Contra social contagion: Why online community among trans people saves our lives and terrifies our enemies

“Trans vlogs made me feel like I wasn’t a problem.” “It just makes me feel that it’s okay to be this way.”

Zinnia JonesThe “rapid onset gender dysphoria” hoax proposes that large numbers of apparently trans adolescents are actually misguided cis adolescents mistakenly taking on a transgender identity based on misinterpretation of personal experiences and difficulties, and it invokes the notion of a broad “social contagion” to explain how this is happening. In this narrative, these supposedly cisgender youth happened to meet trans people or encounter trans resources and support communities online, and the availability of this social contact or community resources somehow caused them to believe they should adopt an erroneous trans identity. Julia Serano has documented the apparent first uses of “social contagion” in this context and its spread across right-wing and anti-trans media throughout 2016, prior to its use in the published “rapid onset gender dysphoria” study which overtly pinned the blame on any social contact with other trans people (Littman, 2018):

Parents describe a process of immersion in social media, such as “binge-watching” Youtube transition videos and excessive use of Tumblr, immediately preceding their child becoming gender dysphoric. … The description of cluster outbreaks of gender dysphoria occurring in pre-existing groups of friends and increased exposure to social media/internet preceding a child’s announcement of a transgender identity raises the possibility of social and peer contagion. Social contagion is the spread of affect or behaviors through a population. Peer contagion, in particular, is the process where an individual and peer mutually influence each other in a way that promotes emotions and behaviors that can potentially undermine their own development or harm others. … On the one hand, an increase in visibility has given a voice to individuals who would have been under-diagnosed and undertreated in the past. On the other hand, it is plausible that online content may encourage vulnerable individuals to believe that nonspecific symptoms and vague feelings should be interpreted as gender dysphoria stemming from a transgender condition. … Concern has been raised that adolescents may come to believe that transition is the only solution to their individual situations, that exposure to internet content that is uncritically positive about transition may intensify these beliefs, and that those teens may pressure doctors for immediate medical treatment. …

Parents identified the sources they thought were most influential for their child becoming gender dysphoric. The most frequently answered influences were: YouTube transition videos (63.6%); Tumblr (61.7%); a group of friends they know in person (44.5%); a community/group of people that they met online (42.9%); a person they know in-person (not online) 41.7%.

The author later elaborated on the content and behaviors she believes comprise this “social contagion”:

When I evaluated the social-media environment, I found that there are many venues where teens can immerse themselves in a very specific narrative surrounding transition. Of course, sites where teens congregate—Tumblr, Reddit, Instagram, YouTube and the like—focus on plenty of themes that are unrelated to gender and identity exploration. But, in the realm of transgender identification, youth have created particularly insular echo chambers. And, although it’s not uncommon for teens to engage with other teens online, I found the content of what was being validated and magnified—distrust of parents and mental health professionals and talking points to shut down the possibility of considering outside views—to be very concerning. The social-media environment seemed conducive to the mechanisms of peer contagion.

She further describes online trans communities as like “deviancy training” for youth and compared trans groups to the “pro-ana” sites and accounts that are routinely taken down under policies against promotion of eating disorders. Over the past several years, this view of transness as an infectious external pathogen targeting “normal” cis children has taken a significant role in the discourse surrounding trans youth, largely advanced by those who are unwilling to accept that their own children could be inherently trans and that trans children could be a normal part of their community. Abigail Shrier, a major proponent of the ROGD narrative, characterizes transness as newly proliferating because of youth’s exposure to trans-related resources (“She immerses in social media and discovers transgender gurus. Or her school holds an assembly celebrating gender journeys, or hosts a Gay-Straight Alliance club pushing gender ideology”), which she considers to be the work of trans content producers who are “intoxicating” and the “worst influence”:

The number of trans influencers online are legion, and they are very charismatic and they’re really enjoyable to watch. Their videos tee up automatically, and I would say they are the worst influence in every high school times a thousand because they tend to have a lot of advice. They tell you going on T will solve all your problems. They seem very cool. Their videos are intoxicating. You don’t even have to go looking for them to find them. Very often kids will come across them on art-sharing websites or other seemingly innocuous websites. And they’re a little older. They’re kids in their 20s making the videos. And they really promise that if you just sort of accept that you’re really a boy, if you just start a course of testosterone, all your troubles will disappear.

