Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Origins of "Social Contagion" and "Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria"

Preface added December 2022: This post began as a seemingly simple project: to figure out where and when the then novel notion that "being transgender is caused by social contagion" originated. In addition to accomplishing that task, this post inadvertently chronicles the origins of our current anti-trans backlash, and how seemingly disparate groups (e.g., trans-skeptical parents, "gender critical"/TERFs, social conservatives, gender-disaffirming healthcare providers & pundits) all began collaborating with one another. For those interested in this history, analogous timelines centered on "gender ideology" and "TAnon" corroborate and complement the narrative that unfolds here.

Since its initial publication in February 2019, many more entries have been added to the timeline – they are denoted by an asterisk just before the date. Perhaps the most significant additions are the PLoS One apology and correction of the Littman paper (see entry 3-19-19), three peer-reviewed critiques of the Littman paper (see entries 4-22-19, 8-10-20, and 11-17-20), additional healthcare groups penning position statements refuting the concepts of ROGD and "transgender social contagion" (see entries 8-21-19, 9-12-19, 9-30-19, and 7-28-21), and numerous peer-reviewed studies that directly contradict the ROGD and "transgender social contagion" hypotheses (see entries 9-10-20, 5-3-21, 11-15-21, 11-29-21, and 8-3-22). 

Finally, I mention below that this timeline grew out of "research that I've been doing for another essay." That essay was unfortunately shelved because I began working on my next book. Now that the book has been published, I have written two essays that together sum up my current thinking about this topic. Anti-Trans “Grooming” and “Social Contagion” Claims Explained provides a comprehensive bullet-point overview (with links) of all the evidence against the "social contagion/ROGD" hypothesis; it also describes the unconscious biases that lead people to embrace it. It's time to rethink “born this way,” a phrase that's been key to LGBTQ acceptance discusses how conservative politicians and pundits have increasingly weaponized "social contagion" in an attempt to "quarantine/disappear" LGBTQ+ people, and provides more accurate and effective language that we can use to challenge those efforts.

This post inadvertently grew out of research that I've been doing for another essay, which I will link to once it is published. Basically, while the concept of "social contagion" is quite old, the notion that it somehow causes children and teenagers to adopt transgender identities is rather recent. So I was curious to know where this assertion first arose. To this end, I carried out a series of internet searches, and was surprised (although perhaps I shouldn't have been) to find out that it seems to have originated on the same three websites (,, and that Lisa Littman surveyed for her study on the (scientifically unsubstantiated) concept of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD). I was also rather stunned to learn that virtually all of this – the founding of two of those three websites, the first ever claims that social contagion causes kids to become transgender, the coining of "Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria," and Littman's recruiting parents for her survey – happened within an extremely short period of time (roughly half a year).

After doing a little more detective work, I put together the following timeline detailing the recent history of these concepts and the websites that gave rise to them. This is a lengthy post (for the sake of thoroughness), but there are two main take-home points: First, the notion that "transgender is caused by social contagion" seems to have been invented by a reluctant parent of a trans child in February 2016. It was then reiterated by other parents and posters on these websites, and then was subsequently picked up and parroted by conservative media outlets and gender-disaffirming practitioners as though it were an actual condition rather than mere hearsay. Second, there was a lot of overlap and coordination between these three websites, and eventually with gender-disaffirming practitioners as well, in creating, popularizing, and disseminating these ideas – in other words, this was an activist campaign. There is nothing inherently wrong with activism, as we are all activists to some degree. But what I chronicle here challenges the typical framing (favored by mainstream journalists and pundits) that pits "concerned parents" and "objective scientists" against "biased out-of-control transgender activists." The reality is that both sides have agendas, in that we are both fighting for what we think is best for trans & gender non-conforming (GNC) children. (Although I believe that the existing evidence better supports the gender-affirmative model.)

The timeline is below. But first, two brief preliminary sections (which can be skipped over if you are already intimately familiar with these matters). There will be a brief summary at the end.
[& if you are looking for a "TL;DR" version, some of the major highlights from the timeline are covered in this Twitter thread.]