Content warning for non-graphic mentions of child sexual abuse (and false accusations thereof).
There is a virtually endless list of things that supposedly cause people to become transgender. During the mid-to-late twentieth century, perhaps the most common proposed cause was faulty parent-child dynamics, especially “dominant” or “smothering” mothers (because of course it must be the mother’s fault!). Others argued that we likely transition in order to obtain gender-related privileges, or to assimilate into straight society, and/or because we uncritically buy into gender stereotypes. Still others insisted that we must be trying to “trick” straight people into sleeping with us, or striving to satisfy some sexual perversion. Janice Raymond even wrote an entire (and unfortunately influential) book contending that trans people are the products of a devious medico-patriarchal scheme to replace “biological women” with “man-made women” — I kid you not! (I debunk all these hypotheses in my 2007 book Whipping Girl.)
Some of these ideas persist to this day, but they’ve been joined by a slew of recent newcomers, including the notion that people (and especially kids) who come out as trans must be succumbing to peer pressure, or brainwashed by “gender ideology,” or sissy-hypno porn, or anime, or feminizing chemicals in the environment, or satanic possession, and/or are being manipulated by Jewish billionaires working together with big pharma to create a transhumanist future (reminiscent of Raymond’s premise but with the antisemitism cranked up to eleven).
This essay is not about what causes people to be transgender. It’s generally accepted (among people who are knowledgeable about such things, at least) that trans people — along with LGBTQ+ people more generally — arise as a part of natural variation (as I detail in books, essays, and interviews compiled here). For reasons inexplicable to everyone involved (including us!), we just randomly spring up in families, communities, and cultures, no matter how welcoming, skeptical, or hostile they may be towards us.
Nor will this essay examine why people relentlessly churn out new hypotheses (no matter how preposterous) to explain our existence, because the answer to that seems fairly obvious. There is a well-studied human tendency — often called negativity bias — that leads us to dwell more on “negative outcomes” than positive or neutral ones, and to assume that “negative” (but not positive or neutral) outcomes are likely caused by some external agent or event. This explains why people who have never once considered the question “why are most people cisgender?” will immediately strap on their “detective caps” and insist on “getting to the bottom that” upon coming across trans people. Negativity bias also explains why their make-believe causes of transness are almost always considered to be “bad things” in and of themselves (e.g., dominant mothers, environmental pollution, oppressive systems, secret plots, demonic possession, etc.).
What this essay is about is why, despite an infinite number of potential negativity-bias-driven explanations for our existence, today’s anti-trans movements seem to have coalesced around two main imagined causes of transness: “social contagion” and “grooming.” While these may seem on the surface to be very different claims, anti-trans (and increasingly anti-LGBTQ+) campaigners tend to invoke them interchangeably. Here, I will show that they are essentially the same charge.
In order to make this case, it’s useful to consider a third — once widely accepted, but now scientifically discarded — imagined cause of LGBTQ+ people: degeneration.
Degeneration, Stigma, and Imagined “Contamination”
The concept of degeneration was especially popular in the late nineteenth century, during a time when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was increasingly accepted, but before anyone understood how evolution actually works at the molecular level. Since white European men (who were the ones writing and theorizing about such matters) already saw themselves as “superior” to people of other ethnicities, they presumed that they must be the most “highly evolved” of all human beings. But that posed a problem, because some Europeans seemed to behave in “primitive” or “savage” ways in their eyes — often cited examples included criminals, sex workers, people who were poor, had mental disabilities, and/or were “inverts” (their term for people who today we’d describe as LGBTQ+).
Whenever people of European heritage exhibited any of these latter traits, researchers of the time presumed that they had “degenerated” (read: “de-evolved”) such that they now resembled the “lower races” (as they described them), particularly in their lack of self-control and intelligence. I discuss this theory of degeneration in my book Sexed Up: How Society Sexualizes Us, and How We Can Fight Back — here’s a relevant excerpt:
And how, pray tell, did this degeneration “spread” throughout the population? Through sex, of course. These researchers routinely cited masturbation and promiscuity as causes and/or symptoms of degeneration. Even worse, in their minds, were sexual interactions with other degenerates (such as inverts and prostitutes) and with people of non-European ethnicities. Women were believed to be especially susceptible to being “corrupted” by these groups, given that they too purportedly lacked the rationality and willpower to restrain their passions and desires. Calls from scientific authorities and politicians alike to protect white women and the supposedly superior Northern European bloodline from the perils of degeneration were used to justify systemic practices, such as the criminalization of sexual minorities and interracial relationships, and the eugenics movement, which advocated forced sterilization, exclusion, or outright elimination of individuals deemed “unfit” to reproduce. [Sexed Up, pp. 146–7]
Nowadays, this theory of degeneration has been resoundingly rejected by biologists. No group of people is “more evolved” than any other, nor can people “de-evolve” over the course of a lifetime or even a generation. That’s simply not how genetics and evolution work.
