Capitalizing on Stolen Childhood


By Donovan Cleckley

Illustration by Stella Perrett (Radical Cartoons)


You have seized, in the name of God, the

Child’s crust from famine’s dole;

You have taken the price of its body

And sung a mass for its soul!

-Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Gods and the People” (1897)


Children figure most curiously into politics and religion, filling the role of canvases for others’ desires rather than anything truly of their self-determination. A child learns that she or he cannot exist without existing for somebody else, finding herself or himself denied being in a fundamental way. In her 2012 book Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl observes that adults subject children to fantasy and fiction. “In narcissistic childism,” she writes, “children are blank pieces of paper on which an adult’s story is written.” They become more doll than human, more artificial than authentic in the search of “the true self” by way of aesthetics. The child becomes one who desperately seeks the validation of identity from those around her or him, lacking a sense of self. The body and mind become used to “being” in nonbeing—and the child feels lost, with childhood stolen.


The concept of “transcendence” by social and medical transition certainly seems well-marketed to an extreme degree—and increasingly seductive to children. Jennifer Bilek observes that the commercialization around the practice of transitioning amounts to “the glamorization of body dissociation.” The rise in young people effectively disabling themselves and removing healthy body parts coincides with the industry and its technology. But the melody has been one played long before. We may think of Robert Browning’s 1842 poem “The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a Child’s Story,” in which he dramatizes the folktale involving the Pied Piper. In short, the children of Hamelin become the payment to the piper, entranced and following his song “with shouting and laughter.”


In her recent investigative work for Reduxx, Genevieve Gluck has written about how the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH) has included the category of “eunuch” among potential “gender identities.” Gluck has explored the historical background involving the castration of children for adults—mostly a cultural practice serving male sexuality. Gluck discusses Laura Engelstein’s 1999 book Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom in which Engelstein writes of the Skoptsy. Having emerged in the 1760s from the flagellants, the Skoptsy drew their inspiration from the Bible, particularly Matthew 19:12, which reads:


For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.


Led by men regarded as “sacred” and served by its most devout women, this religious cult subjected human beings to “fiery baptisms,” which involved mutilating genitalia and, for women, removing breasts. The drive to be dismembered originated in a fundamental hatred of the body’s sex and sexuality, made subordinate to religious identity. It became illustrative of the triumph over the flesh, thereby allowing “transcendence” from nature, or imperfection, toward “holiness”—perfection. Previously, Bilek had drawn startling parallels between Kondratiy Ivanovich Selivanov, a founder of the Skoptsy sect, and Martine Rothblatt, an instrumental figure in the legal institutionalization of “gender identity.”


A moment from Engelstein’s 1997 essay “From Heresy to Harm: Self-Castrators in the Civic Discourse of Late Tsarist Russia” seems especially applicable to the dynamic of the Pied Piper. On the children involved with the Skoptsy, Engelstein writes:


There are also many examples of children being put to the knife, sometimes by relatives who adopted the faith. Children also came into contact with the Skoptsy after being hired from their parents to work as apprentices and servants. Once among the sectarians, the children were raised in the spirit of the creed and allegedly kept from contact with their families. When questioned in court, almost all said they had sought castration of their own free will, as the road to salvation.


The separation of children from their families had been to effectively control them. It remains so today. A difference between then and now, however, is the industrialization, which has given a greater power to what originally had been an isolated cult practice. Social media has been another critical development in the mainstreaming of today’s more technological ideology of castration. With both profit and propaganda, the old dynamic has been radically magnified in new ways. Techno-idolatry, which I have previously discussed, has replaced, in a secular form, the original religious justification.


When Stella Perrett sent me the illustration to accompany this essay, she brilliantly noted that, in the traditional folktale, the children do not meet a cruel fate. They are neither maimed nor murdered. Rather, as Perrett wrote, they “ended up re-emerging in a neighboring country and starting a new village, but with no memories of where they came from.” However, she added, “in our dystopia,” as we may well see it, the same good fortune will not be ours. “Very few,” Perrett wrote, “will re-emerge, and none without damage.”


Far more than childhood will have been cruelly stolen, for the harm done to the body will remain long after the song of transcendence has grown hollow and, then, ended in silence. Victims will soon become survivors, advocating for better care, demanding more ethical treatment, not only for themselves but also for others. But, for so many, it will be much too late—that I know. Let us recall a line from Blake’s 1794 poem “A Little Boy Lost”: “The weeping parents wept in vain.”


“In war, children are stolen,” Hawthorne writes in her 2020 book Vortex: The Crisis of Patriarchy. “Colonisation results in the theft of children and their acculturation to the colonising culture.” This ideology, she argues, appears present in the kind of deified technology seizing children under transgenderism. Hawthorne writes:


Children caught in this neoliberal cultural revolution underpinned by queer theory, lose not only their past (interrupted by massive numbers of medical and psychological appointments which makes them medically dependent for life) but also their future.


And, no, the new theft of children is not even remotely like teenagers aging into young adulthood and coming out as lesbian and gay, usually after years of feeling different from peers. First and foremost, homosexuality does not involve becoming a lifelong medical patient. The analogy between being homosexual and being medicalized for so-called “gender dysphoria” always has been false. How the clear and present difference has not been obvious has illustrated the power of forced teaming.


In fact, the early gay liberation movement opposed precisely this kind of pseudo-religious and pseudo-scientific regime that, in the guise of psychiatry, largely targeted homosexual nonconformity to sex-role stereotyping. However, medical violence has become increasingly mainstreamed, for great profit, now sold to the masses as “mental health care” and “suicide prevention.” But we must object buying into the straight lie that makes our bodies into commodities. The industry merely wants to make capital from our very flesh and discard us when there remains nothing left to be harvested.


There will be those of us who perpetrated, collaborated, witnessed, and, most vitally, protested this medical violence. Unlike in the folktale, where every child forgot, remembrance will be a haunting thing for society’s new child—and for us all.



Donovan Cleckley holds a BA in English and Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Montevallo and an MA in English from Tulane University. His research focuses on the relationship between women’s rights and gay rights, literature and sexual politics, and the social and political implications of transgenderism as an ideology, an industry, and an institution. Learn more about his work at https://donovancleckley.com. Here is the PayPal link: https://www.paypal.com/paypalme/donovancleckley

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