‘Social Contagion’ Isn’t A Thing — And 4 More Myths About Trans Youth, Debunked

A new study takes aim at some of the most dangerous myths about trans kids.

A little kid faces a trans pride flag
SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

In 2018, a professor of behavioral and social sciences from Brown University coined the “rapid onset gender dysphoria” and “social contagion” theory. The hypothesis states that adolescents, especially those assigned female at birth, suddenly experience feelings of conflict between their sex and gender identity, mainly because of social influence and pressure from their peers coming out as transgender, to seek social desirability, and to flee from the stigma associated with being gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Already at the time, the paper in which the theory was described, published in the journal PLOS One, was vehemently criticized by experts in the field for its questionable methodology — including that it was based solely on parents’ experiences and did not involve interviewing adolescents, and that the study author sought out parents via anti-trans organizations. The paper was reassessed post-publication to include numerous corrections and revisions.

“Despite contradicting the scientific consensus, the notion that trans identities are supposedly spread by ‘social contagion’ has been cited in anti-trans legislation and promoted by right-wing media and political organizations,” says Julia Serano, Ph.D., a biologist and trans rights activist who was not involved in the study.

Now, new research published in the journal Pediatrics, which looked into data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2017 and 2019 biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey among approximately 100,000 teenagers from 16 different states, disproves the social contagion and rapid onset gender dysphoria theories on several levels.

“The results of this [new] study confirm that these efforts [stemming from the social contagion theory] are steeped in pseudoscience and prejudice rather than genuine concern for the well-being of gender-diverse children,” Serano says.

Here are five takeaways from the research.

1. “Rapid onset gender dysphoria,” also known as ROGD, isn’t a thing.

After the publication of the debunked 2018 theory paper, a correction was made to the paper: “ROGD is not a formal mental health diagnosis at this time.”

In fact, experts believe that the social contagion paper had created a false “medical” foundation behind transphobia. Namely, the 2018 paper never actually surveyed gender-diverse youth but only surveyed their parents — 76.5% of which believed that their child was incorrect in their belief that they were transgender. In some cases, the parents were surprised by their children’s gender dysphoria, finding it “rapid.”

But within trans health circles, it’s been long established that one may become gender dysphoric or decide to come out at any age, and at any rate.

“The perceived rapidness of coming out is actually a parental temporal misalignment,” says Rebecca Minor, a gender specialist and professor at Boston University School of Social Work who was not involved in the study. The young person has likely explored, researched, questioned, and educated themselves long before coming out to the parent, says Minor. Furthermore, they may have hidden their true gender identity from their parent because they expected the parents to be transphobic.

“ROGD does not exist and is not a diagnosis,” says Minor.

2. “Social contagion” is fake too.

According to the recently published analysis of the CDC surveys, in 2017, 2.4% of the 91,937 adolescents surveyed identified as trans or gender diverse. Two years later, there was a slight decrease in the percentage as it dropped to 1.6% of the 105,437 surveyed participants.

If the numbers are decreasing, those results are incongruent with the idea of “social contagion” among adolescents making them transgender, the idea that as more people come out as trans or gender-diverse, this pressures others to do the same to conform. But even if the percentage increased, this would not necessarily be the case as trans youth may be more likely to come out as being trans becomes more accepted in society. Nevertheless, the percentage did decrease.

“The hypothesis that transgender and gender diverse youth assigned female at birth identify as transgender due to social contagion does not hold up to scrutiny and should not be used to argue against the provision of gender-affirming medical care for adolescents,” said Alex Keuroghlian, M.D., director of the National LGBTQIA+ Health Education Center at the Massachusetts General Hospital Psychiatry Gender Identity Program and one of the authors of the paper, in a statement.

3. People assigned female at birth are not more susceptible to “social contagion.”

The CDC data finds that there are more adolescents assigned male at birth who come out as transgender than those assigned female at birth — disproving yet another element of the ROGD/social contagion theory. There hasn’t been an increase in the number of adolescents assigned female at birth coming out as trans, either. So, there isn’t, as the original PLOS One paper had suggested, a “unique susceptibility” among girls for social contagion.

4. Fear of being stigmatized for being gay has little to do with being gender-diverse.

The new Pediatrics study also looked into bullying and mental health among adolescents. The data suggests that transgender and gender-diverse youth experience significantly higher rates of bullying than cisgender sexual minority youth, who in turn are bullied more than straight cisgender youth. About 39% of gender-diverse kids in 2017 and 45% in 2019 were bullied; in comparison, approximately 31% of cisgender LGB youth were bullied in 2017 and 29% in 2019.

These findings aren’t surprising given that they corroborate past studies. Still, they do, once again, disprove the “social contagion” theory, which states youth come out as trans for the sake of popularity and social acceptability among their peers, or to flee from the stigma of being gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Additionally, a significant portion of people who identify as gender-diverse also identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, which also disproves this aspect of the theory.

5. Last, but not least, acceptance is good for trans kids.

Most importantly, the social contagion theory suggests that parents and health professionals should be wary of adolescents who come out as transgender and that many of them do not need gender-affirming medical care. Research has shown the opposite.

Many decades of research have shown that affirming trans people's genders and accepting them for who they are leads to the healthiest and happiest outcomes, Serano says.

“The myth of ‘transgender social contagion’ encourages parents to ‘quarantine’ their own children, isolating them from trans peers, information, and resources, in the hopes that they won't ‘turn transgender,’” says Serano. “It also leads to the further ostracization of trans children more generally, who are now treated as mere ‘disease vectors’ rather than actual human beings.”