I. Both transition and detransition are legitimate modes of self-expression. Individuals should be encouraged to attempt self-discovery and improvement of their embodied subjectivity within healthy bounds, and both transition and detransition are included within that.
II. The mass and the rate of detransitioners will increase as the number of trans people rises as well. This is an inevitable effect of making transition more accessible and socially acceptable, and ignoring this effect can only be harmful.
III. Gatekeeping transition is, unilaterally bad. Many detransitioners desist after years of HRT, unlikely to be prevented by further gatekeeping, and gatekeeping has the potential to increase the drive for HRT in individuals who might late detransition. Moreover, gatekeeping has a profoundly negative effect on those who never detransition which should be avoided.
IV. Information as to the side-effects of HRT and other transition-related medical care is necessary. It’s important not to treat HRT as a cure-all where its potential negatives are ignored. It’s a fiction that trans communities never discuss these downsides, but it’s true that they are often reduced in merit.
V. So-called “transmedicalism”, in focusing transition exclusively on medical treatment, ultimately serves to harm detransitioners as much as any other trans people. The possibility of socially transitioning without HRT as a solution or cure to gender dysphoria must remain open for the sake of both parties.
VI. Trans communities are often implicitly hostile to detransition and detransitioners, to an extent that cannot be justified by wariness towards TERF narratives. Chances of detransition are minimized rather than admitted as frank possibilities. While detransition should not be dwelled on to the point of convincing any given person that they shouldn’t transition because they might later regret it, phrases like “if you think you’re trans, you’re trans” and “cis people don’t think about being the other gender”, are extremely harmful.
VII. There are purely psychological reasons for distrust between trans and detrans communities. Trans communities often feel as if detransitioners are a threat to the validity of transition as a legitimate means for change one’s circumstances. Detrans communities often feel that, in some form, they were led to transition when they shouldn’t have been. It’s unlikely that, at the present moment, this rift can be totally bridged.
VIII. Damaging ideology, however, is intentionally pitting these communities against one another. Within detransition communities, this is clearly the result of “gender critical” TERFs, many of whom have never transitioned, that have targeted detransitioners as a fertile group for recruitment. Due to many detransitioners’ awful experiences within the trans communities, especially with feeling as if they were overly encouraged to transition, an ideology which claims that trans activists are intentionally grooming masses of children is going to seem relatable and accurate. The spread of this ideology in a vulnerable group is a bad thing.
IX. While TERF ideology is unquestionably transphobic and harmful, those detransitioners who latch onto it often identify a real ideological problem in trans communities, one that might be called “transgender essentialism”. This ideology implicitly believes that all trans people were always the gender they identify as, that dysphoria is an exclusively “trans” trait and that no cis person will experience it, and that people simply will not be mistaken about being trans, among other things. Furthermore, this ideology will often, absurdly, claim that trans men never experienced and were shaped by misogyny, and that trans women never gained any societal benefits from being viewed as male.
X. Transgender essentialism is damaging to both trans and detrans individuals. Formed as a reaction towards the transphobic currents in society which heavily discourage transition, it maintains many of those currents’ gender essentialist characteristics. By focusing on gender identity as universally innate, rather than as the pursuit of desire in regards to one’s embodied subjectivity, it limits the possibility of change as well as the degree of choice available in the question of transition. Under transgender essentialism, if someone is dysphoric, they are another gender, and they must medically transition. The perils of this are not hard to see.
XI. The reaction to transgender essentialism cannot be transmedicalism, which is simply a more restrictive form of the same ideology, or TERFism, which ignores the role of gender identity altogether. Rather, a focus on gender identity as a complex attempt to satisfy one’s desire, located within the social field of gender as an oppressive structuring force, is necessary. While this article is not the place to present this theory of transness, it is the only way in which transition and detransition can be fully reconciled with one another while accepting that some people weren’t mistaken and never trans in the first place.
XII. Mending the rift between trans and detrans communities would require a concerted effort on both sides. Trans communities would need to make it more clear that detransition is a possibility, which is not currently the case. It’s very arguable whether statistics which state that only 0.4% of people detransition are true, but even if they are, this is weaponizing detransitioners as cudgels rather than people, just as TERFs do in treating them as fool-proof evidence that transition is a bad idea. Mentioning detransition only to talk about how rare it is does not constitute support. Furthermore, trans communities will need to accept that “detransition” is not an exclusively TERF-dominated term, and that treating it like one only helps the TERFs in those communities to spread their ideology. While the vast majority of trans people do not intentionally pressure anyone into transitioning, this does happen, often in unconscious ways, and it would be wrong to pretend that detransitioners who’ve experienced it are making things up.
