsequent anxiety and depression that make it difficult to compete in and excel in sports.

Medical bills

State legislators have introduced bills around the country that would criminalize the provision of gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth. Though such bills are opposed by all major medical organizations (including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, and the American Psychiatric Association), misinformation continues to spread, and in some instances the bills have become law (though none are currently active due to legal challenges).

Clinicians should be aware that there have been sixteen studies to date, each with unique study designs, that have overall linked gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth to better mental health outcomes. While these interventions do (as with all medications) carry some risks (like delayed bone mineralization with pubertal suppression), the risks must be weighed against potential benefits. Unfortunately, these risks and benefits have not been accurately portrayed in state legislative debates. Politicians have spread a great deal of misinformation about gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth, including false assertions that puberty blockers cause infertility and that most transgender adolescents will grow up to identify as cisgender and regret gender-affirming medical interventions.

Minority stress

These bills have direct consequences for pediatric patients. For example, trans-inclusive bathroom policies are associated with lower rates of sexual assault. However, there are also important indirect effects to consider. The gender minority stress framework explains the ways in which stigmatizing national discourse drives higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality among transgender youth. Under this model, so-called “distal factors” like the recent conversations at the national level that marginalize trans young people, are expected to drive higher rates of adverse mental health outcomes. As transgender youth hear high-profile politicians argue that they’re dangerous to their peers in bathrooms and on sports teams, it’s difficult to imagine their mental health would not worsen. Over time, such “distal factors” also lead to “proximal factors” like internalized transphobia in which youth begin to believe the negative things that are said about them. These dangerous processes can have dramatic negative impacts on self-esteem and emotional development. There is strong precedence that public policies have strong indirect mental health effects on LGBTQ youth.

We’ve entered a dangerous era in which politicians are legislating medical care and other aspects of public policy with the potential to hurt the mental health of our young patients. It’s imperative that clinicians and scientists contact their legislators to make sure they are voting for public policy based on data and fact, not misinformation and political rhetoric. The health of American children depends on it.

Dr. Turban ( is a chief fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford (Calif.) University.

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