Common themes of the detransition phenomenon
After I responded to Helen Joyce’s opinion piece titled “Speaking up for female eunuchs”, I began to read more deeply into the detransition phenomenon. Detransition is the cessation or reversal of a transgender identification or gender transition, whether by social, legal, or medical means. The following quotes reflect common themes of the phenomenon in recent times:
“How could I remove my healthy breasts when I’d seen my mother lose one of hers to cancer?” asks Charlie Evans. Until recently, the science writer from Margate identified as transgender, convinced, along with increasing numbers of young women, that she had been born in the wrong body.”
“In the UK, there was an increase of more than 1,000 percent in the annual rate of natal male children and adolescents seeking specialist gender services from 2009 to 2019, with a 4,400 percent increase among natal female children and adolescents — from 40 in 2009–10 to more than 1,800 a decade later. Similar increases have been noticed in other Western countries… I’m a Philadelphia-based clinician who treats detransitioned individuals. Though my sample size is small, I have seen a number of common themes emerge among clients.
The detransitioners I see in my practice are all female, and they are all in their early twenties. At the time they became trans-identified, many were suffering from complex social and mental health issues. Transition often not only failed to address these issues, but at times exacerbated them or added new issues. These young women often became derailed from educational or vocational goals during their period of trans identification.
The young women with whom I have worked became trans identified during adolescence. They frequently did so in the context of significant family dysfunction or complex psycho-social issues. Sexual assault and sexual harassment were common precursors. A majority had an eating disorder at the time they became trans identified. Since detransitioning, most now understand themselves to be butch lesbians. In our work together, they traced complex histories of coming to terms with their homosexuality. Some faced vicious homophobic bullying before they announced their trans identification.
All of these young women report that their experience of gender dysphoria had been sincerely felt. According to their recollections, they were as “truly trans” as anyone. In some cases, they received a formal diagnosis of gender dysphoria from mental-health clinicians. Others attended informed-consent clinics, through which they were able to access testosterone after only a brief discussion with a health provider.
For most of these young women, identifying as trans worsened their mental health. Although some report that starting on hormones initially brought an increase in confidence and well-being, these drugs eventually seemed to make some of them more emotionally labile, and intensified depression and suicidality. Some of the women who underwent surgeries such as mastectomies or hysterectomies found that these procedures brought no relief from their suffering and instead resulted in nerve damage, regret and, in some cases, life-long dependence on synthetic hormones.”
“Tannehill questions the idea that people can be “ex-trans” at all. “When people do detransition,” she told me, “frequently it’s because what society did to them after they transitioned forced them back into the closest.”
That may be true for some detrans people — especially trans women, who generally have a harder time passing and who lose the benefits inherent with appearing male in society — but it wasn’t the case for Cass, a 31-year-old detrans lesbian in California. Cass was severely bullied as a gender nonconforming kid and says transitioning actually made life easier. She started taking testosterone at 20, and her community was largely supportive. She didn’t have a hard time finding work or people to date. “People were definitely nicer to me after I transitioned and they saw me as a man instead of a butch dyke,” Cass said.
Three months before Cass started taking testosterone, her mom committed suicide. “Transitioning was kind of a survival strategy,” Cass said. And that worked for a while, but over time, she started to sense that her dysphoria was rooted more in the trauma of her mother’s death and her own internalized misogyny than in gender identity. As an adolescent, she had been masculine, butch. “I got a lot of very harsh, negative messages about what it meant to be a woman,” Cass said. “It got to the point where I couldn’t see myself as a woman without feeling the horror other people felt toward me. Living as a man provided a kind of refuge until I was ready to dive into all that.”
When she was ready, Cass, like Jackie, looked online for advice, and she met a woman a few years older who had detransitioned. Her experiences were the same — from childhood bullying and internalized misogyny to the sense that transitioning hadn’t really solved her dysphoria at all. They became friends, talking over the course of a few months, and then, after nine years living as a man, Cass came out as a woman…
In one video, which has been watched nearly 900,000 times, a young man reflects on his decision to detransition after living as a woman. He’s beautiful and androgynous, with long lashes framing bright-blue eyes. “I’m not like every other boy,” he said. “I can accept that now.”…
Cass and other detransitioners are open about their lives because they want to help other people, but there’s been a malicious side effect: Their stories have been hijacked by the right. In March, Laurie Higgins, a blogger for the right-wing Illinois Family Institute, referred to Cass in a post. “Society is marching blindfolded into a brave new dystopian world whose victims are increasingly children who will one day tell their stories of regret,” wrote Higgins, who has previously referred to homosexuality as “deviant,” “depraved,” and “immoral.” Now she was using Cass for her own agenda, treating her as a victim of the “trans-cult.”
