Fair warning: this is a long one, so I’ll give you the short version first:
In my youth I was involved in a cult and in some special interest groups that exhibited cult-like qualities. I later left an abusive relationship with a person who had plans to become the charismatic leader of their own cult – motivated, I believe, by their traumatic experiences in an evangelical church/cult. So when I encountered accusations of cult-like behaviour in transgender communities, I was alarmed and did my own research. I now believe that my own trans-centric, transfabulous social experiences do not qualify them/us for cult status.
Now here’s the long version:
One of the things I truly, madly, deeply appreciate about my trans community is the phrase “you do you.” This is conveys a message of inclusion to people who are frequently subjected to exclusion by the wider community. The message is that you don’t have to pretend to be anyone but yourself with us. You are great as you are. We celebrate diversity. Welcome!
I’d like to emphasise the point that we are often subjected to exclusion (and worse) by the wider community. As a result, many of us have depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
Early on in my decisionmaking process, I noticed that there were people who were detransitioning. For those who aren’t familiar with the lingo, detransitioning is when someone who started gender transition (otherwise known as gender affirmation) decides to stop medical treatment and reverse the process as far as possible. I say as far as possible because some aspects are irreversible. This was all discussed with me in depth, as part of my hormone approval process.
Because I am nothing if not thorough when making decisions, I paid attention to what people said about their own experiences of detransitioning. I read their blog posts and sought out YouTube videos on the subject. I
like need to think ahead and factor in Plans B, C and D. Just in case.
Some people had been excluded from their straight/gay/lesbian/religious communities when they came out as trans, and that had been highly distressing. It had left them without suitable support while navigating the inevitable ups and downs of transition, and sometimes it was too much to handle alone. Upon detransitioning, they were welcomed back into the fold, with or without recriminations. Or they remained in the trans community. Or they were left with nowhere to turn, because humans can be grotesquely cruel.
Some had reluctantly detransitioned due to complex and unforeseen medical complications, and I made a note of what they were, given my own age and medical history.
Others had come to the realisation that they had made their decision to transition prematurely, without thinking it through clearly enough. Or the information they’d based their decision on had been inadequate. Sometimes they blamed others for this.
And then there were those who had made the best decision possible at the start, only to discover that their priorities had changed with age. Maybe they wanted to start a family and hadn’t been able to afford to freeze eggs/sperm at the outset. Or they were thrilled with some side effects and struggled too hard with others. Or they could no longer afford the hormones. Or their partner/family/children/employer needed them to perform a different role. There are shiploads of reasons why people choose to detransition and I was pleased to know that it was possible. Just in case. You know, because I’m a worrier.
I was interested in the themes of blame. In those who did not accept responsibility for their own decisions. It’s not new, I’m sure tattoo artists hear similar stories, as do plastic surgeons, teachers, AA members and so on. It was the booze, my mum, the dog, my boyfriend. I may be an adult but don’t you dare hold me responsible for my own behaviour. I know, this sounds harsh and I’m tempted to edit it out for that reason. I don’t want to poke anyone in tender places. I guess I just don’t understand.
What interested me most in all these stories was the occasional assertion that trans communities are cults. Apparently we recruit (queers, does this sound familiar?), we coerce, we manipulate, etc. To what end, though? I needed to investigate.
I hope you have a refreshing beverage at hand.
First, let’s look at the key elements of a cult. I’ll quickly do an online search and see if it matches my personal experience.
These are from an article, ‘What makes a cult?‘ by Rick Ross of the Guardian.
- Charismatic leader
- Process of indoctrination or coercive persuasion (brainwashing)
- Economic, sexual and other exploitation
They are the three primary characteristics of a cult, according to psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, as detailed in the article. It summarises all I’ve read to date.
