Note: This post owes a great deal to the contributions and input of a friend who had lived through relevant experiences. While they wish to remain anonymous, I want to express gratitude for their help and lend credit where credit is due.
Last week a story broke in the British press concerning a young trans woman, Ria Cooper, who at 17 had been the youngest patient to ever receive hormone treatment for gender transition under the NHS. Ria was now considering “detransition”, that is, the choice to eschew her scheduled lower surgery, discontinue the use of exogenous hormones and anti-androgens, and return to living and presenting as male, within general cultural concepts of male-ness.
Obviously the often notoriously vicious and transphobic mainstream British press seized on the story, providing as it did an apparent “confirmation” of the initial fears and doubts that the cis public had expressed when Cooper first sought treatment: their outrage at the idea of “kids being given sex changes!”, the idea that at 17 she was “too young” to make such a decision, the distrust of the NHS funding gender transition at all, let alone for “unconventional” patients like trans youth, the idea that it was a frivolous and risky expense of the NHS’ public funding, and the general “gatekeeping” mentality: cissexist or cis-centric biases that lead to the idea that medical gender transition is something that demands an especially extraordinary amount of caution, evidence that the patient is “sure” and capable of being “sure”, and evidence that the patient is “really” trans. Cooper’s (immediately publicized) choice to detransition offered an almost irresistible narrative for everybody in Britain who had expressed outrage, disgust, unease or even mild suspicion that it was a “bad idea” to “allow” her to be treated. It offered them all a chance to feel smug, collectively shrug their shoulders and sigh “I told you so”.
Naturally, this was how the story was spun. It was also intertwined with additional tut-tutting to allow the general cis-centric consensus to feel very proud of its initial suspicions, such as hitting on a note of “wasted tax dollars” (a sentiment that would be considered in extremely poor taste if the medical issue in question was chemotherapy failing to prevent a cancer from coming out of remission, or medications failing to slow the progression of HIV into AIDs, or a heart transplant being rejected by its recipient despite an expensive immuno-suppressant regimen), and the misogynistic explanation that female hormones had in and of themselves “caused” Cooper’s mood swings, depression and eventual suicide attempts. This latter explanation did far worse damage than simply being a trite and sexist simplification designed to confirm the pre-existing biases of the general public, however, in that it also buried the lead, buried the real story, and buried the complex and tragic truth of Ria Cooper’s experiences since their transition. I’ll return to this momentarily.
Worryingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the reactions of The Trans Community, and the discussions that ensued, weren’t any less callous, simplistic or centered on the affirmation of pre-existing biases than those of the cis public. While it’s entirely understandable to be very frightened about what affect this story might have on how gatekeeping procedures and medical access to transition-related treatment are done in the UK and under the NHS, particularly for British trans youth, it’s appalling how many trans women have laid the blame for this risk on Ria Cooper and her supposed “recklessness” or “bad decision-making” or “selfishness” rather than on the press (for how the story has been presented), the cis public (for their biased reactions), and the NHS (for being all too quick to prioritize the cissexist biases of the public over the needs of transgender patients).
Trans women globally have taken this as an opportunity to reengage the concept of there being “true transsexuals” and those who just “think” they’re trans. They’ve taken it as an opportunity to again decry the “cheerleaders” and talk up the importance of being “absolutely sure” (while downplaying the fact that doubts are a near-universal experience of trans people). It’s been used to invest the bizarre essentialism-without-essentialism of “gender identity” with renewed power, to play up binarism, to validate the internal gatekeeping and heirarchies within the Trans Community, to sanctify the conventional narrative, etc. To do all the things trans women often do to consider their identities and gender valid and legitimate at the expense of others. To say “I’m a real woman” by pointing to someone else and saying “they obviously weren’t”.
And perhaps most disappointing is that what has been entirely absent from the conversation is any genuine compassion or support for Ria Cooper herself, or any effort to take into consideration the actual complexity and tragedy of her situation. Absent has been any effort to respect her agency, her right to make this choice despite her earlier choice (which she also had the right to make)… and her right to regret. Unless we’re supporting someone’s right to make choices that turn out to be wrong for them, we’re not genuinely supporting their right to make choices. We can’t claim to support people’s agency and autonomy if we don’t support their right to regret.
This echoed horribly what I had said recently about how after we’re done patronizingly coo-ing over the “Child Who Simply Knew”, we’re happy to toss them to the wolves once they grow into young trans women with adult sexualities, facing complex adult problems, making complex adult decisions, and in need of resources to survive in the adult world (with its very adult risks of very adult consequences).
Even woven through much of the nominal “support” and “compassion” that HAS been offered to Ria there’s been a coded, selfish attempt at validation of our own identities. “Clearly Ria didn’t have a female gender identity, and we all ultimately need to go with what our gender identity really is, on the inside”. That’s silly. Gender can’t be wholly internal. It’s semiotic. It’s between us and others. Its always relational, social, interpersonal, cultural. Its an attempt to negotiate, understand and express the internal in relation to the socio-cultural and interpersonal, and negotiate, understand and express that relationship. Talking about Ria’s “gender identity” without talking about her experiences of gender is an empty gesture that’s ultimately far more about telling ourselves that our genders are solid, consistent and solely our own than it is about trying to understand and sympathize with Ria.
Likewise our general and very noticeable silence on the subject of detransition. Which is, to be dead honest, a kind of erasure that has been overwhelmingly consistent, and gone almost entirely unchallenged. This is a subject most trans people refuse to touch, and when it is spoken of we’re rarely willing to go much beyond the simplistic and naive “oh I guess their gender identities were [assigned sex] after all” explanation. The reason for this silence and erasure certainly isn’t respect or sensitivity for those who’ve made such choices, or lived such experiences.
So, about that buried lead…
Even some of the articles that most directly presented the story as one of how Ria’s “sex change hormones” had “caused” her depression, and that she was clearly “too young” to have made such a choice, nonetheless included quotes from Ria about how she had been treated by her family and friends in the wake of her transition. I can’t help but wonder if this is because the cis bias of the reporters was so thick they didn’t even realize they were including evidence of how they’d distorted the story and glossed over highly significant details. Ria described how her mother no longer permitted her to live at home or come by, unless she did so “as a boy”, how her father openly described her as an “embarrassment” and disappointment, how she ended up alienated from almost all of her friends, and how she considered detransition the only option for having interpersonal connections again, how she considered detransition her only chance to be happy. And that she herself tied this not to the mood swings “caused” by her HRT, but because detransition would allow her to regain her family and connections and support systems.
