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The Search to Explain Our Anxiety and Depression: Will ‘Long COVID’ Become the Next Gender Ideology?

The Search to Explain Our Anxiety and Depression: Will ‘Long COVID’ Become the Next Gender Ideology?

In December, I wrote a detailed report for Quillette about the race-based social panic that had recently erupted at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. One of the reasons why the meltdown seemed so surreal, I noted, is that this elite school appears to the outside world as picturesque and serene. The average annual cost of attendance is about US$76,000. And most of these students live extremely privileged lives, insulated (physically and otherwise) from what any normal person would regard as suffering. Nor is there much in the way of substantive political discord on campus. According to survey results released in late 2019, 79 percent of Haverford students self-identify as politically liberal, while only 3.5 percent self-identify as conservative. It’s as close to an ideological monoculture as you can find outside of a monastery or cult. On paper, it resembles one of those utopian micro-societies conceived by science-fiction writers or 19th-century social theorists.

The survey results I’m alluding to originate with Haverford’s “Clearness Committee,” an excellent resource for anyone seeking to understand the attitudes of students at hyper-progressive schools. The most recent Clearness survey, completed by more than two-thirds of Haverford students in 2019, contained 133 survey questions pertaining to everything from how much students sleep, to how many friends they have, to how they feel about campus jocks. There is also a substantial section dedicated to the theme of “marginalization.” Amazingly, 43 percent of respondents said they felt personally marginalized on campus because of some aspect of their identity. This included 61 percent of gay students, and more than 90 percent of trans students.

This is an odd-seeming result given the sheer number of LGBT individuals on Haverford’s campus. No fewer than 31 percent of student respondents identified themselves as something other than straight. In regard to gender, almost six percent self-identified as trans or some variant of non-binary. Both of these percentages exceed the overall American average by an order of decimal magnitude. Despite having only about 1,300 students (smaller than many public high schools), Haverford has a resource center for LGBT students, a pro-LGBT hiring policy, an LGBT studies program, dedicated LGBT living arrangements, a health insurance policy that covers hormone replacement therapy, and numerous other resources. Outside of other similarly liberal campuses, it is hard to imagine a more welcoming environment for LGBT youth anywhere on the planet.

It’s also telling that self-reported marginalization rates for Haverford’s gay students are almost identical to those for self-described bisexuals (62 percent) and asexuals (59 percent); and that the rate for students who self-identify under the loose category of “non-binary” (89 percent) is almost identical to the rate for students who, being trans, experience actual gender dysphoria (91 percent). The report authors conclude that there is “a series of immediate crises facing Haverford’s transgender population.” Yet despite the abundant write-in information supplied by surveyed students, no real evidence of these crises appears. What we get instead are vague testimonials about perceived attitudes and atmosphere. (“As a nonbinary person, athletics is inherently exclusive because it is gendered. We need to put that phrase to rest and start talking about the real divisions on campus—such as who feels comfortable going to parties hosted by athletes and who doesn’t.”) Even amidst the melodramatic throes of last year’s student strike, at a time when every imaginable identity-based grievance was described in lengthy student manifestos, no one could point to a single recent incident of real homophobia or transphobia targeting Haverford students.

One survey question asked students how they felt about getting a bad grade. “Transgender students picked ‘ashamed’ and ‘discouraged’ at much higher rates than those who identified as cisgender,” the report authors wrote. Haverford’s trans students also reported lower self-esteem more generally, smoking more than other students, taking more drugs, and having more mental-health problems. Trans students also apparently get very little exercise: The report concludes that they “hardly use the [athletic center] at all compared with cisgender students.” In short, these students are anxious and depressed.

If Haverford didn’t offer such a laudably supportive environment, it might be reasonable to assume that this “crisis” were rooted in the discriminatory atttiudes of staff and gender-conforming students. But given Haverford’s hyper-progressive politics, the high representation of LGBT students among the student body, and the impressive gamut of institutional resources offered to these students, it’s reasonable to ask whether the arrow of causation points in the opposite direction: The fixation on identity-based victimhood serves as a means to explain or deflect pre-existing personal emotions. Observed anxiety levels in American children and youth have been going up for decades, even as their material circumstances have improved. For students from wealthy families who attend elite schools that now cater to every imaginable need and desire, abstract theories of gender now serve as one of the only avenues available to externalize negative emotions as a manifestation of outward oppression, ignorance, or bigotry.

Some critics of gender theory have dismissed the movement as an ersatz religion, since it relies on the unfalsifiable, faith-based proposition that humans are born with a soul-like gender spirit that defines one’s identity. But in an important sense, that analogy is inapt: While a traditional psychological benefit of religious belief is to explain evil and misfortune, gender theory has achieved its greatest popularity in hyper-privileged enclaves such as Haverford, where even activists typically can’t identify sources of alleged trauma that aren’t purely symbolic. (And even here, the evidence is scant: The word “misgendering” doesn’t appear once in the Clearness report. Instead, the authors repeat vague claims of “insensitivity” in classroom discussion.)

For years now, highly LGBT-supportive schools such as Haverford have been running what is, in effect, a long-term experiment to discover the source of ennui among gender-diverse individuals. What we’ve discovered is that the problem these students face isn’t explaining actual evil. The problem they face is finding a way to make sense of their (very real) anxiety and depression within wealthy, highly tolerant milieus from which evil has been almost entirely banished.

Every movement waxes and wanes. And it’s possible that the popularity of gender ideology already is in decline. But the psychological appetites that this movement has served aren’t going away. Absent some revolution in psychiatry, destabilizing emotional traumas are always going to be part of adolescence and young adulthood. It’s simply the way humans are wired. And these processes will inevitably have a political aspect, especially in the age of social media: As every parent (and self-aware teenager) knows, anger and self-pity are more psychologically manageable responses to emotional tumult than candid self-examination.

