An “Intriguing” Film: Platforming Pseudoscience
Updated: Oct 2
Yesterday, it was the crisp and sunny end to the month of September. Here in Richmond, Virginia, it marked the last day of our own local Pride celebrations, though as a bustling town filled with queer artists, both locally and nationally known, and a seeming safe-haven from less friendly surroundings for LGBTQ+ people, there are rainbow-draped events throughout the year. So many have come to our city to express who they truly are and who they truly love in relative safety, which is why the decision of the Richmond International Film Festival to show a blatant anti-trans propaganda film, Affirmation Generation, is deeply troubling. RIFF chose to platform a film that has been removed from both Vimeo and pulled by AMC theaters for its brazen disinformation and the hate and very real danger it poses to transgender people, specifically transgender youth and their families, and health providers caring for them under best-practice standards. I went to the historic Byrd Theatre to speak with someone from the festival. Seven Hills had been approached by RIFF soliciting sponsorship, so seeing this film show up in their selection of “documentary” features was shocking to say the least. When I arrived, the only representatives present were volunteers with the organization, which graciously answered what questions they could about how the moment came to be. They let me know that all films are approved “by juried selection within RIFF,” meaning that many eyes and a number of votes from Richmond International Film Festival members allowed this fiction to be presented as fact. I have since written the head of RIFF to gain understanding on how a group vying to be “the next SXSW” had broad enough buy-in to show this harmful collection of debunked “experts,” cherry-picked interviewees, and re-mixed testimony in the Commonwealth’s queer heart.
If you have not heard of it, and it is likely that unless you are part of fringe anti-trans groups, you have not, Affirmation Generation is a film put out by Panacol Productions and Deplorable Films, which states that it is a “new label for the distribution of films that the illeberal ideologues in Hollywoke, and their comrades in DC, are afraid you might see.” The movie follows what would appear to be a series of “experts” laying out the harms done by the current best practices, in direct opposition to medical guidelines set forth by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and WPATH, the international organization that sets psychological and medical standards of care for transgender people. The movie also highlights six “de-transitioners,” though of the six, one has publicly come forward to denounce the film. Joel Kass said that he was lied to about the intent of the film entirely, that it was supposed to show the informed-consent model for gender affirming care in a positive light. He also stated, “ I gave thoughtful, ethical, correct responses to interview questions, and every single thing I said was taken out of context, cut all apart, piecemealed into something that served the agenda of another party entirely,” as well as “I would hate to think that something I was a part of could be viewed by a legislator and impractically influence thought-making, decision making processes, or just scare the sh*t out of parents of trans kids that come out to them.” Obviously, a dishonest representation of testimony so personal is a problem, but this latter quote highlights the very real danger a film like this creates. We are not living in a time where facts are guiding the moral compass of our leaders or our laws, but this is not new.
I am a child of the 80s. The shadow of HIV/AIDS blanketed the country in my youth. As a kid surrounded by Southern Baptists, the media I sought out, and the media presented to me told divergent tales. I remember the idea of homosexuality as an infection, a disease that one could catch with proximity or exposure. Like saying “Bloody Mary” three times in the mirror, if you spoke of it aloud too much, it may appear and consume you, forever changing the course of your life and its possibilities. If you saw the wrong movie, listened to the wrong song, saw the wrong art, made the wrong friends, spontaneous gayness might occur! It sounds absolutely absurd in 2023 to present homosexuality, or any sexuality, in terms of a disease-model, and while I am so glad that broadly we have moved on as a culture from this thought in relation to LGB people, it is a sad fact that it is being dusted off and reused for trans folks. This cycle is as disappointing as it is predictable, and this new incarnation is being spearheaded by a few groups that cite each other in a circular logic that is dizzying. It would be laughable, but these same fringe groups are quoted in legislative halls as laws removing personal autonomy and the ability for doctors, patients and their families to decide what is best for transgender people, particularly trans youth are enacted in state after state.
