I am fascinated by detransitioners. You should be, too.
A brand-new population offers powerful life lessons for therapists and laypeople alike.
I am fascinated by detransitioners for two big reasons: they are a brand new, rapidly growing population that has yet to be adequately understood and helped by therapists as well as communities at large; and they are courageous role models walking heroes journeys we can all learn from.
One: Detransitioners are a brand new, rapidly growing population.
Therapists serve “populations”
The moment it dawned on me that detransitioners are a brand new population, my whole body tingled. My mind felt illuminated; my chest, expansive.
Early in our careers, therapists are frequently prompted to think about what populations we want to work with, defining them along such lines as demographics, diagnoses, backgrounds, story arcs, and therapeutic goals. Sometimes an internship or job determines who we serve; other times, we have some choice in the matter. Either way, we gain experience, insight, wisdom, compassion, and skills, while discovering more about our passions and career aspirations.
I have worked with several populations at various points in my career, with varying degrees of choice. These have included transition-age youth with severe mental illnesses, stepping down from hospitalization to residential care; Native American youth; families involved in the child welfare system; creative, gifted, & neurodivergent adolescents & adults; non-monogamous individuals & couples; teen girls; sexual minorities; divorcees; and healthcare professionals, social workers, caregivers, & other kinds of helpers facing burnout.
The emergence of the trans population
A few years ago, I began seeing more gender questioning, trans- and nonbinary- identified people in their teens to thirties. This population had been a very narrow niche just decades before, but its exponential growth in the 2010’s called for a comparable growth in suitable clinicians. Where there were once dozens or hundreds of clinicians serving trans people, we now number in the thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands. Looking back, I can see how social pressures, biased trainings, and the urgent desperation I felt from my clients, combined with my desire to do good and other character traits, rushed me into adopting a certain understanding and approach. Three years of research and experience later, I have a different take, as can be ascertained from a variety of other controversial articles on my blog.
A century ago, there was no such thing as a medically transitioned individual. The technology did not exist, so the population size was zero. Several decades ago, transitioners were a niche population. Today, they are everywhere.
The emerging wave of the detrans population
Out of those who transition, a portion detransition. One of many reasons to adopt a cautious, exploratory approach to helping gender-questioning youth is that there is no way to predict who will detransition, and we lack adequate long-term data on both transitioning and detransitioning. Yet many barriers to transitioning have been removed while motives for transitioning continue to expand and average age of medical intervention becomes earlier. Given these and other factors, over time I predict we will see these trends growing among those who transition: they will have had a shorter duration of gender dysphoric symptoms prior to transitioning; they will be younger; they will have received less counseling, screening, and information from qualified professionals; they will have gotten more of their information from peers and dubious sources on the internet. It is fair, then, to speculate not only that the number of transitioners is growing exponentially, but also that an increasing portion of them will come to regret their transitions. All of these factors combined mean that in the next few years, we will see a tidal wave of detransitioners.
But even if you don’t believe me — even if you are a die-hard “trans rights activist” (TRA) who doesn’t believe that Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria is real, or that screening and counseling are necessary, or that social contagion or perverse incentives or secondary gain are ever at play, and therefore you don’t believe that the portion of transitioners who detransition will grow; you have to admit that detransitioners are real people. If you don’t believe that they deserve understanding, compassion, and support, I hope you don’t work in the field of mental health.
We are unprepared…
Our field is even less prepared to handle detransitioners than it was to handle transitioners. I mean this in terms of training and experience, but our character traits may be even more influential. Consider the demographics, personality, and moral leanings of average therapist. Our field is heavily weighted to attract and cultivate clinicians who are liberal, compassionate, empathetic, nurturing, conscientious, agreeable, educated, average to above average in intelligence, middle to upper middle class, female, and white. We like to think of ourselves as good, caring people, and it’s important to us that others see us that way, too. Many of us have a tendency to be codependent, soft-hearted, prone to emotional reasoning, vulnerable to colluding with our clients, overly nurturing or infantilizing. We don’t like to upset people, but if we ever do get a bit more aggressive, it’s because we see ourselves as fighting for the underdog, championing or rescuing perceived victims. While these statements are not true across the board — numerous counter-examples come to mind, in myself and colleagues — they are common trends.
These traits have made therapists eager to hop on board the transgender train, demonstrating to ourselves and others just how progressive and compassionate we are. Not so with the detransitioner population, at least not yet. As of November 2021, “detransitioner” is still a dirty word among TRAs. Any therapist who has colluded with that community and adopted its narratives isn’t prepared to look the reality of detransitioners squarely in the face. When they do, it will be deeply disquieting.
…but they are approaching
I’ve been counseling since 2013. At no point in the history of my profession have detransitioners been a population anyone around me spoke about. But they are now. And their numbers are only growing.
A whole new population is emerging, and they are in desperate need of supportive clinicians, for a myriad of reasons. Many have been traumatized by their social and physical experiences. Some are isolated and humiliated, having lost friends or been ostracized from communities that claimed to love and support them. Because they made decisions when they were young and vulnerable that they came to regret, and professionals enabled them, their trust in themselves, doctors, and therapists may be shattered. They may be dealing with major endocrine disruption that affects all aspects of their physiology and brain chemistry. Their relationships with their bodies, sexuality, and relationships are all bewildering. Their understanding of themselves, identity, appearance, physiology, beliefs, belonging, the future — everything has been turned upside down.
If therapists are to properly serve our communities, we must learn as much as we can about detransitioners, as quickly as possible.
Two: Detransitioners are courageous role models.