This wasn’t simply an issue of medical transition, and the physical changes, being something that Ria didn’t want (perhaps tellingly, perhaps not, I wasn’t able to find any statements by Ria on how she felt about her body, its changes, and what changes detransition will sacrifice). I don’t feel comfortable speculating on Ria’s feelings and whether or not she experiences dysphoria about male or female physical characteristics, or how intensely, but what’s clear is that this is very largely an issue of her being unable to cope with the intense pressures and alienation of being trans in a transphobic world. Which is to say nothing of the pressure, stress, transphobia, and lack of privacy or ability to adapt to a relatively “normal” life as female, she must have faced transitioning under such public scrutiny as “Britain’s youngest sex change patient!”.
Age is pretty relevant here, however. Though I’m not of the opinion that adolescence is “too young” to make choices about one’s sex, gender and body, and in fact have very strong feelings about the rights of trans youth to make such decisions independent of often heavily-biased parents and children’s social resources, I’ve long considered age to have a pretty big impact on one’s experience of transition, or being trans. It’s a complex thing, and it’s not as simple as one age group having it “harder” or “easier” than another, but one thing that’s generally consistent is that AMAB (assigned-male-at-birth) people who transition, or otherwise fall outside gender norms, later in life have had more opportunity to achieve stability first; stability in terms of identity, friendships, career, relationships (perhaps marriage), education, financial independence, savings, children, etc. While arguably such individuals have more to lose from transition, those who do so early end up shunted into a marginalized and under-privileged identity before having the opportunity to achieve those kinds of stabilities, or really take advantage of nominal male/cis privilege in acquiring them. Consequently, the experiences of trans youth, particularly those who live in poverty or belong to other marginalized identities, are noticeably different from people who were first normatively sexed/gendered as men prior to transition, and the risks of being cut off or alienated from family, friends, support networks, and social structures are far far greater. There’s a reason homelessness, addiction and survival-sex-work are serious and commonplace problems amongst trans youth but not amongst transitioners who are well into adulthood.
Given the importance of interpersonal connection for a young person, the importance of establishing an identity at that age in relation to the people around you, how terrifying (for very good reason) it is to try to find your way in young adulthood without any stability or supports, and how sensible it must have seemed to accept conditional love and acceptance, support and resources, where its unconditional equivalents were unavailable, it’s impossible and foolish to simply write off Ria’s decision as having been a question of her being “not really trans”, or “not trans enough”, or having had a “male gender identity”. But it would also be presumptuous and foolish to make the claim that she’s therefore not “really” in need of detransition, doesn’t “really” regret her initial decision, that she won’t “really” be a man afterwards, or that detransitioning would necessarily be a “mistake”. It’s just not as simple as that. Neither camp of explanations really deals with gender, or detransition, in a realistic way.
It would be wonderfully comforting to be able to simply, or even effectively, take apart the question of transition and detransition and break it down into basic distinctions of sex (and feelings about the body, dysphoria), gender (the way a sexual identity ends up being understood and expressed) and the way that gender relates to other people and is treated by them. But it’s just not that easy. It would be a comforting illusion, at best. And as always, at worst, it erases the experiences of many who don’t fit our model, and tosses them under the bus so that we don’t have to look directly at our own anxieties about how messy and tangled these things are.
Gatekeeping processes, and highly narrow definitions of what being “really” trans entails and requires, are still heavily enforced both by the cis-controlled establishments and culture that affect our lives and access to treatment and resources, as well as the trans community itself and the resources and supports we (conditionally) offer people who are seeking treatment or transition. And these are the things that people will initially encounter when they begin looking into the idea of “a sex change” (especially given the near total absence of accurate education and information about transition generally available to those who aren’t specifically seeking it out) . They don’t find trans-feminist blogs and books and various affirming outlooks that prioritize self-determination. What they find are the old, archaic narratives and concepts, and ideas of what being a trans woman is “supposed” to mean. They find tsroadmap.com, with its “menus” of various purchasing plans by which you can buy your all-important “passability” (within narrow, commodified, sexist, cissexist, binary-centric, white-centric, ableist concepts of female beauty and “feminine appearance”). They find the COGIATI with its ridiculous ideas of what constitutes a “female brain” (language! social skills!) and what constitutes a “male brain” (maths! spatial reasoning!). They find Anne Lawrence, and Jennifer Finney Boylan, and Susan’s.org, and My Husband Betty, and a whole fuck ton of middle-class, white, binary-identified, wholly linear (more on this soon), narratives geared around adult transitioners who’d already established the economic independence necessary to take the purchasing plans seriously. They certainly don’t find anything much about what this means if you’re young, if you’re poor, if your family are going to kick you out, if you’re on the streets, if you’re a person of colour, if you didn’t already have a normatively sexed body, if you don’t necessarily “identify as” (whatever that means) exactly the presented options, if you have serious disabilities, either physical or mental, if you don’t have medical access, if you’re an addict, if you’re a sex worker, etc.
But people don’t often just shrug their shoulders and say “I guess transition isn’t for people like me!” and go on their way. If it weren’t such a pressing need, they wouldn’t really be in that position of seeking information and resources in the first place. What instead ends up happening is people get forced to try to work with what’s available anyway. And while that often ends up as eschewing the conventional models, and doing things like seeking “black market” hormones or pumping, it also often leads to people forcing themselves into tiny narrow boxes that don’t really fit with what they want and, most importantly, don’t really fit with what they need. Things like believing that in order to resolve a dysphoria about your physical sex, you need to dive into acceptance of a gender presentation that makes you just as uncomfortable as your body used to, such as the high-femme “passable” expectations of the mainstream trans resources and narratives.
And as I mentioned earlier, a gender presentation doesn’t occur in a vacuum, nor is it wholly an extension of the internal to the external. Gender is always negotiated between oneself and the world to which one is expressing it, between what you want to “say” with your gender and what everyone else “hears”, between how you wish to present and how you end up being read, between your idea of who you are and what your culture designates as signifying that kind of self, between you and the people around you. And what your experience of gender is ends up largely determined by how you end up being treated. A trans woman accepted and embraced by her family ends up experiencing her gender differently than a trans woman who is rejected and regarded as an “embarassment” and told she’s only permitted to wear “men’s clothes” at her family home. Those genders will mean different things to those two women, too.
