New Study Disproves Anti-Trans Right's Theory of 'Social Contagion'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday August 14, 2022
Originally published on August 8, 2022

New Study Disproves Anti-Trans Right's Theory of 'Social Contagion'
  (Source:AP Photo/Eric Schlegel)

A new study published in the prestigious medical journal Pediatrics disproves the claim from anti-LGBTQ+ pundits and politicians that youth identify as transgender out of peer pressure.

The new research shows that minors identifying as transgender "is not driven by 'social contagion' and transgender youth do not identify as transgender to escape stigma related to their sexual orientation," reports political news site The Hill.

The research "directly rebuk[es] two popular theories embraced by conservative politicians and a small percentage of the medical community seeking to restrict access to gender-affirming health care for transgender young people," the article noted.

The Hill recalled that last April, "Missouri Rep. Suzie Pollock, a Republican who sponsored legislation this year that would have stripped doctors that provide gender-affirming care to minors of their medical licenses, said the 'root cause' of gender dysphoria is abuse, mental disorders and 'social contagion.' "

In another example of lawmakers weighing in with uninformed opinion rather than medical expertise, "Rep. Gary Click (R), the sponsor of a similar measure in Ohio, said while testifying that he believed young people who identify as transgender are often influenced to do so by social media or a 'desire to fit into a group or escape an adverse experience.' "

Moreover, in direct contradiction to "a theory that the number of transgender youth in the U.S. is climbing due to the influence of things like social media and peer pressure," the study found that, in actuality, "the percentage of adolescents who openly identified as transgender declined between 2017 and 2019".

A senior author of the study, Dr. Alex Keuroghlian, summarized the finding, saying, "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," U.S. News & World Report relayed.

The paper's lead author, Dr. Jack Turban, told the media that "work in this area has become highly politicized," and noted that there are significant negative effects on transgender youth when politicians embrace such medically unsound theories and act to create laws based upon faulty science.

"We regularly see young trans patients who become more anxious and depressed as they watch politicians stigmatize them on large national platforms," Turban, who is with the University of California San Francisco, noted.

"In states like Florida and Alabama, where legislation targeting transgender young people has become law, 'things are even worse,' " the article quoted the researcher as saying.

The "social contagion" theory has roots in a disproven 2018 study that claimed "children are more likely to experience 'rapid onset gender dysphoria' when they spend more time using the internet or have friends who are transgender," The Hill detailed.

"That theory has been disproved by multiple studies published in peer-reviewed journals including The Journal of Pediatrics and The Sociological Review."

What's more, The Hill recalled, "Joerg Heber, then-editor-in-chief of the journal PLOS ONE, which published the original study, issued an apology shortly after it was released for 'oversights that occurred during the original assessment of the study.' "

PLOS ONE also acknowledged that "rapid-onset gender dysphoria [ROGD] is not a formal mental health diagnosis at this time," U.S. News & World Report noted, going on to add that "the researchers on that study did not survey transgender or gender-diverse youth, but instead questioned their parents."

"To test the social contagion theory, researchers used data from the 2017 and 2019 biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which collected gender identity data across 16 states from ages 12 to 18. In 2017, 2.4%, or 2,161 of the 91,937 adolescents surveyed, identified as trans or gender diverse," NBC News recounted. "In 2019, that percentage dropped slightly to 1.6%, or 1,640 of 105,437 adolescents surveyed."

Among scientifically-unsupported theories touted by the anti-LGBTQ+ right are claims that more youth assigned female at birth than male identify as transgender and the idea that gay and lesbian youth claim to be trans because they will experience less rejection that way.

Neither of those notions stood up to fact-based scrutiny. Trans youth assigned male at birth were more likely to identify as transgender, the new study found, and gay and lesbian youth were not, in fact, claiming to be trans.

"The idea that attempts to flee sexual minority stigma drive teenagers to come out as transgender is absurd, especially to those of us who provide treatment to [transgender and gender diverse] youth," NBC News quoted Dr. Turban as saying.

One popular notion that the study confirmed, however, is the high incidence of bullying suffered by transgender youth.

"The damaging effects of these unfounded hypotheses in further stigmatizing transgender and gender-diverse youth cannot be understated," Dr. Turban stated.

"We hope that clinicians, policymakers, journalists and anyone else who contributes to health policy will review these findings."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.