The Assault on Children’s Psyches
California’s ethnic-studies curriculum is fueling a mental-health crisis among teenagers.
Patricia (a pseudonym) is the mother of a teenage girl who in recent years has come to identify as transgender. She lives in California, considers herself progressive, votes Democrat, and leads a group for parents of children with rapid onset gender dysphoria (ROGD)—that is, youth who suddenly experience distress with their bodies and believe that undergoing medical “transition” will make them whole again. When I spoke to her recently, she recounted how her daughter’s at-first-lesbian and then trans identity emerged in response to feelings of shame about being white.
I have since spoken to more than a dozen ROGD parents and parent-group leaders who tell a similar story. Their schools compulsively tell their children how awful it is to be white, how white people enjoy unearned “privilege,” how they benefit from “systems” put in place by and for white people for the sole purpose of oppressing “people of color.” Plagued by guilt, the children—almost all of them girls—rush to the sanctuary of “LGBTQ+” identity. Once there, they are catapulted into hero status. According to Patricia, some teachers at her daughter’s school are more forgiving toward “queer” and “trans” kids who hand in their homework late.
The students, especially the girls, absorb this messaging. They are acutely sensitive to how identity affects their social status and academic fortunes. They want the warmth that comes with queer/trans identity, but above all they don’t want to be thought of as vicious oppressors. Lacking maturity and self-confidence, they fail to put “anti-racist” indoctrination in its proper context. They do not appreciate its ahistorical, anti-intellectual, and anti-humanist foundations, nor are they aware of the incentives leading teachers and administrators to foist it on them. Being white is not something these teenagers can escape, but they can mitigate its social costs by declaring themselves part of an oppressed group.
The wages of whiteness for teenagers are, however, only half of the story. Decades of gay rights activism have taught us that being gay or lesbian is not something one chooses. The mainstream narrative of transgenderism—promoted aggressively in the context of civil rights policymaking—holds that even being transgender is something people have little control over. Gender identity, experts have argued in Title IX lawsuits, is innate, immutable, and “primarily dictated by messages from the brain.” Thus, membership in the “LGBTQ+ community” would seem to be nonvoluntary. One is either “born that way” or not.
To understand what is going on in California and in other states, however, it is necessary to appreciate how the grounds for eligibility in this “community” have shifted in recent years. While both homosexuality and—depending on how you define it—transgenderism are said to be organic and unchosen, being “queer” or “non-binary” (or, again, “trans,” depending on definition) takes nothing more than an act of will; one need only declare oneself so. As a college lecturer, I had students—virtually all of them white females—who had female names, female pronouns, and a female-typical look, but who self-identified as “queer.” For many of these young women, being queer can mean simply not seeing themselves reflected in the most two-dimensional stereotypes of femininity. And who can blame them?
Several of the parents I spoke to told me that their daughters’ friends all identify as non-heterosexual, despite none having ever kissed another teenager or been in a romantic relationship. LGBT identity is, for them, not related to sexual attraction or behavior. As Kate Julian has written in The Atlantic, America is going through a “sex recession.” Whereas in 1991, most teenagers would have had at least one sexual encounter by the time they graduated high school, by 2017 most had had none. The vacuum left by the hollowing out of courting and relationships has been filled, so it would seem, by a new, inward form of “sexuality” in which the sexual side of our nature is purely a private experience. The 1960s sexual-liberation movement has somehow bred asexual atomism.
The vacuum has also been filled by pornography—and lots of it. Most of the parents I spoke to made a point of emphasizing just how much porn their kids were being bombarded with, how some of it was coming from adults in online forums (not just from peers), and how this started right around the time their daughters “came out” as trans. As Patricia put it to me, if you’re a teenage girl at the cusp of puberty, flooded with hormones, insecure in your changing body, and anxious about sex, being relentlessly exposed to pornographic content where women are depicted as male playthings can easily lead to declaring yourself lesbian or trans—or even opting out of the enterprise altogether.
A recent study by Eric Kaufmann confirms the new meaning of LGBT among young Americans. “Whereas in 2008 attitudes and behavior were similar,” he writes, “by 2021 LGBT identification was running at twice the rate of LGBT sexual behavior.” The recent explosion in LGBT identification among Generation Z seems to be driven mainly by young, white, very liberal women who self-identify as lesbian or bisexual but who do not necessarily have female partners. LGBT identity has become divorced from sexual behavior or erotic feeling, allowing anyone to belong on the basis of little more than a generalized dissatisfaction with contemporary sexual mores.