It’s important, as always, to emphasize that gender dysphoria has long been recognized as a real condition that afflicts a small portion of the population. What I’m describing here is an act of extrapolation, not of pure invention, whereby the existence of a legitimate diagnosis is co-opted by larger and larger portions of society. The same kind of trend has been going on in regard to homosexuality (which, to state the obvious, is also a very real phenomenon): To be gay (or bisexual) once had a fairly specific meaning in regard to one’s sexual tastes and behaviour. But teenagers now are encouraged to sort themselves into an ever-expanding typology of (often gauzily described) queer sub-variants—from allosexual (a type of asexuality) to skoliosexual (“a sexual orientation that describes those who are sexually attracted to people with non-cisgender gender identities, such as people who are non-binary, genderqueer, or trans”). As in the latter case, these sexual identities sometimes mesh in complicated ways with gender identity—even though, as Angus Fox has described in his ongoing When Sons Become Daughters series for Quillette, many self-identified trans youth retreat to gender ideology precisely as a means of escaping (or at least delaying) the sexual changes and impulses associated with post-pubescent development.

One could even extend this pattern to the question of race. Every reasonable person will acknowledge that racism is a real phenomenon, and that the distinction between white and non-white can have concrete (and sometimes tragic) consequences for people who are victims of bigotry in Western societies. But out of this fact has sprung fanciful lexicons and hierarchies that purport to rank and encode fine racial distinctions, often (some might say, especially) in the case of privileged individuals who can’t explain how racism has affected their lives except by reference to abstract (and unfalsifiable) theories that cast the problem as an invisible, systemic malignancy generated by white people.

Another interesting point of comparison is the subclass of medical ailments known as “contested illnesses”—conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), multiple chemical sensitivities, and chronic Lyme disease, which don’t seem exist except as a sort of crowdsourced belief system among individuals who claim to be afflicted. While none of these movements have attained anything close to the political and academic prominence of gender theory, their most politically engaged proponents echo the now-familiar idea that their problems can be traced to an outwardly undetectable condition whose denial generates its own separate form of suffering.

In the case of COVID-19, much attention has been focused on conspiracy theorists and lay quacks who claim the disease is a fraud. But there is also a pseudo-scientific movement that seeks to present its adherents as sufferers of a condition they call “Long COVID.”

As McMaster University psychiatrist Jeremy Devine recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, some COVID-19 patients really do experience long-term effects that linger after the infection has left their body. But he adds that “such symptoms can also be psychologically generated or caused by a physical illness unrelated to the prior infection.” Moreover, he notes that a survey produced by Body Politic Covid-19 Support Group, a prominent driver of the Long COVID idea, indicates that “many of the survey respondents who attributed their symptoms to the aftermath of a COVID-19 infection likely never had the virus in the first place. Of those who self-identified as having persistent symptoms attributed to COVID and responded to the first survey, not even a quarter had tested positive for the virus. Nearly half (47.8%) never had testing and 27.5% tested negative for COVID-19. Body Politic publicized the results of a larger, second survey in December 2020. Of the 3,762 respondents, a mere 600, or 15.9%, had tested positive for the virus at any time.”

Echoing the idea of “self-identification” as the gold standard of gender identity, the Long COVID survey authors brushed aside these facts, arguing that “future research must consider the experience of all people with COVID-19 symptoms, regardless of testing status.” In this way, Long COVID also sounds a lot like chronic fatigue syndrome. In 2016, Devine himself, then a medical student, reported on a CFS conference where many attendees “never had a Lyme infection in the first place. Those who explained away a negative Canadian test result often did so with a positive one from for-profit U.S. labs—so-called ‘Lyme speciality laboratories’—that offer testing with very high false positive rates.”

In his WSJ article, Levine reports on another interesting connection: Body Politic, which had organized the surveys as a means to promote the idea of Long COVID as a real medical phenomenon, describes itself as “a queer feminist wellness collective.” The group was created in 2018, according to its website, “to create space for inclusivity, accessibility, and crucial discussions about the very real connection between wellness, politics, and personal identity.” Given this, readers may not be surprised at all to learn that the group’s programming “has been highly successful with a millennial and Gen Z audience, largely comprised of women and LGBTQ+ identifying folks.”

“At our core,” Body Politic tells us, “we work to serve marginalized communities and groups that have typically been left out of the wellness conversation.” But will happen to rarefied subcultures, such as at Haverford College, where the word “marginalized” now can cover just about everyone. According to the latest Clearness report, the percentage of students who say they have a “marginalized identity” now exceeds 60 percent. In some cases, no doubt, there is a real, and perhaps even poignant, autobiographical basis for this form of self-identification. But otherwise, we are left with a whole population of rich, pampered students looking for some kind of ideological framework that will help them weave a meaningful narrative out of the necessarily wrenching emotions associated with growing up.

During their school years, when hormone levels run high, it is natural that these constructed narratives should center on questions of sex and gender, and take performative expression through clothing, hair, social-media postures, and avant-garde language. But once this generation grows up and stops focusing as much on pronouns and hashtags, they will have new forms of pain to deal with. Long COVID is just the latest example of the sort of idea that will become popular among this generation—and it certainly won’t be the last.


Jonathan Kay is an Editor of Quillette. He tweets at @jonkay.

Featured Image: An image from the video “Achieving a NONBINARY look with TOP SURGERY,” posted by Gender Confirmation Center.