Why are legislatures pushing policies that disregard well-established science?

Across the country, politicians and policymakers who have taken oaths to “support and defend the Constitution … against all enemies, foreign and domestic” are instead engaging in an anti-science campaign that puts transgender young people and their families at risk. As they introduce and pass legislation that purports to “save” transgender youth, ensure “fairness” in school sports, or protect “parental rights,” these elected officials are actively creating environments that fly in the face of what developmental scientists know to be true: Gender-affirming policies support transgender and gender-diverse youth’s health.

As a developmental scientist who studies the healthy development of transgender and gender-diverse young people, I know that research uniformly points to the importance of affirming young people’s gender at home, in schools, and in health care. Transgender and gender-diverse children and adolescents who attend schools and have access to health care that supports and affirms their gender identity are less likely to experience depressive symptoms and are less likely to attempt suicide.

Gender affirmation includes the use of names and pronouns that correspond to a young person’s gender identity; access to school facilities (such as restrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams) that correspond to a young person’s gender identity; freedom to express their gender identity through clothing and make-up without punishment; and access to medical care that supports their gender identity (such as reversible puberty blockers, gender-affirming hormones, and mental health care that honors their identity). 

Data show that students report better mental health in schools where teachers and staff create an affirming environment. For example, when transgender and gender-diverse students used their appropriate name in school, one study showed they were 56 percent less likely to report suicidal behavior. Similarly, access to a safe restrooms is associated with higher school safety, self-esteem, and grades, and not having inclusive restrooms can lead to anxiety, discomfort, illness, and loss of instructional time. Additionally, schools with policies that specifically mention that gender identity or expression are protected categories have lower rates of bullying and substance use among their student bodies.

Access to gender-affirming health care is also associated with better outcomes for our young people. The evidence is so compelling that both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association strongly support gender-affirming health care. As one statement says, “The AMA opposes the dangerous intrusion of government into the practice of medicine and the criminalization of health care decisionmaking. Gender-affirming care is medically necessary, evidence-based care that improves the physical and mental health of transgender and gender-diverse people.” These recommendations are grounded in research that demonstrates that the use of reversible puberty blockers and gender-affirming hormones are associated with better psychological functioning and less depression, anxiety, and suicidality, both during adolescence and over the life course.

Our transgender and gender-diverse young people are under attack.

Why, then, are legislatures pushing policies that disregard well-established science?

Our transgender and gender-diverse young people are under attack. Elected officials must acknowledge the preponderance of scientific evidence and uphold their oaths of office to create environments that allow all young people to thrive and flourish. They must move forward with policies and practices that are grounded in science and support our young people, like those recommended by the Society for Research on Child Development:

  • Make available gender-affirming health care—in line with the AMA and AAP recommendations—available to all young people, including puberty suppression, gender-affirming hormones, surgical interventions, and mental health care.
  • Mandate that schools institute policies and practices that support all students, including specifically naming gender identity and expression in state and federal anti-bullying and nondiscrimination policies; making school facilities (restrooms, locker rooms, sports teams, and activities) available to students based on their gender identities; providing training for teachers, administrators, and staff on gender inclusivity; and prohibiting schools from disclosing students’ gender identities and expressions to parents and guardians without students’ permission.

Policymakers, the science is clear. Now that you know better, we expect you to do better.

Robert A. Marx, March 31, 2022
Robert A. Marx (they/he) is an assistant professor of child and adolescent development at San José State University and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. He is a former high school English teacher.

May 25, 2022