Social Influence and De/transition
When a one-size-fits-all narrative is pushed and open dialogue is forbidden, vulnerable people are prevented from making good decisions.
After detransitioning, I spent some time trying to figure out what could have convinced me to believe that I was transgender. I mean, I had a list of reasons why I believed I was trans, but I became curious about the psychology behind my reasoning. I had my “proof,” but I had come to the wrong conclusion. How did that happen?
Some people have had strong reactions when I say that I was brainwashed. It’s certainly a provocative term, and a gentler word might be “influenced.” One person claimed that the conclusion I came to must indicate that I’ve been radicalized; someone must have suggested that I was brainwashed, and I must have accepted it without thinking it through.
That’s not true, though. I have thought it through, and there is no doubt in my mind that I would have never transitioned if other people had never told me about the concept of gender identity. I would have just carried on as I had before.
Let’s talk about what it takes to reform someone’s thoughts (i.e., Robert J. Lifton’s Criteria for Thought Reform). The criteria are explored extensively in the newthoughtcrime essay that I link to often, but I want to talk about “mystical manipulation” in particular. Lifton says mystical manipulation “seeks to provoke specific patterns of behaviour and emotion in such a way that these will appear to have arisen spontaneously from within the environment.”
In religious cults, one’s personal experiences are made to seem as if they are directed by a higher purpose. Sometimes the literal environment is being altered (e.g., “[The guru] Sai Baba would arrange for the space before his throne to be electrified so that followers who came to visit him would get a tingling sensation when kneeling before him”).1 Sometimes people are offered a compelling narrative that they reframe their experiences around. Even coincidences are taken as proof that you were meant to find the group and carry out its mission. And of course, it is easier to convince someone who wants to believe.
The application of “mystical manipulation” to identifying as transgender isn’t necessarily a perfect analogy. There isn’t a single “leader” manipulating you, but there is an ideology and a community publicly (on social media) interpreting their experiences to fit into it. I examined my past behaviour to determine whether I had been transgender my whole life and was therefore meant to transition. I made a list. Each item on my list could have had a number of other explanations, but I had been captured by the idea that some people are “born this way” and I could be one of them.
I remember the very first time I second-guessed whether I was a woman. I was reading threads on a message board I frequented, and one of the topics was a question being posed to members of the forum: Have you ever thought about your gender? I answered that I was a woman and that I had never considered that I could be otherwise. Immediately after submitting my comment, I heard a voice inside my head think… “Well, why not?”
And that’s how it begun.
In January of 2010, I wrote a list of “facts” that, to me, were evidence that I was certainly transgender and that transition was going to be a good idea for me. The following is a shortened version of the list:
Role-played as male characters when young
Averse to feminine-looking clothes, even when young
Cross-dressed when I was 15-16 and made up a male name for myself
Discomfort with my vulva (never masturbating, crying during sex)
Discomfort with my breasts (not wanting attention)
Desire for top surgery
Desire for a penis
Comfort in “male role” (clothes, boxers, shorter hair)
Libido change when thinking of myself as male
Attracted to both genders, but can’t see self in a lesbian relationship, but can see self in a “hetero” one with a girl
Not wanting straight men or lesbians to flirt with me
Prefer male friends (more in common)
Desire to be "one of the guys"
Hate attention when appearing feminine; like attention when masculine
Didn’t like shopping until started buying men's clothing
Drawn to trans men and associate with their stories
Where I once saw many of these “facts” as evidence that I should move forward with medical transition, I now see a lot of them as evidence of other aspects of my life and of me. Not only that, I also recognize that I was twisting some of these “facts” because, deep down, I wanted to transition. Or more accurately, I wanted being transgender to be the reason I was so uncomfortable in the world. I wanted transition to be the easy solution to all of my problems.
I’ll do a longer post on the ways that I misinterpreted these items, but I’ll leave one example: I did a lot of playing “pretend” when I was younger, and my main thing when I got online was role-playing with others. I certainly had characters that were male. But truthfully, I probably played more characters that were female. The characters who I felt represented me the most were all female. So that “fact” wasn’t entirely true.