And Dr. Erica Anderson, a former psychologist at the UCSF youth gender clinic who now contributes to Shrier’s articles, blames both the isolation of the pandemic for driving youth social media use and “influencers” for discussing gender exploration:

There is little question that reliance on screens and devices has isolated adolescents who may be most vulnerable and susceptible to peer and other influences, intensifying their usage of and reliance on whatever messages and images they see. I am concerned that our computer-mediated, always online environment is creating isolated echo chambers that can work on adolescents in an insidious way. And I believe that it’s been worse during COVID.

For example, some content on YouTube and TikTok includes “influencers,” who themselves are barely out of puberty. They dispense advice to other young people, specifically encouraging them to explore their gender identity freely. …

Some influencers are literally encouraging the idea that one’s psychological distress may be because a young person is trans and is suffering from gender dysphoria. The remedy, they say, is to come out as trans or non-binary, which the influencers advise will alleviate their suffering. Welcomed into the company of other trans and gender creative persons, such young people may have found acceptance — though virtual acceptance, since much of this rapport is online.

Like the much-documented shortcomings of the wider ROGD hypothesis, the “social contagion” mechanism has some fairly obvious issues. Trans people seeking out information on a topic of concern to them and seeking out others who can understand them and help them is a more straightforward and economical explanation and is known to happen, while community transmission of gender identities is unnecessary as an explanation and essentially unheard of. The supposedly sinister machinations of these content producers look suspiciously like vlogging about their own life experiences and correctly pointing out that transitioning may help in treating gender dysphoria. There’s fundamentally no clear reason why cis people coming into contact with transgender community and materials would cause them to adopt a mistaken trans identity at all. Yet “videos with the hashtag #Trans have been seen more than 26 billion times” so fluidly becomes “Children are being brainwashed” – our visible existence in the world is depicted as inherently malign and dangerous to others. We are synonymous with a threat to children.

The true “isolated echo chamber” here is that of these imaginative theorists, who are certainly more insulated and walled off than the trans people whose chief wrongdoing appears to be talking to each other. These contagion perspectives casually dismiss our communities and connections and treat this as either disposable or as an actual source of harm that must be quarantined. But much like the incorrect ROGD claims about gender identity development in youth, this disregard of trans online communities fails to engage with a large body of existing literature on these practices. After all, why do trans and gender-questioning youth engage with these communities? To feel terrible about themselves, or to be cool and popular, or to train to become more “deviant”?

No. Far from being only a source of malign influence and false hope, trans youth make use of online communities and resources to meet their information needs and their social needs, and this engagement often provides a wide range of personal benefits during their lives and identity development. Community among trans people has always been a fact, and online communities are an expected extension of this. It’s not unique, new, or in any way abnormal. This is a healthy and very human social behavior.

Trans people begin to seek out this information because we are already aware of our need for it. The first hint of our self-awareness as trans people is not at the moment we make contact with transgender materials – our awareness precedes this and drives us to seek out relevant materials. In a qualitative study, Huttunen, Kähkönen, Enwald, & Kortelainen (2019) report:

Interviewees described their experiences of the information needs arising from discomfort with one’s own body – an experience that one’s body is not what it should be. These feelings form both body image and gender identity. These situations were described by the sentiment that ‘something is wrong’, which might trigger information seeking. Paradoxically, information seeking cannot start until the person discovers the existence of the transgender phenomenon serendipitously (see also Pohjanen and Kortelainen 2016). Until then, such information needs are hidden but nevertheless real.

