Over the last couple of years, there has been a growing chorus of reluctant parents and gender-disaffirming practitioners claiming that children are being “turned transgender” by their trans peers — I have critiqued this recent trend here and here. Proponents of this “transgender is a social contagion” hypothesis often depict it as a brand new phenomenon that has suddenly appeared from out of nowhere. In reality, however, the idea that being transgender (or queer/LGBTQ+ more generally) is somehow “contagious” turns out to be a rather old superstition (and accusation). In the course of writing my aforementioned critiques, I was reminded of a spoken word piece that I wrote for the National Queer Arts Festival show The Biggest Quake: New thinking on the San Francisco AIDS epidemic back in 2012, well before this latest round of “transgender is a social contagion” allegations. My piece was aptly entitled “Contagious,” and it explored this longstanding superstition in the context of my childhood and the early public reaction to HIV and AIDS. Since it is germane to current debates regarding “social contagion,” I thought it would be worthwhile to share the following excerpt from it. The entire piece (along with many other trans-themed spoken word pieces and essays) can be found in my book Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism.
I live with four parrots. Whenever friends come over to visit, I always give them a heads up that my birds can be a bit loud, and that they will likely fly around the room, and such — I can understand how this might be disconcerting for folks who are not used to it. Most of my friends seem to enjoy the experience, or at least they congenially tolerate it. But in a few cases, my friends have been really freaked out by my birds. When I ask why, they almost always tell me that they are afraid of the germs birds carry. I’ll empathize with them, tell them that when I was a child, my Mom used to tell me to stay away from birds because they carried germs. But she also told me the same thing about squirrels, and stray dogs and cats. In other words, the germs aren’t intrinsic to the animals themselves, but are the result of living in the wild and not having their health monitored. I’ll point out that my birds have been indoor birds their whole lives. They see the vet once a year. They don’t have any more germs than indoor dogs or cats do. But even after explaining all that, my friends are not persuaded. They have internalized the idea that birds are disease-ridden. No matter of talk or logic will change their minds.
In other words, dogs and cats are common pets, seen as normal, and not viewed as germ-ridden. But birds are unusual, exotic even, and therefore viewed by some as inherently sick and infectious.
Sometimes, when I come out to straight people as transsexual, I’ll notice them slightly distancing themselves from me. When this happens, I wonder whether they consciously or unconsciously see me as sick or infectious. Perhaps they are afraid of catching my transsexual cooties?
Transphobia, homophobia, and biphobia, in their more extreme manifestations, usually evoke this fear of contagiousness. This is evident whenever conservative parents express concern about gay teachers, and fret about how their children might by infected by, and succumb to, some imaginary “homosexual agenda.” Or when straight men worry that, if they were to have sex with a trans woman like me, that the experience might somehow “make them gay.” I believe that this assumption — that queerness is somehow contagious — is why the “we’re just born that way” argument has been so effective in placating straight people and garnering mainstream acceptance. After all, if being queer is a “birth defect,” not only do we not have a choice in being what we are, but it also implies that straight people can’t catch it from us.
Growing up in suburban Philadelphia in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it seemed as though there were no queer people in the world other than me. Back then, almost all of the out queers lived in cities, far outside of my view. Suburban queers usually remained closeted, even those who were living in plain view. My Great-Uncle Vince never married, and lived with his “best friend” for thirty years, but if you were ever to suggest that they might be a gay couple, everyone in my family would adamantly deny it. During that time and place, words like “gay” and “queer” were to be avoided like the plague.
Ironically, given the utter lack of gay-identified people in our world, kids my age used to throw the word “gay” around all the time. Sometimes it was used as a synonym for “dumb.” Other times, when kids said, “that’s so gay!” they meant to convey that the object or person was “pathetic” or “gross.” Meanings run deep. And so, when I used to dress up as a girl within the privacy of my childhood bedroom, I couldn’t help but feel dumb, and pathetic, and gross. I kept quiet about who I was at the time, not only to avoid the stigma of being called “gay” or “queer” by my classmates and peers, but also because I feared that the truth of who I was would implicate my entire family. My parents would be devastated. My younger sisters would be teased for being related to me. It was as if they would all be affected (or perhaps infected) by my queerness. So I tried to keep it all to myself, so that I wouldn’t contaminate everyone else around me. You could say that me, and my Great-Uncle Vince, and other suburban queers of the time were “closeted.” But sometimes it felt more like a self-imposed quarantine.
I was in high school in the early ’80s when AIDS first began garnering national attention. The notion of a so-called “gay disease” really seemed to literalize this metaphor of queerness being contagious (if you’ll allow me to wax Susan Sontag-ish). Suddenly, stories of queer people, who had been virtually invisible in my suburban world, started appearing in our newspapers, magazines, and TV screens on a daily basis. And correspondingly, homophobia became increasingly blatant and virulent. Urban legends started spreading: tall tales about gay men, bisexuals, prostitutes, and other supposed deviants who set out to intentionally infect innocent straight people. Adults who fancied themselves as open-minded when they said, “I don’t care what people do in the bedroom, just so long as they don’t flaunt it in front of me,” suddenly started calling for more invasive measures, such as rounding up and quarantining people with AIDS, or agreeing with libertarian William F. Buckley Jr.’s suggestion that all HIV-positive people should be tattooed on their forearms and asses in order to protect the uninfected masses.
Of course, these reactions were abominable. But they changed my world in an important way. Within a few short years, suburban folks went from wanting to believe that nobody they knew was queer, to wanting to know who was queer or who was not. This may have been for the worst possible reason. But for the first time in my isolated, suburban life, people began acknowledging the reality that queer folks lived amongst them. And being queer suddenly seemed like an actual possibility to me — not merely a slur, but something that somebody could actually be.
The rest of this piece can be found in my book Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism. If you appreciate me making this excerpt freely available online, and want to see more like it, please consider supporting me on Patreon.