“Social contagion” rhetoric threatens transgender rights.
“Protect children.” Those are the words used by pundits and politicians lately to justify their attacks on transgender people. “Protecting children”, in their eyes, has meant filing over 400 bills across the country in 2023 alone, including attempts to ban drag shows, ban books containing LGBTQ characters, regulate the content teachers can put into their curriculum or whether they are allowed to use a student’s preferred pronouns. And, of course, severely restrict access to healthcare for trans youth, and, increasingly, adults.
An executive order signed (and then retracted) recently by Missouri’s Attorney General, Andrew Bailey, provides some insight into why the right is in such a panic about trans people:
“It is an unfair, deceptive, fraudulent, or otherwise unlawful practice,” proclaims the order, “for any person or health organization to provide a covered gender transition intervention to a patient if the person or health organization fails to ensure…” among a long laundry list of conditions… “that the patient is not experiencing social contagion with respect to the patient’s gender identity.”
Social contagion—that is the great supposition that is stoking anti-transgender fear among Americans, that “traditional” gender norms are being quickly overrun by a contagious phenomenon, some horrific virus spread through the internet and books, and that children are most at risk of succumbing to it. Bailey’s choice to issue an “emergency rule”—something that sounds more appropriate for an actual viral pandemic—reveals just how fearful they are.
But to the average person, social contagion is probably how it looks from the outside. Until recently, transgender people seemed few and far between. There weren’t many high-profile trans celebrities. Most people probably couldn’t name a trans friend or family member. But within the last few years, suddenly trans people are all over the media. Laverne Cox. Caitlyn Jenner. Chelsea Manning. Elliot Page. In tandem, Gen Z is coming out in droves. A February 2023 Gallup poll showed that roughly 2% of Gen Z identify as transgender, double that of Millennials and exponentially more than previous generations. So what’s going on, if not some recent trend of ‘social contagion’?
I grew up in the 90s and early 2000s in a small exurb in Minnesota. Between the lack of diversity in my town, the nascent internet of the time, and few positive representations of queer people in mass media, I had no idea trans people existed. And therefore, no idea that I myself could be trans. But my sheltered ignorance didn’t mean I was cisgender. I still hated my body, hated gender roles, hated my given name, hated the way society lumped me in with girls and expected me to relate to them. I just didn’t know how to put words to these feelings. I didn’t know words for them existed. I didn’t know there was a concept of being anything other than a girl or a woman. So, grasping for answers, I went for the common ones. “I’m just fat.” “I’m just ugly”. In middle and high school, I heard girls around me saying these things about themselves, and so I figured, that must be what I’m feeling, too. What else would it be?
So how did I eventually figure out, in my early 30s, that I was actually a man? It was seeing so many trans men documenting their transition milestones and resulting happiness on Instagram. They gave me the words for the feelings I always had. They showed me what was possible. They gave me the courage to discover, confront, and pursue my truth. Last year at age 34, I realized I could no longer bear living as a woman, I could no longer deny my feelings, I could no longer live without what those trans men I followed on social media had, and I began transition. Every confusing moment of my past, every dark cobwebbed corner of my identity, every way in which I felt like a fictional character reading from a script written by someone else… with just that first dose of testosterone, everything finally made sense. I finally made sense.
And there’s another waving red flag for those who would take my happiness away from me. Social media. Social contagion. Bailey’s executive order also mentions “social media addiction or compulsion” as another factor that might influence someone to identify as transgender. Did Instagram make me trans?
Looking deeper into it, it’s clear what the strategy is here, as ineffectual as it is: keep youth sheltered from any knowledge that transgender people exist, and they just won’t become trans. Ban books about transgender characters. Ban discussion of transgender people in classrooms. Evaluate and monitor teens for social media addictions and compulsions, in an attempt to contain this “social contagion”. Basically, return to the “good old days” like when I grew up and had no way of knowing trans people or experiences existed, because they were shut out of any accessible media. I guess, in their eyes, that meant I was “protected”.
In reality, being in the dark didn’t make me any less trans it just delayed my coming out, kept me isolated from others like me, and attached a ton of unnecessary shame and suicidal depression onto what is actually a pretty common experience. If we look to history, we know this is not a modern social media phenomenon. Transgender people have always existed, albeit often in the shadows. This isn’t the first time politicians have banned books, criminalized “cross dressing”, or pathologized queer identities, locking our ancestors away in mental health institutions or subjecting them to electric shocks in “conversion therapy” either. They have always tried to erase us from public view, from history books, from life. All social media has done is given us strength in numbers and a way to communicate openly about who we are, without the state or the church or the media controlling the narrative.
As more trans people come out and post their experiences on the internet for their friends and family to see, it produces another “contagion”, if you will—the contagious nature of public opinion trending toward acceptance. If we look at another recent civil rights struggle—that of gay and lesbian people—we know that Americans have become more and more accepting of gay rights over time as more and more people have come out, and they realize these rights aren’t abstract when they affect someone they love. Turns out, most people want their lesbian sister to be able to marry her girlfriend, or their gay coworker to keep his job. Similarly, although public opinion on transgender rights is very split, people who report that they personally know a trans person have more favorable views on trans issues.
Short of outright dismantling free speech and heavily regulating the internet and media, no legislation can turn the tide of awareness and acceptance of transgender identity. More people, both young and old, will find the knowledge, courage, and solidarity to come out, which will lead to more people understanding and accepting us. Of course, politicians are sure trying to prevent this inevitability, with their 400 bills, but it is too late. There are too many of us to stuff back in a closet whose door has been ripped off its hinges.
SHAWN DUQUETTE is a nonprofit professional, photographer, musician and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is currently working on a novel, “The Rainbow Rose of Texas”, about LGBTQ people surviving and thriving against the odds.