Editor’s note: What follows is an excerpt from Abigail Shrier’s new book “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters” (available here at Barnes and Noble). Shrier investigates the increasing rate at which young girls are coming out as transgender and the ways in which these girls are enticed into the trans community.
Benji is one of a growing number of young women uniquely capable of warning girls in the grips of gender fever that it might be a good idea to turn back. But Benji doesn’t believe she merely avoided personal calamity. What she escaped — she insists — was a cult.
Like a lot of the young women who suddenly identify as trans, Benji was both an intellectually precocious and highly anxious girl. At five she began playing the violin and took to it immediately, soon adding harp, piano, and viola. She was a voracious reader, but at nine, she began developing breasts, which made her terribly uncomfortable and self-conscious. She became anorexic, sometimes passing out in class. Her parents bought her Ensure and begged her to eat. She was diagnosed with depression. But her talent and smarts proved resilient. Like her younger sister, she was admitted to one of the best public arts schools in Canada.
Her parents’ relationship was rocky. She and her sister were occasionally the target of physical abuse. Her sister weathered their childhood by smoking pot, cutting, and tipping into periodic bouts of depression.
Benji fell into YouTube and Tumblr. At thirteen, she discovered videos of women enthusing over their transformation into men. Feeling unfeminine, awkward in her body, and unhappy at home, Benji found the possibility of escape enrapturing. She never doubted the accuracy of the purely positive accounts of medical transition.
Kids her generation may be sophisticated when it comes to utilizing technology, Benji told me, but they are strikingly naïve about the truthfulness or completeness of the content. “They think that the mainstream news is full of lies and garbage, but when it comes from an independent person, that must be more realistic or something, more authentic in some way,” she said. Postmodern queer theory regards experience as more valid than fact, she said, and her generation imbibes endless streams of this ideology from the internet. “So when you see somebody [on Tumblr] talking about their experience and their opinions, that can trump data and facts because experience is more authentic than data or something.”
Benji decided privately that her story matched the video accounts of trans men online: She was trans, too. She set up her first Tumblr account and quietly announced herself as trans to viewers. She wasn’t sure anyone would notice. To her surprise, she received an overwhelming “love bombing” from strangers.
You “get people direct messaging you that you’ve never spoken to before, being like, ‘Wow, this must be so hard for you, how can I help you?’ or like, ‘You’re so brave.’ Like that kind of thing,” she told me. “There’s just so much positive reinforcement that there’s just no room at all for any criticism or any thought that something bad could be happening.”
At first, she explored her new identity exclusively online, interacting with trans adults—people she came to think of as her “real friends,” the ones who actually knew her. Not only could she be freer online than she ever managed to be with people in real life, her online “friends” knew her secret. They were unconditionally supportive, showering her with praise. “If I lost my phone or my parents took it away from me, I would like have a breakdown because I was completely dependent on [my online ‘friends’].”
Often, various adults—mostly, men identifying as trans women—would ask to “sext.” By fourteen, she was too curious and far too agreeable not to comply. On the occasions when she demurred, they accused her of “kink shaming,” making them feel bad about their sexual predilections—a mortal sin in these online communities. Often, when Benji tried to assert a sexual boundary, her adult interlocutors would accuse her of transphobic oppression. The last thing she ever wanted was to upset them.
The gender ideology world she inhabited was a “cult,” she insists, because “when you’re inside, you believe non-reality and you disbelieve reality. It literally got to a point where if I was in a queer space,” she said, “I would look at someone, and I couldn’t tell if they were male or female until they told me because I had trained myself to think that way. I would look at somebody and be like, ‘I don’t even know what their sex or gender is because I haven’t asked them their pronouns yet.’ I was so brainwashed.”
When she complained online about her parents, queer adults often coached her on running away from her family. At the time, she believed that these adults — not her parents — had her best interest in mind, and that they were generally helping her to escape mentally and physically from a tumultuous home. But she no longer sees it that way. They were “weaponizing it against me to kind of draw me into their community more and draw me away from anyone who would give me rational ways of thinking about my life.”
She came to believe, in fact, that the only people she could trust were trans-identified. That, she says, is a mantra you hear frequently in the gender ideology world: you can’t trust “cis” people—you can only trust trans. “They tell you that you cannot emotionally or psychologically depend on your family or any cis-hets [cisgender heterosexuals] or non-queer people because they can’t possibly understand you or empathize with you or love you for who you really are.”
Questioning the panacea of medical transition was strictly verboten. At one point, Benji tried to “follow” a gay man on social media whose bio indicated that he was “homosexual — not homogenderal,” meaning he didn’t buy into gender ideology. She wanted to ask him questions and listen to what he had to say. According to Benji, one of her queer friends snapped a screenshot revealing that Benji followed this man and had allowed him to follow her back. The screenshot was then posted online, and Benji’s queer friend implored their mutual friends to “cancel” Benji and block her, she says. “Just because I allowed this person to follow me without blocking [him] immediately was proof that I should be excommunicated.”
Benji was angry with her friend, and she let him know. He didn’t back down. “He was like, ‘If you talk to these people, what they have to say to you will make you suicidal. You will lose your identity, you will stop being trans. You will literally die if you talk to these people.’”
Online shaming — she says — is pervasive in the gender ideology world, and a key mechanism for controlling the behavior of the suddenly trans-identified. If your friends catch you failing to use the correct terminology, they will attempt to reeducate you. They believe they are helping. They don’t want you to be called out. They don’t want to have to cancel you, too.
Abigail Shrier is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal. She holds an A.B. from Columbia College, where she received the Euretta J. Kellett Fellowship; a B.Phil. from the University of Oxford; and a J.D. from Yale Law School.