It’s no fucking wonder that many trans people end up feeling worse off than when they began. Nor is it any wonder that people often have to go through a complicated process of negotiating and renegotiating themselves and their relationship to both their bodies and their presentations, that may manifest as changing or adapting their idea of themselves, their gender, their sexual identity, and what they want and need, rather than simply moving “forward” along a nice, easy, uninterrupted process of Gender A to Gender B, “pre” to “post”.
It’s not always entirely up to us what our gender means and how we live through it.
Partly it seems that a lot of our reluctance to deal with detransition, and what it suggests, is related to anxiety about implications like that. Likewise all trans people have to live, for awhile at least, with detransition sort of hanging around in the back of our heads. A perpetual, unavoidable “option”, a “way out”, and that can be a really frightening and demoralizing thing to notice lurking around in your own head. Talking about it grants it more power, more weight… especially if we talk about it in non-demonizing, non-patronizing, non-demeaning ways. So, generally, we don’t. We’re also rather obliged by the medical establishment and by our own peers to uphold the veneer of absolute, unwavering certainty in our decision. That’s how we maintain our presence as “real” transsexual people, after all, and how we maintain our right to sit at the cool trans girls’ table at the coffee shop after the support group is over.
And we’re understandably frightened by how gatekeepers and cis people pounce on the idea of detransition to limit our access and justify the humiliating and exhausting processes they oblige us to work through in order to access treatment, how our families use the idea to point out how we might “just be confused”, how its used as a way to instill us with doubt and anxiety and dread that we might wake up one day horribly regretting our decision and suddenly repulsed by our bodies, miserable, alienated and unable to ever go back. It’s used by various people with anti-trans agendas, like TERFs (trans-exclusionist radical-feminists), to undermine the legitmacy of trans care entirely, and speak about it is as a system that “pushes” people into “mutiliating” their bodies. There’s dozens of ways the reality of detransition is exploited and distorted into the “regretioner” myth and used against trans women as a cudgel. So we’re scared of acknowledging or speaking of that reality at all, lest we feed the myths and attacks by lending them legitimacy. What we don’t think about, though, is all the real people and real experiences, many of which are actually common kinds of stories and narratives for trans people, that we’re erasing, hurting and neglecting in the process.
And through all that, yes, we’re also probably a little bit scared that “gender identity”, “dysphoria” and “transition” are all a lot less clear cut and stable and unwavering than we thought they were. Just like cis people can feel a lot of anxiety about how the existence of trans people destabilizes the certainty of sex and gender as absolutes, trans people can feel a lot of anxiety about how the existence of detransition can destabilize the certainty of gender identity and dysphoria and transgenderism as absolutes.
Maybe we aren’t the simple “female brains” housed in “male bodies” we wanted to believe we are. Maybe transition wasn’t the only possible path. Maybe we never really were certain. Maybe it’s all a bit of a gamble, and all a little bit fluid. Maybe there’s no way of “knowing” who we are. Maybe “who we are” isn’t fixed and unassailable. Maybe our “gender identity” isn’t some internal, essential, unwavering fact that can never be compromised. Maybe we’re partly dependent on the people around us, and on our circumstances. Maybe we could have been wrong. Maybe we have no way of saying for sure what we “really” are.
Maybe it’s not the linear story we always told, either. I’ve written often about the various consequences of privileging specific kinds of trans narratives over others, and how we’ve allowed a singular sort of archetypal trans narrative to gain a position as the experiences we’re all assumed to have, or “supposed” to have had. But on a deeper and more subtle level there’s a dangerous way that the structure of that narrative is hemmed into a very narrow range, and that this occurs in a much more extensive and much more insidious way. It has so much ubiquity it often remains almost invisible. This is something I’d probably refer to as “linear-normativity” or something like that, which is how transition is assumed to always occur in a linear progression. The aforementioned process of going from Gender A to Gender B in a straight, narrow, uninterrupted line, clean of zigs or zags or backsteps or swerves.
This form of normativity is coded into our (highly limited) language of self-reference itself: “Transition”. “Male to female”. “Pre/Post-op”. “Trans”. And we lack any terminology to articulate our existence outside of it.
Implicitly, an identity like “trans woman” itself becomes hinged on an assumed backstory. A male gender assignment. A “male socialization”. Physical masculinization by endogenous hormones. “Coming out”. Physical feminization by exogenous medical intervention.
That simply isn’t a universal story, or what trans-womanhood inherently means. We’ve been gradually challenging certain limitations in what we assume a trans identity must be in a paradigmatic sense, challenging binaries and who does and doesn’t get represented and seen, who does and doesn’t control the image of what a trans person is… but we haven’t yet challenged the assumptions of trans identity in a temporal sense. We’ve gradually expanded our lexicon of ways to say “this is who I am”, but to every one of those Ams, assumptions are still attached about the Hows, the how you got there. “Male to female”.
Trans narratives don’t always move in steady, tidy arcs. Some of us never had a “pre-transition” life, or never really were normatively sexed by the gender binary. Some of us experienced our medical intervention where our adolescence would have been, being no more a “transition” than what is experienced by every other teenager. Some of us weren’t given binary sex assignments, and binary sex assignments aren’t, laterally, universal in terms of what they mean and how they’re lived or how they play out (although they certainly have meaning relative to one another; being AMAB certainly creates different experiences than being AFAB, or intersex). Some of us weren’t socialized in conventional ways (if there even is a conventional kind of male or female socialization). Some of us experienced our adolescence and physical sexual development in ways outside the binary assumptions. Some of us sought different kinds of medical interventions, such as trying to become more physically aligned with our assigned sex, before seeking “transition” in a conventional sense.
And some of us had doubts. And some of us moved backwards, or sideways, or renegotiated things, in the process of arriving at our identities. Some of us detransition. Some of us “retransition”. For some of us, none of those terms would even make sense to articulate our experiences.