This happens a lot: Right-wing groups and media outlets use detrans people to further a transphobic agenda, arguing that their existence invalidates all trans people. It’s much like the narrative of the “ex-gay,” which has been used by the right to argue that being gay is a choice. If it’s a choice, the thinking goes, gay people don’t need the rights to marry, adopt, or serve in the military — they just need to cut it out. The same goes for trans folks, as well…
But it’s not just the right wing that uses detransitioners for its own ends. Parts of the self-described feminist community do it, too: There is a contingent of “radical feminists” (“radfems” in internet parlance) who use stories like Cass’s to argue that transitioning is a patriarchal attempt to reinforce gender roles and erase butch women. Some radfems (a subset of whom are commonly referred to as “trans exclusionary radical feminists” or TERFs, a term that is generally considered a slur by those it’s directed toward) allege that the modern trans movement is fueled by the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, which have fooled gender nonconforming people — especially gays and lesbians — into seeking costly medical interventions for no reason…
This does not align with Cass’s values. “I have a lot of problems with WoLF and what they’ve been doing,” she said. “I didn’t like them before they started working with the right, and I like them even less now.” But some principles of radical feminism do resonate with Cass. Radfem ideology is about rejecting gender stereotypes, a philosophy that appeals to many detransitioned women who are reclaiming female identities…
Ryan was a bright kid. By fourth grade, he was taking high-school math classes, but while his intelligence won praise from adults, kids picked on him. He was bullied mercilessly, and during this period, he fantasized about becoming a girl. If he were a girl, he thought, maybe he wouldn’t be bullied for being weak. As Ryan got older, the fantasy evolved. An early user of the internet, he found trans forums online. The struggles people shared mirrored his own. By his sophomore year in college, he was ready. “This seemed like who I was,” he said. “It was what my community said, as well. It just seemed like this essential truth. I knew I was trans.”
Ryan went to a psychologist, who quickly referred him for hormone therapy. At 19, Ryan’s fantasy — something he never thought possible as a kid — was coming true. He started cross-sex hormones, and then, in his mid-20s, he had sex reassignment surgery. Still, something didn’t feel right. Ryan was on high doses of estrogen, and he felt foggy, unable to think. He was in a constant state of tension, and his dysphoria didn’t really go away, either — it just moved. His hands still looked too big, his forehead too male. He relocated to a new town where he thought he’d be more likely to pass. That didn’t work, either. He was in a lot of distress.
Over the years, Ryan tried different therapies, including yoga and massage, but the effects were always temporary. And then, a few years ago, he discovered Biodanza, a kind of ecstatic free dance created by a Chilean anthropologist in the 1960s. Biodanza required that Ryan listen to his instincts and connect physically with other people. “Gradually,” he said, “my body began to thaw.” He started going to therapy, and then he began experimenting with going off hormones, just to see how it felt. Soon his anxiety started to dissipate, and the fog he had felt since he was 19 began to lift. He started taking testosterone supplements and he felt, for a time, euphoric.
The euphoria wore off after a few months, but Ryan decided to continue his detransition. He’d come to the conclusion that dysphoria is normal — ordinary, even — and he’d found new ways to deal with it: movement, therapy, and accepting that he cannot control the way the world sees him. No one can. Ryan knows everyone’s experience is different, but for him, changing his body ultimately wasn’t the most effective way of dealing with his dysphoria. “You can change your body through hormones or surgery,” he said, “but unless you accept it, the dysphoria will not go away.” Ryan will never entirely get his old body back — there are some things that cannot be reversed — but he’s learning to live with it.”
“I began my preliminary research into the phenomenon as part of an MA at Bath Spa University, which it later prevented me from continuing, citing fear of criticism for allowing research on a subject seen in some quarters as ‘politically incorrect’. Still, while undertaking the initial research, I was shocked to discover that growing numbers of detransitioning young women were telling similar stories to each other. They discovered trans either through the internet and/or their peer group, and felt they were drawn into it as it seemed to answer their concerns about being a female in society. The ever-growing range of gender identities appealed to them, and many had histories of mental-health problems, sexual abuse and self-harm. In trans, they found a group in which they were accepted and even celebrated, especially so in the wider context of identity politics They felt powerful, often for the first time in their lives.”