All the Evidence Against Transgender Social Contagion
Plus Thoughts on Why People Continue to Embrace This Zombie Theory
I first used the above graph back in 2017, in response to the then novel claim that being transgender is somehow spreading among children via “social contagion.” In the essay that accompanied it, Transgender Agendas, Social Contagion, Peer Pressure, and Prevalence, I made three points: 1) historically, the apparent number of trans people had been artificially suppressed through a combination of isolation, strict medical gatekeeping, and pervasive stigma (e.g., social ostracization); 2) with each recent decade, there has been a steady rise in the number of people who identify as trans due to a gradual increase in access to information and gender-affirmative care, and a reciprocal decrease in stigma; 3) these dynamics are strikingly similar to the apparent rise in left-handedness (from ~2% to 13.2%) in Western countries over the twentieth century as stigma against left-handedness receded.
In other words, there’s no need to invent an unlikely hypothesis (that being transgender has suddenly become “contagious”) to explain recent demographic trends when we know that a reduction in anti-trans stigma (and the increase in trans awareness and acceptance that results from it ) provides sufficient explanation.
The following year (2018), I published two new essays on this topic: Everything You Need to Know About Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria critiqued Lisa Littman’s theory of “ROGD” (i.e., a supposed “new type” of gender dysphoria that spreads via social contagion). The Superstition that LGBTQ+ People Are “Contagious” explored the longstanding superstition that queerness more generally is contagious — it includes a link to law professor Nancy J. Knauer’s 2000 article Homosexuality as Contagion: From The Well of Loneliness to the Boy Scouts, which chronicles how this idea persisted throughout much of the twentieth century. (And unfortunately, it has been making a resurgence lately.)
In subsequent years, I’ve investigated where the “transgender social contagion” hypothesis originated, and compiled subsequent research studies that have tested it — these can all be found in my Origins of “Social Contagion” and “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” timeline. Drawing from that timeline, I recently compiled a bullet-point summary of all the evidence against the theory, which I will duplicate here:
- The concept of “transgender social contagion” was invented by a trans-skeptical parent on February 2016 on the anti-trans website 4thWaveNow. It initially garnered popularity there and on two other anti-trans parent websites — i.e., the same three websites that Littman would later survey for her ROGD study.
- There are additional flaws with Littman’s study, which have been chronicled in three peer-reviewed critical reviews (Restar, 2020; Ashley, 2020; Pitts-Taylor, 2020). PLoS One, the journal that published the Littman paper, eventually released an apology and correction for it.
- In subsequent years, numerous independent research groups have publish peer-reviewed studies that yielded results inconsistent with, or which directly contradict, the ROGD and “transgender social contagion” hypotheses (Restar et al., 2019; Kuper et al., 2019; Kennedy, 2020; Bauer et al., 2021; Sansfaçon et al., 2021; Sorbara et al., 2021; Puckett et al., 2022; Turban et al., 2022; Turban et al., 2023). Several healthcare professional organizations (e.g., WPATH, AusPATH, APS, CAAPS) have also released statements refuting these concepts.
- Since social conservatives have been trying to expand this “social contagion” claim to cover all LGBTQ+ people, at least one study has shown that same-sex attraction doesn’t “spread” among adolescent social networks (Brakefield et al., 2014).
- LGBTQ+ people aside, the concept of “social contagion” has been heavily critiqued in the research literature for being poorly defined, and for conflating several potentially distinct social phenomena. One such phenomenon is homophily: the tendency for people who are alike in some way to associate with one another. Many claims of “social contagion” are actually better explained by homophily (Aral et al., 2009; Shalizi & Thomas, 2011). This is precisely the case that I made in my ROGD critique: While Littman presumed that “cluster outbreaks of transgender-identification” were occurring among children, it’s far more likely that these kids were already trans or gender-diverse in some way, and simply seeking out one another for mutual support, shared understanding, and the exchange of relevant information and ideas.
