What’s So Scary About Detransitioning?
Trans communities have always honored complex gender narratives
When news first spread that 60 Minutes was planning to cover “detransitioners,” the trans community rightly panicked. Detransitioners — cis people, predominantly cis women, who used to identify as trans and now regret their transitions — have become a major flashpoint in the ongoing culture war around trans people. They are central to the work of Irreversible Damage author Abigail Shrier, who claims most adolescent trans boys are girls transitioning due to social contagion. They were the subject of a controversial 2017 piece by The Stranger’s Katie Herzog, even though most estimates suggest that only around 2% of all people who’ve transitioned go on to detransition. They were photographed topless for The Times of London by photographer Laura Dodsworth, who accompanied her work with hand-wringing text on how “unnerving” she finds these bodies with their “missing organs.” They have been at the center of major legislative setbacks for trans rights: In the U.K., detransitioner Keira Bell’s testimony against the Tavistock clinic (which she believes “should have challenged” her self-identification as trans) led to the banning of gender-affirming puberty blockers for those under age 16.
You can hardly blame people for associating the very word “detransition” with transphobic politics, and it seems ominous that 60 Minutes, which has covered trans issues very rarely in the past, would start with such a flash-point group. Let’s be clear: The problem with these narratives is not that they’re about people who’ve stopped transitioning. Trans communities have always held room for complex transitions and shifting identities, and many common treatments — like puberty blockers, which allow gender-questioning youth to forestall adolescence while they figure themselves out, or low-dose hormone replacement therapy, which provides emotional benefits without immediate physical changes — are designed precisely to give people time to find out whether transitioning is right for them. Trans narratives have included stories about stopping or reversing transitions ever since Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, in which the nonbinary narrator takes testosterone for some time and ultimately decides against it. Gender exploration is a process, and not everyone’s process looks the same. The problem is that mainstream, cis-written narratives often erase that nuance so as to cast transition as a medical catastrophe and trans people themselves as deluded, foolish, and disgusting.
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There is a reason that so many popular “detransition” narratives tend toward the inflammatory and away from nuanced discussions of gender fluidity, according to former detransition activist Ky Schevers. “Detransition narratives, especially transphobic ones, tend to speak to cis people’s biases,” she says. “Cis people tend to home in on detrans stories that touch on their fear of people being hurt by medical transition or of gender categories somehow being eroded.”
There’s a whole political movement built around promulgating the latter set of stories. Schevers, who spent years as a prominent face of detransition, draws a distinction between people who simply stop transitioning and the “ideological detransition” subculture that she helped create. After cutting ties with that community, Schevers identifies as a transmasculine butch who uses she/her pronouns, and she now compares ideological detransitioners to the “ex-gay” movement. These groups actively want to stop people from being trans, particularly if they were assigned female at birth, and they target vulnerable or insecure transmasculine people, hoping to convince them that their dysphoria is a byproduct of trauma or misogyny.
Though there’s no proof that ideological detransitioners will be the primary sources for 60 Minutes, they’re more likely than your average detrans person to make themselves available for such an opportunity. Ideological detransitioners often give interviews, Schevers says, because it’s central to spreading the good word of detransition, and they often moderate their public statements to disguise their extremist implications. In her experience, it’s easy to slip anti-trans talking points into the mainstream by telling cis journalists what they want to hear — telling a journalist preoccupied with the myth of “lesbian extinction” that one’s transition was motivated by internalized homophobia, for instance.
“Ideally journalists would do their homework, check to see if the detrans people they’re interviewing have ties to transphobic groups or individuals, and find out if they detransitioned after converting to a new belief system,” Schevers says. “I don’t trust most cis journalists to do that… If a detrans story comes out and it just happens to play into transphobic narratives or cis people’s anxieties but doesn’t explicitly mention ties to transphobic groups or ideology, trans journalists and allies should be ready to do some digging and see if there’s more to that story than was initially presented.”
Yet, at a certain point, even the most masterful message-crafting around detransition runs aground on the facts: There is simply no evidence that people regret their transitions in significant numbers. Even that Herzog piece says that only 2.2% of patients regret medical transition, as compared to 17% of patients who regret getting nose jobs. In a 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 8% of respondents had detransitioned at least once, but 62% reported that it had been temporary and only 0.4% said that “transition wasn’t right for them.” The rest attributed their detransition to outside factors, most commonly pressure from a parent.
The question, then, becomes why cis people want to hear about botched, sad, or regrettable transitions. Why does a tiny minority dominate cis coverage, over and above the many stories of happy transition — or even more complex and nonlinear gender stories? Dramatic “detransitions” may be uncommon, but there are plenty of trans people who could tell stories about shifting self-definitions or changing medical treatment plans; it’s just that most of them don’t consider it a tragedy.
The answer, I suspect, is that those more complicated stories don’t affirm cis people’s sense of their own superiority. They don’t cast trans people as broken or lesser or invite us to gawk at the most intimate parts of trans bodies while pretending we don’t want to see them. The hand-wringing by Dodsworth, the Times photographer, about the awfulness of transmasculine bodies — bodies that, it must be said, she has spent a lot of time looking at and photographing in the nude — stands out as particularly direct: “For me, the idea of having my breasts, ovaries, and womb removed, and then wanting them back, creates a feeling so unnerving that I can’t occupy it for long,” she writes.
Why does a tiny minority dominate cis coverage, over and above the many stories of happy transition?
But of course, though very few people ever want to undo their transitions, there are many women who wake up every morning feeling that their bodies are missing something or that they look too masculine to reflect their core selves. They’re trans women, and that terrible, unnerving feeling Dodsworth imagines, the feeling of being adrift in a body that does not align with your gender, is gender dysphoria. Dodsworth stumbles, backward and accidentally, into empathizing with trans people, but only on the way to casting them as freaks.
People who cannot believe that trans people are authentic also cannot imagine themselves into a trans perspective. When those people imagine transition, they don’t imagine what it would be like for a trans person. They imagine what it would be like for a cis person who somehow accidentally underwent trans-affirmative medical procedures. The detransition narrative is popular because it presents trans people the way those cis people imagine them: as confused cisgender people who’ve made a mistake.
That narrative fundamentally misleads the public about who trans people are and how we experience the world; it teaches the public to regard us as deluded or damaged cisgender people who need to be protected from ourselves rather than gender-diverse people making rational choices about our bodies. It puts a high barbed-wire fence around gender experimentation and fluidity by presenting transition as an all-or-nothing experience in which you either live happily ever after or spend the rest of your life as a broken, regretful wreck of a human being. Trans communities have always understood that self-discovery is a process — if there’s nothing shameful about being trans, there’s also nothing shameful about trying out different gender expressions. By turning “detransitioners” into a blunt instrument to bash trans people with, we not only harm happily transitioned people, but we also demonize and dehumanize people with complicated gender discovery stories.
“I would like to see more media that frames detransition in a way that benefits both detrans and trans people,” Schevers says. “[Media] that makes life better for detrans people instead of using them to attack trans people or air cis people’s fears and anxieties.” She also says that she’s “not entirely sure what that would look like.”
Nor am I. We haven’t seen it, and if the pattern of history holds, we are unlikely to see it on 60 Minutes. There is a potential future where stories of transition, and detransition, are as unexceptional as any other part of growing up — just one more set of questions young people have to answer about themselves on the way out into the world. Until then, we’re likely to see both transitioners and detransitioners in the way cis people prefer to see them: an interesting curiosity, a spectacle, a Sunday night big show.
Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Katie Herzog argued “against all transition by minors” in her 2017 piece in The Stranger.