While degeneration is not a real phenomenon, unfounded fears about “pure” and “untainted” members of our ingroup being “contaminated” or “corrupted” by some “lowly” outsider or “Other” is an extremely common trope. In fact, it’s a popular reaction to stigma. In Sexed Up, I cite research demonstrating that people imagine stigma to act as a “contagion” that can be “contracted” via interactions with stigmatized individuals. Once “contaminated” by this stigma, the person in question is imagined to be permanently “dirtied” or “spoiled” by it.
So returning to our late nineteenth century examples, it’s not that people of color, or sex workers, or LGBTQ+ people, and so on, had “de-evolved” or were “degenerates,” but rather that these groups were socially stigmatized. And fears that these groups might “corrupt” the “pure” straight white majority stemmed from a deep-seated belief that their stigma was “contagious” and had the potential to “contaminate” (and thereby “ruin”) those who are otherwise “untainted.”
What I have just described is an extremely common unconscious pattern of thinking, and I provide numerous other examples of it in Sexed Up and in a recent online essay. Once we recognize this pattern of thinking — this stigma-contamination mindset — it becomes relatively easy to see anti-trans campaigners’ claims of “grooming” and “social contagion” for what they really are.
“Grooming” and “Social Contagion” as Manifestations of the Stigma-Contamination Mindset
The word “grooming” refers to when an adult befriends a child and builds up their trust over time in order to make it easier to eventually sexually exploit or abuse them. When today’s anti-trans/LGBTQ+ campaigners hurl this charge at us, it is intended to evoke past false accusations that “homosexuals are pedophiles” who are out to “recruit children.” (I discuss numerous other campaigns to smear minority groups en masse as “sexual threats” to children in Sexed Up and in a separate online essay.) In addition to defaming the groups in question, these accusations have the unfortunate effect of diluting or weakening legitimate claims of child sexual abuse (CSA).
Those who hurl the word “groomer” at LGBTQ+ people in this manner typically do so without a shred of evidence that the targeted person has engaged in such activities. They also often use “grooming” in reference to completely non-sexual things, such as rainbow flags hanging in classrooms, efforts to accommodate trans students, or when schools have non-discrimination policies protecting LGBTQ+ people. While anti-trans/LGBTQ+ campaigners may frame their interventions in terms of “safeguarding children,” they rarely if ever express similar concern over actual cases of grooming and CSA, the overwhelming majority of which are perpetrated by cis-hetero men who are family members or close acquaintances of the child.
Clearly, these anti-trans/LGBTQ+ “grooming” charges have nothing to do with CSA. But they do perfectly fit the stigma-contamination mindset that I described in the previous section: As LGBTQ+ people, we are imagined to be imbued with stigma that has the potential to “contaminate” anyone who is “exposed” to us, potentially “turning them queer” in the process. In other words, this is merely the failed theory of “degeneration” all over again. And just as “degeneration” was imagined to spread via “sex,” the “grooming” charge — as well as the related accusation that we are “sexualizing children” — insinuates that LGBTQ+ people (but not cis-hetero people) are inherently sexually “contaminating” and “corrupting.”
While most reasonable people recognize these “grooming” accusations as baseless and beyond the pale, claims that “social contagion” is “turning children transgender” (or LGBTQ+ more generally) tend to be taken more seriously. Part of the reason for this is Lisa Littman’s 2018 “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD)” paper, which mainstreamed the idea that there is a “new type” of gender dysphoria that spreads among children via “social contagion.” I discuss that theory and its many flaws at great length in that link, and also here and here. But for convenience, here’s a bullet-point summary of all the evidence against the theory (this can be skipped if you’re uninterested in such details):
- The concept of “transgender social contagion” was invented by a trans-skeptical parent in 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). 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”). In a 2017 essay, I argued that the current increased prevalence of trans people is akin to the increase in left-handedness (from 2% to 13%) during the twentieth century once the stigma and punishment associated with being left-handed abated.
While the hypothesis that trans identities can “spread” via “social contagion” is dubious, the fact that this idea resonates with many people is not at all surprising given the stigma-contamination mindset: Once again, stigmatized outsiders (in this case, other people’s “trans-infected” children) are imagined to potentially “contaminate” and “corrupt” otherwise “pure” ingroup children. To put it differently, the imagined “contagion” at work here is anti-trans stigma, not some brand-new form of “contagious” gender dysphoria.