Those things aren’t rare. They just happen to be things more often experienced by marginalized portions of our Community more often than by the privileged. Trans youth, and trans people who’ve dealt with street life, addiction, sex work, violence, intense alienation and various other more severe consequences of transphobia and cissexism are particularly likely have had times of intense doubt in their lives, and periods in which they explored their options. And those more vicious consequences fall disproportionately on PoC, PwD and the impoverished.
To act like detransition is something that can ONLY indicate a lack of not “really wanting it” or not “really being trans” is to demonstrate an enormously privileged mindset. One of the most basic kinds of privileged-bias: assuming things are as easy or difficult for everyone as they were for you.
Anyway… that idea of transition, and transness, as inherently linear is just as protected for its superficially “validating” qualities as the essentialism of “gender identity”, “male/female brains” and “men’s and women’s clothes”. It, again, allows us to feel our identified gender is every bit as valid and secure as our cis peers, while remaining on more or less the same kind of conceptual ground as the cis-centric view of gender. We can feel ourselves valid and secure without having to dive into the scary, uncharted waters of granting ourselves that validity, unconditionally, and on our own terms. We can continue feeling there’s some kind of external, quasi-objective standard by which we know ourselves to be “really” women… “deep down”.
But there is no deep down with gender, of course. And that’s fucking terrifying for people who have to daily face a hostile world insisting that they’re just a fake.
We have every psychological reason in the world to refuse speaking of detransition, to mock and belittle and hate and blame detransitioners, or to offer our “support” to them only in terms that reaffirm our own sense of relative superiority and security. But we have every ethical reason in the world to not let ourselves be that petty, and as I’ve said a thousand times, we can’t grow as a trans movement until we’re a movement that includes and genuinely supports all of us: even those of us who regret it. Even those of us who didn’t always know, who had second thoughts, who took missteps, whose stories weren’t linear, who had to fight and negotiate and renegotiate what it is to be trans. Those of us for whom some kind of detransition wasn’t giving in, but attempting to survive.
It’s nothing but straight-up arrogance and heartlessness to, speaking from a position of relative comfort and security, denounce someone for “giving up” after facing harsh realities of a struggle you were spared.
I don’t have any clear or easy answers about detransition and what it means, or any special insight into the actual nature of gender, sex, dysphoria and why we do or don’t feel the things we feel and need the things we need. And I’m not any less anxious, insecure or scared than any other trans woman. But hopefully this can help nudge us in the direction of at least being willing to talk about detransition, talk about what it means for us and our assumptions, and stop erasing people just for the sake of insulating ourselves from questions we’re afraid to answer.
I can’t speak to what Ria Cooper’s “real” reasons for this choice are. It would defeat every point I’ve tried to make if I presumed to. But the least we can offer this young person, discarded and hated from every corner of her life, is to not exploit her situation ourselves. To not make it all about us and the effect it might have for us or how it makes us feel. We can at least afford her the right to regret, the right to make her own choices about what she needs and wants, the right to want her family and friends back, the right to sacrifice transition for the sake of human connection… the right to do what she believes will make her happy. The right to do that without any of us presuming we knew her and her interests better than she knew herself.
Best of luck, Ria. I hope you find your happiness, whatever form it takes.
Hi Natalie! Thanks for not only giving sincere compassion for Ria that many others have, as you pointed out, failed to give, I thank you also for the clear-minded analysis of intersectionality in regards to trans resources and a much needed critical analysis of linear-normativity.
You’ve spoken about the frightening micro-mononlith that the (gender binary, white, middle/upper class, able-bodied, neurotypical, etc.) Trans Community embodies, and how they’ve really drowned out the voices of the many who don’t fit into their rigid narratives and categories.
But you, Natalie, could help to change that. Trans people need help, and they need information, but the current resource sites are merely privileged spaces for Trans Community to promote its essentialist, and often plutocractic, propaganda. You could begin a resource site, full of essays and advice to help those who are in desperate need of it while considering the biases that have been missed by the sites that already exist.
You’ve already done a lot of the legwork for this already, but if you exported the information you have here, reformat it as a trans resource guide, and then link it and promote it through all of the platforms and channels you have available to you, we would be further along in the progress of a more inclusive trans rights movement.
This is indeed a very difficult topic. We’re trying to navigate a world that is essentially against us because we break far to many illusions about norms and human biology. At the same time we have to figure out who we are ourselves without losing our own diversity and identity. This is a hard line to walk, and we really don’t get much of a help from the public, rather the opposite. The people who hate us are far to often saying what the public “already knew” playing on their ignorance about the reality we face both internally end externally.
The hypocrisy of those who work against us is sometimes staggering. The TERFs who so vigorously fight against putting values on women based in sexist ideas, turn right around and do the same with trans women. Medical intervention, as you mention, is perfectly fine for other issues, but when a trans person gets hormones, they’re “fake”. Why are not diabetics “fake” then?
I have been lucky to have people around me in online communities and in real life that aren’t of the narrow minded sort. Being it the cis-normative crowd or the HBSers. My gender identity is, nearly 6 months into transition, quite fluid. It has never been binary, not by a long shot, and it still isn’t. I am actually quite happy just being where I am. My dysphoria, to the extent I had any, it was more frustration, is near non-existent most days. I live in a country where the public care option is heavily into HBS territory with gatekeeping, RLE, demand of a “correct narrative” and last but not least a binary goal in mind. A system only some can live with, and of course suit some trans people just fine. There will always be those who do fit those criteria naturally. The sad part is that the trans organisation fight hard to maintain this narrow definition of transsexualism in order, it seems, to please the cissexist system and “not rock the boat”. Going outside the system, I am free to navigate the gender landscape relatively unhindered by everyone else’s idea about who and what I should be. From a medical point of view that is, social challenges are a different matter. The main lesson for me has been that there are no true narrative, no true transsexuals. There are just people on different paths.
I whole heartedly agree with everything you’ve raised in this article/essay/post. One of the more profound things you’ve explored here is a much-needed lesson in basic humanity: we need to stop exploiting the narratives of unique individuals and use them for our own incredibly selfish purposes. It is sickening to see that instead of support and compassion and respect Ria Cooper now faces her most intimate problems aired and judged for everyone to see. In her shoes, I would be facing down a nightmare: naked, in front of the class where everybody seems to be right and I seem to be wrong.
Thank you for writing about this.
