Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Some of us are old enough to remember Christine Jorgensen, who was born a man, went to Denmark for sex-reassignment surgery in the early 1950s, and published a bestselling memoir in 1967. Later there was the journalist James Morris, who had accompanied Edmund Hillary to the peak of Everest, and who, after becoming Jan Morris and pursuing a distinguished career as a travel writer, also ended up writing a memoir. Both Jorgensen and Morris claimed to have felt since childhood that they’d been born the wrong sex. I saw no reason to doubt their sincerity; their condition, after all, was well documented, and had an official name – gender identity disorder. Indeed, I was impressed by these two individuals’ dignity and self-possession, and saw no problem with their desire to be referred to as women, especially given their serious efforts to look and act the part. In any event, gender identity disorder was vanishingly rare, so what was the big deal?
It was also a topic about which one rarely heard anything. Now, of course, it’s everywhere. The turning point was 2015. CNN called it a “transgender moment.” Caitlyn Jenner made the cover of Vanity Fair and was a Glamour “Woman of the Year.” In June 2015, the Supreme Court gave same-sex marriage the green light, whereupon professional gay activists – sorry, LGBTQ+ activists – turned to trans rights to keep their careers going. But today’s trans movement isn’t just about campaigning for equal rights; it’s about demanding government intervention to regulate the conduct of others – as exemplified by Canada’s notorious C16 law, passed in 2017, which makes it a crime not to address a trans person by his or her desired pronouns.
The speed of this cultural metamorphosis has been stunning. While gays went overnight from being freakish, marginal victims to bland, boring oppressors, trans people materialized as if from out of nowhere and shot to the top of the victim-group pyramid, alongside Muslims and blacks – a placement that affords them a remarkable degree of social power. One consequence of this newfound status is an alarming phenomenon that has gone almost entirely uncovered in the mainstream media, but that has now been illuminatingly described by Abigail Shrier in Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, a book of immense clarity, courage, and compassion.
Here’s the story. A generation ago, most people with gender identity disorder – the official name of which has since been changed to gender dysphoria – first exhibited symptoms in childhood; most were boys; and the actual numbers were infinitesimal. In the last few years, all this has changed radically. In 2021, teens who’ve given no previous indication of being transsexual suddenly proclaim that they’re the other sex; today, this is happening to far more girls than boys; and the number of cases per year is hundreds or thousands of times higher than it used to be. So rare did it used to be for girls between 11 and 21 to present with gender dysphoria that until 2012 there was absolutely no scientific literature on the topic.
So what happened? Puberty brings insecurity. It always has. And in every generation, a sizable percentage of girls have responded to it in dangerous ways. A few years ago, they might’ve engaged in cutting, become anorexic, developed multiple personality disorder, or, way back when, been diagnosed as suffering from “neurasthenia” or “hysteria.” Today, a staggering number of them have been caught up in the “transgender moment.” It often happens this way: feeling awkward in her body, a girl is told by her school psychologist that she’s trans; the psychologist refers her to a doctor who gives her hormones (behind her parents’ backs, if necessary); back in the classroom, she’s applauded by her teacher and classmates for setting off on a brave journey. No longer a misfit, she feels special. And if her parents are progressive, they may well embrace her trans identity with gusto, because how best to prove to the world just how progressive you are?
Some parents, however, may not be so eager to see their daughters’ breasts lopped off. If they express doubt about her diagnosis of rapid-onset dysphoria (as it’s called) and voice concern about her readiness to undergo irreversible treatments with scarcely a pause for thought, she may cut off all family contact. Because she’s been told, not just by her so-called caregivers but by a phalanx of hip young “influencers” on YouTube, that if her parents don’t immediately accept that Jill is now Joe, it means they’re failing to “affirm” her and thus don’t really love her. To keep saying “Jill” is “deadnaming”; to say “she” instead of “he” is “misgendering.” According to these “influencers,” such “transphobia” on the part of “cis” – i.e., non-trans – people (the term is borrowed from organic chemistry) can lead a young trans person to commit suicide; better for that person to forge a supportive new “family” in the “trans community.”
Yes, there are kids who genuinely experience gender dysphoria. But the colossal spike in rapid-onset dysphoria in teens makes it clear that today, the overwhelming majority of girls who think they’re boys have fallen for a trend, responding to ordinary teenage stresses by leaping into rash self-diagnoses. What do these girls have in common? Many are autistic. Many are very smart. Many come out in friend groups – several girls in the same class announcing at once that they’re trans. And many are girls who would once have identified as lesbians; in fact, some of them do start by coming out as lesbians, only to say later that they’re boys. (Sonny and Cher’s offspring, Chaz, famously took this route.) Not a few of the adults who cheer these teens on do so because they’re more comfortable with the idea of a girl becoming a straight boy than with the idea of her being a lesbian.
Shrier has studied this subject from every angle; and from every angle, it’s fascinating – and maddening. She reports on kindergartens in which tots are taught that there’s a spectrum of gender identities. She meets middle-school girls who’ve been told that if they like math or sports, they’re probably boys. (How does this return to old stereotypes count as progress?) She talks to health professionals who mindlessly parrot the new trans ideology – which includes the inflexible dogma that from the moment you declare you’re a boy and not a girl, you are a boy, period – and to a few brave souls who openly reject it. And she interviews socially liberal parents who, because they’ve questioned their kids’ self-diagnoses, have been labeled fascists.
After reading Shrier’s book, I looked at the YouTube pages of some of the “influencers” whom she discusses. It’s like visiting a foreign country. These girls who now identify as boys live in a world of their own, confidently wielding the new trans vocabulary as if it’s been around for millennia and spouting trans ideology with the assurance of a physicist explaining gravity. To be sure, for all the harm they do (and although a couple of them have merrily mocked Shrier’s book), I found them almost uniformly sympathetic: they’re very young, and, except for the few that might be legitimate cases of dysmorphia, they’re victims of this craze, too.
By and large, these kids depict their lives as fabulous adventures – from the super-cool morning on which a “binder” (used to strap down breasts) arrives in the mail to that first coveted testosterone (or “T”) shot to the big appointment for “top surgery” (mastectomy) to the eagerly anticipated day of days when they finally get “bottom surgery” (hysterectomy). And for now, maybe their lives are fabulous: it’s not hard to believe that the thrill of constant bodily transformation, the regular electrifying jolt of “T,” the buoyant sense of being part of a “trans family,” and the excitement of massive public attention (some of their videos get over a million hits) add up to an authentic high.
But how do they feel off-camera – alone in bed, or in public surrounded by “cis” people? Watch enough of their videos and you’ll spy cracks in their perky façades. Also, what comes next? As Shrier notes, teenagers are “famously fickle and faddish.” Trends fade. What will happen to these “influencers” – and their viewers – once the “transsexual moment” passes? The already burgeoning statistics on “detransitioning” – a practice that has spawned its own genre of YouTube videos – suggest that many of these sprightly young ersatz FTMs (female-to-males) will, sooner or later, look back in justifiable anger at the trusted therapists who scrambled their minds and the beloved surgeons who mutilated their bodies. When that happens, I suspect, many of these kids who now see Abigail Shrier as their enemy will recognize her, ruefully, as an ally – and a prophet.