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”.

Can a Person Assigned Male at Birth Develop a Convincing Female Voice?

Andrea James is an actor, teacher, voice coach, producer, director, and transgender activist. If you’ve seen the film Transamerica, starring Felicity Huffman, you may recognize her from the opening scene, where the main character is working on her voice with a voice instruction video. She offers resources for people assigned male at birth who want to achieve an unquestionably female voice at genderlife.com. She also offers one-on-one tutoring via Skype or other means at http://www.genderlife.com/free-transgender-voice-resources/voice-consultation/.

Andrea James

If this post comes across sometimes sounding like a cheering section for Andrea as a personal voice guru, that’s only because I think she provides a tremendous service. I had been working on developing a full female voice for months before I came across her work, and as I’ve discovered since, all of the resources I was using were leading me down a path that would not be successful. Andrea’s videos made a big difference for me, and then some personal coaching made an even bigger difference. I’m not prepared to show off a complete female voice yet, but I’m getting closer every week, and there have been a few situations already where my voice has passed. (Note: I’m not receiving anything for posting this. I honestly do think she’s that great.)

Unfortunately, this post won’t be of much use to people assigned female at birth who want to achieve a male-sounding voice. For those taking hormones, this isn’t a great problem, as their voices will change like teenage boys’ voices do. My apologies that there’s nothing here in this post for those not pursuing hormones.

Andrea kindly consented to talk to me about developing a female voice.

JAMES BETH: When and how did you first discover that it was possible to find your female voice through training?

ANDREA: A pioneering figure in transition resources is Melanie Anne Phillips. She had put together some great materials on transgender voice, and she had an audio cassette and VHS tape available for sale. I used her techniques to good effect, but I felt I could make things a little simpler with a more streamlined approach based on techniques developed by Arthur Lessac and others. I taught a few people using these new methods, then eventually filmed it all 15 years ago in 2002.

Melanie Anne Phillips

JAMES BETH: It sounds as though you put some concerted effort into developing the method you teach. What drew you to doing this work yourself?

ANDREA: I initially planned to teach as a career, so helping others with transition goals has always felt like a nice substitute for that. I’m always happy when my students get results like these:

http://www.andreajames.com/2016/05/26/transgender-voice-coaching-results-sabrina/
http://www.andreajames.com/2016/11/27/voice-feminization-before-and-after/

JAMES BETH: Wow, those are great examples!

How long does it typically take someone who’s practicing regularly to develop her female voice? Is it much easier for some people than others, or factors that make a big difference in how easily (or whether at all) a person develops her new voice?

ANDREA: Most people take 3 to 6 months to get a good working voice. The biggest factor for success is age at transition, with younger people far more motivated and more likely to succeed. Older people are more likely to have a mental block about it, afraid to push past the point where it does not sound good yet.

JAMES BETH: So motivation seems to be key–which translates, I would guess, into amount of earnest practice? From your point of view, can anyone at all can develop an identifiably female voice if they’re motivated enough, or are there some barriers that can’t be gotten past?

ANDREA: Anyone at all can do it if they can push past the mental barrier of imperfect progress. I have taught non-trans people these techniques, so it’s possible for anyone who is motivated. Here’s an analogy: some people say they’d like to get in shape, but what they mean is they’d like to BE in shape. They don’t want to do the work to be in shape. You have to want to GET in shape, and there is no quick solution. You have to do the work.

JAMES BETH: Does a person have much choice over the character of her voice as it emerges, or is there a particular female voice that tends to emerge for each person? To put it another way, is a female voice created or uncovered?

ANDREA: Most people have the same vocabulary, accent, inflection, enunciation, vocal tics and general tone. Those who achieve a voice that most listeners take to be female sound as if they have a twin sister. However, it’s important to note that there’s not a good voice, or bad voice, there’s your voice. If you like your voice and don’t want to change it, that’s great! It’s an important part of how you express yourself, and it’s up to you whether it’s worth changing it. Be loud and proud!