By Spencer Klavan
Understanding the “trans” phenomenon means recognizing it’s about more than gender.
In 2013 the DSM-V, an authoritative diagnostic manual for therapists and clinicians published by the American Psychiatric Association, defined gender dysphoria as “the distress that may accompany the incongruence between one’s experienced or expressed gender and one’s assigned gender,” where “gender” refers not to one’s biology but to “the public (and usually legally recognized) lived role as boy or girl, man or woman.”
The psychologist John Money popularized this way of speaking in the mid-20th century—it is the lasting legacy of his highly disreputable career. The word “gender” draws a stark—some might say Platonic—dividing line between “sex,” meaning one’s biological characteristics as male or female, and “gender,” meaning the ways in which one behaves, feels, and is perceived. The runaway success of the philosopher Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble in 1990 helped sunder these two ideas more starkly among the leftist intellectual class. Butler was wrestling with French poststructuralists like Michel de Foucault and post-Freudian feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, who had famously written that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Pushing Beauvoir’s idea further, Butler suggested that “sex does not cause gender, and gender cannot be understood to reflect or express sex.”
But then, still more radically, Butler proposed that sex too is an invented idea applied to the body, so that even the most basic facts of our physical selves are subject to transformation and reinterpretation: “gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which ‘sexed nature’ or a ‘natural sex’ is produced.” Gender is a performance; binary sex is a social construct; our bodies are objects of hostile interpretations fabricated by the powerful. At the time these were explosive statements. Today, they are practically commonplace.
With this new vocabulary came new awareness of a painful split between body and soul. By all accounts, dysphoria is agony—a jagged perceived mismatch between flesh and spirit. In 2016, Buzzfeed asked gender dysphoric people to depict what it was like to feel as they did. Women drew their breasts as balls and chains shackled to their legs; men imagined unzipping their own skin and emerging, newly female, from their old unwanted exoskeleton. In children with gender dysphoria, puberty can be a time of acute distress when the maleness or femaleness of the body suddenly asserts itself in a dramatic way. The thoughts of gender dysphoric adolescents often turn to suicide, which is why many parents are willing to do anything—including irreversible surgery and hormonal intervention—to help alleviate the discomfort.
But it is telling to read in the DSM-V that gender dysphoria occurs in just 0.005 percent to 0.014 percent of natal males, and 0.002 percent to 0.003 percent of natal females. In 2013, those numbers were current. They are already wildly out of date. Girls, especially, are developing gender dysphoria at an alarming pace: between 2006 and 2016, the number of referrals to London’s Charing Cross “Gender Identity Clinic” nearly quadrupled. Between 2008 and 2015, another such clinic in Nottingham saw its referral numbers jump from 30 to 850. A Gallup report in 2020 found that 1.8 percent of Gen-Z kids in the United States (born between 1997 and 2002) identified as transgender. By 2021, it was up to 2.1 percent. A shocking uptick in gender dysphoria, especially among girls, has blown the DSM-V’s figures out of the water. We are simply more uncomfortable in our bodies than we were before.
Perhaps some of this is because gender dysphoric people are more comfortable sharing their feelings as it becomes commonplace, not to say required, to accept and validate transgender people in American culture and society. But it is just as likely, if not more so, that causation goes the other way: maybe boys and girls feel more uncomfortable about their bodies as they are increasingly taught by adults and peers to view their physical sex as something detachable from their gender. Brown University health researcher Lisa Littman caused enormous controversy when she surveyed 250 families with dysphoric children and observed that 80 percent of the kids were female. What Littman called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” is a new phenomenon, a sudden self-identification as trans in girls who never showed signs of bodily discomfort before. Littman was attacked because her results suggested that our massive dysphoria epidemic might not be entirely spontaneous.
More and more public schools have adopted the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s “gender snowperson,” or other similar infographics✎ EditSign, to teach that sex, sexuality, and gender are unmoored from one another. But this kind of messaging goes beyond classrooms. One 2020 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found evidence that in areas where kids are exposed to more media coverage of transgender-related issues, gender therapy clinics receive more referrals. Kids increasingly shape their political beliefs and values (including their sense of gender identity) in conversation with one another in online forums. “Online engagement is not just isolated,” said Tumblr’s director of outreach Liba Rubenstein, “it really is attached to people’s offline identities.”