Trans people will still have a need for this information even if this need is unmet. Huttunen, Hirvonen, & Kähkönen (2020) note the consequences of this lack of access:

At first, in acquiring information on the transgender experiences, serendipity plays an important role (Floegel and Costello, 2019; Pohjanen and Kortelainen, 2016) since the individual may not know the words or concepts to describe their experienced gender, although in many cases there is an experience of dissonance and that “something is wrong” (Huttunen et al., 2019; Beemyn and Rankin, 2011). Without information on the transgender experiences, understanding one’s own feelings may be difficult. They may feel like being “the only one” or think there is something wrong with them (Beemyn and Rankin, 2011). …

For some of the interviewees, body dysphoria was a clear signal of the transgender experience. These experiences were not necessarily understood to be caused by gender, rather, the experience seemed to be hard to define without information about the subject. In queer phenomenology terms, these experiences can be described as moments of disorientation (Ahmed, 2006). For those who had suffered from body dysphoria, strong discomfort had usually begun at puberty. The bodily changes with strong “turns” of discomfort led the subjects to understand the friction between their own gendered body and their gender experience. Even for the interviewees with less strong body dysphoria, the bodily changes at puberty had still caused discomfort and confusion. The lack of information on body dysphoria had made these experiences harder to deal with. …

For some of the interviewees, the discomfort with their own body had escalated to a point where it was not possible to live without change. This was described as a “dead-end” where change had to happen. These dead ends started taking shape into information needs, which in turn triggered information seeking and helped the interviewees to deal with their bodies and to find different ways to reduce their discomfort. For those who were unfamiliar with the term “transgender”, it may have been difficult to know what kind of information to even seek.

With a greater volume of transgender content more easily available, those “serendipitous” encounters with this information will likely take place much sooner, smoothing the path to self-knowledge rather than prolonging confusion.

Online trans communities mean being together with others who understand us. This is a widely described benefit for us, and it is significant because it offers us a reprieve from the isolation of our everyday lives. We have the opportunity to be surrounded by those who are like us rather than those who often cannot relate to us (Huttunen et al., 2020):

Many interviewees described their early-stage information needs as having an experience they did not have a word for. It was hard to seek information when they did not know what the experience was about, and thus, they did not know where to begin to seek information. One interviewee described how a serendipitous encounter with the description of a transgender experience felt like deja vu because it seemed like not being the only one who was having the same experience. Based on the findings of this study, for some individuals, information on the transgender experience had served as a “turn” that helped to understand the cause of the felt discomfort.

Augustaitis et al. (2021) similarly describe the key resources provided by online communities for identity formation, validation, and recognition of oneself in others through sharing of personal feelings and experiences:

Many participants noted the profound impact that online trans communities provided for their own identity formation, validation, and health, especially trans people in isolated areas. For example, P7 noted a lack of in person-resources:

“Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of queer friends/resources immediately near me or in my life, so a lot of research around trans health info has been 1) from the internet and social media and 2) on my own. I go with my gut, ask questions prior to my visit, and just like above, if it doesn’t work, start again.”

These same social media platforms often also provide asynchronous support for health information seeking. For instance, a participant mentioned that Instagram posts are permanent, enabling people to fnd trans health information that was posted in the past. Another mentioned how the archive of YouTube videos available helped them realize the abundance of online resources available: “I think YouTube has also helped with the proliferation of health info: seeing queer YouTubers definitely helped me realize how many resources there are out there” (P7). Although YouTube videos are not in real time, another participant pointed out their experience of watching YouTube videos as sometimes feeling more genuine. “In some ways using YouTube ‘testimonials’ [videos describing first-person trans experiences] feels like a more genuine representation of how folks are feeling about their bodies in real-time” (P11).

In another study of trans youth using social media, Selkie et al. (2020) added:

Participants described social media as a place where they could find other transgender people to interact with. This was especially important to participants who did not feel that people they knew offline would understand what they were going through, whether due to scarcity of other transgender youth in their area, personal fears of being “out” offline, or lack of understanding from cisgender peers. Social media were described as helpful in decreasing feelings of isolation.

