Gender Ideology’s True Believers

I know a fair bit about cults. When I was 19, I joined a small, insular, high-control Trotskyist organization, defying dear friends who told me it was a cult. I was so sure they were wrong—that the very idea defamed the funny, intelligent, well-intentioned people I was beginning to know—I stayed in the group for over 25 years. During that time I fought for many false and dangerous views, and helped spread antisemitism and misogyny. I also enjoyed the most transcendent sense of purpose, belonging, and love I have ever known.

A cult can make you feel wonderful. It feels like the family you choose for yourself, the refuge that allows you to survive a soul-crushingly lonely world. It sweeps you up in an embrace so all-encompassing that nothing and no one else matters, and the outside effectively ceases to exist. The heady rush of those early days is inevitably followed by abuse, but in the bell jar that is your world, the pain only convinces you to persevere. You become consumed by the need to chase a mirage—the love the cult promised you—and cannot conceive of life anywhere else. Like an abusive relationship, a cult breaks you down so incrementally you don’t see it happening: you only come to know that you cannot live without it.

My friends who had warned me about the group were right, although it took years of determined, achingly solitary, sometimes sick-making thinking and reading to see it. Quitting the party, which I did with great difficulty in 2016 for reasons I won’t go into here, was only the beginning. The more painful part was recognizing that not only had I been very wrong about some terrible things, but I’d believed blatant lies—falsehoods so transparent a child could see through them. How—I howled to myself—did this happen?

I soon found my answer, the only one that made any sense. The lies originated with a revered, much-loved charismatic figure who could not be challenged: my party’s Great Leader. A group comprised of sometimes brilliant, well-read, critically minded people would not only agree, but believe, that two plus two equals five—if the Great Leader said so.

I proceeded to read everything I could find about cults by experts and former members of various groups, then enrolled in a master’s degree course in a discipline I hoped would help me understand my experience. And it did. But putting aside Freud, the Frankfurt School writers, and all the other intellectuals I loved, I was forced to wrangle for the first time with post-structuralism and post-modernism—including, Lord help me, Judith Butler’s theories about gender. I tried to keep an open mind: after all, my entire worldview had gone belly-up. Maybe I should discard my party-instilled adherence to the Enlightenment tradition and materialism along with everything else that had proved wrong. But although I tried to give voice to these ideas artfully in school essays, I couldn’t help but find Butler and her acolytes spewers of so much mumbo-jumbo.

I assumed, however, that it was harmless—a bit of ivory-tower play-acting. Surely, no one truly believes that gender is only a “performance,” and that material sex is irrelevant? Anyway, I was preoccupied with trying to understand why the Left has such a problem with antisemitism. I tried to put the weird things being said about gender out of my mind. I fully support equality and lives free of stigma for the LGBTQI community. As near as I could make out, that’s all gender theory amounted to.

Except… this odd unsettled feeling kept trying to emerge in a suppressed little pocket of my mind. It reared its head when all right-thinking people declared that JK Rowling’s 2020 essay on sex and gender—a piece I’d found perfectly reasonable, intelligent, and humane—proved she was a hateful transphobe. And then again, when I read about domestic-violence centers, rape-crisis centers, women’s bathrooms, women’s sports, and women’s prisons ordered to admit any male-bodied person who claimed to identify as a woman; and about the breathtaking speed and ease with which teenage girls were convincing therapists and doctors to prescribe them testosterone and lop off their healthy breasts; and about the novel media practice of reporting that a violent sexual assault had been committed by a woman when the photo clearly showed a biological male. And I especially felt uneasy when I read about the many individuals—almost always women—hounded, threatened, cancelled, and forced to resign for questioning or challenging any of this.

Finally, I recognized my unsettled feeling. It was the same one I’d had in my political group when something I was told contradicted what I knew, but I couldn’t let the thought surface. A siren wailing just below the threshold of consciousness, an alarm so deftly dismissed that the mind smooths all memory of the act away. Call it cognitive dissonance, or doublethink. Once you see it for what it is, there’s no way to unsee it. You join the people watching in awe and horror as the world seemingly goes insane, wondering: How can so many intelligent people, not to mention reputable institutions, insist on something that is manifestly untrue and harmful?

