Why might young people wish to transition? The official answer is that they were born in the wrong body, so that the solution is to change bodies. Last month I looked at the life stories of two young people who had once been "trans" but who had then decided to de-transition. Neither of them thought that the real reason for wanting to transition was being born in the wrong body.
The first de-transitioner I looked at gave a very articulate account of what was running through his mind at the time. He described a modern-day Gnosticism:
The world is wicked, and it is that way because it was made wicked by the Enemy...[the "White Supremacist Capitalist Cis-Hetero-Patriarchy"]
One has to understand the nature of the world’s evil before one can repair it. The first step in obtaining that knowledge is realizing that our bodies are not us, but things which we're trapped inside of. We're not humans; we're ghosts haunting rotting corpses. To stop the Enemy, trans people need to make us all understand that our true selves don’t exist in our corrupted material forms. This is what gender identity actually means: We are not our bodies.
The end goal is a very familiar one centred on a utopian vision of individual autonomy:
The dream of the trans movement is of a world where no one has to do anything they don't want, where no one is forced to work, where everyone can indulge their every desire without fear or shame, where all distinctions between people have been abolished and we're all completely equal. In a word: Utopia.
I was reminded of this reasoning when I read a story about an English girl named Kate. She was driven out of her school for questioning the trans movement. She politely questioned the movement because she recognised similarities between it and her own experience of anorexia:
'I couldn't help but hear the anorexic mentality reverberate in conversations about gender dysphoria,' she says.
'Both anorexia and gender dysphoria [make people] aspire to reach an idealised form of the self, liberated from the grotesque realities of material existence. Both are driven by a desire to control one's reality — to unveil a potential 'truth'.
Again, you can recognise a gnostic quality to this: a belief that our material existence is both wicked and illusory and that it is possible to attain special powers through access to a hidden knowledge.
Then there are the words of this trans person:
This person wants to use fae/faer pronouns, which I understand indicates a desire to identify as a fairy. What's noteworthy is what is said at the end:
People now have different sets of pronouns that change depending on the identity of the person they are talking to. You must remember and affirm them, we are told. pic.twitter.com/5AfcS20B4P— Libs of TikTok (@libsoftiktok) June 8, 2022
I'm excited because fae/faer pronouns make me feel very affirmed in my not feeling like a person.
It is more evidence for what our first de-transitioner claimed, that as a trans person he believed that "our bodies are not us, but things which we're trapped inside of. We're not humans..."
What does all this suggest? Well, Gnosticism is an ancient belief and likely to be always with us. However, it doesn't help that there is overlap between Gnosticism and certain aspects of liberal modernity.
The more traditional Western view is that we are part of a divinely created order and made, in fact, in the image of God. There may be both good and evil within nature, growth and decay; benevolence and cruelty, but we nonetheless find within our own creatureliness a connection to a higher meaning that gives form and substance to our lives. Gnosticism does not find fertile soil within this traditional view and, unsurprisingly, was condemned as a heresy by the early Christian church.
Liberal modernity has tended to divorce man from this meaningful relationship to creation. Patrick Deneen, in his book Why Liberalism Failed, sketches the history of how this came about. Early moderns sought dominion over nature. At first, this was not meant to be a dominion over our own nature (which was conceived negatively as fundamentally self-interested):
Liberalism...embraced and advanced as well an economic system - market-based free enterprise - that similarly promoted human use, conquest, and mastery of the natural world. Early-modern liberalism held the view that human nature was unchangeable - human beings were, by nature, self-interested creatures whose base impulses could be harnessed but not fundamentally altered.
But a second-wave of liberals in the later 1800s did seek to extend this dominion over the natural world to include our own nature. Deneen observes that these two waves of liberalism are still represented within modern politics:
First-wave liberals are today represented by "conservatives," who stress the need for scientific and economic mastery of nature but stop short of extending this project to human nature. They support nearly any utilitarian use of the world for economic ends...Second-wave liberals increasingly approve nearly any technical means of liberating humans from the biological nature of our own bodies.
The liberal project is to maximise individual autonomy in the name of freedom. This is made possible by removing humans from an embedded place within a given realm of nature:
Liberalism...seeks to transform all of human life and the world. Its two revolutions - its anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and its insistence on the human separation from and opposition to nature - created its distinctive and new understanding of liberty as the most extensive possible expansion of the human sphere of autonomous activity.
And so we all become self-creating autonomous individuals, unwilling to acknowledge any limitations imposed by our created nature. This is a more fertile ground for Gnosticism to flourish and to exert an influence within modern culture.