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A Memoir of the Modern Gender Religion
A guest essay
This document seeks to catalogue how the fingerprints of religion are visible on the modern concept of gender. By bringing to light my story of how a group I joined fell victim to comforting fictions, and noting the patchwork of history adapted into convenient philosophies, I hope to characterize the precursors of a fledgling gender religion. With an understanding of what we face, we can plant green-shoots for fixing communication between different factions and invigorate the search for truth.
Masculinity and Fraternity
Throughout the ages, the male role in society, while sometimes imperious, was often portrayed as protective. In many cultures, men were encouraged to become strong, resilient, noble guardians. The question of what it means to be a good man is as prevalent now as it has ever been. When it comes to gender, the tension between conforming and rebelling is personal to me.
Once, when I was young, I carelessly wore my sister’s pink shirt with a shiny bow to school. Within fifteen minutes, I was mortified. I soon learned I had better switch my official favorite color from pink to blue. Eventually I learned to tune out the most malicious whispers. I’d order the Shirley Temple drink I wanted, or play with my sister’s Barbies and beanie babies. As I grew older, I talked myself into more masculine activities like sports. I figured that most likely I was out of the woods. But once I started getting the stirrings, and it dawned on me that I was gay, I knew I was back to square one.
Following the frustration of bottling myself up again in grade school, I headed to a far-left college and took a class in LGBT studies. The material was steeped in conjecture and divisiveness. It made the LGBT team seem like the opposite of a community. Unsatisfied, I doubled down on identity-based socializing and joined a campus organization billed as a gay fraternity. I knew it might have religious undertones (American fraternities have a reputation for being like drunken druid temples), but I was eager to find an association that would accept me. Not only did the idea of a brotherhood help us gel as a group, it also felt comforting to be seen as sufficiently masculine. Whatever I was, I was masculine enough. I was a man. And a bit of femininity here and there was okay too.
The fraternity wasn’t perfect. But we found brotherhood in having all been punished for the same secret, the same sin. For my whole life, neither honesty nor silence was enough. I could stomach a bit of quirky mysticism and partisanship if it meant that I was finally understood. That I finally belonged.
After graduation and a few compulsory years of grunt work, I considered acting as an advisor to the fraternity. As soon as I put my toe in the water, it was clear that changes were in the works. Chief among them was that the new generation had dissolved the word “brother” and replaced it with the word “sibling.” Accepting each other as gay men was no longer the mission. My insecurities flared: was masculinity in a group of gay men so forced that the concept couldn’t survive a single decade of evolution? I assured myself that couldn’t be their intention and made sure to give their fraternal makeover a shot. After all, it was just one change. Not everything in life is a slippery slope.
I tried to see the perspective of the new generation. Many of the brothers in my cohort were “masc muscle gays” – the kind that had been conditioned to compensate for their sexuality by acting extra butch. Perhaps my group dealt with their demons by engineering a kind of strength. I could understand the criticism regarding conformity, and the hope that newcomers might find a way to be kinder to their feminine tendencies. Perhaps I could learn from them.
That said, I couldn’t shake a couple of misgivings. I didn’t fully agree that our sacred binding word “brotherhood” needed to be axed. If they hated the word, they could have made their own organization rather than insist on “fixing” ours. While affirming aspects of who you are can be reassuring, I didn’t see why accepting femininity in yourself meant obscuring or mismatching sex-based words. Couldn’t this affirmation amount to neglecting another part of who you are—your body? Convincing young males to believe they aren’t masculine enough to count as men didn’t sound all that pro-gay.
The novel term “toxic masculinity” was used so rashly and frequently, it wasn’t clear if any masculinity was considered acceptable or laudable at all. Unless masculinity suppresses something valuable, I hesitated to dismiss it as intrinsically evil. Surely there was such a thing as healthy masculinity? A protective, disciplined, stoic mindset that people had valued for millennia?
My fraternity was a slice of the widespread pattern of institutional capture over the last decade. In my opinion, the political left made a simple, tragic mistake. We conflated change with progress, and put too much faith in change. Resisting evolution on any grounds was deemed closed-minded. People started to wrap ideas in identities, then accuse dissidents of having prejudice against loaded identities that formed. Polarized academics stopped recording what worked and what failed. Whistleblowers were expelled and made to feel old-fashioned and out of touch. All of this led to a fundamental question: if you don’t make sure that the reasons behind a change are worthy, then who is to say that the change is wise?