I was struck by the many people calling trans activism a cult. Sometimes, they were parents whose children were transformed seemingly overnight into mouthpieces of incomprehensible jargon and vitriol; sometimes they were detransitioners or desisters who’d perhaps been those children. Both groups have my sympathy, and I agreed with them, but it cries out for elaboration beginning with the questions: What is a cult? And does the term really apply to trans activism?

I don’t intend the term as a slur. I’m also well aware that the images it evokes—vapid smiles and glazed eyes, the guy on the street corner passing out laminated literature and intoning about doomsday—defy the living experience of the everyday person becoming attracted to a cultish group. In saying today’s trans activism bears similarities to a cult, I mean no disrespect to those people who assume that the movement simply represents trans rights, or to trans people who may not agree with the activism conducted in their name. After reading and watching countless articles and videos by many trans people, as well as detransitioners and desisters, again and again, I’ve been struck by the obvious intelligence, goodwill, articulateness, and independence of spirit that seem to characterize this disparate group.

So I use the c-word with mixed feelings, knowing it could be a huge turnoff for many people whom I’m trying to reach. I’ve decided to use it anyway. Because if I had to distill my objections to trans activism into one bite-sized morsel, it would be that it denies people the language they need to express reality. I use the word “cult” not as an insult, but because it fits.

What are the characteristics of a cult? In 1961, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton published an admirably nuanced study on the workings of Chinese re-education camps that, decades later, was snapped up and passed around by former Moonies and ex-members of other cultish groups. Although Lifton hadn’t specifically written about cult members, these readers said his description sounded exactly like what they’d been through. Lifton went on to study cults (among other juicy subjects) explicitly. But his 1950s work on “brainwashing” in China is what still gets widely cited as containing one of the most insightful known descriptions of the inner workings of a cult.

Lifton identified eight psychological themes underpinning thought reform—which is to say the ideological coercion (or, more colloquially, “brainwashing”) that happens in cults as well as totalitarian states.

The first is “milieu control,” the severing of communication with those who challenge the group’s beliefs. I need not belabor the obvious application to radical trans activism. The cancelations and threats against gender-critical feminist activists, professors, writers, publications; the Twitter pile-ons, unfollows and blocks of those suspected of wrongthink: with help from automated methods, supporters of trans activism become sequestered in a community as closed to outsiders as my party was. No one is told not to communicate with outsiders or read opposing views—they don’t have to be. Followers may even occasionally make a point of checking out the opposing views of “TERFs” (a term of abuse that stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist”) to prove they can refute them, but the act is a charade. A dutiful scroll through a “TERF” essay is “reading” in quote marks, with a mind fully shut. Opening one’s thinking to opposing views would not only throw into question the group’s ideology, but jeopardize the follower’s treasured sense of belonging and purpose. The follower identifies so completely with the group that challenges to it are perceived as an existential assault—even “violence,” as trans activists will claim.

Then there’s the experience of trans children’s parents. If they do not immediately “affirm” their child’s form of self-identification, activists will urge not only the child, but also professionals and institutions, to regard the parents as reactionary and toxic. Many schools obligingly don’t tell parents that their child has “come out” as transgender and has a new name; trans activists on YouTube instruct kids on how to order breast binders without their parents knowing; therapists provide tips to kids for getting on cross-sex hormones by lying to their parents about being suicidal or saying they have always “known” they were transgender. If the parent fails to comply, the child is encouraged to declare the parent a transphobe and cut relations. Unsupportive or genuinely transphobic parents obviously exist, but the prevailing attitude of treating even mildly cautious parents as the enemy suggests a truly cultish milieu.

