“Desistance”: a disputed concept

Sometimes a person who makes a change in gender identity or gender expression will make more changes later. Some people see these additional changes as part of a spectrum. Others see them as a binary, or even a disease, and describe them as “desistance.”

The idea that young people can “desist” is a foundational concept of the ex-transgender movement. The term itself came from criminology, the study of criminals that emerged from the 20th century eugenics movement. Eugenics researchers were interested in why some criminals “desist” from committing crimes.

At the heart of the dispute is whether gender diversity is a disease. In the dozens of disease models of gender identity and expression, people who believe in “desistance” typically believe in the psychopathology model. They see a gender transition as a way to treat a mental illness. They have given this mental illness many names over the years, including:

  • gender identity disorder
  • gender dysphoria
  • gender incongruence

Dutch psychologist Thomas D. Steensma, a proponent of the concept, describes it as “the persistence and desistence of children’s distress caused by the gender incongruence they experience to the point that they seek clinical assistance.”

Kenneth Zucker began using it after seeing “desistance” used to describe children who exhibited “oppositional defiant disorder.” He noted that “remission” would be an OK alternative, adding it “is a bit too medical for my taste, but it is not necessarily an incorrect term.”


Brooks, Jon (May 23, 2018). The Controversial Research on ‘Desistance’ in Transgender Youth. KQED https://www.kqed.org/futureofyou/441784/the-controversial-research-on-desistance-in-transgender-youth

Serano, Julia (2016). Detransition, Desistance, and Disinformation: A Guide for Understanding Transgender Children Debates. Medium https://medium.com/@juliaserano/detransition-desistance-and-disinformation-a-guide-for-understanding-transgender-children-993b7342946e

Meadow Tey (2018). The Loaded Language Shaping the Trans Conversation. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/07/desistance/564560/

Tannehill, Brynn (January 1, 2017) The End of the Desistance Myth. Originally at Huffington Post. http://www.brynntannehill.com/the-end-of-the-desistance-myth/

Yong, Ed (January 15, 2019). Young Trans Children Know Who They Are. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/07/desistance/564560/

Newhook JT, Winters K, Pyne J, Jamieson A, Holmes C, Feder S, Pickett S, Mari-Lynne Sinnott M (May 2018). Teach your parents and providers well: Call for refocus on the health of trans and gender-diverse children. Can Fam Physician 2018;64:332-5 [PDF] https://www.cfp.ca/content/cfp/64/5/332.full.pdf

Newhook JT, Pyne J, Winters K, Feder S, Holmes C, Tosh J (April 2018). A critical commentary on follow-up studies and “desistance” theories about transgender and gender-nonconforming children. International Journal of Transgenderism 
Pages 212-224. https://doi.org/10.1080/15532739.2018.1456390

Zucker KJ (2018): The myth of persistence: Response to “A critical
commentary on follow-up studies and ‘desistance’ theories about transgender and gender nonconforming children” by Temple Newhook et al. (2018), International Journal of Transgenderism. https://doi.org/10.1080/15532739.2018.1468293


Gender Dysphoria Affirmative Working Group (gdaworkinggroup.com)

Trans Policy Reform (transpolicyreform.wordpress.com)

GID Reform (gidreform.wordpress.com)