In the end, symbols that were once brave often became warped, tangled tribal markers with baggage.
Initially I put up with a bit of mysticism to help the group gel, but it soon became clear that the fraternity was morphing into a religion. The newest incarnation of gender was less about roles and more about an immutable, indisputable, invisible self. I tried to be open-minded, but it became hard to avoid the conclusion that these new beliefs were stapled to worrisome ideologies and endless group dysfunction.
Almost any form of resilience was toxic masculinity. Giving people the benefit of the doubt was akin to embracing endless microaggressions. Steel-manning was the roadmap to impure compromises. Privileged people were expected to make concessions and show empathy, but these moments only ever cut one way. Eventually I couldn’t even refer to myself or other self-identified men as “brothers” because it traumatized nonbinary people who weren’t being centered. Questions were a form of attack. Arguments had wild swings in context and scope. Tiny decisions took hours. People were denied the right to express their thoughts, and shut down or kicked out for any perceived slight. Authorities were needed to settle the smallest of disputes. Wrong-thinkers were tortured with struggle sessions.
Attempts at expanding world-views were savaged by extremists looking for a taste of authority and a dopamine hit. This was supposed to be about empowering the downtrodden but it was hard to see that explanation as more than a ruse. Perhaps the strangest development was that scrutinizing a favored idea was tantamount to attacking someone’s territory or personhood. Of course I understood being attached to an idea—but how did we reach the point where questioning people is violence? How did this mindset become so pervasive, so quickly, among a class of people who often claim to be atheists? These questions led me down the rabbit hole of history, in which I identified the following threads:
People are drawn to religious tendencies due to what Jonathan Haidt describes as a “Hive Switch.” Through practices like marching, dancing, and finding awe in nature, people can see themselves as part of a team and cooperate in ways that other apes cannot. Haidt identifies drug usage and raves as artificial (and dangerous) ways to flip the hive switch and ascend into this euphoric feeling of being part of something more than human, and more than physical.
Many religions sanctify sex due to the importance of children. They encourage gender roles to instill instructions for cultivating children, to navigate sexual differences, and to enforce norms.
Civil rights and democratic values allowed people to make the case for different rules, with the hope of expanding the scope of certain freedoms.
Norms are under siege from postmodernism, which empties words of meaning and frequently subverts the purpose of whichever institution it captures. Postmodernists struggle with civil methods, because they are allergic to logic and rarely have the numbers when voting blocs are informed. Thus our views of civil rights, gender, sex, and clarity are on the chopping block.
People in the United States traded off their connections to families and communities for the prospect of individual rights and a greater focus on their pursuit for happiness; however, these extra freedoms left some people displeased with the structure of their lives.
Mainstream religion’s decline, rather than removing the spiritualism surrounding sex and culture, left superstitious or group-oriented people with untapped religious tendencies. Cultists like Jim Jones poisoned those who fell into a gullible mindset; many followed in his footsteps.
The internet and social media invigorated the information explosion. Social media became the vehicle where ideas—especially negative ones—spread like fire.
The Postmodernist Prison
In antiquity, Gnostic religions split the Abrahamic divinity into a good (hidden) God and a bad (material) God. The bad material God, or Demiurge, was responsible for hammering out the matter in the universe and trapping souls inside it.
Michel Foucault, in his piece “Discipline and Punish,” describes a carceral system that shifts its focus from punishing bodies to reforming souls. Foucault creates an extended metaphor for how life outside the prison walls is still a cultural prison for the soul, enforced by endless power dynamics.
Judith Butler expands these metaphors in her book “Gender Trouble.” She suggests that every interaction people have–whether at work, with friends, with family, even with strangers–is scripted by power structures that cast you to play the appropriate role. Life is, to her, like being in a play without knowing you are an actor. Until people realize the extent of this, they can’t be trusted, because they become accidental puppets of the director. Interactions with such dormant people are risky, because interaction is an opportunity to categorize people, and any category reinforces the bars of Foucault’s cultural prison. Categories, even as a means of understanding the world, are “violence.”
