Mass Psychogenic Illness: The Latest Make-Believe Cause of Transgender Identity

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Last week, Psychology Today published an article entitled “Why Is Transgender Identity on the Rise Among Teens?” Most contemporary trans health professionals will tell you that such increases should not be such a surprise, as the reduction in societal stigma and increasing transgender awareness has simply made it possible for kids who would have been forced to remain closeted and repress their feelings during past generations (such as my own) to now openly explore and express their genders — I discuss this in detail (along with a helpful analogy to the relatively recent rise in left-handedness) in my essay Transgender Agendas, Social Contagion, Peer Pressure, and Prevalence. Unfortunately, Samuel Veissière (the author of the Psychology Today article) doesn’t even consider this possibility. Instead, he turns the “inciting moral panic” dial up to eleven, as we’ve seen far too often from pop-science and op-ed writers lately.

Veissière spends the bulk of the article promoting Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD) as a cause of transgender identity, without ever mentioning to readers that trans health professionals do not consider ROGD to be a valid condition or diagnosis, or that the research study he cites in support of it is horribly flawed and provides no actual evidence (other than mere anecdotes and innuendo) that “social contagion” is “turning teenagers transgender.” (My critique of the ROGD study, and the concept more generally—including claims about “peer clusters,” social media influences, and false assertions that “late onset” gender dysphoria is a new phenomenon — can be found via that link.)

In addition to promoting ROGD, Veissière forwards his own make-believe cause of transgender identity, one that I have never heard before in my two decades of researching and writing about trans people and issues. Veissière argues that “Mass Psychogenic Illness” may be causing teenagers to come out as transgender en masse, and he cites rare past occurrences of mass fainting or face-twitching, along with The Dancing Plague of 1518, as potential analogies. Hell, if we’re reaching all the way back to medieval times to account for modern-day transgender teenagers, why not invoke The Western Schism of 1378? Or The Wolves of Paris of 1450?

Being the curious person that I am, I did a bit of research into Mass Psychogenic Illness. According to Robert Bartholomew (who Veissière cites in the article as an expert on the condition), Mass Psychogenic Illness comes in two types: a very transient version that is “triggered by a foul or unfamiliar odour that is perceived to be harmful,” and a slightly longer-lasting type that affects motor functions (common symptoms being “twitching, shaking, trouble walking, uncontrollable laughing and weeping, communication difficulties and trance states”). It is extremely far-fetched to propose that the complex and typically long-deliberated decision to come out to family and friends as transgender is somehow akin to these sorts of immediate transient psychosomatic reactions. Veissière’s proposal is not only nonsensical, it is demeaning to trans teenagers’ experiences and real-life circumstances.

Transgender people are a pan-cultural and trans-historical phenomenon. And Gender Dysphoria is a well-documented condition. It does not require any further explanation. These relentless efforts to depict “transgender as contagious” — despite the lack of any rigorous scientific evidence— are nothing more than thinly veiled attempts to 1) ostracize (or “quarantine”) transgender children (under the presumption that they may “infect” others), 2) suppress information and healthcare that will likely benefit many children, and 3) provide reluctant parents with a convenient excuse to dismiss their child’s gender identity, and isolate them from their peers, in the false hope that this might magically “cure” them.

As a trans person who struggled to help my family understand back when I first came out, I totally get why many parents are initially reluctant. As for the supposedly informed medical/science writers (and their editors/publishers) who enable these parents by recklessly peddling unfounded claims of “social contagion,” well, they are no better than snake oil salesmen and conspiracy theorists.

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