“The demand for purity” also stands out among Lifton’s criteria. The group drums into the follower the idea that she or he is guilty or unworthy in some way, and can only hope to alleviate this feeling of culpability by embarking on a futile pursuit of perfection. A teenage girl who hates her body and thinks she is fat (i.e., almost every girl in the Western world) might turn to Tumblr for help starving herself, for instance. There, she finds a wonderfully supportive community and spends more and more time in discussion with online friends. They are deeply committed to social justice, and she becomes increasingly aware that as a white middle-class “cishet” girl, she is an oppressor. Declaring herself trans allows her to join the oppressed community, and the decision is greeted with a roar of approval. Online trans forums (often assisted by helpful school counselors, administrators, therapists, Planned Parenthood clinics, doctors, and others) then take over. They guide the girl along the chosen path: first boys’ clothes and instructions on “acting like a boy”; then painful binders to suppress those disgusting breasts; maybe surgery to remove them; puberty blockers followed by testosterone; perhaps more surgery. The ideal self is always just out of reach. The girl suppresses any doubts she might have. She knows that if she admits she thinks transition was a mistake, the group will heap scorn on her and she’ll be cast out, so she persists. The group’s approval means more to her than her inner knowledge of her own needs.

“Loading the language” and “sacred science,” two more of Lifton’s criteria, could have been written with trans activism in mind. The group’s dogmas are cast as the latest frontier in scientific knowledge and cannot be questioned. “Trans women are women” must be intoned by all right-thinking people under threat of ostracism; other mantras bearing the aura of scientific expertise abound. “Gender identity is a spectrum.” “Sex is assigned at birth.” “Gender identity is immutable.” “Gender affirmation saves lives.” Gender ideology is drilled into children from a young age at school; media, charities, and public institutions echo the line; critics are hounded and dismissed.

Lifton noted that thought reform is characterized by a reliance on the “thought-terminating cliché” and transformation of language. New words convey the group’s insights while existing words are given new meaning. “Non-binary,” “cishet,” “genderqueer,” and “genderfluid” are just the beginning of today’s new lexicon. An online glossary listed on a website that presents itself as a source for medical information lists 72 genders, from “agender” to “omnigender,” with more neologisms no doubt on their way.

trans women are women trans women are women trans women are women trans women are women trans women are women repeat after me trans women are women— ashnikko (@ashnikko) June 11, 2020

As I was writing this essay, US Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson was asked if she could provide a definition of the word “woman.” Judge Jackson shook her head apologetically. “I’m not a biologist,” she said. One of the finest legal minds in the country could not say the words, “adult human female.” And in this respect, she is very much on-message: Trans activists have rejected the word “woman” in favor of the following partial list: chest feeders, vagina owners, menstruators, people with uteruses, cervix havers, birthing people, bleeders. The fact that countless women find these terms bizarre (and often inaccurate), not to mention objectifying and offensive, is deemed irrelevant. The new language is declared more scientific and inclusive to transgender people, and this is all that matters.

History books are being rewritten to reflect trans ideologues’ supposed insights. Some children are taught that Boudicca, Joan of Arc, George Eliot, George Sand, Sally Ride—basically any woman widely honored for her courage, intelligence, tenacity, and independence of spirit—were most likely transmen. The progressive cognoscenti have apparently come to understand that these qualities cannot be associated with a woman.

Proceeding down Lifton’s eight-point list: Under the headings of “doctrine over person” and “dispensing of existence,” we get some of his most chilling observations. The doctrine prevails over any individual human’s life, which becomes essentially expendable. If an individual’s experience contradicts the group’s doctrine, that person’s reality must be manipulated so the doctrine is vindicated. And so detransitioners, whose harrowing personal accounts impugn trans ideology, are shrugged away with some version of the explanation, “They were obviously never really trans to begin with.” Even though this directly contradicts a core tenet of trans ideology—“If someone says they’re trans, believe them”—the sanctity of the doctrine is nominally affirmed and the individual is disappeared. The media silencing of detransitioners and desisters is one of the most disturbing reflections of the obeisance commanded by trans activists, never mind the women, men, and children who suffer as a result of their dogmas.