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).
Moral Panics, Fascism, and Fears of Stigma-Contamination
Science fiction writer Charlie Jane Anders recently wrote an essay, America’s moral panic over trans people is stranger than fiction, which has really stuck with me. She discusses how, as a fiction writer, you need to give your characters believable motivations, or else the story simply won’t work. She goes on to say that she doesn’t think she could write a plausible story about today’s anti-trans campaigners because their motivations don’t make any rational sense. After all, how could anyone become so paranoid and obsessed over a relatively tiny minority group that holds no real power in our society?
As a trans author, I have witnessed this paranoia and obsession firsthand. I am constantly fending off social media pile-ons from anti-trans campaigners (who will often smear me as a “groomer” or worse). For understandable reasons, I usually block them. But before I do, I often take a quick glance at their timelines. Far more often than not, 25% or more (sometimes approaching 100%) of their posts are anti-trans disinformation and fearmongering. I’m sure a few of these accounts are bots. But most of them appear to be real people who have simply become so consumed with trans people that we are practically all they ever seem to think about.
Our lay conceptualization of prejudice — e.g., viewing other people as “inferior” to us, or disliking or detesting them — doesn’t seem to adequately accommodate this level of irrationality and obsession. But the stigma-contamination mindset does. If people (consciously or unconsciously) view trans people as an insidious “corrupting” force that’s out to “contaminate” and permanently “spoil” them and their loved ones, then it at least makes some sense as to why they might feel the need to patrol our every move, or buy into conspiracy theories that depict us as some kind of “all-powerful cabal.”
Notably, some anti-trans campaigners’ lives seem to have been “touched” by transness in one way or other. Perhaps their child, or partner, or a close relative came out as trans? Or perhaps they unexpectedly found themselves attracted to a trans person, or maybe their partner left them for someone who is trans? It doesn’t even need to be sexual: Maybe they simply find us bizarre or fascinating, and can’t stop thinking about us (like an itch they can’t help but scratch)?
If you view anti-trans stigma as a “contagion” — or worse, fear that you may have already been “contaminated” or “infected” by said “contagion”— well, that would certainly explain much of the hyper-vigilance and moral panic expressed by many die-hard anti-trans campaigners.
The stigma-contamination mindset also helps to explain what we in the trans community call the “TERF-to-fascist pipeline.” In a generic sense, this is when someone who has a history of being politically left or liberal (as is the case for many feminists) gradually begins to associate or sympathize with far-right political actors and viewpoints after a period of being swept up into anti-trans activism. Such transformations — which occur more frequently than you might think (see above link) — seem unfathomable from a conventional political perspective. After all, what could a feminist possibly have in common with social conservatives and fascists?
As I explain in a previous related essay, Penises, Privilege, and Feminist & LGBTQ+ Purity Politics, some strands of feminism are steeped in beliefs about women’s “purity” and fears of potential stigma-contamination. I make the case that this is what drives TERF/“gender critical” feminists’ intense and irrational views of trans people, and also what makes them highly susceptible to being co-opted by the far right.
There are many facets to fascist and far right thinking, but a major recurring theme involves stigmatized outsiders (whether they be immigrants, people of color, people with disabilities, Jews and other non-Christians, and of course, gender and sexual minorities) as an imagined “contaminating” force that is insidiously “corrupting” society and the traditional family, and which must be eradicated for the greater good. This is what allows them to perpetually cast themselves as the “aggrieved victim” even when they are members of the dominant/majority group in society. And it’s why they often continue to refer to said minority groups as “degenerates” — in other words, they still believe in “degeneration” as a threat to their own “purity” and “superiority.” The stigma-contamination mindset is central to fascist and far-right thinking.
People are diverse. Often, our first reaction upon coming across someone who significantly differs from us in some way is confusion or anxiousness. But this can be overcome if we make a point of viewing them as complex human beings who simply have different lived experiences and perspectives. However, if we find ourselves viewing these diverse people as “dirty,” or “contagious,” or as some kind of external “threat” that is insidiously “corrupting” otherwise “untainted” and “pure” members of our ingroup, well, that’s most likely the stigma-contamination mindset talking. Hopefully, this essay will help readers recognize this unconscious pattern of thinking in ourselves and others.
For more about stigma and its imagined “contagion” and “contaminating” effects, please check out Sexed Up: How Society Sexualizes Us, and How We Can Fight Back. This essay was made possible by my Patreon supporters — if you appreciate it, please consider supporting me there.