I think your point about linear normativity is an important one. Linear narratives have the power of making every step along the way seem destined, which can be very validating when we are insecure. But the fact that we feel the need for that validation, the fact that we all feel insecure, is evidence that those linear narratives – and the certainties that they supposedly represent – are always just illusions. Of course we all have doubts and we all waver, and not just on the path of transition either. Human beings doubt ourselves. It’s in our nature. And those doubts, and our desire to reassure ourselves in the face of them, is exactly why we try to present a facade of certainty and tell our stories in ways that are more linear then how we lived them.
So, like you said, we have every psychological reason in the world, and not just to speak as we do about detransition, but to tweek our own stories into something more linear and assuring than they were when we lived them. But we also have every ethically reason in the world to be more honest about the complexities of our lives, if only to help us be more accepting of the complexities of the lives of others.
As someone whose initial forays toward transition ended in retreat, it was very helpful to me to realize later that what happened to me was mainly a consequence of adverse economic and social circumstances, and really does not reflect any essential truth about my identity. In retrospect, I lost a great deal to doubt and uncertainty, and I believe my life would have gone very differently if I had understood much sooner some of the ideas presented here.
Today, I am experiencing a slightly different form of ambivalence: transition relieved so much of the pain and pressure that initially pushed me forward, that now I sometimes forget what it was like before, and I sometimes find myself drifting toward a kind of passive detransition simply because I am no longer so driven. I imagine that if I actually tried to detransition, I would be unhappy again, so it’s not an option I would actively pursue. But I wonder if some sort of quiet backsliding may be another unspoken near universal of trans experience?
In any case, I hope that others who may be contending with difficult decisions while trying to find their way in life may find some comfort and encouragement as articles like this one help to expand a general awareness that there are many possibilities in this space, and many if not most who travel here do experience significant doubt and uncertainty, and many do try something and then fall back for a while only to try again later with greater success and satisfaction.
I’ve also had an experience where the relief brought by some parts of transition has made other parts feel less urgent. I’ve had to backslide on my social transition – moving from androgynous presentation to overtly masculine presentation – in order to get a job that means I can afford to move forward with physical transition. At first it felt like torture to go to work in a tie everyday, but as my body started to change it bothered me less and less. Now, looking like a tall woman with a man’s haircut and clothes mostly just amuses me.
A. Person says
Wow. There is a lot of good stuff in this essay to mull over.
This is the first I’m hearing(been taking a news/political sabbatical for mental health) about the hue and holler over Ria Cooper’s decision to detransition, and it is depressing but not unsurprising what googling turned up. Especially if the twitter account I found actually belongs to her, because it does sound like a decision made for reasons like lack of support and not because of the needs of her identity. Though having not seen the original interview, I wonder if the media misinterpreted her speaking in public about doubts.
Switching gears, one thing I like to add is that there is also this false assumption that being trans means that transition and gender identity are your paramount concerns if you are “really” trans. That other experiences and other life goals can’t be pursued at the expense of transition. Thus also leading to that wibbly wobbly ball of identity stuff.
With regard to linear normativity, possibly some of the criticism of unilinear evolution might be helpful in fleshing out your ideas on this topic.
Apologies for the scatter-brainedness of this comment, not thinking too well tonight.
Thank you for writing about these topics. They are far more complex and profound than most people realize.
Great post; thank you for making it. You’ve expressed a lot of my concerns about the coverage/treatment of this.
You know I agree with this. 🙂 But I think we have the option of building our own “deep down”. Creating/committing on a firm basis, rather than finding an “essential” one in nature.
If gender’s partly or completely a political system, as many people (including me) argue, then for trans* women, “deep down” can be a visible and irrevocable commitment to fighting that system from and via one or more of the political positions and political perspectives of women. In other words, a commitment not to relate to the gender system from the political position of “men” (which MacKinnon would describe as objectivism/objectification).
After all, only being able to access one or more of the positions and perspectives of “women” is the condition of cissexual women (Dworkin talks in Right-Wing Women about what happens when cissexual women try to escape that). If there’s an “essential” (universal/fundamental to the category) gender experience of womanhood in a patriarchy, that’s it – being restricted to women’s position in the gender hierarchy.
I don’t think that’s accessible to all trans* women, and I think that’s one of the crimes of the various systems that keep us all down. And I think there’s a subtlety in that strategies of essentialism (imperfect though they are) are always more available to cissexual women (moreso when white, non-disabled) than transsexual women, so that public commitment is potentially less dangerous to cissexual women who always have an “out”, and deep wells of “authenticity” to draw on.
(obligatory note for mixed blog: politically male commentators, I prefer to do my politics in women-only spaces, Natalie’s blog is awesome enough for me to suspend this, but please respect my preferences – and the fact that you can guarantee to have the last word because I simply won’t respond – by not engaging with me)
Setár, genderqueer Elf-Sheriff of Atheism+ says
I will not respect this because your implicit gender binarism is disrespectful to me and all other genderqueer or otherwise nonbinary-identified people, by virtue of treating us as though we don’t fucking exist.
This is not about having the “last word”, either. This is about not letting your invalidating binarist bullshit stand uncontested. Especially not in the comments of a post that has helped immensely in counteracting the sort of invalidations — like the crap surrounding detransition — that make it hard for us nonbinaries to get our existence recognized in the first place.
I do usually hang around in women-only spaces (albeit ones with political definitions of ‘woman’ linked to whose interests are bound up with ending patriarchy), and I do prefer not to do feminism with people occupying a male political position. But if you don’t identify yourself with men, I’m happy to chat. That includes, I know, a lot of genderqueer people. But I’m sorry, I should have spelled that out.
Being politically genderqueer, I don’t know how else to say this: I concluded, depressingly, that the world is not yet ready. Probably a generation from now, most people will be able to accept “no” or “why do you care?” as an answer to the question “are you a boy or a girl?”, but not yet.
People can choose to “live as a man” or “live as a woman”. Choosing to do neither is *still* off-limits practically everywhere, except in the most progressive environments.
Natalie Reed says
She doesn’t necessarily have to be erasing non-binary identities to prefer conducting politics in spaces built for those who politically identify as women. “I prefer to conduct politics with women” is something different than “I prefer to conduct politics with women, because I don’t wish to do so with men”. The latter excludes the middle. The former doesn’t. It simply expresses a particular preference for the spaces one occupies, and yes, there are certain political discourses that affect women differently than everyone else, male-binary or non-binary.