“The totalist environment draws a sharp line between those whose right to existence can be recognized, and those who possess no such right.” Lifton’s words could have been written about radical trans activists in their attitude toward critics. JK Rowling says she’s received so many death threats she could paper her house with them. Death threats, rape threats, misogynist obscenities, cancellations are standard fare for women, and some men, who speak up against both the erosion of women’s rights and trans ideology’s implicit homophobia. In Britain recently, a mob chanting “Fuck TERFs” over a sound system raged outside a women’s group meeting held to discuss the importance of maintaining single-sex spaces. Misogyny-fueled hate is on full display around the globe.

A mob of about 200 predominantly white middle class entitled trans rights activists shout "Fuck terfs" & "Shame on you!" in an attempt to drown out the words of a Zimbabwean refugee speaking about FGM & violence against women at #WPUKManchester#RightSideOfHistory apparently 🙄 https://t.co/34nwJ75jH6— LesbianStrength (@StrengthLesbian) March 25, 2022

I know something about this kind of hate—though I didn’t recognize at the time that’s what it was. Hate is a base, ugly thing, and my heart was pure. When I joined my comrades in hissing against “Zionistsss” and “feministsss,” I was siding with oppressed against oppressor—and oh how righteous it felt, how good. How deeply satisfying to belong to a community united in agreement that these Jews, or these women, are enemies of progress and virtue. The enemy has been named; justice cries out for blood. Something primal is invoked in heeding that cry, something that tastes metallic and smells of the hunt. A transgressive thrill; a rush of adrenaline; in short: fun. Hate provides pleasure, particularly when you convince yourself it isn’t hate. Cloak it as social justice and it’s a win-win.

Every totalitarian or authoritarian group or movement—and cults are crystallized authoritarianism—coheres in opposition to a group that it hates. This was the particular insight of the Frankfurt School, some of whose intellects observed in The Authoritarian Personality that “[the] authoritarian must [their emphasis], out of an inner necessity, turn his aggression against out-groups.” When trans activists howl against “TERFs,” they’re demonstrating behavior that these authors would have recognized. But no matter how blatant the misogyny to outsiders, no matter how obvious the falsehoods, those inside are committed to blindness—because seeing the ugliness and lies would deprive them of what they hold most dear in the world: not just their hate for heretics, but their love for the group.

That’s what I experienced: a transcendent sense of belonging in a lonely fragmented world. And so when a girl renounces her parents and says she’s found her “true” family in the online trans community—people she’ll probably never actually meet—she’s not only telling us something about herself, but also something grotesque and horrible about a society that drove her to this kind of place.

Much as I’m concerned about what these gender cults are doing to children, I try not to harshly judge the people who succumb to them—because I was once just like them. I know what propels confused people into these dark worlds. And once you’re in, I know how hard it is to escape.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/05/19/gender-ideologys-true-believers/
6 Likes

Lot of confusion out there these days, it seems to me…

In an article about the outbreak of “Monkeypox” here in Europe, I read a headline today which said it is being detected most prevalently amongst “gays, bisexuals and other men who have sex with men (MSM)”…

I am still scratching my head about that one…

2 Likes

:musical_note: another one bites the dust :musical_note:

:partying_face: :partying_face: :partying_face:

2 Likes

Excellent piece. Trans is a cult of delusion.

7 Likes

For anyone who cares about these issues, let me also (like the author) recommend J.K. Rowling’s essay on the subject. You can find it over at J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues - J.K. Rowling

6 Likes

It’s 2 years old already, and possibly the message is sinking in to those in the Cult of Trans Delusion. The statement “trans women are men” is now heard more frequently. You are completely correct - if persons have not read JKR’s statement, that should be done. She is an excellent writer, and her persuasive skills are as strong in an essay form as they are in HP or the Strike books.

