Anti-transgender advocates often claim that young people who are assigned female at birth (AFAB) are coming out as transgender or nonbinary in greater numbers because of “social contagion” — that is, media and peer pressure are making them pretend to be trans to fit in. The transphobic narrative often mentions “rapid onset gender dysphoria” (RGD) to imply that trans and nonbinary people’s identities are being adopted too quickly and without enough thought.
But the authors of a new research study, published in the journal Pediatrics, say they have debunked this narrative because, between 2017 and 2019, there was no increase in the number of AFAB young people who identified as trans or nonbinary.
The study’s researchers looked at data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2017 and 2019 biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The survey collects data on trans identity from young people between the ages of 12 and 18 who live in 16 different U.S. states.
The survey asks adolescents “Some people describe themselves as transgender when their sex at birth does not match the way they think or feel about their gender. Are you transgender?” Its response options are “Yes, I am transgender,” “No, I am not transgender,” “I am not sure if I am transgender,” and “I do not know what this question is asking.”
Taking into account only the “yes” responses, the researchers found that in 2017 2.4 percent of the 91,937 surveyed adolescents self-identified as trans. In 2019, only 1.6 percent of the 105,437 surveyed adolescents identified the same way.
Researchers said this decrease was “incongruent” with the claim that “social contagion” is persuading more youth to embrace trans identity, since trans representation in the media improved in those years. Researchers also pointed to the higher rates of bullying experienced by trans youth, noting that such bullying would act as a deterrent rather than a motivator for coming out as trans.
“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 the study senior’s author Dr. Alex S. Keuroghlian, director of the National LGBTQIA+ Health Education Center at the Fenway Institute and the Massachusetts General Hospital Psychiatry Gender Identity Program, according to Today.com.
Right-wing claims of “social contagion” and RGD stem from a 2018 paper published in the journal PLOS One by Dr. Lisa Littman, a professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University. Littman said that adolescents experienced RGD, a conflict between their birth sex and gender identity “suddenly during or after puberty” due to social influence. RGD differs from the “consistent, insistent, and persistent” gender dysphoria that pre-pubescent trans children normally experience during childhood.
Littman’s claims were echoed in the best-selling book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, written by Abigail Shrier. Shrier is a prominent transphobe who regularly equates trans people with misogynists, child sex predators, and mentally ill people who have succumbed to peer pressure.
The “social contagion” and RGD claims have also been repeated by right-wing politicians and activists who support laws criminalizing gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth.
Despite their claims, numerous studies have shown that a lack of societal acceptance and access to gender-affirming care contribute to high rates of suicide among trans youth. The largest medical and mental health associations in the U.S. have all said that gender-affirming care and acceptance of trans youth is necessary for their overall wellbeing.