This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
Though the mainstream press—especially in the U.K., but not only there—often presents detransition as a deep, dark secret of the transgender community, the issue is actually pretty simple: Something like 1 percent to 3 percent of people who begin a gender transition ultimately decide it’s not for them, and they backtrack or travel elsewhere across the landscape of gender identity. It’s a straightforward question of individual needs, and no cause for alarm—at least not in the abstract.
However, in some cases, a person who once transitioned will turn against the concept of trans identity itself. These people form activist groups around the idea that “gender ideology” was the source of their confusion and pain. They call themselves “detransitioners,” and they advocate for limiting access to medical transition in the name of protecting others from making what they see as their mistakes. Detransitioners consider trans acceptance as something akin to a cult—and, as I can attest as a trans man and journalist who has tweeted critically of them before, they can respond with pronounced hostility toward anyone who questions their beliefs.
Now, some former members of this so-called detransition movement have themselves grown disillusioned with detransition orthodoxy and are starting to speak out. They report that, despite their efforts to change, they’re still trans. They want people to know that the detransition movement couldn’t fix them—indeed, they never needed fixing in the first place.
Ky Schevers is the most prominent of these apostates to date. She started to transition to male when she entered college, before later ending her transition. (She now again identifies as transmasculine—think more Elliot Page, less Chaz Bono—and uses she/her pronouns.) From 2013 to early 2020, Schevers published under the name CrashChaosCats, writing and vlogging regularly about her detransition and the beliefs that led her to it. She was interviewed for two major articles on detransition, both by cisgender female journalists: Rachel Monroe for the Outline in 2016, and Katie Herzog for the Stranger in 2017. Both pieces tell the story of Schevers identifying as male when she entered college, starting testosterone therapy soon after her mother’s death by suicide, and going off testosterone while still identifying as genderqueer. They end with her giving up her genderqueer identity and embracing the idea that not only her gender dysphoria but all gender dysphoria was false and caused by internalized sexism combined with trauma—an idea that she then did much to advance and proliferate online.
Today, however, Schevers has recanted this view. According to her, like the ex-gays of the 1990s and 2000s—many of whom claimed they “overcame” their sexuality after religious conversion, only to reaffirm it later—some detransitioned people still struggle in private against feelings of gender dysphoria that they can never fully suppress. “It’s very similar to ex-gay communities where there’s a story out there that people ‘change’ and it’s great and everything,” she told me. “No one really changes. They learn to keep their desires under control.”
Detransitioners may be a small group—even the highest estimates are in the hundreds, compared with an estimated number of transgender-identified people in the low millions—but they have been influential in pushing their denial that trans identity is real. Publicly, detransitioners disavow not only their individual transition histories but also the fact that transition helps trans people worldwide to live comfortably in their own skin. Although a few men also identify as detransitioned, most of the community congregates in sex-exclusive online forums for detransitioned women only. They believe gender dysphoria is common among women and disappears when they learn to love and accept their female bodies.
Detransitioned women have gained influence because of strong interest in their stories by both anti-trans activists and some journalists. In addition to being featured in countless horror stories aimed at frightening parents of gender-nonconforming youth and undermining trans people organizing for their rights, this influence translated to a major loss for trans rights in the U.K. last December, when Keira Bell, a detransitioned woman, successfully argued in court that doctors and parents of transgender youth were incapable of helping them to navigate decisions about transition-related treatment without court oversight.
The Bell case was what finally prompted Schevers to go public with her criticisms of the detransitioned women’s movement, despite being one of its founders. “It was Keira Bell in the U.K., and seeing how detransition can be used to dramatically affect trans people’s access to health care,” she said. “People give a certain weight to those [detransition] stories. We always tried to emphasize that there were a lot of us, but the gatherings that took place were not large. They never got more than 30 women, and not all of them were detransitioners.” She added, “Trans people deserve access to support, and it makes no sense to shut down people’s access to medical transition just because some people end up detransitioning.”
At 35, Schevers is no longer saying she was wrong about everything, either in her transition or her detransition. She now identifies as “a transmasculine butch dyke, genderqueer, something like that,” she told me, and her she/her pronouns contrast with her male-sounding voice and masculine presentation. She doesn’t think that every single detransitioned woman is really trans, and understands that others may have different experiences. Schevers believes strongly that every person deserves the right to question their gender identity and find their own paths.
She recognizes the good in her detransition experience, explaining: “There’s not always space in trans and queer communities for transmasculine people to talk about internalized misogyny. I could talk about it openly without worrying that people were going to be upset by it.” She even sees the good in some of the ideology, which is based in radical feminist ideas about internalized misogyny and male violence. “Not all the radical feminist ideas were terrible either: I learned a lot about women’s history,” Schevers said. “A lot of what I read was pretty interesting, so I’m glad that I explored that stuff.”
Still, as the detransition community Schevers helped spark grew, its repressive and transphobic sides eventually became too much to ignore. Schevers also found her gender dysphoria, which she once thought had disappeared for good, began to come back strongly over time. “My sense of being a woman unraveled, and I was feeling more like a dude or a gender weirdo,” she recalled. “But I was fighting against these feelings because I’d built a life in the detransition community, and I knew a lot of the other women in the community wouldn’t be happy with it if I came out as trans. I tried to explain it in a radical feminist framework, and find the root causes, and do everything to make these feelings go away, and that didn’t really work. The only thing that did work to make them go away was accepting them. I had to make a move to accept them.”