Online, I was constantly being exposed to people who were reframing their lives in the same way. Just a few months ago, I read a list of “symptoms” of gender dysphoria that were incredibly broad. Many traits on the list just sounded like people who are neurodivergent, gifted, or even just socially awkward (e.g., “feeling like you don’t belong”). These lists are written by young people on the Internet with no real expertise, but are taken as authoritative. I read stuff exactly like it on Tumblr over and over and over again until I was convinced.
Another way people publicly reframe their lives and subtly influence others is the existence of “egg culture.” There is a subreddit dedicated to “memes about trans people in denial” called /r/egg_irl that has many examples of what it looks like. (“Trans people in denial” are essentially the “eggs” waiting to be “cracked” by realizing they are trans.)
If you were to skim the more recent posts at the time I wrote this post, the examples suggesting someone is a trans woman include: preferring to wear “girl jeans,” not wanting to wear a suit to homecoming, and enjoying having your nails done. The examples suggesting someone is a trans man are: ‘realizing that most women don’t wish they were men,’ feeling validated because you’re tall, and hating that seatbelts remind you that you have boobs.
(For interest’s sake, there’s also a subreddit founded by a detransitioner which is called /r/scrambled_eggs_irl, cheekily described as being for “memes for cis people in denial,” and features gems like this one.)
When I say I was brainwashed, people tend to think that I’m accusing other trans people of maliciously “converting” me to transgenderism, but that’s not the case at all.
No one actually forced me to do anything — but they gave me the narrative, presented themselves as authorities, and claimed that (1) transition was the sole treatment for gender dysphoria and (2) preventing trans people from transition might cause them to kill themselves.
I was already suicidal. Of course transition felt inevitable.
I think that most of the people who influenced me were young, inexperienced, or projecting their own feelings onto others. Many of them lacked discernment, self-awareness, or critical thinking skills… and many of them were caught up in activist circles that came down hard on anyone who didn’t fall in line.
That brings me to another aspect of mystical manipulation: the discouraging of questions. Lifton says, “[A]ny thought or action which questions the higher purpose is considered to be stimulated by a lower purpose, to be backward, selfish, and petty in the face of the great overriding mission.”
The parallel in the trans community is that questioning whether transition is a good idea is frequently framed as being bigoted (particularly as “internalized transphobia”) and as being harmful to others. This post from Reddit is one example of how this looks in trans groups:
In reality, it should not matter if other people are hurt or offended by talking about how putting synthetic cross-sex hormones into your body is (1) not natural and (2) could potentially be harmful to you. Questions are welcomed and answered in a healthy group. When realistic discussion of an intense drug gets someone dogpiled and accused of bigotry, you’re in an unhealthy group. This silencing of “wrongthink” is exactly why trans activism these days is regarded as cult-like.
In my experience, people who are asking for advice from other trans people about medical transition are almost never directed not to do it. They are frequently told that they can just try hormones, and if it doesn’t work out, they can stop. This is reckless in terms of physical health and also downplays how easy it is to “go back.” (For example, voice changes on testosterone are permanent within a couple of months. My voice today is the same as it was after 10 weeks on hormones.)
After writing this post — but before I had come up with an ending — I watched CTV W5’s episode on transition-related health care. Despite the commitment to speaking to experts and patients on both sides of the issue, trans rights activists have already begun decrying the coverage as biased. Some critical of gender ideology think it hasn’t gone far enough. Personally, I think it was a perfect introduction to the main concerns that people hold about medical transition.
However, the backlash to something as benign as those 22 minutes — one of the first times that the narrative prescribed by activists has been questioned on Canadian television — should tell you there is something unhealthy happening within the community.
The fact that W5 spoke to “Canadian experts” with concerns that people are being medicalized too quickly, but that those experts declined to speak on air out of fear of being branded transphobic, should be a big red flag to anyone paying attention.
I accept that I played a hand in my own transition and bear some of the responsibility. But I do not accept that either of these two populations — activists and the professionals who are scared of them — are innocent. This is an abusive relationship, and I will call it out.
When a one-size-fits-all narrative is pushed and open dialogue is forbidden, vulnerable people are prevented from making good decisions. Ultimately, it is gender dysphoric people who will suffer the most. The community is shooting itself in its collective foot.