- Another social phenomenon that is often conflated with “social contagion” is a reduction of restraints. Specifically, if there is a social norm prohibiting a particular behavior, many people who are inclined to engage in said behavior may refrain from doing so (in LGBTQ+ communities, we colloquially call this “being in the closet”). But once that social restraint is lifted (e.g., if society becomes more tolerant or accepting of LGBTQ+ people), then many of these same people may start publicly expressing themselves for the first time (which onlookers may misperceive as a “rapid increase” due to “social contagion”). [This is the case I made earlier with the analogy to left-handedness]
- The “transgender social contagion” hypothesis suggests that many children adopting trans identities today are not actually “bona fide” trans kids, but rather cisgender kids who are merely “confused” about their genders and/or following a “trend.” If this were true, one would expect that gender affirmative care (e.g., social transitions, hormone therapy) would be less efficacious for them than their “bona fide” trans peers, likely leading to greater levels of transition regret or detransition over time. However, despite it being eight years since the social contagion hypothesis was first proposed, research studies continue to show that this is not occurring (see e.g., Olson et al., 2022; De Castro et al., 2022, Tang et al., 2022, Chen et al., 2023, Jedrzejewski et al., 2023).
- Finally, proponents of “transgender social contagion” often cite shifting demographics in trans youth in support of their arguments (e.g., the supposed rise in “young girls” transitioning). I address that specific issue in a companion essay: Explaining Assigned Sex Ratio Shifts in Trans Children.
All of the aforementioned articles and evidence are readily accessible online (in fact, the first essay I mentioned in this piece was cited in a recent Last Week Tonight with John Oliver episode). Plus, many other activists, journalists, researchers, and trans health professionals have written similar critiques and rebuttals over the years. In other words, it’s impossible to do even a minimal amount of research into the topic of “transgender social contagion” without coming across evidence contradicting the theory.
And yet people continue to cite and promote “transgender social contagion” unabated. It’s become a zombie theory, impervious to counter-evidence and critique.
Rather than relentlessly asking whether transgender identities are spreading via social contagion — for which there is no evidence outside of anecdotes, correlation (sans causation), and rampant speculation — we should be asking a far more crucial question: Why are many cisgender people so attached to this zombie theory?
I provide two answers to this question in my most recent essay: Anti-Trans “Grooming” and “Social Contagion” Claims Explained. First, it is very common for people in the dominant/majority group to view stigmatized minorities as “contaminated” and capable of “corrupting” supposedly “pure” ingroup members (particularly women and children). I provide even more examples of this — both throughout history and involving many different marginalized groups (LGBTQ+ folks, people of color, people with disabilities, non-Christians) — in my book, Sexed Up: How Society Sexualizes Us, and How We Can Fight Back.
In other words, these unconscious fears of being “contaminated” and “corrupted” by stigmatized “others” explain why claims of “social contagion” and “grooming” tend to resonate with audiences despite the lack of any concrete evidence to back them up.
The second reason is that these zombie theories seem to suggest some people’s preferred “solution” to “the transgender problem.” As I explain in the essay:
I began this essay with a list of imagined “causes” of transness. While they all lack scientific validity, some are potentially more harmful than others. For instance, if trans people actually were the products of dominant mothers, or environmental pollution, then our existence wouldn’t necessarily have any impact on other people who were not exposed to such things. In stark contrast, if trans people are imagined to be “contaminating” and capable of “infecting” or “converting” others (whether via “social contagion” or “grooming”), then that provides a convenient excuse for those who wish to “quarantine” us (e.g., by preventing us from participating in society, censoring our life experiences and perspectives, or perhaps even eliminating us all together).
Anti-trans campaigners have been raising fears of “transgender social contagion” for eight years now, yet study after study (cited above) show no evidence that kids today are adopting trans identities spontaneously, capriciously, or frivolously. Today in 2023, there are only three reasons why someone would continue to push this theory: 1) they haven’t bothered to seriously look into the matter, 2) they are deeply suspicious of trans identities and lived experiences, and thus reflexively reject any evidence that challenges that worldview (i.e., they are a science-denier, at least with regards to this particular issue), and/or 3) they believe that trans people should be eliminated from the public sphere and recognize that “social contagion” provides a powerful justification for their efforts to disappear us.
Please check out the companion piece to this essay: “Explaining Assigned Sex Ratio Shifts in Trans Children.” This essay and others referenced herein were made possible by my Patreon supporters — if you appreciate them, please consider supporting me there.