A friend of mine told me recently that in a relative’s class of 25 children, five of them are officially identified as trans. That means 20% of the children are on their way to hormone therapy and gender re-assignment.
I was astounded and asked what was going on. He said: ‘It’s like gender identities have become more rigid. In the old days you could be a tom-boy. Now, if you’re a girl and you’re not an incredibly girly girl like Arianna Grande, then you’re trans.’
I have no desire at all to police people’s life-choices. If a person wants to change gender identity, and it makes them happier, I am all for it. Trans-gender people have been subjected to abuse and violence for millennia, and deserve our respect, protection and love.
What concerns me is that our culture’s extraordinary focus on trans issues may be something of a bubble, and this bubble may persuade some teenagers that the answers to all their problems may be gender transition. Their parents and counsellors may then rush to affirm their decision and write it in stone with irreversible medical procedures.
And they may be wrong.
Around 0.6% of the population identifies as trans, yet you would never guess that from all the articles, the media controversies, the books and films about transitioning over the last five years or so.
Why such intense focus on this issue?
The trans movement, if that’s the right word, or the trans discussion, is part of a broader western obsession with questions of gender, sexuality and identity. That’s a product of the Sexual Revolution and the Culture Wars of the 1960s, but it actually goes deeper than that. It goes through the expressive individualism of Romanticism – in which the ultimate authority is the ‘authentic self’. And it goes all the way back to Christianity, and its powerfully emotional myth of being born again.
The original version goes something like this:
You start off alienated and unhappy in your fallen society. You wonder ‘is this all life is? Am I more than this?’ Then you meet a rag-tag group of outsider Christians who seem surprisingly happy and fulfilled. They make you feel loved and accepted in a way your family and society never did. You search your heart and wonder, could I be a Christian too? Your parents are naturally horrified at the suggestion. Isn’t this just a phase? But you brave the stigma of coming out, take the leap of faith and are born again. You discover the Real You, and are celebrated in your new loving family, then you fight with your new brothers and sisters for the New Jerusalem, against the demonic enemies who oppose you.
We may have left Christianity behind in Europe, but we never left this basic mythic narrative. You saw it in Romanticism: once we throw off the shackles of kings and priests and let freedom reign, we will finally find the Authentic Me and live in a redeemed world without suffering. You saw it in Marxism: throw off the false consciousness of capitalism and become a New Man or New Woman. After the revolution, when all the demon capitalists are dead, we will all be free in a world without suffering.
You saw it in the Civil Rights movement: I have a dream one day my people will be free. You saw it in feminism: throw off patriarchy, discover the Real You, and be loved by your circle of sisters. You saw it in the gay rights movement: one day I will throw off the false self imposed on me by straight culture and be recognized as the real fabulous Me, celebrated and loved by my gay community. It’s sold to us by self-help as well – do you feel sad, confused, limited? Try our new 12-step programme and you will finally feel fulfilled, unshackled, the Real You. Tony Robbins can fit the whole mythical journey into a 10-minute interaction.
Our favourite trope, repeated in endless movies, is the deeply Christian story of the awkward outsider who finally discovers the Real Me, and then, in the emotional climax of the movie, they reveal their new, authentic, fabulous self to the public, through a speech, a song, a dance or something. At first the public isn’t sure how to react, then they react with wild applause. The new authentic identity of the hero is dramatically affirmed. The ugly duckling is recognized as a swan. It’s why we love Queer Eye: ‘I used to be sad and lonely, now I’m a fierce queen!’
Watch the trailer online – do you see how Christian it is? Except now there’s no God who sees you and loves you. Instead, that part is played by other people. The Public has become the ultimate Judging Panel, especially in the age of reality TV and social media.
The modern trans movement – unlike the civil rights or the feminism movements of the 60s and 70s – is very much an online, social media movement. It’s in some ways a Selfie culture. In thousands of trans videos on YouTube, you see montages of people’s transitions, as told through endless selfies. Snapchat lets you turn yourself into a unicorn or a puppy with a touch of your phone, so why not a man or a woman? As long as the public applauds the New You. Like every selfie, it all depends on the number of likes you get.