Affirmation Generation, once called No Way Back:The Reality of Gender-Affirming Care, paints a bleak picture of confused kids experiencing something called “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” or ROGD. This sounds like a legitimate diagnosis, and unfortunately, a lot of people are beginning to think it is. The idea behind this is called “social contagion,” and it sprouted out of a blog for transphobic parents called Fourth Wave Now. Parents scared or angry that their child came out could find solace in the idea that it was social media or another trans person that “made” their kid trans. It provided a direction for blame where none needed to exist. If you noticed the reference to feminism in the name, there is a reason for that. This idea is linked inextricably to TERF ideology and the LGB queer separatist movement, positing that because of the potential for homophobic bullying, kids are opting to identify as trans instead of homosexual to escape cruelty from parents and peers. It's a really out-there theory as well, given the rates of bullying of trans kids and the current legal landscape. TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) use some of the same language used by white supremacists that is intimately based in a scarcity mindset, using terms like “Great Replacement Theory” or “Lesbian Erasure” to put forth that one-day there will be no more left. To say that the anti-trans movement had made strange bedfellows is an understatement.
Affirmation Generation prominently features Dr Lisa Littman. She wrote the paper that gave birth to Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria. It was almost immediately retracted from the peer-reviewed medical journal PLOS One, because of massive flaws with her interpretation of information and methodology. Dr Littman recruited participants from Fourth Wave Now and similar pools that already aligned with the point that she wanted to make. She started from the flawed assumption that there were only supposed to be a small, set amount of trans kids in the population, and anything over that should be attributed to social contagion. Despite the retracting and debunking of her paper, the damage was done. It has since come up in state houses and debates around bans limiting the access to gender affirming care for youths and adults alike.
Even though every major medical association states that transgender youth should be believed, this film and its “experts” assert that an approach called “Watchful Waiting” should take the place of science-driven protocols. They urge parents to delay care, so that irreversible changes made by puberty-blockers and cross-hormone therapy cannot occur and then be regretted. This ignores the very real fact that while the effects of puberty-blockers are fully reversible, the unwanted effects of allowing puberty to occur for a transgender teen absolutely are not. This is a dangerous approach that has no medical basis. It is cruel and it is unfounded by science.
I could go on and on about the groups and people that profit off of the ideas in this film, the incestuous webs of cross-quoting of Genspect, SEGM, ReIME, Sasha Ayad, William Malone and Stephanie Winn, but ultimately, that’s all out there already on full display. A quick google search, and you’re there, and this is why the decision to show Affirmation Generation here in Richmond, Virginia, on the last day of Pride is SO puzzling. It doesn’t matter that of people that receive some form of gender affirming surgery, only 1% regret it, usually due to some issue associated with social discrimination, while the rate of regret associated with knee replacement is somewhere between 1 in 5 and 1 in 3 according to the NIH and AARP. It doesn’t matter what the specific numbers on suicide prevention for trans youth receiving gender affirming care are (a 73% reduction according to the Department of Epidemiology, University of Washington) or how incredibly small detransition rates actually are (even in Dr Littman’s HEAVILY biased study 91% remained trans), because this film is so obviously and glaringly propaganda. It takes almost NO effort to see that! This decision had a lot of eyes on it, and broad enough buy-in from RIFF that there is a massive problem with its leadership’s judgment.
I cannot imagine that a film espousing the virtues of conversion therapy, or a film “just asking questions” about whether or not homosexuality was a choice would make it to the festival’s final cut, but this film did, and honestly, it is just as out of place in this moment as those others would be. I encourage those responsible for this decision to reach out. I specifically would like to know how many transgender people were in the room when the choice was made to platform this “intriguing film” in the words of the Richmond International Film Festival. I encourage those impacted by this decision to make your voices heard, because that is the only way I know to drown out the rantings of the ignorant. These last few years transgender people have quite literally been fighting for our survival, and we and our allies cannot do that in silence. Help keep Richmond the beautiful, diverse, and accepting home it has come to be for so many queer outcasts to thrive in, and do not allow hate, in whatever veneer it is wrapped in, to take root in our shared culture here. The progress flags don’t come down in RVA when September ends, may they never.
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Or contact their sponsors to let them know your thoughts on platforming this dangerous pseudoscience in the heart of our community