Typically, this kind of peer-to-peer discussion is represented as a victory for liberation and inclusion. But online life is not just allowing kids to vent their discomfort with their bodies: it’s also creating that discomfort where previously there was none. In this broader context the rise in transgender identification and gender dysphoria seems less like an authentic phenomenon in and of itself, and more like one symptom of an ancient conflict between body and soul, kicked into hyperdrive by the experience of internet life.
Abigail Shrier, a journalist who documents the rise of gender dysphoria in young girls in her book Irreversible Damage, interviewed one teenager whose anorexia morphed naturally into gender dysphoria as if the two sprang from the same source: “My goal went from diet pills to testosterone…. From fantasies about slicing off my thigh fat to slicing off my breasts. I bound them with duct tape. I couldn’t breathe. It made me panic, but I felt brave.” Buck Angel, a transsexual internet celebrity, speculated to Shrier about the association between widespread gender dysphoria and a disgust at the body more generally among teens, who are having less sex than previous generations and seem more comfortable in virtual than physical space. Shrier concludes that adolescent transgenderism “very often seems to be a sad cult of asexuality, like the hand-painted sign in an antique shop reading ‘Please Do Not Touch.’”
Given the explosion of gender dysphoria among adolescent girls, this phase of the body crisis suggests a particular horror at the idea of womanhood. “Perhaps forever,” writes Shrier, “but at least since Shakespeare’s Viola arrived shipwrecked in Illyria and decided to pass herself off as a man, it has occurred to young women: it’s so much easier to be a boy.” The feminist injunction for women to “lean in”—to hunt out positions of power and dominance in traditionally male industries and pursuits—comes freighted with the implication that traditionally female pursuits are weak, contemptible, and dull. “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession,” sniffed Hillary Clinton, in a classic summation of this idea, during her husband Bill’s first presidential campaign.
Both implicitly and explicitly, our ruling classes express contempt for homemaking and motherhood. But this closes off the most primal path to resolving the body crisis. Women, by creating new life, bear witness to the possibility that body and soul can in fact be reconciled: in childbirth, human flesh becomes the medium of the divine. Poets have expressed this as the “eternal feminine,” the strangely luminous power of women like Dante’s Beatrice or Faust’s Margarete to act as physical conduits for the life-giving power of God. “Woman, eternal, beckons us on,” wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the closing lines of his Faust. This is the meaning of the Virgin Mary’s consent to bring God into the world: her body will become the medium to deliver divine life, God made flesh.
Not that pregnancy and labor are some sort of cakewalk that we should regard with misty-eyed sentiment. Ever since Adam and Eve left Eden, creating life has also meant facing pain. The delicate challenge of growing from girl to woman involves coming to terms with the blood and the sorrow of what it means to have a body in a fallen world. Now, though, that hard task is made harder by the constant social implication that to be a mother is to be brainwashed and oppressed. Small wonder girls are fleeing womanhood, and small wonder this has intensified our sense that the human body is nothing more than a dead weight. Childbirth is not the only way to be fulfilled, nor the only way out of the body crisis. But if our bodies are not at least potentially a source of life as well as death, of blessing as well as discomfort, then they are simply a burden. Shucking off that burden means turning women into mere body parts that can be removed, reconfigured, or appropriated at will, reducing the female body to its functions and recasting women themselves as “menstruaters,” “chest feeders,” and “birthing people.”
Thus trans activism increasingly comes along with the implication that the body has no inherent integrity; that its meaning is entirely at the whim of its inhabitant. “Here’s the thing about chest surgery,” said Dr. Joanna Olson-Kennedy, a trans youth specialist and director of the Center for Transyouth Health and Development at the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles: “If you want breasts at a later point in your life you can go and get them.” Reacting with alarm to Olson-Kennedy’s statement, British journalist Douglas Murray, asked: “Are people like blocks of Lego onto which new pieces can be stuck, taken off and replaced again at will?”
Not yet, but perhaps that is the longing upon which trans extremism plays. Increasingly the objective is to abolish the boundaries of the body altogether, to liberate the human spirit and let it mold the flesh as it chooses. This is what critic Mary Harrington calls “biolibertarianism”: the aspiration to remove bodily constraints, to turn our physical form into a set of customizable parts that can be interchanged or reshaped. Harrington notes an anonymous 2018 paper, Gender Acceleration, which argues that surgical transition from male to female “breaks [a] lucky few free from the horrid curse of being human.” A woman who goes by the handle “whorecress” expressed a very similar attitude in a video that went viral on TikTok: “I’m not body-positive,” she declared, “I’m not body-neutral. I’m body-negative. I wanna be vapor. Or like, a plume of blue smoke. Or mist. Or a rumor—I’d be a rumor… ’cause like, gender? Humiliating. An ache, a pain? Needing to sit down? Spatial awareness? The vulgarity…. Every day I wake up and I’m subject to the burden of embodiment. How dare I be a shape? Disgusting.”
