Extensive new research strikes a blow against one of the most common transphobic misnomers
A Boston-based centre that promotes health and wellbeing for sexual and gender minorities has published a new study refuting a common transphobic misnomer: the idea that young trans people are transitioning due to “social contagion”; in other words because their peers are doing so, and they think it’s cool.
The Fenway Institute’s findings are welcome news for anyone invested in trans rights: in both the UK and the US, the idea of “social contagion” has been weaponised by the anti-trans movement for a long time – usually with the goal of depriving young trans people of gender-affirming care. As author Shon Faye writes in The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice, transphobic groups have claimed that teenagers risk being influenced not just by their friends, but by “trans internet vloggers who glamorise medical transition.” Mainstream British commentators such as The Times’s Janice Turner, meanwhile, have suggested that transitioning is a “social contagion” comparable to anorexia or self-harm – an absurd equivalence when you consider that anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder and, conversely, supporting young trans people in their transition has been proven to correspond with a 65 per cent decrease in suicide attempts. The social contagion theory pretends to be motivated by concern for young trans people, but really it’s indifferent to their suffering and the proven methods by which it can be alleviated.
The largest study of its kind to date, the Fenway Institute’s research contradicts the findings of a controversial and methodologically flawed earlier paper which suggested that social contagion is a real phenomenon. This study, which failed to consult any trans youth and was instead based on the testimony of 256 parents, many of whom were recruited from anti-trans websites, asserted that trans youth who were assigned female at birth are more susceptible to social contagion. Based on data from over 200,000 young trans people gathered across two years, the Fenway Institute’s study proves this claim to be highly dubious. Dr Alex S Keuroghlian, the senior author, said in a written statement, “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.”
Contrary to the popular anti-trans claim that young people assigned female at birth are more likely to experience gender dysphoria, the study also found that there is a slightly higher percentage of young trans people who were assigned male at birth. It also provides yet more evidence for something trans people have known for a long time: trans youth are far more likely to be bullied and attempt suicide than their cisgender peers. It has been regularly asserted by the anti-trans movement that young people only transition to avoid homophobic bullying, but according to Dr Jack Turban, who co-authored the study, “The idea that attempts to flee sexual minority stigma drive teenagers to come out as transgender is absurd.” In the midst of a full-blown, anti-trans panic, and steadily increasing levels of transphobic violence, the claim that young people are transitioning as a means of escaping oppression just doesn’t make any sense.
“We welcome this research,” Cleo Madeleine, communications officer at British trans youth charity Gendered Intelligence, tells Dazed. “It is by no means news that being trans is not a ‘social contagion’ – this was debunked years ago – but we hope that the scale and quality of this research will help end some of the constant misinformation about young trans people. Trans identity – like any identity! – can be attributed to a complicated mix of genetic, endocrinological, environmental, cultural, and behavioural factors. Our understandings of gender change generation to generation, and we may never fully understand how gender identity develops.”
But while the development of gender identity – whether cis or trans – remains an open question, what we know for certain is that false claims like the ‘social contagion’ hypothesis are used to actively promote harmful conversion practices. “The pernicious arguments that young LGB people are ‘turned trans’, or that trans identity is a popular fad, are used to justify coercion, cruelty, and even violence against trans children in an attempt to change or suppress their identity,” Madeleine says. “With the proposed ban on conversion practices in limbo and the UK in freefall on LGBTQ+ rights, this kind of research is more important than ever.”