In Butler’s mind, it is not just that bodies are prisons for the soul. It is also true that corrupted souls become prisons for the body–because once your soul is taught the correct way for your body to look, then your soul will work to get your body to conform. Butler hopes people can see that life is drag–the act of dressing up your body and soul to meet expectations. Once people accept this knowledge, they can then do INTENTIONAL drag in order to subvert norms. Trans identities are the ultimate disruption of categories, and in Butler’s mind, the truest of queer souls.
Naturally, I have a few issues with this approach. For one thing, anyone can make a metaphor and run with it. For instance, I could say that life is like a game you play, because life has a bunch of rules and guidelines that people can opt into in order to enjoy themselves and, in some cases, work as a team. Framing discipline through a conspiratorial, negative light might lead people to believe that nothing is to be gained from self-control, cooperation, or weighing different approaches to the game.
Yet if we humor the notion that the body is a prison for the soul, Butler’s solution is still terrible. Let’s say someone tried to escape a real prison by doing drugs and cutting themselves, immersing themselves in an endless fantasy that they are someone else, somewhere else. Would we punish a fellow inmate who shakes them awake and points out that their fantasy is no true escape?
There are limits to how malleable your body and mind are. Pretending otherwise isn’t liberating. It’s madness. It’s negligent certitude. It’s a religious fundamentalism of a terrifying degree.
How Social Media Changed Us
Social media encourages us to care deeply about how we are perceived. Many posts, responses, and like-counts contribute to a never-ending status game that eclipses a reasoned exploration towards truth. To navigate the game, people end up like politicians. They walk on eggshells to avoid criticism. Or, they say what their base wants to hear and rile up their rivals, because this generates engagement and recruits a protective silo.
There are several ways social media leads people to focus more on self-image:
The game of cultivating and protecting a reputation (while attacking others) is more pronounced.
People create immersive personas, complete with filters, avatars, and tribe-signaling.
Fakery and politicking become cultural norms. In the olden days, we called partisan talking heads “spin teams.” Now all sorts of people are sucked into playing on some kind of spin team.
Online spaces become places of shared ideas, where the ideas themselves are the territories people defend or attack. The evolving gender flags–and their ubiquity–are frequently signifiers of ideological tribes taking precedence over material geography.
The real-world takes a back-seat, especially for those desperate to escape it.
When people immerse themselves in online narratives, they sometimes assume a luxury identity: a self-image and ideology that neglects people who still have to interact in the real world. Rather than reaching some kind of Gnostic “higher plane of existence,” such people dabble in ignorance about how bodies work, disrespecting key biology like sex and sexual dimorphism. They mistake their imagined online paradise for something workable in the real world.
On top of this, rather than thinking of the online silos as fomenting a problematic tribalism, people become addicted to the validation and comradery they receive in their online silo. Then they try to recreate real-world spaces in the image of the (dysfunctional) online communities they mistake for utopia. The fraternity I was in, which christened itself a safe space, was a prime example of that.
At this point, it became clear to me that postmodernists had cobbled together most of what they needed to be a wrecking ball in the Internet Age.
The Gender Silo as a Religion
Self-segregation and poor coping mechanisms sculpted people with short fuses, especially when it came to hearing dissent. On top of this, self-worship was never the humblest of enterprises. These developments together were like a lit match over dry leaves. While I tend not to buy into specific religious beliefs, I try to be forgiving of faith if I believe it leads to a healthy culture, or serves a positive role in people’s lives. But when it comes to this new religion, those key functions are absent.
This religion preys on people’s religious intuitions about the sacredness of sex and gender, while completely divorcing sex and gender from what made them sacred: cultural practices about child-rearing and wisdom regarding sexual dimorphism. As a gay man, I may be inclined to carve out my own path in life — but I don’t see the point of borrowing sacred vestiges from concepts like sex and gender only to shuffle them around in Butler’s queer game. And I certainly don’t think that trans or gay people are mystical, woe-begone groups whose understanding of hardship lends them infinite sacred authority.
My journey through the ages convinced me that modern queer theory had spawned a syncretic religion, which, in a piece-meal fashion, ransacked the religions and traditions of old.
History Reflected Now
When it comes to my old fraternity, I eventually ran out of sentiment. Sure, I got screamed at for liking JK Rowling, and yes, some activists raked me through the coals or wished me dead. But for the most part, it felt more like I faded into obscurity. I slowly stopped taking their calls.
