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New age wellness takes a reactionary turn

The natural health movement is being consumed by trans panics and related conspiracy theories.

Kate Shemirani addressed a crowd in London's Trafalgar Square in 2020.Salim Fadhley via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

In honor of Mother’s Day, antivax activist and former nurse Kate Shemirani tweeted a picture of a young mother breastfeeding her infant. The composition was straight out of a Laura Ashley catalog, complete with straw hat, flowing linen, and a field of baby’s breath in the meadow behind her.

But the caption was thorny.

“A biological female feeding her baby,” she tweeted to 37,000 followers. “With the milk that is exactly right. Feed your body wisely with organic food, limit your exposure to toxins in the environment including personal care products and stay away from big Pharma. The child will grow healthy.”

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It wasn’t the first time Shemirani — who was expelled from the UK’s Nursing and Midwifery Council in 2021 for claiming that COVID was caused by 5G technology and that “nurses were complicit in genocide” for administering vaccinations — blended antivax rhetoric with a trans panic dog whistle. And since Mother’s Day, she’s continued her anti-trans posting, calling doctors providing gender care “barbaric” and the United Nations and World Health Organization “Satanic” for “sexualizing children.”

Sherimani is one of many COVID dissident influencers who are heading for a new front in the culture war now that the pandemic is receding into the past. Activist networks that fought social distancing, masking, and vaccines are adrift, and their anxieties about bodily identity, choice, and medical care need a new target. Trans medicine checks all the outrage boxes. And it may grant COVID dissidents, through bathroom laws and library purges, the political triumph they sought against lockdowns.

For Sherimani and other conspiracy theorists, moving from vaccine skepticism to transphobic dread lets them keep their focus on saving innocent children from supposedly amoral doctors. They can blow past the nuanced complexities around youth health care and women’s sports with spiritualized culture war battle cries for what they see as a back-to-nature crusade. They can merge their metaphor of “vaccination as rape” with age-old anxieties about medical interference and sexual deviancy.

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There may also be a visceral conflation at play. It’s common in the antivax world to claim that a vaccine will change one’s DNA. This might intersect with a fear of what trans medicine does: that it changes something thought to be essential or God-given about a person.

“If antivaxxers are dubious of a few shots against a deadly virus,” says author and artist Beau Brink, who researches online anti-trans misinformation, “they’d be horrified at the thought of trans people injecting ourselves with hormones to treat a condition they’re not convinced exists.”

Sherimani’s world of Twitter trolling, bullhorn rallies, and sermons against Satan is extreme. A more genteel version of the natural-health-to-antitrans pipeline shows up on Instagram, the home of what religious extremism researcher Marc-André Argentino calls “Pastel QAnon,” where women wellness influencers disguise their conspiracy theory content with soft-hued visuals and affiliate links to self-care products. In the summer of 2020, this was the demographic that became a vector for the QAnon-adjacent #savethechildren movement, provoked by the outlandish rumor that the Wayfair furniture company was selling and shipping children in office cabinets.

Some of these “QAmom” influencers see themselves as seasoned veterans in a battle against a delusional medical industry that overmedicates and infantilizes women. Their time in the trenches, they say, trained them to reject what they see as “gaslighting” by “trans ideology.”

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Yolande Norris-Clark, who advocates for “freebirthing” — in which women seek the ecstasy of non-medicalized birth, sometimes alone and in the wilderness — boosted her engagement during the pandemic by declaring that masks were a form of “abuse” and vaccinations were “perverse and by promoting “The Secret Covenant,” a contemporary rehash of the antisemitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” These days, “the entire gender ideology movement is in a way a conspiracy,” as she put it in a discussion with anti-trans activist and hypnotist Isabella Malbin. “It’s a manufactured ideology by the pharmaceutical drug cartels. And so I see Rona very similarly.” Malbin — who says she was expelled from a doula training for refusing to use trans-inclusive language — nodded grimly as Norris-Clark went on to explain that it was necessary for people to be tricked into believing that trans people were possible before they could be convinced that COVID was real.

For those who associate alternative health with chia seeds, crystals, and counterculture vibes, it’s disorienting to encounter blatant reactionary politics. But beneath their algorithmic charisma, today’s wellness influencers are tapping deep historical springs of anti-queer sentiment. The wellness industry, after all, has its roots in old European forms of physical culture that developed to serve fascist ideals of purity and order. The potions and practices sold by influencers today echo the organic fascinations of blood-and-soil nationalists and the fears of “racial suicide” spread by figures like Eugen Sandow, the world’s first body-building influencer, who stressed that whites of the Global North would be outreproduced by Black and brown people who had retained their vitality through physical labor.

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Dr. Christiane Northrup, a grand dame of alternative obstetrics, earned a spot on the Centre for Countering Digital Hate’s “Disinformation Dozen” list for pumping out antivax propaganda during the pandemic. As COVID receded, she retreated from her Pastel Q “Great Awakening” video series on Facebook and now posts anti-trans content from Steve Bannon on Telegram.

Fellow Dozener Dr. Kelly Brogan, a Miami-based former psychiatrist, opts for a softer approach in her post-pandemic content, sharing a post on Telegram from a New Age doula who rejects the adoption of gender-inclusive language in midwifery. “As creators of life,” says the post, “we hold a power that is irreplaceable. Between our legs is a portal that brings souls onto this earthly plane. These gifts and rights are as unique, but distinct, as the power of the male sex to provide the seed of life.”

Brogan’s ex-husband, Sayer Ji — yet another Dozener — leans harder into grotesque propaganda, using his GreenMedInfo alternative health research site (1 million visitors per month) to lie outright about gender-affirming care in North Carolina. In an essay that attempts to exploit complicated issues of youth care, he falsely claims that doctors at Duke and UNC Health are “targeting toddlers as young as 2 years of age for surgical sex changes, hormone blockers, and sterilization.”

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Sexual purity, vitality, and orderliness have always been top concerns for Nazis and their inheritors. That explains why Tucker Carlson advised men to boost their testosterone levels by tanning their testicles, why the Proud Boys urge men to retain their semen by resisting masturbation, and why Kate Shemirani posts about how bananas and walnuts can raise sperm counts.

Together, they echo the years of heirloom gardening, vegetarian cookbooks, and spiritualized gymnastics that invigorated the cadre of brownshirts who stormed the first gender care clinic in Berlin in 1933 and burned its library.

“Trans people and wellness enthusiasts do have something in common — to make our own decisions about our medical care without strangers intruding on them,” says Beau Brink. “But there’s an element of hypocrisy in some wellness circles. As much as they have the right to make sovereign choices about their health, trans people want the right to make personal choices about medical care — without paternalistic interference from conservatives or the wellness community.”

Derek Beres, Matthew Remski, and Julian Walker are the authors of the new book “Conspirituality: How New Age Conspiracy Theories Became a Health Threat” and cohosts of the Conspirituality podcast.