As was noted by Anderson, Fish et al. (2020) also highlights increasing reliance by youth on online resources during the isolation of the pandemic – however, this was sometimes being utilized by LGBT youth as a way to find validation and support while living with disapproving family:

Several youth shared that having free time to “just think” led to rumination regarding their sexuality and/or gender, which was burdensome. However, youth also identified positive aspects of opportunities to think about their identity without outside intrusions. Youth expressed confusion and anxiety about the uncertainty of when school would resume. Of particular concern was loss of extracurricular activities (e.g., theater, graduation). Unsurprisingly, LGBTQ youth expressed concern about being “stuck at home with unsupportive parents,” some of whom are “super religious and homophobic.” Many grieved the loss of “safe spaces.” Those only able to disclose their LGBTQ identity at school had lost access to friends, gender and sexuality alliances (GSAs), and supportive staff; resulting in having nowhere to express themselves. Alternatively, some youth described freedom from “transphobic and homophobic people in real life for a while.” Youth described reduced access to in-person services owing to pandemic-related closures. Although some had therapists, youth were hesitant to engage in telebehavioral health owing to fear parents would overhear conversations.

Trans resources help us to build personal strength and resilience. Watching trans vlogs was reported by trans viewers to develop and improve their self-esteem, self-compassion, empathy, and emotional regulation skills, offering ways to understand themselves and a hopeful vision of life (Rothbaum et al., 2021):

Fifty‐four participants (63%) shared that they watched transvlogs to gain emotional tools such as advice on how to regulate emotions (e.g., “they help my inner peace”), ways to improve self‐esteem and self‐acceptance (e.g., “they helped me accept who I am”), and pathways to foster hope for the post‐transition future (e.g., “that there was a real life after transitioning, that there was love after transitioning”). For example, a 27‐year‐old asexual, “Halfrican American (half black and half white)” transman from Tennessee shared that he used transvlogs to gain self‐ compassion (e.g., “[transvlogs] made me feel like I wasn’t a problem”) and to manage his expectations for the transition experience (e.g., “I also wanted to be prepared for the potential financial, social, and mental strains that I might experience”).

Of the participants who watched transvlogs to access emotional resources, nine (17%) stated that they actively shared those resources with others (e.g., “family,” “trans vloggers/artists,” “other trans people”). Seven participants shared emotional resources with fellow members of the trans community and two shared resources with those outside the trans community. For example, a 19‐year‐old pansexual, White transman from Arizona described how he first used transvlogs to better understand his own trans identity and emotions. He later used transvlogs to help other trans individuals strengthen their self‐knowledge and self‐acceptance. In his words,

“I watched them [transvlogs] as I was coming to terms with my trans identity (approximately 6‐7 years ago) to better understand my feelings and experiences, and what the path to transition might look like…They [transvlogs] helped me understand myself and my emotions better. I have also used them to help other trans people coming to terms with their identity.”

Online communities are a place where trans people can be safe, free, and authentic. Tumblr, an oft-cited source of “social contagion”, afforded its trans users the ability to represent themselves, their name and their gender as they saw fit while occupying a comfortable space with others (Haimson et al., 2021):

Perceptions of Tumblr as a safe space and community enabled meaningful identity change. Jessica described becoming “more secure in my decision to transition because of social media and being able to connect with people who had been through what I was going through, or who were in a similar phase . . . ” Tumblr’s anonymity also enabled identity change, as Trystan described:

“[I]t’s anonymous, in a way. You only have to be the person that you say you are. You only have to share the information that you want. You could just go on there and reblog stuff, not have a picture, not have anything in your details . . . I think it just makes it easier for you to . . . shed that skin and be able to just show who you really are.”