The oddity, through it all, is that despite Judith Butler’s best efforts, I don’t think every aspect of queer theory is completely incomprehensible. It rings true that the moment people know you are gay, the script of your life changes and society casts you in a certain role. I can understand wanting to rebel against culture and religion. If I squint, I can almost see the prison bars.
Yet if we humor the notion that culture and religion can be prisons, then Queer Theory should be seen as the newest Alcatraz. I feel more limited and shut down by its adherents than I ever did by Christians. The new Gnostic Puritans denigrate me more than “toxic” teenagers in high school ever could. Postmodernism was never a recipe for justice. It’s a recipe for petty revenge, extended with reckless tentacles towards scapegoats abjectly irrelevant to the initial grievance. And its methods for flipping the hive switch are downright dangerous.
When there was drama at the fraternity, I noticed that the older cohorts turned to alcohol, and the newer members turned to social media. The poorly kept secret of both groups was that drug-usage was rampant. These coping mechanisms weren’t healthy, despite social pressure to cheer along. Being addicted to social media, and the validation it generates, might be even worse in some ways than an alcohol problem because social media so often recruits philosophical and political viewpoints into the addiction, hardening them. In a political system checked and balanced by viewpoint diversity, conditioning people to stamp out dissent is not something to be celebrated.
After a while, some people became addicted to the hive switch itself–they itched to feel a spiritual ascension beyond normal life. The trouble is, if addiction goes unchecked, it slowly kills the body rather than offering a real escape.
Fragments of the Truth
I might accept the premise that each person has only a sliver of knowledge. But queer theorists are very particular about how folks expand their knowledge. For instance, when parents complain about the degree to which identity is pummeled into their kids through school and the media, queer theorists recruit lobbyists to muck up the dialogue with endless gaslighting. Rather than feeling guilty about lying, queer theorists can chalk this up to creating their own truth and becoming the Demiurge — they have, in their eyes, seized the hammer that builds culture. To them, the greater cause of rearranging power dynamics trumps the truths that give your enemies arguments. In the same vein, queer theorists have no qualms about cancelling or destroying evidence that goes against the message.
They’ve mastered the art of preying on empathy. They know how to hold adversaries to standards of discipline while displaying no similar level of restraint. Making examples of wrong-thinkers like JK Rowling and Kathleen Stock is a prized intimidation tactic. Like the struggle sessions in Maoist China, postmodernists have learned how to weaponize historical power dynamics in order to scare people into not acknowledging the power dynamics right in front of their face. And rather than freeing people from categories or oppression, they double down on both in order to create power structures of their own.
My preference would be for my homosexuality to become an attribute, like my height or eye color, that is neither a source of shame nor of too much significance. But forces today would rather make these attributes the basis of identity groups with crucial importance. At the same time, we are to believe that self-ID escapes the oppression of categories, despite the fact that it strengthens a stereotype-riddled strain of those categories. People aren’t escaping what they are; they are deserting a world with clear language descriptors of what they are. Underlying reality remains stubbornly intact. And if someone is mistreated on the basis of their sexed body, it hardly helps to have discussion on the topic impaired. Yet mentioning the taboo of female experience brings exalted folks down from their high of transcending bodily form.
If Gnostics posit that the goal of life is to expand our limited knowledge, how can people expect to do this while their postmodernist cousins endlessly bulldoze what words mean? Surely it is difficult to expand knowledge without clear words?
I was led down this journey through history because I felt there must be some puzzle piece about the human condition that I had missed. It seemed unthinkable that modern people would squander a golden opening to be a generation of intellectually humble scientific thinkers. Why would we fill in that potential with mandatory quasi-religions? And how did these beliefs pop out of nowhere so fast?
Ah, but there’s the rub. These beliefs weren't out of nowhere. We are dealing with a belief system that targets something fundamental built into us. Gnosticism reminds us that we are thrust into the situation of having a brain and a body and a culture, and life is the act of steering this peculiar combination. Many of us put our faith in a social hive to understand this combination, but deep down, we don’t know for sure if there is a divine plan.
We are, in a word, human. And if there is hope of reaching across divides and building something that works, we must revive material truth, but also acknowledge the social and religious intuitions ingrained in us. We must learn to work through our tribal minds and acknowledge we often fall back to Earth.
What will we seek to change in ourselves, and what will we finally accept? As we grapple with those questions, the future of humanity hangs in the balance.
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