A second ex-member of the detransitioned women’s community, whom I’ll call Max, confirmed Schevers’ characterizations. Max (who identifies as transmasculine and asked to use she/her pronouns “for now”) requested to use a pseudonym and that this article avoid identifying details, because she’s fearful of the harassment that detransitioned women—and their anti-trans allies—direct against trans people who disagree with them.
Schevers and Max don’t know each other. While Schevers was becoming disillusioned and distancing herself from detransition circles, Max (in her early 20s) was beginning to explore detransition. She said she would watch Schevers’ detransition videos “obsessively.” Later, Max watched the negative response to Schevers leaving the community with discomfort.
Unlike Schevers, Max was never a prominent detransitioner, although for a time her social media accounts attracted a following from detransitioners and anti-trans activists. Like Schevers, Max feels some insights gleaned from her time in the detransitioned women’s community were worthwhile, particularly about the misogyny in the transmasculine community and learning to grapple with the feeling that there was no place to freely express doubts, fears, or regrets as a trans person. As a person of color, Max also has strong criticisms of how trans peers responded to her nonwhiteness, and of racism in the trans community at large.
After coming out and beginning medical transition in college, Max had doubts that were exacerbated by complications from her treatment. She began reading and posting in online forums dedicated to detransition and eventually asked her friends and family to return to using she/her pronouns for her. She still feels she transitioned much too quickly and thinks poorly of the therapist she saw during her transition. However, it didn’t take long before hateful attitudes toward trans people and widespread pressure not to retransition in the community began to trouble her.
“I was feeling really confused about my gender and really frustrated about it, and frustrated with having to go on testosterone,” Max said. “I thought, maybe I wouldn’t need testosterone by immersing myself in that community. But I realized, ‘I still want T—but I really feel like I shouldn’t.’ Why did I feel like I shouldn’t? I felt like I shouldn’t because I’d been gulping down TERF rhetoric,” she said, referring to the beliefs of trans-exclusionary radical feminists.
Asked why she wanted to speak up, Max offered up her harshest criticisms of the movement: “I guess the biggest thing for me was realizing I was taken advantage of. I was very recently trans and very recently detrans, and people basically used my experiences as ammunition against trans people. I let it slide, for a while, because I was so used to being ignored and even ostracized by the trans community.”
In talking to former and current members of the detrans community, I also spoke with people who described their experiences differently. Not everyone who detransitions experiences dysphoria again or holds transphobic views, emphasized one detransitioned 18-year-old from the U.K. “I’d like people to know that detrans women genuinely possess a variety of viewpoints, and painting us all with the same brush doesn’t help anyone,” she said. This young woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said transition may help dysphoria for some people and that she doesn’t take issue with trans women using women’s restrooms. She also believes that every study that shows medical transition is widely effective has major flaws, and that her own gender dysphoria stemmed from internalized misogyny. She said confronting those misogynistic attitudes has reduced her own gender dysphoria a great deal.
Because of her very visible and central role in the detrans community, Schevers takes a lot of the responsibility for its most toxic aspects. Schevers is clear that she now believes she, and others in the community, hurt trans people by telling them their dysphoria was internalized misogyny that would go away if they loved themselves enough. The detrans community, with her as a participant, also hurt trans people by allying with extreme anti-trans activists and giving them political ammunition against trans people, making detransition stories a central feature of anti-trans fearmongering and supporting activism aimed at limiting access to medical transition.
Schevers hopes that by putting her real name on this story and describing the patterns she helped perpetuate, her words will ring true, despite her history of saying very different things than what she says now. One such pattern is treating the desire to transition as if it were a drug addiction—a persistent impulse to be guarded against throughout a formerly transitioned person’s life. Schevers shared evidence of language detransitioned women had plucked from self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, applied to the ongoing desire to appear male—terms like triggers and phrases like we commit that are instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the language of 12-step programs. Not incidentally, this is exactly how many in the ex-gay movement view persistent romantic desires for members of the same sex.
Contrary to these methods, the goal of transition is not to temporarily stave off gender dysphoria, treating it as a lifelong struggle against “triggers,” but instead to drastically reduce or eliminate such feelings, permanently. Numerous studies, representing an overwhelming medical consensus, support this approach. Thousands of trans people, including this reporter, can testify to the relief transition provides. Regret is rare—far rarer than the regret rates of other comparable treatments. This does not mean transition works for every single patient. No treatment can claim 100 percent success, and people with doubts and regrets about transition are real and deserve safe, affirming spaces to discuss these feelings. It does mean that transition is an effective treatment for gender dysphoria. In fact, transition—and not any amount of radical feminist ideology, self-help, or anti-trans paternalism—is the only effective treatment for gender dysphoria that currently exists.
The ex-gay movement is much diminished (though far from gone) these days, after many of its leaders have publicly come out as gay and admitted that, as hard as they prayed, the gayness never truly went away. Schevers and Max’s stories are an early sign that, in time, the “detransition movement” may be destined for the same ignoble fate.