This is not to say that I fully endorse Lisa’s approach here, or share it, just that I ALSO see a lot of creepiness in the immediate reaction of a rather threatening level of anger from someone who isn’t a woman simply being asked to respect a woman’s preferences for conducting her politics with other women. And if you DO politically identify as a woman in some regard, you were never excluded by her statement in the first place.
But the latter is exactly what Lisa did in her first comment — set up a gender binary. Read the comment:
a visible and irrevocable commitment to fighting that system from and via one or more of the political positions and political perspectives of women. In other words, a commitment not to relate to the gender system from the political position of “men”
Quite the exclusionary binary there.
To Lisa’s tremendous credit, she corrected herself in her subsequent comment.
No Light says
Ria was the subject of a documentary earlier this year, and IIRC she was incredibly dysphoric.
I fear that she may not last very long after detransitioning, and realising that her relationships aren’t going to be reset to their pre-transition status. That, plus the horror of (what is essentially) forced detransition and the dysphoria that will invariably accompany it, can’t lead anywhere positive for her.
The media’s problem with Ria was that she wasn’t a “good” trans woman. She enjoyed clubbing, drinking, she talked openly about boys and sex, and was just an average teenager. The media, train-crash instigators and promoters, want tragedy, a dollop of shame, consideration of everyone’s feelings (except the woman who’s transitioning), and a shy and embarrassed demeanour. Ria wasn’t up for that, so now she’s being paraded as a mental case, as a reason to stop younger people getting help.
I hope she’ll be ok, I’m scared for her.
That Guy says
Hi Natalie- thank you for pointing out this story for me- it’s heartbreaking to read the quotes from Ria- and how the story has been spun.
If it’s any consolation, as a UK resident, the Daily Mirror is considered one of the creepy red top rags which nobody should really take seriously here. That being said, this maybe isn’t brilliant, seeing as since I didn’t hear about the story elsewhere, this is a sign of erasure of trans* people. I’m not sure.
I haven’t seen the documentary- I think the only one I’ve ever seen on trans* people was ‘my transexual summer’-
that seemed less leery than how I imagine most others to be, but I’m not convinced it wasn’t exploitative.
Can anyone else who has seen it confirm/deny it as being highly sensationalistic and exploitative?
That Guy says
clarification: Can anyone else who has seen it confirm/deny it as being highly sensationalistic and exploitative?
can anyone who has seen Ria’s s documentary is this and that?
I should learn the preview button
Natalie Reed says
I remember hearing that many of the cast were extremely unhappy with how My Transsexual Summer was edited and spun. There was a story that one segment that was significant to one of the cast was cut entirely due to it “not being heartrending enough”, in the actual words of one of the cis producers. I think that anecdote is a pretty clear example of trans exploitation, in a nutshell.
Fey Trickster says
I wrote a rhetorical criticism paper on the first episode My Transsexual Summer, and one of the things that stuck out to me (beyond the obligatory cis- centric shots of trans men injecting hormones, trans women talking about HRT, the titillating discussions and graphic footage of SRS…) was that on the show’s website the medical history (and/or desires) of every person participating, except one, was a major feature of their ‘learn more about’ profiles.
In other news, I think this is one of the best articles you’ve ever written. If I had something to add, I think one additional reason that trans people are so hesitant to discuss detransition is not just how the media seizes on those narratives, but also that every once in awhile you get that one person who regrets transition so much (for whatever their reasons may be) that they use their narrative of detransition to attack all other trans people as ‘fakes’ or ‘confused’, etc. Which I think makes the discussions a bit more personal, for all the reasons you list in the article.
That Guy says
Thanks Natalie, Thanks Fey;
Do you have a link to the paper you wrote? I would really like to read more of your thoughts.
I really thought this was a powerful post- and I’m still kind of baffled (reading the comments on the hurr daily mail hurrr website) that people can read about how the friends and family have disowned and rejected this young person to such a degree it appears they have to sacrifice self-determination for being ‘loved’.
and still scream like angry rats about ‘wasted taxes’ and mythical strawmen.
Yeah, I can’t say I’m surprised about MTS- and in hindsight, putting any semblance of trust in channel four to make a documentary that wasn’t relentlessly voyeuristic was naive of me. Sorry about that.
Best post ever, and that not easy to do.
Some outstanding comments too.
Your writing is excellent as always, and I think the concept of a “right to regret” is an important one.
Wow, well said. Thanks for taking the time to write this out!
This post is an enormous step toward isolating gender from the surrounding contexts, to see gender only for itself. I like that.
This is yet another post that I must thank you for.
I came out when I was 17, to my Saudi family, something which in retrospect I regret to some degree, even though the reaction wasn’t terrible initially. I tried to transition when I was 18, and found it quite impossible to get through the gate-keeping. I was constantly questioned, though eventually managed to get a letter by threatening to self-medicate. The endocrinologist I was seeing at the time told me I was the youngest patient he’d ever had and questioned my authenticity every visit. Without going into detail, he eventually refused to treat me.
One of the reasons that made it difficult to get a letter for hormones in the first place was a “non-standard” childhood; aka no cross-dressing and no clear preference for female coded play. The fact that my childhood was in Saudi Arabia didn’t seem to penetrate much; cross dressing in childhood assumes you had access to the clothing to begin with. There were no women in the house except my mother, and I wasn’t allowed into her room in the first place. I wonder often what other trans immigrants have experienced trying to get access medical care, and how many of them get denied because the toxic and ridiculous ways “real transsexuals” gets defined is at odds with their culture of origin.
Getting booted from my own transition happened to coincide with me getting out from under my abusive family. It took me years to pick it up again, and the shame of that never quite left me. I questioned; whether it was worth the effort fighting the gate-keepers, whether I’d ever pass well enough to be happy (ugh), whether I was doomed to a life of loneliness if I were to transition. Yet more toxic was the complete lack of sympathy for me in any of the trans circles I frequented (why are trans communities so often toxic?). Things felt pretty hopeless after I got my hormone prescription revoked; I felt that I’d never be able to transition and was stuck in limbo. As time passed, my lover and my family started questioning whether I was ever trans at all because I’d stopped transition. A lifetime of abuse had left me unable to hold down a job for any real length of time, and let me tell you that being financially dependent on people who are discouraging you from transitioning is a real barrier to introspection. I went back to thinking I could live as man for the rest of my life for a while.