This comfort allowed them to be present as more of their “real” self than they would in a more conservative and curated environment such as Facebook that requires putting up a façade for the sake of others:

Tumblr was substantially different from many other social media sites partly because it allowed people to be anonymous/pseudonymous. While many transition bloggers used this anonymity only partially—for example, by sharing identifiable photos but with only a first name—anonymity was important in creating a safe space where people could present as their new gender, which in Trystan’s case, enabled “show[ing] who you really are.” Anonymity was less about being technically anonymous, and more about being separate from the rest of one’s everyday network (Katrin Tiidenberg 2013). …

Finally, in comparison with an identified social media site like Facebook that demands a performance of authenticity (Haimson and Hoffmann 2016), participants considered Tumblr more real, in the sense of requiring less impression management (Erving Goffman 1959). The word “real,” it turns out, meant vastly different things on Tumblr and Facebook. Interviewees described their Facebook networks as “real,” meaning networks that included people from their physical world lives; thus, Facebook required the same self-presentation constraints that came with what participants labeled “real life” networks. On Tumblr, people described feeling that they could present a more “real” self; for Blair, “Tumblr was a place where I could completely be myself.”

Trans vlogs provide an opportunity for trans people to meet and learn with one another. Contrary to the image of influencers cynically preying on confused children, trans vlogs with large audiences are often a site of personal interaction and substantial information exchange between producers and viewers as equals (Etengoff, 2019):

Vloggers directly engaged their viewers and provided them with socioemotional support, advice, educational information, and responses to their questions and comments. Some transvloggers wrote their reply to viewers’ comments directly below their videos and other vloggers replied by publishing a public vlog response. Public video responses often engaged the larger vlog audience in the dialogue and debate. Vloggers in the present study published response vlogs that answered trans viewers’ requests for further information on the transition process, discovering or coming to terms with a trans identity, countering transdiscrimination, and supporting trans friends and family. Participant transvloggers also challenged negative viewer comments, hate speech, and online bullying. It is important to note that transvloggers’ interconnectivity and commonalities of experience, such as discrimination, did not lead to uniform views. Indeed, one of the marked benefits of a sociotechnical tool such as YouTube, is the allowance for distributed, dialectic, and diverse approaches to learning (e.g., about the diverse ways to transition), action (e.g., protesting discrimination), and community building (e.g., envisioning and enacting a more inclusive and diverse community).

In trans communities, it feels good to help others. Many trans people who used Tumblr described it as greatly beneficial to their mental health to have a positive impact on other trans people (Hawkins & Haimson, 2018):

On Tumblr, trans people create an online community in which they can escape from some of the obstacles faced in everyday life. Participants described how Tumblr enabled trans people to form a strong online community of care. Finally, interacting with and positively impacting others on Tumblr provided positive mental health benefits for the trans people in this study. Participants described how posting writing and photos made them feel empowered and benefited their mental health. Posting content on Tumblr was therapeutic on its own accord, and provided mental health benefits even without interactions from other Tumblr users. Yet many bloggers had especially positive emotional wellbeing benefits when others responded to their posts, as one participant described:

“It was good to know that I was having positive impacts in sharing my transition and the validation of knowing that other people went through the same thing. Through the messages I would get, and people following me and liking my posts, … it sort of normalized my transition and helped me feel like not only did I feel better internally, but I was also getting that validation that’s good and positive.”

Responses from others made this participant aware that they had positive impact on others in the trans community on Tumblr. By using Tumblr as a therapeutic outlet, a means to observe others’ transitions, and a way to positively impact other trans people, the transition blog community on Tumblr enables a network of hope for people during the gender transition process who may feel stigmatized due to minority stressors in their everyday lives.

Online trans communities aren’t just some minor and unimportant plot point to be toyed with in someone’s fevered conspiracies. These are real resources that have immense value to trans people in many stages of our lives, and they help fulfill for us the basic human requirement of social connection. These comprehensive sources of information are there to meet our needs, and our communities are there to provide the support we don’t otherwise have. The reality is that the information and communications structures we’ve built for ourselves are far deeper, more expansive, and more about us than this baseless tale of recruiting cis children, and our own access to our structures is a matter of moral necessity. 

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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