The western world is currently experiencing a mass hysteria over gender dysphoria and transgenderism. I call it mass hysteria because I believe its manifestations generally have less to do with any legitimate medical condition, and much more to do with seeking attention, affirmation, and accolades in a new religion that I call “Wokeism.”
Throughout history, many religions have had periods of fanaticism, where the fanatics have been accorded not just indulgence, but even admiration, praise and honor in the moment. Only later has the danger within the mania become obvious — after the damage has been done. Now, one of these episodes is occurring right before our eyes.
Diagnosing religious mania in the moment is not easy under any circumstances. In this case, there is an added layer of difficulty because the practitioners of Wokeism seem to have no idea that their catechism of beliefs is a religion: Wokeism has nothing to do with God and the majority of its adherents would likely call themselves atheists. But, whether they recognize it or not, their practice has the essential characteristics of moral fundamentalism with an extremely strict doctrine. I have previously discussed this phenomenon in another article here.
If we recognize Wokeism as a religion, the fact that it has attracted fanatical adherents who engage in self-mutilation and self-punishment is not really surprising. Many religions have historically brought forth, in some of their believers, elements of asceticism, self-denial, self-harm, and renouncement of the human body. Within religions across the east and west, from Christianity to Buddhism, there have emerged those advocating that denial of the body and of that which is “of the world” can lead to a deeper understanding of the spiritual and the heavenly. Simple fasting is one example of a universal religious practice, typically done in moderation, and occasionally taken to an unhealthy extreme.
Looking back through history, it is easy for a modern person to recognize the extremes as disorders. When “fasting” becomes “starving,” we call it “holy anorexia.” Many self-harm practices that became common among the general population during the medieval period would horrify us today. Some of those included beating oneself with chains; wearing hairshirts; wearing metal weights; wearing a crown of thorns or sleeping on a bed of thorns.
The current transgender phenomenon shares characteristics with mass hysterias throughout history. But I think it has most in common with an episode that took place in the 13th-15th century among medieval women later canonized as Catholic saints. In both cases, there is a willingness to go to extraordinary lengths to punish the self because that is celebrated as a sign of holiness and commitment to religion.
St. Catherine of Siena is the most famous medieval example. Today we would say she clearly had an eating disorder that required medical intervention. She literally died from self-imposed starvation and dehydration. Yet her extreme asceticism and self-harm practices brought her renown far beyond her hometown. She consulted with the Pope and other religious leaders. She is one of only four women to become a Doctor of the Church. She was given a platform and a voice in a time when most women had neither. Her asceticism gave her a purpose, a destiny, and connection to a religious zeal.
In the wake of Catherine’s renown, fasting even to extreme levels became a cultural ideal among young women. Rudolph Bell wrote in his book, Holy Anorexia, that Catholics called these young girls “miraculous maids,” and they became so popular that upon founding their new faiths Protestants were eager to find their own “miraculous fasters.” But the asceticism wasn’t limited to food; many also had a profound hatred for their sex organs and practiced varying degrees of self-punsihment and self-harm. There are several records of sainted women driving nails into their chests or burning their genitals with pork fat. If you’re interested, more details can be found here.
Given our modern aversion when we review these historical examples, you would think we would never let physical mutilation occur in our own time. Today, anorexia is acknowledged as a disorder rooted in self-hatred and body image issues. Teenagers who are anorexic are given therapeutic support to address these issues. The same is true of most physical forms of violence against the self, such as cutting.
And yet, as soon as the word “transgenderism” is associated with physical mutilations, we make exceptions. Actions taken to change one’s sex — e.g. to halt puberty, bind breasts, physically alter genetalia — cannot be questioned as deriving from a place of self-disgust or body image issues. There is actually a bill pending in Congress, called the “Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act,” that would ban “conversion therapy” for sexual or gender orientation. The first line of section 2 reads: “Being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or gender nonconforming is not a disorder, disease, illness, deficiency, or shortcoming.” The act would apply to all LGBTQ+ individuals, but in effect, it makes it impossible for therapists to question the roots of a transgender person’s stated desire for disfigurement.
Maybe that’s fine for adults. If a fully consenting adult wants to cut off body parts or create new ones, I might disagree with the decision to do so, and I certainly don’t want my tax dollars to pay for it, but I wouldn’t try to interfere. But in the case of minors, it’s different. I think there is an obligation to interfere — by parents, counselors, schools, and even by government policy. Our society doesn’t let individuals vote until they’re 18 or drink alcohol until they’re 21, but children as young as 12 can request hormone treatments that will have permanent and lifelong effects on their physical development. I find that deeply troubling.
We should encourage adolescents struggling with puberty to embrace their bodies, with the same compassion we use to combat anorexia and cutting. But beyond the typical anxiety that comes with a changing body, I think there’s another, even bigger, driver behind the desire to change one’s sex: Announcing that one is transgender has become a way to receive attention, recognition, and affirmation in Woke culture. It’s a way to denote oneself as part of a special minority. Transgender individuals are held up as examples within their schools and communities. Their social media accounts amass huge followings. They often get media interviews where they can share their stories. In the religion of “Wokeism,” transgender individuals have a special, irreproachable rank.
And with the attention comes the hysteria. Transgenderism has become such a phenomenon that, as Abigail Shrier reported, “Between 2016 and 2017, the number of females seeking gender surgery quadrupled in the United States.” In Sweden, journalists reported a 1500% rise in the number of 13-17 year old girls claiming to be transgender. It’s a rise so dramatic, that you would think people might start to suspect there’s something going on. But so far, adherents to the religion of Wokeism continue to encourage and affirm gender dysphoria, and to condemn those, like Abigail Shrier, who speak out against it.
This trend of encouraging and praising individuals affected by hysteria is perfectly in line with historical patterns. During the Salem Witch Trials in the 1680s, the girls who exhibited signs of witchcraft — contorting their bodies, spitting, and howling — were given the power to accuse members of their community of witchcraft. The town officials listened. In her article “Holy Hysteria,” Sarah Jones writes of the town leaders: “Parris, Mather and Stoughton had all attended Harvard. They were learned men, and their support granted witchcraft a veneer of intellectual credibility that bolstered true believers and arguably made them more dangerous than they could have otherwise been.”
The same thing is happening today, with academics — professors, psychologists, doctors — rushing to throw themselves behind the validity of the transgender “science” and affirm gender dysphoria.
It’s so easy to look at the past and see that this kind of behavior should have been treated as a pathology — or at a minimum, that it should not have been glorified and encouraged. But how is it realistically any different from the mutilation and rejection of the human body that we see today? Though taking hormones is admittedly far less brutal and painful, it is very literally a renouncement of one’s flesh. When we cut ourselves these days, we can do so under anesthesia, but it is still disfigurement.
It’s so easy to see mania in retrospect, so difficult to recognize in the present. I can only imagine what future societies will say about us in a few hundred years, when hindsight makes what we’ve done to ourselves all too obvious.