4 Likes

The biological end (not to say “purpose”) of sexuality is the gene’s selfish agenda to preserve itself. Inasmuch as sexual reproduction is derived from prior asexual reproduction, we shouldn’t be surprised that there is, at the biological level, no hard and fast binary between the sexes. Instead there is a real spectrum of reproductive roles and tasks. In some sexually reproducing species, e.g. in some fish, females can literally become males, when the environment signals a sex-imbalance in the population. Homosexuality, bisexuality, all likely have some evolutionary rationale. One could say that gender-dysphoria, like Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, are “bugs” of sexual reproduction which are psychological/physical manifestations of the fact that there is no binary when it comes to sexual differentiation; they reflect the fact that sexual reproduction traces its origin to asexual reproduction.

For a long time (in the West, anyway), sex, gender, and sexual orientation where viewed as coming together in a package or as a “syndrome” as it were. People who deviated from this syndrome were persecuted (and worse), often on the ideological rationale of “natural” law. One of the key steps in overcoming this history of persecution, was the emergence of the view that sex, gender, and sexual orientation did not all mutually imply one another, but could vary independently - and that this was a fact “ordained” (as it were) by nature.

This idea was integral to Queer liberation, in the West, and it seems that, in the wake of the social habilitation of homosexual people, those who experience gender-dysphoria were quick to avail themselves of the “born this way” naturalistic narrative understanding of their feelings and how they fit into the broader society.

All this generates serious controversy, particularly over the definition of what a “woman” is, and for the way it implicates how children are raised and (especially) the long-term physical and mental health of children.

The question of who is to count as a “woman,” while still culturally fraught, is easier to handle that the latter question of how we handle children who have doubts and insecurities about their sexual identity, gender identity, and sexual orientation. These are terribly difficult questions, difficult especially in the massively additional stress they place on young people (over and above the usual psycho-social stresses of sexual maturation), to sort them out.

Common sense strongly suggests that the way we are currently trying to address these issues is not working. But that doesn’t mean that we can simply ignore the issue and return to the blissful ignorance of keeping trans-people silent and invisible.

6 Likes

Of course not, we wouldn’t want to unduly anthropomorphize things.

Nevermind.

3 Likes

No, common sense says that pimping, promoting, and helping trannies allows others to become deluded as well. There are no “trans” people. There are deluded psychotics.

5 Likes

I think that the psychological phenomena at play here are a natural part of group dynamics. We need a certain measure of feedback from our various peer groups to stay sane, to know what is right and good, and to give us an identity with which we are comfortable. We are uncomfortable with doubt and skepticism. If we weren’t predisposed to be conformist all of our associations would be less stable. Cultism is the manifestation of the extreme and unchecked version of this proclivity.

This is the flip side of our retreat from the pieties of religious, patriotic, and civic norms in the pursuit of a more “free” and “authentic” existence. It turns out that many people are subconsciously terrified of this kind of freedom. They don’t want the responsibility of deciding what is good and true, of deciding who they are. They want to be told.

Unsurprisingly there is no shortage of volunteers to tell them. They come in two flavors: the “cynics” who exploit these needs for their own ends and the “true believers” who have convinced themselves that they know the answers.

It is much to our shame that we seem to have allowed these “volunteers” to take control of our political, educational, and journalistic narratives.

7 Likes

During that time I fought for many false and dangerous views, and helped spread antisemitism and misogyny. I also enjoyed the most transcendent sense of purpose, belonging, and love I have ever known.

Ya know…being a selfish a-hole has its occasional downsides, but perhaps one under-appreciated upside is you’re well-protected from any cult-like temptations. You’re not going to like them and they’re definitely not going to like you, either.

2 Likes

How about a straw poll, here? How many here in the comments section here share @GeorgeQTyrebyter 's views? I would like an idea of the kind of commenter that Quillette’s gender-critical editorial stance attracts.

You’re equating 1) GQT’s views with 2) readers/commenters attracted by Quillette’s “gender-critical editorial stance” based on 3) Quillette’s publishing of this article?

So many straw men packed into a single sentence.

5 Likes

Quillette is known for its gender-critical stance. I am able to make the difference between being gender-critical, and out-and-out transphobia. But there are evidently some transphobics, at least, who take Quillette’s editorial stance as support for their own bigotry. I’m interested in what the ratio is, here.

