Life

The Trans “Detransition” Wars

It’s a real phenomenon. But it’s not the crisis many seem to think.

Screenshots from the Atlantic article against a trans flag background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Screengrab via the Atlantic.

Why aren’t professional athletes more supportive of athletes whose ACL surgeries fail? Of course, sports media focuses on the careers of athletes who play professional sports, but surely athletes who can no longer play due to an unsuccessful knee surgery are worthy of as much coverage as the athletes who win games? These athletes’ humanity is being neglected! And whether they’re working at a used car dealership, as professional trainers, or high school coaches we, as a society, should pay as much attention to them as we do to athletes whose knee surgeries were a success.

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That’s the premise of a recent controversial piece in the Atlantic, with one small change: Replace knee surgery with gender transition, and those sidelined athletes with people who have had disappointing experiences with gender confirmation treatments, and subsequently revert or otherwise shift their gender identification, often known as “detransitioners.”

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In an analysis on my website, Assigned Media, I looked in-depth at the many ways the article, titled “Take Detransitioners Seriously” and written by trans academics Leo Valdes and Kinnon MacKinnon, did a disservice to readers. Perhaps the most egregious choice was using Chris Beck as their example of a detransitioner whose story should be taken seriously. A highly decorated Navy Seal who transitioned to live as a woman, then detransitioned, Beck’s story has been covered in the right-wing press but largely ignored by the mainstream. This may be because Beck’s detransition came with some other radical shifts of view: According to a lengthy interview with a conservative Christian influencer, Beck is now a far-right Christian who believes critical race theory is destroying education, that white people are being widely discriminated against in the U.S., and that by transitioning he “destroyed everything in my life that was holy, the temple of God is our bodies.” Although the Atlantic authors ask us to take detransitioners seriously, they don’t take Beck seriously enough to include anything about his troubling views.

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The Atlantic piece is also misleading in its treatment of the scientific evidence, seeking to have it both ways by admitting the research suggests detransitioning is rare, but insinuating that, well, maybe it’s not:

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For years, detransition was thought to be in the low single digits. In a landmark study of people in Sweden who changed their legal sex from 1960 to 2010, 2 percent applied to return to their sex assigned at birth. Other studies suggest an even lower detransition rate. But data are relatively scarce, and anyway the cultural context for trans people has evolved so much so quickly that older studies may not adequately predict outcomes for today’s far larger, more diverse trans and gender-questioning population.

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Exactly how common detransition is may always be contested, because the rate a study finds relies on how detransition is defined. If you define detransition to mean post-surgical regret, a meta-analysis in 2021 found a rate of 1 percent. The broader your definition of detransition, the higher the percentage is likely to be. A much higher rate (13 percent) is observed if you include trans people who detransitioned temporarily due to family or social pressure, and ones who only transitioned socially, without taking medical steps. Most observers agree that regret after accessing gender affirming care seems to be significantly lower than regret after other comparable medical treatments.

So how should we think about detransition? Mainstream audiences seem drawn to a very atypical type of detransition story (the right-wing media seems to find a new one about every six months, while the mainstream rediscovers detransition every couple of years), one where a cisgender person falsely believes themselves to be trans, takes steps that permanently alters their appearance, then finds they’re unhappy living as another sex, feeling intense regret that they’ve made a “terrible mistake.”

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The thing is, in my years of work covering trans issues, I have never come across a story that continued to fit the pattern of a cis person who made a mistake after I’ve read all the smaller, less viral interviews the detransitioned person ever gave. There are detransitioned people whose stories have been presented that way by reporters, but the stories that go viral turn out to have cleaned up the untidy bits, where the detransitioned person explains they believe they experienced gender dysphoria the same way other trans people do, and decided to detransition due to their newfound moral or ideological beliefs. This group includes Chris Beck, Chloe Cole, and all or almost all the detransitioned people whose stories have become popular in the mainstream.