In one religious group I was briefly part of, all three aspects of this list ring true. We had a charismatic guru and our days were full of activities dictated by him. Every aspect of our lives was monitored. Sleep deprivation contributed to my submissiveness. Although personal interaction with loved ones in the outside world was discouraged, we were sent out into that big bad world to fundraise and we received none of the proceeds for our private use. Instead, it was considered selfless service and part payment for our (spartan) housing and food. I was often barefoot and inadequately dressed for the weather. It could be argued that I was a victim of a cult. However I did not feel like a victim. It was my choice to join and I chose to leave when I recognised the red flags. Although people tried to talk me out of leaving, I was not punished for it.
One of my family members belongs to a religious group that I consider a cult. Again there is an authoritarian leader and a strict set of rules to obey. Members are threatened with being shunned if they leave, and can be shunned for transgressions including spending time with family members who are ‘sinful’. They are sent out into the sinful world for the purpose of recruiting and there are negative consequences for not participating in this. My relation’s beliefs regarding creation vs evolution, and many other topics have radically changed over the years as a result of their indoctrination. While privately horrified, I support them doing what’s right for them. So far it is working out ok.
I’ve written before about being in groups that fostered conformity rather than diversity and critical thinking. If you’ve ever fallen off the vegan/animal rights wagon, switched political parties or come out as bisexual after living with lesbian separatists, you’ll know what I mean about possible negative social consequences. I’ve come to distrust groups that are exclusively inward-looking and insular. I distrust organisations, spiritual or otherwise, that encourage submerging your own needs in the cause of the common good, especially if those needs involve adequate food, housing, clothing and recreation. And I distrust groups and individuals who insist that their theories are Truth, while discouraging discussion or dissent.
A lot of these red flags were common to my experience with an abusive partner. They wanted me socially isolated and sleep deprived and obedient. They believed that they were the way, the truth and the light, and woe betide me if I wanted to leave. I’m sure that rings bells for other survivors. My ex had a traumatic history involving a charismatic leader and an evangelical religious group that punished people for being gay or gender non-conforming. When they spoke harshly to me, I could hear those words being dredged up from past trauma and recycled. Recognising this made it easier to leave. I learned much from that experience.
When it comes to trans communities, I find them completely different. Yes, we sometimes bond over the shared experience of being mistreated or misunderstood. They are very real experiences, rather than the imaginary threat of eternal damnation or promises of enlightenment or eternal life. Nobody is encouraging me to cut ties with loved ones or other groups, or to pledge obedience. Yes, there are individuals who get off on power trips and superiority, but there are no charismatic leaders as such. Unless I’m totally out of the loop or we are including YouTube personalities in that category? Some would argue so I guess, but good luck enforcing any perceived authority. As far as I can tell there is no systematic exploitation either. Nobody has pressured me to do anything except refrain from being a jerk. Does that sound cultish? Yeah, nah.
As for the indoctrination aspect, well, maybe there’s a case to be made. I’m not saying I was brainwashed, but learning the lingo was one of the hardest parts for me. All I wanted was a Transgender for Dummies booklet, letting me know the basics and how to access non-judgemental and informed people with whom I could talk things through. Instead, for the longest time I felt as though I would never measure up and never get the hang of the language. That can still be daunting but it’s not a necessary element of membership. I still couldn’t pass an exam if anyone set one. It just slowed me down.
It does help to learn which words are painful for others to hear, and when people are in pain they often lash out at those closest, so I’ve been told off a few times for inadvertently hurting others. Having said that, empathy and consideration are greatly appreciated. Diversity is celebrated. Plus, I can leave at any time. If anyone dared tell me otherwise, I’d see them for the insecure/immature person they were and ignore them. It’s my life, I’ll be me, thanks.
The last thing I was ever going to do was listen to anyone who wanted to control me. There were a couple of non-trans friends who wanted me to shut up about the trans thing or accept their own prejudiced interpretation of what I was feeling. That was never going to happen, so they left. I learned the hard way to remove coercive, manipulative people from my life. So that’s why this ‘trans cult’ idea surprised me so much. I’d have run a mile! But that’s just my own personal experience and I’m interested in others’ stories.