Obviously this monologue was delivered with a certain irony. But like all successful humor, it articulated a real sentiment that the online audience connected with. Whorecress’s cri de coeur against embodiment featured on a Reddit discussion thread called r/voidpunk, which “is a subculture for those who often feel rejected or disconnected from humanity” and prefer to associate themselves with a more spectral or robotic form of life. r/voidpunk has 21,600 subscribers as of this writing, but the trend is much bigger than that: “transhumanism” is a growing movement among technologists, many of whom imagine a future where gene editing, virtual reality, and bionic enhancement render us free from the limitations of physical existence. This is the modern culmination of our extreme body crisis.
The connection between transgenderism and transhumanism is made explicit by transgender activist and scientist Martine Rothblatt. Rothblatt’s book, From Transgender to Transhuman: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Form, argues expressly that gender transition is just the beginning:
I am convinced that laws classifying people as either male or female, and laws prohibiting people’s freedom based on their genitals, will become as obsolete in the twenty-first century as the religious edicts of the Middle Ages seem absurd in America today…. Over the next few decades we will witness the uploading of human minds into software and computer systems, and the birth of brand new human minds as information technology. As we see our selves and our loved ones in these transhuman beings, and they make us laugh and cry, we will not hesitate long to recognize their humanity with citizenship and their common cause with us in a new common species, Persona creatus (the “created person”).
And so the most cutting-edge current expression of the body crisis is not the hormone injection but the digital avatar: pick and choose how you will move through imagined digital space. The movement that began with “gender neutral” pronouns has now produced an enormous constellation of totally invented identities, going far beyond ze and zer to include neologisms like “pupself” and “demonself,” for those who identify spiritually as animals or demons. What’s going on here is bigger than gender: we are dreaming not simply of making men into women, and vice versa, but making ourselves into anything, at a whim.
Desire and Happiness
“Gender? Humiliating.” Whorecress was on to something. “How dare I be a shape? Disgusting.” There is the body crisis in a nutshell.
And yet we can’t escape the body except at a great and terrible cost. Much like virtual reality and online life, transhumanism holds out glittering promises on which it is singularly ill-equipped to deliver. It’s not just that sex-change technology currently comes with gruesome risks and lifelong complications. Even if we imagine that rearranging or reconstructing body parts becomes painlessly easy, will it make us happy? What will “happy” even mean? Already Andrea Long Chu, a major transgender writer, has emphasized that happiness is not the point: “My new vagina won’t make me happy,” Chu wrote in the New York Times, “and it shouldn’t have to.” This is because “desire and happiness are independent agents.” Really? If our desires have no governing aim, such as happiness or virtue, what is the use of them—or us—at all? Surely we follow our desires because they point us toward something desirable—if not, we are just aimless hunks of flesh pulled randomly in all directions by wants that have no connection to goodness or joy. This total dissolution of purpose would be one of the real wages of transhumanism, were it ever to become reality.
If we become fully free from the constraints of physical form, if we even develop the technology to “feel” whatever we want, then we really will become nothing more than the chemistry sets that the crudest materialists imagine us to be: joy will be an electro-chemical occurrence, unrelated to any objective excellence or achievement. In our effort to liberate our spirits from our bodies, we will make our spirits and our very consciousness into the mere mechanical illusion that machinists already imagine it to be. Dissolve the boundaries of your body and you dissolve the boundaries of yourself. If you feel an instinctive disgust at this dystopian futuristic prospect, it is because you have a felt intuition of what we really are.
We can have compassion for gender dysphoric people without making them the central ideal of all our aspirations. Without a trace of malice toward them, we may observe that the measures they take to transform their bodies are not steps in a direction we find particularly attractive or healthy. Treating the body like an endlessly permeable and cumbersome appendage is just as degrading as ignoring it in favor of constant online entertainment, and for the same reasons. Both are means of seeking escape from our physical forms, and both promise liberation while actually leaving us sick, remorseful, and listless. We have indulged for too long in the vague fantasy that if these kinds of life are pushed to the extreme, they will suddenly become fulfilling—that if we just proceed down this path that is currently making us sick and miserable, we will eventually be happy and free. This, as always, is a dubious proposition.