If Kaufman is right that LGBT identity is increasingly an expression of a more general left-wing politics, then it would be unsurprising to learn that progressive messaging about the prevalence of “white supremacy” is fueling trans identification within one of society’s most impressionable demographics. Josie and Devon (pseudonyms), two parents who lead the online support group Parents with Inconvenient Truths about Trans (PITT), told me how their sons’ exposure to gender-identity ideology in school was preceded by a prolonged “Marxist” analysis of American history.
Another option available to girls who wish to escape or at least mitigate their status as oppressors is to have a diagnosed mental-health problem—especially ADHD, multiple-personality disorder, gender dysphoria, depression, or anxiety. Patricia said that it is not uncommon for teenage girls in her daughter’s community to one-up one another constantly based on who has more (or more severe) diagnoses. Data compiled over the past decade show a huge upsurge in mental-health problems in youth of both sexes but especially among teenage girls and young women.
Much of the objectionable “anti-racist” curricula we see today in public schools has trickled down from schools of education, which have become centers for leftist indoctrination. Teachers hoping to immerse children as young as six in what Paulo Freire called “the pedagogy of the oppressed” is, of course, nothing new. Yet until 2020 or so, teachers who subscribed to this view of education might have been reluctant to implement its core principles in ways that would draw criticism from parents, school boards, and risk-averse administrators. Then George Floyd happened, and the “critical pedagogy” movement went into overdrive. The political environment made it dangerous for school administrators to seem neutral even toward radical forms of “anti-racist” curricula. The institutionalization of critical pedagogy was now a non-negotiable imperative, sanctified by the martyr of Minneapolis.
California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) seeks to integrate the principles of critical race theory into all aspects of school life, especially classroom instruction. ESMC is, to put it bluntly, an effort to codify Paulo Freire and pressure reluctant teachers and administrators into implementing his methods. It instructs teachers to “decolonize” their classrooms by bringing to the fore the perspectives, or “lived experiences,” of the oppressed. (“Lived experience” is a term that comes from existentialism and implies a revolt against scientific objectivity, but DEI trainers in schools tend to use it more as a form of epistemic affirmative action, implying—inconsistently—that there is no truth but also that the victim’s perspective is an objective and inarguable fact.) ESMC’s architects see themselves as disciples not of the liberal universalism of the Martin Luther King, Jr. but of the illiberal identitarianism of Malcolm X. As the preface to ESMC states, “the People of Color Power movements that emerged in the 1960s,” including the Black Power movement, “are the movements that Ethnic Studies rose from.”
No less troubling than ESMC’s obsession with foisting the lens of race on children is the lengths that teachers and administrators will go to in order to conceal their activities from parents. Gaslighting and outright lies are not uncommon, but more frequently, ESMC’s promoters bury its controversial elements under pleasant abstractions and impenetrable bureaucratic jargon. A presentation given by the Glendale Unified School District to a group of parents who expressed concerns over the use of critical pedagogies in the classroom demonstrates these tactics. According to one of the slides presented at the meeting, “the concept of ‘Critical Race Theory’ is not explicitly taught to students, but the ideas guide the work of anti-bias education.” The word “critical” in critical race theory, the presentation goes on to explain, means “critical thinking.” Thus, what the parents are really objecting to, according to GUSD, is teachers helping students develop “critical thinking” skills.
To be sure, schools would prefer that parents not interfere with curricular matters in the first place. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” declared Virginia’s Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe (a statement that would subsequently cost him reelection). To keep “hostile” parents at bay, the best thing public schools can do is hide critical pedagogy under seemingly innocuous bureaucratic titles like “culturally responsive teaching” and “The Teaching and Learning Department.” Any parent who wishes to challenge current practices must first spend a considerable amount of time digging through this bureaucratic muddle. The information asymmetry between parents and school personnel, I learned from speaking to parent-group leaders, is one of the main reasons concerned parents don’t speak up.
Once a child embraces a new “LGBTQ+” identity, her parents will find themselves powerless to stop what can easily become a swift decline in her mental and physical health. Her school, in addition to fueling her desire to escape “white cis” status, is almost guaranteed to have “affirming” and “inclusive” policies, meaning that it will unquestioningly use her preferred name and pronouns and, in many cases, hide that information from her “unsupportive” parents. An adult at Josie’s school encouraged her son to leave home and take up shelter at an LGBT center. Examples of teachers actively coaching students on how to “socially transition” without arousing suspicion at home, even providing them with chest binders, are not unheard-of. While this may not have the pedophilic connotations of “grooming,” it comes close in its deep antipathy for parental authority and its unilateral usurpation of parental responsibility for sexual education.