I got knocked out of that by another trans-woman eventually, but it was a very long time from my first transition attempt to getting around to trying it again. I’m 26 now and still not living as a woman, though I’m close, and it’s staggering to me that it basically took about 9 years from when I came out to get here. I almost never mention this to other trans people because of the shame involved in failing to transition and going back to trying to find some life as a man, however short that period was.
I am continually angry over how much cissexist bullshit pervades trans communities. I’ve spoken to three trans people who have regretted their transition, two of whom have detransitioned. They all have different stories, from doing so out of a sense of obligation to their family (depressingly common for lgbt Arabs), to realizing they didn’t care about it as much as they did before, to finding the gender expectations post-transition to be more of a problem than the dysphoria was pre-transition. I get why this threatens trans people, but our precarious sense of authenticity in our identities is no excuse to throw other trans people under the bus. Some nuance in the narratives of how our identities are constructed is definitely way overdue.
That is… really, really sad. Especially as I imagine that the transition itself is an inconvenient adventure.
Has anybody heard of a counterexample?
Oh, about Cooper? I’m left being quite disappointed and angry. Not at Cooper, mind you, but at the family, friends, and society in general that reject zir simply because zie isn’t what they want zir to be. Being rejected by those close to you, especially when they’ve claimed to love you unconditionally, is a terrible thing to bear and go through (which I say with experience), even more so when they were your only support.
This is what really stuck out to me when I read an article about it. What also stuck out to me was that Cooper was also planning on joining the military. While there’s nothing wrong with that fact (especially as the UK allows openly trans folk to serve), being a transgender veteran myself and attending a trans-vet group, I know that a good reason a lot of (but not all) (potentially) trans-women who join do so as a last ditch effort to assert masculinity and deny femininity (same can be said about trans-men, but to a much lesser amount). While I definitely can’t speak for Cooper’s desires in such regard, it does further my opinion that the motivating force behind detransition is because of rejection and loneliness as opposed to not finding comfort with gender identity and expression.
I also agree with everything else in your wonderfully written post (which I don’t think could really be condensed more that it is). Gender identity and expression are not binary in any sense, just as no part of our identity of self and how we interact with those around us is. Sadly a lot of people don’t know this, and even more sadly many trans folk don’t realise or forget that their otherwise binary-like change is really just an amalgam of a great many things they’re changing or accepting.
Part of why such is constantly affirmed for me is that my spouse is genderqueer, and as such is even farther removed from the traditional binary-like view on gender. I also know that some people have to (for lack of better terms) “play around” or “try on” different gender expressions and inward views in order to find what feels more “right” for themselves. I did a little myself at the beginning, and even five and a half years after knowing and accepting that I’m a transwoman I still get plagued by the occasional doubt and self reflection.
(Zie, zir, zir’s and zirself being used as gender neutral pronouns, as while they, them, and themselves can work I want to make a clear distinction between an individual or group.)
*This post was made with my experiences opinions, and as such my not be accurate with reality. Take from it as you will.
I am sorry, I have been having trouble reading the blog and the comments. I hit my limit at the concept that the child could not go home to her parents.
I never get the chance to say – “Hey, Turkey! This is still your child. It really doesn’t matter if your child is he, she it or neither. The child is still your child. How can you not love your child? What’s wrong with YOU?!”
Sorry, I have to go away and use the kleenex. This one really bites, and I cannot see to type through the tears.
Dalillama, Schmott Guy says
I have little to add, but this is also how I feel, admixed with a deep, deep rage at Ria’s family and circle of acquaintances.
Seconded!Or thirded,as it were.
Also,I want to scream and cry at the casual dismissal of youngsters in need by the very institutions that are supposed to help them.People seem to want to put on a great show of helpfulness and assistance,”performing aid” as I call it (plus earn a paycheck,ha)without actually wanting to genuinely provide aid and assistance,as that would require them to listen for once in a while to voices other than their own.They want to be seen as saviours,but not make any effort to save anyone.
julie ann Richmond says
Wow that was great … I agree we should show unconditional support .
Keeping things in a bright light always out shines the dark . 10 fold .
I really liked the term “linear normativity”
…. What is meant by it? It’s not quite clear – does it refer to the fact that people talk about things after the fact as if they were predetermined to occur they way they did?
“Best of luck, Ria. I hope you find your happiness, whatever form it takes.”
As do I, I just hope she doesn’t end up as a statistic or a body in the mortuary.
I sometimes feel like going back to male , I transitioned in 07 to a female, got into serious debt, lost my job declared bankruptcy, I’d like to take my final step to get facial surgery, but having lost my job because of knee replacements, I feel stuck and can’t complete my transition 100%, so sometimes I feel or think I should go back to being a male, I feel like I’ve failed.
thanks for this! i have reblogged it on my wordpress site.
Yes, transitioning is certainly hard,especially for some people.You need to have a skin as thick and hard as the shell plates of an armadillo.Of course if you have any SERIOUS doubts it is better to wait,but yielding to outside pressure can be fatal, literally.It is tragic that so many people are so unfeeling and harsh towards those who are supposed to be their “loved ones”.Of course so many “Christians” ignore the basic teaching of Jesus, which is LOVE.
Have a way of opening eyes.
And yes, emotionally wrenching post – because one’s child is one’s child, and should be loved, no matter what… 🙁
I was in a state of semi transition for 20 years… Being male was just survival not life. I first contacted “the system” in the late 80s when there was very little understanding for the hell I was in and if I didn’t fit the standard narrative, I wasn’t trans and I wasn’t getting any help! With such rejection, I drifted back into being a failed male, with social anxiety and deep depression my only friends.
Yet, despite being put in a bad way by the medical system; I acknowledge that what is available now is LIGHT YEARS from what was available then. I’m not a big fan of the idea that trans have absolute agency on their lives and should get SRS on the spot because they know what’s what with total certainty. Why? Because there is no such thing as total certainty! I’ve met enough gender confused people over 25 years (hundreds) to know that this is the case. MTF Trans who come up for treatment often want SRS instantly; this rush usually eases once they are listened too and other less drastic steps are taken. I agree that HRT (especially MTF) should be done with minimal obstacles, because its a kind of self diagnosis in itself. But, SRS should remain an option only for those who are otherwise well adjusted after HRT because there is no turning back from that if it is indeed a mistake.