3 Likes

Well, I can’t speak for Quillette, but I’m all in favor of gender.

4 Likes

Anyone who says “transphobia” is a moron. There is no “transphobia”. There is a simple fact: trannies are psychotically deluded folks. I’m not a “transphobe”. I’m simply in the reality-based world where the notion that a male is born in a female body is completely idiotically wrong.

Hey, me too. I just know that persons with dicks are males, and have a male gender. If you have a vagina, you are female and have a female gender. Thus, “gender” is the same as sex. It is true that some men are more effeminate than others, and some women are more masculine. That’s OK. There is plenty of variation in how persons in each sex manifest.

15 Likes

Your horseshit idiocy is the reason WHY children have such trouble. This “puberty is HAAAAAARRRDDDDD” stupidity is new, and has been produced by idiots, like you, who emphasize how difficult and challenging it is. In fact, it’s not difficult and challenging. Unless people tell kids, over and over, how difficult and challenging it is.

In other words, the “difficulty with puberty” lie IS the difficulty. Instead of emphasizing that puberty is a confusing time, and take out the trash, you gender nazis spend all your time ELABORATING and BELABORING the problem. Like any problem, if people spend a lot of time pimping it up into a massive mountain, it can be a slight issue.

But it would be far less of an issue if it was not so over-emphasized. Instead, what should be said is that 1) everyone goes thru puberty 2) it changes your body in several ways and 3) when it is over, you will be an adult. NOW stop WHINING, and get your work done.

8 Likes

What part of “usual” do you not understand?

I find this to be a rather farcical essay. There are a lot of tortious logical leaps to try and use Lifton’s “8 Criteria for Thought Reform” to show that those who champion atypical Genders are involved in cult-like behavior.

The 8 Criteria actually do work pretty well in explaining how cults form and operate. However once you zoom out and try to use them to disparage large social movements this falls apart completely. Using the same “logic” one could show evidence that just about any social movement is a cult.

For example consider the Abolitionist Movement as it would have looked like from the point of view of the pre-Civil War American south.

  1. Milieu Control - This really doesn’t work in any scenario. A cult leader on a compound can control the flow of information to his followers. A large social movement has no such single point of informational control. However the author claims that negative social interactions against those who disagree count as this. So obviously the Abolitionist revulsion at the idea that Black people should be slaves also counts. This is silly, but I am not making these rules.
  2. Mystical Manipulation - is skipped entirely. So I will skip it as well.
  3. Demands for Purity - There is no doubt that when one became an Abolitionist, they did not do so because they thought there was any merit to the idea that Black people deserved to be chattel slaves.
  4. Confession - Again skipped by the author.
  5. Sacred Science - Another criteria that makes sense as a stand alone item on Lifton’s list if discussing a cult, but makes no sense once discussing a large social movement. Slave owners believed that the science was on their side. The Black man was more beast than man. Just speak to one and see the lack of human intellect in their eyes and the slowness of their wit! The Abolitionist would have you believe they are equally capable as the White man? Then why does the White man dominate while the Black man serves?
  6. Loading the Language - The Abolitionist Movement invented plenty of new terms. Not to mention change the fundamental definition of what it meant to be a Person.
  7. And also 8. “Doctrine over person” and “Dispensing of existence” - The author uses the extremely rare situation of someone de-transitioning as evidence of this. Just like those Abolitionists would refuse to listen to the first hand accounts of slaves who did not want to be free. Of those who were terrified of needing to live on their own without anyone to care for them.

And don’t get me started on sect leader Martin Luther King and the cult of “Civil Rights”.

There is plenty to be critical of in everything I wrote above, but that is the point. This essay just uses Lifton’s Criteria to hang a pseudoscientific veneer on slander. And all because if people can be convinced that a large social movement is nothing more than a “cult”, then it can be dismissed as a cult. Because cults are small and weird and no one should want anything to do with one.

Had the author decided to call large social movements “moral panics” he could have been on a stronger ground. Still wrong, but stronger ground. “Cult” just makes no sense at all.

5 Likes