What Does Detransitioning Tell Us About Being Transgender?

Transitioning to a different gender or genders is hard. If you’ve done it, you probably feel the same way I do when you hear someone claiming that being transgender is a choice.

Who would ever choose to go through all this?

That’s why it feels kind of threatening to hear about people detransitioning–that is, becoming transgender and then becoming not transgender. Doesn’t that imply that they chose to be transgender, and then chose again? Or that being transgender is fake?

Spoiler alert for the rest of this post: no, it doesn’t mean either of those things. But it does point out a big problem for any of us who identify as transgender, or at least something important we need to figure out: how do we tell the difference between a different gender identity and something else?

There’s a terrific article on detransitioning on The Stranger: “The Detransitioners: They Were Transgender, Until They Weren’t“, and in it we can see at least three possible situations in which people detransition or go through “desistance” (when a person–usually a young person–hasn’t transitioned yet and decides to go back to their birth sex instance).

Situation one is where a person receives so much negativity about their gender that they start feeling repulsed by it. That’s what happened to “Jackie,” who was born female and was always fairly butch, but was scorned for being that way and battered with mysogny. By contrast with that experience, being male felt like a relief … but Jackie eventually realized that even though being male felt better in some ways, it was really that she needed to accept herself as a woman. That was her particular circumstance.

“Ryan” had a similar experience from the other direction, being bullied and belittled as a young boy and finding refuge in the idea of being female. He transitioned to female, but this never addressed the internal problems, and eventually he detransitioned as well as he could back to male.

Both Jackie and Ryan seem to have mistaken bad feelings that had come to live inside them with dysphoria about their gender. This brings us to that big problem or thing we need to figure out if we’re transgender: are the feelings we’re following based on an experience of internally being another gender or genders, or are they about something else? In some cases, especially if those feelings are strongly negative and harsh toward ourselves, maybe they don’t have to do with gender identity at all. In other cases, based on the experience of the huge majority of people who transition and feel much more themselves, they really do.

On to situation two: instead of being fooled about your own gender identity based on bad feelings, you could be fooled by good feelings or by identifying with peers. There’s a very high percentage figure that has been offered that supposedly reflects how many kids who identify as another gender when young later come to identify with their birth sex. That figure may or may not be accurate, but what seems clear is that a lot of trans kids become cis* adults. In some cases, based on how transgenderism in kids can seem to spread, becoming trans might often come from feeling a closeness to or admiration for someone in your peer group. I mean, if some kid you know comes out as trans and becomes really famous in school, seems to be much happier, and is accepted by almost everyone (or even if they just stand out as unique and you feel like there’s nothing unique about you), the idea of doing that same thing and standing out yourself can be really appealing. If you become really drawn to it and end up fooling yourself, who can tell you that you aren’t actually transgender? Nobody, that’s who, though there are good therapists who can help you figure yourself out.

That’s the big problem with gender identity. We can’t know exactly how any other person feels, and the way different people feel can be hugely different, so how can we know what it feels like to be male, or to be female, or to be both, or neither? We have to trust our own best instincts and question ourselves carefully: there’s no other way. That’s why a good therapist is so important to this process (and a bad therapist, or even a well-meaning but confused therapist, can cause so many problems). A good therapist can help a person know themself better.

I mentioned three situations, but the third may or may not be real. Maybe some people’s genders actually change during the courses of their lives. Maybe, even completely ignoring the physical side of things, it’s possible to be one gender for a time and then become another. This may be ironic coming from someone who you could meet as a woman one day and as a man the next, but I’m skeptical, or at least cautious, that fundamental gender identity can change. Being bi-gender means that you shift from one gender identity or the other, or hold a balance between the two, but in a larger sense your gender has the same composition over time. If you’re bi-gender, both your genders are always with you: it’s just that you may not embody or experience both of them at once all the time.

At the same time, I probably shouldn’t be too skeptical. It’s easier to imagine that every trans person has always been trans, even if that person doesn’t start feeling trans until well into adulthood, as some trans people do, but this isn’t really known, and if it’s even possible to come to a conclusion about it, we won’t come to anything definite soon.

This idea of changing gender identity over time pertains to bi-gender people in an unusual way, because it sometimes happens that a person identifies as bi-gender as a waystation to being “traditional” trans–but I’ll take that up in another post.

*In case you’re not familiar with the term, “cis” is short for “cisgender,” which means “identifying with your sex assigned at birth.” It’s more or less the opposite of “trans”.