Fear can keep someone with acute dysphoria from transitioning fully, keep them in no man’s land in between (my lot before I finally took the plunge 20 years later), or make them take one last stab at faking it (some can do this quite successfully, they are great actors, while I couldn’t). someone with so acute dysphoria can discover that being in between is not so bad and not transitioning is the best decision they ever made. I’m all for people not transitioning just to follow a narrative.
In the case of this person in the UK, I fear from what I’ve heard that this turn out badly because of the intense dysphoria and the reason for de-transitioning. I Pray for the best.
HRT is at least semi-rerversible?
Concentratedwater, OM says
The NHS, and ‘NICE’, make decisions about clinical benefit versus financial outlay. SOMEONE HAS TO.
They are the source of scare stories about cancer patients being refused a drug, costing 100,000, which would – actually, might – improve their survival from 6 months to 6 and one half months.
They are necessary check to ensure that pharmaceutical companies do not have free reign to rip off the taxpayer.
Spurious demands for sex change ops fall under that remit.
Natalie Reed says
LOL “sex change”
I doubt that there are many spurious sex change operations – I mean, seriously, why would somebody ever do that?
Although I can’t say I remember what problem you have with the word ‘sex-change’
It seems to me that transsexuality is rare enough that funding it would not be all that big of a problem?
Thanks for your great post Natalie, it truly resonates for me! I originally transitioned in 1993, and detransitioned a year later due to various circumstances, including employment discrimination, lack of health insurance, etc. After a couple of retries, I’m finally making significant steps again toward living in truth of who I know myself to be. I’ve encountered my share of negative attitudes about detransitioning from other trans people, however at some point I realized it was an important issue in our community, and that I needed to speak openly about my experiences, including on my blog.
James K says
I have long enjoyed your writing Natalie, and this analysis of Ria’s plight is no exception to your excellent insight.
As for myself, I am male, comfortable in it, and not interested in changing anything about myself. That said, Ria’s situation (and the LGBTQ [add letters as appropriate] group), atheists, and many other groups are pounded from the bully pulpit with “you’re making a choice, live with it” mentality that dehumanises people and simply puts labels on them.
And when your own identity does not fit the community’s accepted labels, there is something wrong with you.
For myself, I don’t really give a hoot as to what gender someone presents themselves as: male, female, both, neither – none of them affect in the slightest my own rights and liberties. I care whether a person is honest, upstanding, trustworthy; things which no gender-identity have a claim to.
I don’t even care much for the labels “cis” and “trans,” primarily because they are labels, and they are unhelpful in defining a person, just a gender-identity. What defines a person is not gender-identity, but personal honour and morals.
Whether “cis” or “trans,” a dishonest person is still dishonest. Whether either, a loving person is still loving, community-minded are still community-minded, &c.
Ethics, morals, and concern for others are far more important to me than how one identifies him- or herself. You demonstrate those qualities admirably in this post – while the press and the blogs gleefully pillory Ria’s choice (and I liked the analogy about a heart transplant), your concern was for the person. For another who is hurting, confused, shunned by family and friends.
-That- is the moral high ground. Thank you for bringing this out, Natalie. – James, in a little town on the High Plains.
James, in appreciation of your trying to be supportive, I think you should re-think your statements about “not giv[ing] a hoot as to what gender someone presents themselves as”. It’s not unlike statements about “not caring what color a person’s skin is…”, which is pretty much just said by white people who are clueless about the realities of living as a person of color, where PoC are usually not afforded the luxury of colorblindness. Similarly, by saying that YOU don’t care about gender, you signal to others that you’re clueless about the experiences of people who can’t afford to NOT think about it (cluelessness isn’t inherently bad, but it often accompanies some things that are). At best. At worst, statements like that often preface downright transphobic remarks, so they can make people wary about your support.
I’m really not trying to be a jerk, but you seem to want to be an ally, so you might be interested in knowing how you’re signalling that to others.
Sarah Lake says
A truly stunning and important piece. Though inevitably seeming complex, the culprit in this comprehensive discussion of a vital issue seems very clear to me … ideological cisgenderism
Excellent and thought provoking post, Natalie. I am often struck by the “right” and “wrong” ways of transitioning or living and have been told by a number of those who claim to sit in judgement of those arbitrary parameters of living that I have not done things the “right” way. The fact is that I tried to transition when I was young and for a lot of reasons, saw the dark shadow of what my life would have been then and went groundhog and hid for another 20 years before seeing the light side of things. I feel privileged to be where I am now, fortunate beyond measure considering where others are. But none of this has been easy.
And my experience is mine own. It is not my place (or anyone else’s) to tell someone else that how I have done things is the “right” way or that if they must detransition, they are making a horrible mistake or are not “really trans” because their lives are not mine and they must do what is best for them as they see things.
Markita Lynda—threadrupt says
I hope you’re writing the book that trans people need to have as a resource and publishing it bit by bit on the web until the paper version comes out. All the best!
I hold an interest in detrasitioned people of course(as a RLT period TS.) The way I think I do profile and group people and there nothing wrong with any standard detranstion reason.
Some basic possibilities are:
“not ready yet”
social relational damage
other health injury (DVT, STD’s etc)
general health precluding desired treatment
desired treatment failing expectations
failure to pass causing unexpected problems
too young to assess a full and complex adult future perspective
Some obnoxious possibilities are:
Intentional story production (like playing gay for a year, it’s been done and documented for profit, I have zero doubt that there isn’t identical circumstances in the TS community.)
Mole work with the intent to damage TS people or organizations.
Doubtful medical recommendation from any party aka cheerleading (opposite of gatekeeping)
I would bet many detransitioned people could tick numerous boxes. Even in my “obnoxious” list those are legitimate reasons, I just think it drifts into evil to damage other people.
Natalie Reed says
Really? You believe “cheerleading”, “passing”, “mole work”, “too young”, “RLT” and not-really-trans are all actual things, and take them seriously, at face value?
Please, please, please go do some EXTENSIVE reading of my archives, and other trans-feminist blogs, before commenting again. Thanks.