COMMENTARY

Is Gender Dysphoria Contagious?

William G. Wilkoff, MD

Disclosures

September 09, 2022

At the risk of losing a digit or two I am going to dip my toes into the murky waters of gender-affirming care, sometimes referred to as trans care. Recently, Moira Szilagyi, MD, PhD, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, released two statements, one in the Aug. 22, 2022, Wall Street Journal, the other summarized in the Aug. 25, 2022, AAP Daily Briefing, in which she attempts to clarify the academy's position on gender-affirming care.

They were well-worded and heroic attempts to clear the air. I fear these explanations will do little to encourage informed and courteous discussions between those entrenched on either side of a disagreement that is unfortunately being played out on media outlets and state legislatures instead of the offices of primary care physicians and specialists where it belongs.

The current mess is an example of what can happen when there is a paucity of reliable data, a superabundance of emotion, and a system that feeds on instant news and sound bites with little understanding of how science should work.

William G. Wilkoff, MD

Some of the turmoil is a response to the notion that in certain situations gender dysphoria may be a condition that can be learned or mimicked from exposure to other gender-dysphoric individuals. Two papers anchor either side of the debate. The first paper was published in 2018 by a then-Brown University health expert who hypothesized the existence of a condition which she labeled "rapid-onset gender dysphoria [ROGD]."

One can imagine that "social contagion" might be considered as one of the potential contributors to this hypothesized condition. Unfortunately, the publication of the paper ignited a firestorm of criticism from a segment of the population that advocates for the transgender community, prompting the university and the online publisher to backpedal and reevaluate the quality of the research on which the paper was based.

One of the concerns voiced at the time of publication was that the research could be used to support the transphobic agenda by some state legislatures hoping to ban gender-affirming care. How large a role the paper played in the current spate of legislation in is unclear. I suspect it has been small. But, one can't deny the potential exists.

Leaping forward to 2022, the second paper was published in the August issue of Pediatrics, in which the authors attempted to test the ROGD hypothesis and question the inference of social contagion.

The investigators found that in 2017 and 2019 the birth ratios of transgender-diverse (TGD) individuals did not favor assigned female-sex-at-birth (AFAB) individuals. They also discovered that in their sample overall there was a decrease in the percentage of adolescents who self-identified as TGD. Not surprisingly, "bullying victimization and suicidality were higher among TGD youth when compared with their cisgender peers." The authors concluded that their findings were "incongruent with an ROGD hypothesis that posits social contagion" nor should it be used to restrict access to gender-affirming care.

There you have it. Are we any closer to understanding gender dysphoria and its origins? I don't think so. The media is somewhat less confused. The NBC News online presence headline on Aug. 3, 2022, reads " 'Social contagion' isn't causing more youths to be transgender, study finds."

My sense is that the general population perceives an increase in the prevalence of gender dysphoria. It is very likely that this perception is primarily a reflection of a more compassionate and educated attitude in a significant portion of the population making it less challenging for gender-dysphoric youth to surface. However, it should not surprise us that some parents and observers are concerned that a percentage of this increased prevalence is the result of social contagion. Nor should it surprise us that some advocates for the trans population feel threatened by this hypothesis.

Neither of these studies really answers the question of whether some cases of gender dysphoria are the result of social contagion. Both were small samples using methodology that has been called into question. The bottom line is that we need more studies and must remain open to considering their results. That's how science should work.

Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including "How to Say No to Your Toddler." Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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