In April, parents at GUSD intercepted a private email exchange between top-level administrators after a teacher asked for guidance on how to teach LGBT content to third-graders. Craig Lewis, then in charge of the district’s “Restorative Practices & Positive Behavior Intervention and Support,” wrote that the district must “teach that LGBTQ+ is everybody” and that “we are all probably best described as queer.” According to Jo (a pseudonym), who is fighting for school transparency in the district, parents protested against critical pedagogy indoctrination at a school board meeting, but teachers’ union representatives went around the room videotaping those who spoke out, plainly hoping to intimidate them into silence. A number of parents filed Public Records Act requests to see what was being taught and said to their children at school. To the extent school authorities responded at all, they did so with evasion and gaslighting.
The medical establishment is no less stacked against parents than the educational establishment. In 2012, California became the first state to ban “conversion therapy.” The evidence cited in support of the law came from research on using psychotherapy to get same-sex attracted people to become opposite-sex attracted. It concluded that it was not possible to “convert” gays and lesbians to heterosexuality, and that efforts to do so were extremely harmful. But the state law smuggled in the concept of “gender identity,” implying that that same body of research also applies to efforts to help youth with distress associated with their bodies to feel comfortable in them. It does not, and no such research exists. In fact, studies done to date strongly suggest that most youth with gender-identity issues will desist on their own or with psychotherapy by adulthood, making the simplistic analogy to sexual orientation highly misleading. In practice, parents of ROGD children in liberal enclaves of California find it virtually impossible to locate a mental-health expert in their area who does not practice “affirming therapy.” Patricia, a well-educated and highly resourceful parent, said that she could not find a single therapist in her area who used exploratory therapy prior to, and as a means of discerning the need for, “affirming” interventions.
California law also makes it very difficult for parents to know about and manage their children’s mental-health struggles. According to state law, as clarified in 2018, minors above age 12 can, under certain conditions, legally consent to “gender affirming” treatments without parental involvement or consent. Thus, if a teenage girl shows up at the clinic of Dr. Diane Ehrensaft—a prominent gender affirmer who believes that kids as young as three know their gender identity; who argues that parents’ concerns about their child’s future fertility are really about their own selfish desire for grandchildren; who dismisses scientific studies when these conflict with her personal experiences; and who has said that transgenderism can be a “cure” for autism—that child’s parents are virtually powerless to stop what is likely to ensue. In response to efforts by Republican-governed states to ban “gender affirming” interventions, Golden State lawmakers have recently proposed a new ordinance that would turn California into a “sanctuary state” for youth seeking medical transition.
What terrifies California parents above all, however, is that openly questioning their child’s trans identity may result in a visit from Child Protective Services. The school itself can call CPS if it believes that a student’s parents are “abusive.” One Bay Area parent recounted how an acquaintance with a ROGD child had to flee the state quietly in order to find non-“affirming” mental-health treatment for her daughter.
Abigail Shrier has reported on how CPS in Washington, Oregon, and California are an ever-looming threat to parents who question gender ideology. In an especially chilling City Journal article on a California child-custody hearing, Shrier describes a parent who believed that his daughter’s “trans” identity might be a passing phase best addressed with compassionate skepticism and emotional support rather than with medication. The father faced a hostile, Kafkaesque legal process presided over by a judge with avowed sympathies for gender ideology (and with a transgender child of her own).
If there was a common emotional denominator to all the parents and parent-group leaders I spoke to, it was an overwhelming sense of despair. There was no one to talk to except other parents facing similar situations, and they couldn’t even do this without an almost paranoid insistence on keeping their true identities under wraps. They knew that they would face vehement denunciations from friends and peers, some of whom have “trans kids” themselves, and almost all of whom are left-of-center. “It destroys your self-confidence as a parent,” one mother said. “Friends will turn on you in a second, stab you in the back to appear progressive to other people.” The scene is reminiscent of a political dystopia in which a police state effectively delegates to citizens the task of keeping watch over one another.
Any effort to bring this mental and physical health crisis to an end will have to account for the soft infrastructure of the gender-identity movement. This means, among other things, acknowledging the deep but often unnoticed connection between “ethnic studies” (and various other iterations of “critical pedagogy”) and “LGBTQ+” identification. Instructed to view their humanity through the distortive lens of “white supremacy,” California’s teen girls are seeking refuge in puberty blockers, testosterone injections, and double mastectomies, while their parents are almost powerless to stop them. These girls are the sacrificial lambs offered up by the high priests of white guilt. The state’s ESMC was obviously not intended to visit disproportionate harm on girls and women, but perhaps the Left should heed the advice of its own prophet, Ibram X. Kendi, that we ought to judge a policy not by its intention but by its effects.
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