XIII. Detrans communities, on the other hand, would need to be clear that transition is the right choice for many people, and that gatekeeping is not an acceptable trade-off for preventing those who’ll later regret it from transitioning. While criticism of transgender essentialism is correct, it’s wrong to return to Blanchardian theory or outright rejection of transition as valid as a response. Furthermore, conspiracy theories about nefarious “TRAs” controlling the media, medical institutions, and sometimes even the government must be stamped out. As long as these false ideas continue to fester, trans communities will continue to view detrans ones as primarily transphobic in nature. The fact that many trans people are strongly discouraged from transitioning can not be ignored or belittled simply because some detransitioners had the opposite experience. Venting about poor experiences with detransition will inevitably upset some trans people, but places like r/detrans simply are not safe for those questioning detransition while still identifying as trans.
XIV. Both trans and detrans communities are, by-and-large, oppressed on the basis of failing to conform to societally expected gender norms, and both communities have shared experience with the same medical interventions. We remain in the early days of public trans existence, and there’s many stumbling blocks along the way. As more and more people consider that transitioning might be the right answer for them, more and more will learn that it was actually the wrong answer. Both communities should express solidarity with one another over their many shared experiences as we continue to work out the complicated situations we find ourselves in. Conflict between communities is, in the end, most useful to those who seek to penalize gender non-conforming behavior on all sides.
For those curious, no I would not explicitly identify as a detransitioner, given that I firmly see myself as non-binary and don’t regret transitioning. However, I have stopped HRT for well over a month now, and there’s all chances that I may never return to it. I feel a great degree of empathy towards detransitioners and believe our situations are similar to the point that I’m not speaking solely as an outsider, even as I don’t specifically see myself as one myself.
4 thoughts on “The Perils of Transgender Essentialism – 14 Theses on Detransition”
Well, this is pure gold. I feel heavy discouraged to inquire about this topic because of lot of things, specially the difficulty to find a reliable source, as for many authors their political beliefs are heavier than facts. Many thanks for your work!
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(Reposting because I’m not sure this got through the first time due to some browser issues – many apologies for the double-post if so! I just really wanted to make sure you got my compliments!)
I really appreciate this article! It helped me to clarify my feelings on a lot of things, and your way of conceptualising transition really clicks and resonates for me. I absolutely love your description of transition as pursuing “improvement of one’s embodied subjectivity” in particular. God, “embodied subjectivity” is such a good description of the human condition! I want it tattooed on my soul.
I’m curious – and you absolutely don’t have to answer this question or talk about this if it’s too personal or you don’t want to – but what made you decide to stop HRT? I’m also transfem and planning to start hormones myself in the near future (not really as a way to express any kind of innate “girlhood”, which I’m not sure even exists, but more just to feel more comfortable in my own skin) and to be honest, I identified a lot with some of the things you posted in the past about feeling disgust and discomfort at the experience of male puberty and having a male body, so I was a little surprised to hear you made that decision. I always assumed that once I started HRT, I’d never want to go back, so I’m curious to know, what made you change your mind and decide that being hormonally male was maybe okay with you after all? Were there side-effects to HRT you didn’t expect, or did your concept of yourself just change in that time? I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts since your perspective on this resonates with me a lot, if you’d be okay with sharing them. Thank you!
Hmm, I’d say that the primary reason I want to stop HRT are a few-fold. One, its sexual effects have been more annoying than I expected (not that this is a deal-breaker in itself, and I’d rather not go into too much detail on it, but yeah). Two, the annoyance of having to take pills every morning was a bother in itself. The most important, though, is that in being on HRT, I’ve come to understand my body in a deeper manner. While certain aspects of my body exist that I’ll never love (leg and facial hair, voice to a lesser extent, and other, less gendered traits), none of them are upsetting in themselves. Male puberty is still something which upset me, for sure, but now that it’s happened I don’t, at least right now, feel a need to cancel it. In basically leaving gender identity as a whole behind, I’m just comfortable enough not thinking about my gender to stop taking HRT.
These are just my thoughts, though, and they could definitely change!
That’s really interesting to hear! Thanks for taking the time to reply. And I hope you keep doing whatever lets you have the best possible relationship with your body and your identity that you can.
I can’t really know how HRT will make me feel until I try it, but I’ve been trying to think less about my gender in itself and more about which parts of my body bother me and what would make them easier to live with. It’s possible my feelings on those things might change in the future and I’ll try to be prepared for that too. But I think your attitude to it is a really healthy one and I’ll keep your thoughts in mind for any decisions I have to make too. Thank you!