I am a therapist because I love transformation. I see how hard it is for people when their worlds fall apart, their beliefs are shattered, their plans disrupted, their hopes crushed. A big part of my work is helping people turn breakdowns into breakthroughs.
Facing reality is hard
It takes courage to begin to face a crisis head-on, rather than double-down and further entrench oneself in flawed coping mechanisms. All kinds of cognitive biases aid in defending ourselves from painful, confusing, or overwhelming information, even from our own senses. Denial, rationalization, the sunken cost fallacy, Stockholm syndrome, dissociation, self-medication, magical thinking, groupthink, self-gaslighting, habituation, hubris — you name it; the human mind comes equipped with many brilliant techniques for sticking to ideas and habits long after they have expired, especially when basic human needs like belonging are on the line.
Detransitioners, therefore, are pretty damn special, and we can all learn from them, even if we’ve never personally grappled with gender issues. But before going into this any further, let’s confront a cognitive bias that is quite likely affecting you, the reader, at this very moment: the hot-cold empathy gap.
We’re worse than we think at putting ourselves in others’ shoes
Simply put, we are worse than we think at imagining how we would behave in a certain situation, especially if we are in a “cool,” calm, rational state of mind while imagining a situation that would trigger “hot” reactions such as rage or terror.
A classic example of the hot-cold empathy gap that I know more about than I care to admit: most people who haven’t experienced domestic abuse think that they would immediately end a relationship if a partner crossed a given line. While they may have a great deal of sympathy for anyone who has been abused, this is often tinged with infantilizing pity. It’s common to believe, however subconsciously, that the poor victim must be dumb, self-hating, equally abusive, exaggerating, attention-seeking, or otherwise deeply flawed; otherwise, why on earth would she stay in such a hellish situation? It’s far more comforting to believe “I would never put up with that, so she must be very different from me, and not in a good way,” than to feel the helpless fright of knowing something so awful could happen to anyone. That’s how I thought, too, until I found myself in that situation. The myriad factors that trapped me warrant their own article, but I certainly don’t feel like writing that today, and I may not for a long time.
Perhaps a better example is that of being in a cult — which, come to think of it, is also an experience that I have had. Again, no one ever wants or intends to be in a cult, any more than they want or intend to be in an abusive relationship. Again, everyone likes to believe that they can spot a cult from a mile away, or at least that the moment they had any reason to believe they were involved in something nefarious, they would up and leave. And again, it’s more comforting to believe that cults are for dummies — not for smart people like us. Ironically, these are a few of the misperceptions that render us vulnerable. A person who believes he is too smart to be brainwashed makes for a much better victim than one who is aware she is not, and lives with an appropriately circumspect attitude.
The point here is that it is extraordinarily difficult to accurately imagine how we might feel and react in the heat of the moment. When we truly take all factors into consideration, our vulnerability to deception, manipulation and abuse isn’t exceptional; it’s predictable. Few people are nearly so immune to it as they fancy themselves to be; many who have managed to avoid it are simply lucky.
Anyone can slide into hell; heroes climb their way out
What I find most fascinating isn’t that some of us get sucked down a slippery slope into hell, as humans are wont to do; nor is it that others never encounter such a fate. It’s that some of us have had a far less commonplace journey: we found ourselves halfway there, and somehow managed to turn the f*** around.
That was me when I left cult #1, and cult #2, and abusive relationship #1, and abusive relationship #2. Yes, I made multiple mistakes, and I learned from those too. I learned that a person coming out of a bad situation, whose mind has been warped and support system has been eroded, is highly vulnerable to the enticing appearance of a good situation, especially when it masquerades as the polar opposite of what came before. The second cult I joined appeared quite different on its surface from the first, and my second abuser’s persona was nothing like that of the one who came before. In each case, I was in some of the most desperate situations of my life, and jumped ship from one to the next in a heartbeat. While I could write extensively on the mechanisms that govern these kinds of traumas, the point is that we are at far greater risk of manipulation and abuse than we would like to believe.
We all would benefit from studying how intelligent, conscientious, compassionate, moral, and agreeable people fall into cults and abusive relationships. This requires removing our blinders to the unsettling reality of how much we share in common with people who have made devastating errors in judgment that appear embarrassingly misguided from the outside. This newfound humility then behooves us to learn from the stories of people who have found the courage to recognize they have made a mistake, confront the reality of their predicament soberly, risk losing everything they have, and turn their lives around.
We have so much to learn
Those of us who have not detransitioned cannot possibly imagine what it is like to be several steps down that road, deeply invested, and decide to turn around. We cannot imagine all the social, psychological, physical, financial, and existential factors affecting our decisions.
But each of us, in our own lives — even if we are not therapists, doctors, parents, or teachers; even if we have no personal connection or responsibility to the gender nonconforming community — have made regrettable mistakes.
There have also been times that we didn’t allow ourselves to acknowledge that something was a mistake. Instead, we avoided the pain and embarrassment of regret by doubling down on our flawed coping mechanisms, even when doing so created worse physical, financial, or psychological long term outcomes than it would if we were to find the strength to make a change now.
We have all adopted erroneous beliefs, and allowed pride and groupthink to stop us from questioning them. We have insisted we were on the right side of history when we may well have been on the wrong.
We have taken up destructive habits and held on to them at the expense of our relationships, health, and financial security.
We have done things to please, appease, or fit in with others at the expense of our own dignity.
We have chosen bad partners, then fought to defend them from our friends’ and families’ concerns. We have made unwise business decisions and financial investments, yet continued to throw good money after bad.
The list goes on.
Mistakes are the norm. The courage to face them and turn things around — now that’s what’s exceptional.
This is why I admire detransitioners, listen to their stories, learn from them, and share. And I believe you should too.