The Transgender Contagion

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Abigail Shrier

by James A. Bacon

Abigail Shrier deserves a Pulitzer Prize for her 2019 work of journalism, “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.” She’ll never get the recognition she deserves from the literary establishment, though, because her conclusions transgress some of the holiest orthodoxies in the progressive canon. Despite the outcry that greeted her book, it became a best seller and transformed the way many people think about transgenderism. I am one of them.

Anyone reading the book, as opposed to imbibing the mischaracterizations of her critics, will readily see that Shrier is no “transphobe.” She is highly empathetic to the struggles that transgender people undergo, and she respectfully refers to them by their transgendered names and pronouns. She also acknowledges that gender dysphoria is a real (but exceedingly rare) phenomenon that occurs mainly among boys as young as three or four who believe that their minds and bodies are mismatched.

Shrier is reviled because she regards the unprecedented surge of transgender identity among adolescent girls as a cultural contagion, and she sees “affirmative” practices of hormonal treatment and breast removal as one step removed from medical malpractice. She criticizes teachers, psychiatrists and medical professionals who automatically “affirm” transgender identity rather than inquire about other potential explanations of emotional distress.

One critic described her work as “a fear-filled screed, full of misinformation, biological and medical inaccuracies, logical fallacies, and propaganda.” Perhaps. I’m no expert. But I found her credible.

Virginians can hear Shrier speak for herself when she appears at the University of Virginia October 11, Room 125 of Minor Hall, at 7:00 p.m. The event is sponsored by The Jefferson Council and the Common Sense Society. Register here.

I got no sense from her book that Shrier is a cultural conservative. Cultural conservatives have embraced her because she validates their suspicions that there is something terribly misguided about the transgender movement. However, writing in 2019, she never referenced culture cons as sources and betrayed no sympathy for, say, the MAGA movement. She strikes me as an old-fashioned liberal who believe what old-fashioned liberals believed before progressives rose to cultural and political dominance.

Shrier interviewed hundreds of people for her book, and she steeped herself in YouTube videos, Reddit chat rooms, and other social media. She talked to parents, teachers, psychologists, and medical doctors — not just skeptics but those who supported the transgender movement. It was an impressive feat of journalism.

The starting point for Shrier’s investigation is the observation that gender dysphoria was vanishingly rare among adolescent girls a decade ago. Pubescent girls in our society have long had body-image issues, and phenomena such as anorexia and bulimia have been a gnawing issue for years. But the conviction among teenage females that they were really boys exploded in the mid-2010s, simultaneous with the widespread use of the iPhone and social media. Girls who were unpopular, confused, or unhappy — typically suffering from anxiety and/or depression — sought answers for their misery, fell down social-media rabbit holes, and found a sense of belonging online. Reinforcing the theory that the spread of transgenderism arises from social contagion is the fact that the phenomenon occurs most frequently among girls from affluent White families, is clustered in peer groups, and is most common in households with politically progressive views.

Shrier is sympathetic to these girls. They are suffering emotionally, she says. In politically progressive environments, identifying as trans gives them affirmation and status that they lacked before. But there are tremendous risks when these girls-now-identifying-as-boys undergo “gender-affirming treatment” such as taking testosterone shots, having their breasts removed, or in extreme cases, undergoing phalloplasty, the construction of an artificial penis. Each of these procedures has potential side effects — most notably sterility — and are potentially irreversible.

In 2019 when Shrier’s book was published, the medical evidence conflicted as to whether gender-affirming treatment improved or worsened transgenders’ sense of wellbeing. More recent findings in Europe suggest that such treatments offer no psychological benefit at all. Indeed, a number of young women have decided they are not transgender, regret their disfigurement and sterility, and decry the educational/medical establishment that rushed them into their affirmative treatment.

Transgenderism is real in a tiny percentage of cases (less than one in a thousand people), and transgenders deserve compassion for their struggles. But most of the cases we see today reflect the medicalization of anxiety, depression and loneliness into hardened culture-war dogma. Affirmation likely does more harm than good. As one of the first to explain how America succumbed to this madness, Shrier is a prophet. Everyone needs to hear her.

James A. Bacon is executive director of The Jefferson Council.