Writing About Detransition

Writing About Detransition

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!

This week I’m tackling a relatively difficult and taboo topic: writing about detransition.

Since it’s such a fraught topic, it can be difficult to know how, when, and why one might write about detransition. The short answer: don’t

The long answer: detransition is a complicated and extremely personal decision, and one that only a trans person is equipped to write. If you aren’t trans, you really shouldn’t write about detransition. The post could stop here, but read on if you want to know more about why this incredibly difficult choice is one that needs to be handled only by those who intimately understand it.

What is Detransition?

“Detransition” refers to when someone who once identified as transgender, and underwent a medical transition, decides that they no longer identify with the gender they transitioned into. They then take steps to “detransition,” which might be social — reverting to old names and pronouns, dressing in alignment with their assigned gender — or medical. 

A medical detransition may well just be stopping HRT and letting the body’s endogenous hormones take over again. This, however, won’t undo permanent changes like breast development for estrogen, or things like deepened voice, body hair, bottom growth, and hair thinning for testosterone. In these cases, someone looking to detransition might seek additional medical or cosmetic interventions such as surgery or laser hair removal.

Some changes, especially surgical interventions like bottom or top surgery, are irreversible, or require another, potentially difficult surgical intervention to cosmetically revert. There is no way to fully unscramble such eggs, though, and so folx who have chosen to detransition might be left with lasting scars or body parts that cause newfound dysphoria.

When writing about detransition (if you really, truly feel you must), it’s important to consider what transition steps your character took before making the decision. Social transition and HRT are relatively undramatic to stop, especially for trans women — they can simply cease their medications and revert to prior modes of expression. This is far from painless, of course — they could well face stigma from friends and family, and going through a hormonal change in any direction kinda sucks. But someone detransitioning this way might be able to do so stealthily, and in a way that actually aligns with their true gender identity

Reverting to a post-surgical body isn’t really possible, though there are cosmetic surgery options to at least help with appearances. Long-term testosterone treatment also leaves relatively lasting effects on the body.

Why Do People Detransition?Cover of Torrey Peters' "Detransistion, Baby" featuring a multicolored collage in green, blue, yellow, and pink with eyes and mouths

Being trans is hard.

Commonly people think of detransition as admitting a “mistake,” but more often it represents someone’s decision to try and make their life a little easier. The life of a trans person can be full of danger, difficulty, and exhausting daily prejudices. As much as I like to celebrate and center trans joy on this blog, there are unique — and, for some, insurmountable — challenges to our lived experience.

If someone experiences particular violence or hardship, they may decide that the benefit of living their authentic gender identity is outweighed by the strain of living specifically as a trans person. Even if their best, most idealized self might be trans or genderqueer, they can’t currently do that and remain safe and sane. This, unfortunately, is also why trans suicide rates are so high — shit’s really hard, and sometimes that’s too much for people. There’s no shame in that.

Another common reason for “detransition” is that someone realizes they have a nonbinary gender identity. This was especially common among gender non-conforming Millennials and Gen-Xers — in a world where binary transition was becoming somewhat more normalized but nonbinary identities were still rarely talked about, sometimes people would undergo a binary medical transition only to find that they still were dissatisfied with the results.cover of the book "Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity" edited by Micah Rajunov and Scott Duane. Cover is beige and features the word "nonbinary" in all caps and black font, with the words "memoirs of gender and identity" in red below.

By common understanding, the regret, secession of treatment, or reversion to prior expressions might constitute someone who was cis all along. Often, however, folx realize that they actually had a nonbinary or expansive identity that didn’t fit into either man or woman — so while their assigned gender certainly wasn’t correct, neither was the gender they transitioned into. 

These experiences are often twisted and misconstrued by faulty studies and transphobic actors who don’t appreciate the nuance of the situation, but you can read more about authentic experiences like this in a number of nonbinary memoirs and essays.

Of course, there is the rare occasion when someone is authentically cisgender, transitions for reasons that don’t actually align with their internal identity, and then regret it. This experience simply isn’t as common as fear-mongers and transphobes would have you believe. Traumatic detransition is especially rare among young people — the favorite target of transphobic legislature — because adolescents don’t start off with permanent changes. Usually when a young person wants to transition, you get them on puberty blockers and help them socially transition first, and wait a little bit while they figure out what shape they want their gender to take later on in their life. If they decide transition isn’t for them, they can stop the blockers and socially “detransition.”

How Detransition is Weaponized Against Us

There is a fascination, almost an obsession, with the idea that trans folx are deluded and confused. Conservative and rightwing ideologies preach that gender is inextricably tied to biological sex (ignoring the wealth of evidence refuting such claims), and that anyone who diverges from that path is mentally unwell or making a horrifying mistake. Thus, whenever they catch even a whiff of someone “regretting” their transition steps, they explode the story into an ironclad argument that trans people really are hurting themselves and everyone around them.

I don’t think I have to explain why this fucking sucks. 

If you’re thinking of writing about detransition, you’re in danger of playing into the hand of bigots, of perpetuating unfounded stereotypes that make the world a more dangerous place for trans people. 

Trans people exist and have always existed, and we are not mentally ill or gender-confused. We are trying to live our most authentic selves — and sometimes that’s a hard path to walk. Sometimes it’s confusing, and the path twists and turns and doubles back on itself. Writing about detransition should be reserved wholly for trans people who actually understand the nuance of the experience

If you aren’t trans, just don’t do it. End of story.

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