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For example, when I spoke with Ky Schevers, who, before she left the detrans movement, had been interviewed for one early viral story of this type, she told me she’d felt frustrated when the mainstream reporter failed to quote her on her main message, which was that transition was always a mistake and could be cured by radical feminism. Hers is just one version of what “ideological” can look like.

Most detransitioners aren’t like that, though. In fact, that’s what one of the Atlantic authors, Kinnon MacKinnon found in his qualitative study of detransition experience (which makes his take in the article all the more confusing). The majority of MacKinnon’s subjects started out pursuing a binary transition, from male to female or female to male, but later came to see themselves as nonbinary. And a majority of all subjects also felt no regret over the medical steps they’d taken, even though their understanding of their gender may have changed. (For clarity: One-third of the 27 participants who pursued gender-affirming hormones and/or surgical procedures felt regrets such that medical transition was the wrong pathway or they would have slowed down the process, or they feel some dissatisfaction with their bodies.) To me, this suggests that the mainstream understanding of detransition needs to evolve from simple parables about the dangers of transness as a social contagion to more acceptance of nonbinary identities and more awareness of the multitude of paths through gender an individual life can take.

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Another aspect of the article was calling for more institutional and social support for detransitioners specifically. But the truth is, most of the things that would help people who detransition would also help trans people: Better medical treatment, more research, less discrimination towards gender nonconformity, an end to the current moral panic over transgender people, and more acceptance of nonbinary people who do not medically transition, or whose medical goals do not include a cis-normative appearance. Indeed, these are all things trans people have long advocated for, and we should continue to do so—just not by elevating a minority of a minority in a manner that inflates paranoia about trans people and has led to a surge of anti-trans hatred and legislation to limit our rights.

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No one exhorts the public to pay more attention to people who are allergic to penicillin, or insists people who are happy with their knee surgeries do more to support those with knee surgery regret. Disappointment or regret over medical procedures happens, but we consider it an individual matter, not a widespread social concern. However, gender transition is different, because transphobia is a vicious and destructive force, and detransitioners are hurt by it as well. That’s why, in recent years, trans people have become more welcoming towards our nonbinary siblings, including those who felt pressured by societal transphobia to pursue a binary transition at first. We’ve also worked to raise awareness of unethical doctors, and support people who experience surgical complications. Not because trans people owe detransitioners anything, but because we know the harm transphobia does. Until the mainstream accepts and welcomes gender diverse people, the trans community must offer detransitioners what little support we can.

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People who detransition deserve understanding from their families and friends. People who are visibly gender nonconforming, which includes many transgender and detransitioned people, deserve to be treated with dignity and not discriminated against. And, for as long as they’re being harmed by transphobia, there should be place in the trans community for the majority of detransitioners who aren’t anti-trans. However, for the average person, those who detransition deserve about the same consideration you’d typically give to athletes whose ACL reconstruction fails, or to any other group of people who undergo a medical treatment that doesn’t have the hoped-for results. (And not for nothing: gender confirmation surgery is vastly more likely to succeed than ACL reconstruction is.) The difference is that a sensationalized, transphobic narrative about gender-affirming care has blinded people to the reality that, like any other well-studied, long-practiced treatment, it only almost always works.

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Update, Jan. 23, 2023: This post originally inadvertently implied that all detransitioners share the same beliefs about transition and radical feminism that Ky Schevers once did. This is inaccurate; these individuals hold a range of differing viewpoints. The paragraph has been revised for clarity.

Correction, Jan. 24, 2023: This post originally erroneously included Carey Callahan as part of a group of prominent individuals who detransitioned for ideological or moral reasons. She does not identify this way, and has been removed. Moreover, Callahan does not believe that gender dysphoria can be addressed by developing radical feminist beliefs. Callahan has consistently expressed that medical transition is the most successful treatment for the majority of gender dysphoric people and has engaged in political advocacy to protect access to pediatric transition in Ohio.

Update, Jan. 24, 2023: Due to the phrasing error, this post originally mischaracterized the findings of Kinnon MacKinnon’s study. The paragraph has been updated for clarity. 

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