In some ways this is a wonderful myth. That anguished search for the Real Me and the Promised Land has animated our culture over the last 2000 years and genuinely improved people’s lives – it’s freed us from absolute monarchy, from oppressive religious structures, from oppressive patriarchy and heteronormality. All that is GOOD.
But it’s also slightly dangerous.
It’s dangerous in that it makes a promise that when you discover the Real You and your True Family, all suffering, conflict and dis-ease will vanish. That’s a deeply seductive promise. I fell for it when I briefly transitioned to become an evangelical Christian, for a year or so. Jesus has such an amazing plan for my life, I was told. Come and join your new Christian family, and you will smile all the time.
After various attempts at magical solutions, I now accept that some mental suffering is a fact of life and we should be suspicious of any narrative that says it can dispel all suffering with a conversion, a revolution or an operation.
Certain versions of this myth can be particularly dangerous, because it’s difficult to come back. I can become a teenage evangelical and then decide it’s not for me. I can come out as gay and then decide I’m not entirely. I can become a Marxist or an Islamist revolutionary and then decide I’m not really (unless I go to Syria like poor Shamima Begum). Every teenager should be allowed to play with their identity and discover who they want to be. But we should be careful of immediately affirming their choices and making them permanent through hormone therapy and surgery, because that ink is permanent.
The Atlantic had an excellent cover story last year, looking at the difficulties for teenagers and parents when they decide they’re trans. It included coverage of a group known as ‘detransitioners’, who felt uncomfortable in their bodies and gender identities as teenagers, then dived into the online trans world and decided they were trans. Their parents and counsellors, trying to do the right thing, immediately affirmed their decision and leapt into action with hormone therapy and transition surgery. But then the new men or new women discovered life post-transition wasn’t the paradise they imagined. The article says:
The magazine interviews Max Robinson, who decided she was a boy when she went through puberty. She was assigned hormone therapy at 16 and had a double mastectomy at 17. But her life as a trans man did not make her happier.
That’s a very interesting last sentence. Max has shifted from a sense of identity based on how she looks – a selfie identity which depends on your recognition – to a more intrinsic sense of self (the two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. One of the first modern Stoics I interviewed was a trans woman named Sophia – check out her blog here).
Another detransitioner is Carey Callahan, who was assured she would stop suffering from gender dysphoria after transitioning. Jerusalem is near! But she didn’t.
Earlier this year I met a radical queer called Rhodri. I was curious about Queer Theory, so asked Rhodri to explain it to me. He told me he didn’t identify as gay or straight, but queer. Queer means you’re suspicious of authoritarian structures that limit the fluidity of identity. That includes alternative subcultures like the gay scene. He said: ‘Alternative subcultures can be even more conformist and intolerant to deviance than mainstream cultures. You have to fit the ‘gay identity’, or you’re stigmatized.’
It struck me that there’s something very Tibetan Buddhist about this Queer celebration of identity-fluidity. If you ask a Tibetan Buddhist who you really are, who is the Real You, they will say we are Empty Luminous Mind. This Mind is beyond binaries –beyond male and female, beyond Asian or Western, beyond Christian and Buddhist, beyond Black, White and Yellow, beyond human and non-human, beyond nirvana and samsara, beyond form and emptiness, beyond death and birth. It is all these things, in glittering fluidity. And it’s always here, within you. It doesn’t depend on the recognition of your society.
If suffering comes from ego-attachment or ego-aversion, then we need to find a middle way between hating yourself because you’re a woman / gay / black / short / fat / working-class or whatever, and becoming overly-attached to your relative identity and seeing it as the answer to all of your problems.
At the relative level, your blackness, your femaleness, your gayness, your Britishness, your shortness, your fatness, your you-ness, is worthy of respect, love and protection from attack. But maybe we should hold it a little lightly as well. It’s not all of me. It’s not my essence. It’s not the only thing about me, or even the most valuable thing. There’s something much, much greater, and that’s where we all meet.