“Detransition”: a disputed concept

Sometimes a person who made a change in gender identity or gender expression will make more changes later. Most people see gender changes on spectrum. A few see them as a binary and describe these changes as “detransition.” Many people feel this term is a problem.

The term is often used by people who want to hurt trans people. In recent years, people who see transition as a binary have begun an “ex-trans” movement similar to the “ex-gay” movement.

Some people have suggested other terms like “retransition,” as it suggests a less rigid view of gender than the all-or-nothing binary that you are either 100% cisgender or 100% transgender. In some cases, people may shift their identity or expression any number of times. One of the main goals of introducing a wide range of gender identities is to eliminate the harmful belief that being transgender is a binary.

Reasons for changing direction

These were reasons listed in the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey:

  • Pressure from a parent
  • Transitioning was too hard
  • Harassment or discrimination
  • Trouble getting a job
  • Pressure from other family members
  • Pressure from a spouse or partner
  • Pressure from an employer
  • Pressure from friends
  • Pressure from a mental health professional
  • Pressure from a religious counselor
  • Realization that gender transition was not for them
  • Initial transition did not reflect the complexity of their gender identity
  • Financial reasons
  • Medical reasons

Fictional characters

Non-trans people are fascinated with “detransition.” Writers have included them in a number of fictional works:

  • Myra Breckenridge/Myron in those two novels by Gore Vidal
  • Mrs./Mr. Garrison on South Park by Trey Parker and Matt Stone
  • Patsy Stone from Absolutely Fabulous by Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French
  • Amy/Ames from Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

People

People who have used the term to describe their own experiences include:

  • Lisanne Anderson
  • Keira Bell 
  • Tish Gervais/Brian Belovitch
  • Michelle/Michael Berke
  • Carey/Carrie Callahan
  • Don/Dawn/Don/Dawn Ennis
  • Laura Jensen/Walter James “Walt” Heyer
  • Robyn Kanner
  • Judy/Josef Kirchner
  • Jamie/James Shupe
  • Renee Sullivan
  • Mark/Marissa/Mark/Marissa Dainton
  • Sam/Samantha.Sam/Samantha Kane

People who have been described by others as “detransitioners” include:

  • Christine Daniels/Mike Penner
  • Chelsea Attonley
  • Ria Cooper

Non-trans “gender critical” people who have promoted the concept and term include:

Criticism

From a nonbinary person named Jess:

I think that probably the majority of people who previously defined as binary who then go through a transition process to then detransition are actually non-binary, and they’re not detransitioning to a binary gender which was the gender they were assigned at birth, but they are retransitioning to somewhere else. I think that if basically, if healthcare wasn’t binary centered, we would be able to explore non-binary as an option and it not be seen as a stepping stone to binary people, but actually as a valid destination in and of itself.

In Non-Binary Genders: Navigating Communities, Identities, and Healthcare (2020) ISBN 9781447351917

British therapist Sam Hope sums up the controversy nicely:

Detransition is held up as the bogeyman, is held against trans people. Our transitions must be sure, and certain, and final, otherwise they are not legitimate. But of course, real life is much messier. As a therapist, a big part of my job is to be able to stay with client’s uncertainty and hold quite opposing desires and needs.

Trans people detransition. And retransition. And alter trajectory. And change their names and pronouns more than once. All this is entirely valid. We can know that transition benefits the people who undertake it, but we can never know if transition is right for us, or the person in front of us. We cannot cure someone of being trans, but what they do about being trans is up to them. However, society will have a heavy bias towards ‘gender transition is bad,’ so we should probably worry less about a trans person being unduly influenced to not transition.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a disproportionate level of concern around trans people making the wrong choice towards transition perhaps because there are still underlying social attitudes that it is never the right choice. The extent to which trans people are subject to gatekeeping, having their decisions questioned, or having barriers placed in their way, is quite extreme.

References

Critical of the concept and term

Roberts, Amber (November 17, 2015). Dispelling the Myths About Trans People ‘Detransitioning.’ Vice https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/kwxkwz/dispelling-the-myths-around-detransitioning

Knox, Liam (December 19, 2019). Media’s ‘detransition’ narrative is fueling misconceptions, trans advocates say. NBC News https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/media-s-detransition-narrative-fueling-misconceptions-trans-advocates-say-n1102686

Hope, Sam (2019). Person-Centred Counselling for Trans and Gender Diverse People: A Practical Guide, Jessica Kingsley Publishers ISBN 9781784509378

Lopez, German (August 9, 2016). The debate about transgender children and “detransitioning” is really about transphobia. Vox https://www.vox.com/2016/8/9/12404246/transgender-children-detransitioning-transphobia

Schevers, Ky (December 21, 2020). Detransition as Conversion Therapy: A Survivor Speaks Out. An Injustice! https://aninjusticemag.com/detransition-as-conversion-therapy-a-survivor-speaks-out-7abd4a9782fa

Roberts, Amber (November 17, 2015) Dispelling the Myths About Trans People ‘Detransitioning.’ VICE https://www.vice.com/en/article/kwxkwz/dispelling-the-myths-around-detransitioning

Supportive of the concept and term

Herzog, Katie (June 28, 2017). The Detransitioners: They Were Transgender, Until They Weren’tThe Stranger. https://www.thestranger.com/features/2017/06/28/25252342/the-detransitioners-they-were-transgender-until-they-werent

Kanner, Robyn (June 22, 2018). I Detransitioned. But Not Because I Wasn’t Trans. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/06/i-detransitioned-but-not-because-i-wasnt-trans/563396/

Lockwood, Sally (October 5, 2019). “Hundreds” of Young Trans People Seeking Help to Return to Original SexSky News. https://news.sky.com/story/hundreds-of-young-trans-people-seeking-help-to-return-to-original-sex-11827740

Marchiano, Lisa (2017). “Misunderstanding a New Kind of Gender Dysphoria”Quillette. https://quillette.com/2017/10/06/misunderstanding-new-kind-gender-dysphoria/

Marchiano, Lisa (2018). Outbreak: The Explosion of Transgender TeensMercatorNet. https://www.mercatornet.com/conjugality/view/contagion-the-explosion-of-transgender-teens/21130

Murphy, Meghan (2017). Lisa Marchiano on the Trouble with Transing KidsFeminist Current. https://www.feministcurrent.com/2017/06/22/lisa-marchiano-trouble-transing-kids/

Marchiano, Lisa ( January 2, 2020). The Ranks of Gender Detransitioners Are Growing. We Need to Understand Why. Quillette https://quillette.com/2020/01/02/the-ranks-of-gender-detransitioners-are-growing-we-need-to-understand-why/

Singal, Jesse (July 2018). When a Child Says She’s TransThe Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/07/when-a-child-says-shes-trans/561749/

Sullivan, Renee (March 7, 2018). A Different StripePsychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201803/different-stripe?amp

Expósito-Campos, Pablo (January 10, 2021). A Typology of Gender Detransition and Its Implications for Healthcare Providers. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2020.1869126

Resources

Stonewall (stonewall.org.uk)

Detransition Info (detransinfo.tumblr.com)

Detrans Advocacy Network (detransadv.com)

Pique Resilience Project (piqueresproject.com)

Sex Change Regret (sexchangeregret.com)

Fenway Health (fenwayhealth.org)

  • Detransition, Retransition: What Providers Need to Know (PDF)

Transgender Trend (transgendertrend.com) note: “gender critical” site

Reddit (reddit.com)