Progressives often portray the heated debate over childhood transgender care as a clash between those who are trying to help growing numbers of children express what they believe their genders to be and conservative politicians who won’t let kids be themselves.
But right-wing demagogues are not the only ones who have inflamed this debate. Transgender activists have pushed their own ideological extremism, especially by pressing for a treatment orthodoxy that has faced increased scrutiny in recent years. Under that model of care, clinicians are expected to affirm a young person’s assertion of gender identity and even provide medical treatment before, or even without, exploring other possible sources of distress.
Many who think there needs to be a more cautious approach — including well-meaning liberal parents, doctors and people who have undergone gender transition and subsequently regretted their procedures — have been attacked as anti-trans and intimidated into silencing their concerns.
Stephanie Winn, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Oregon, was trained in gender-affirming care and treated multiple transgender patients. But in 2020, after coming across detransition videos online, she began to doubt the gender-affirming model. In 2021 she spoke out in favor of approaching gender dysphoria in a more considered way, urging others in the field to pay attention to detransitioners, people who no longer consider themselves transgender after undergoing medical or surgical interventions. She has since been attacked by transgender activists. Some threatened to send complaints to her licensing board saying that she was trying to make trans kids change their minds through conversion therapy.
In April 2022, the Oregon Board of Licensed Professional Counselors and Therapists told Winn that she was under investigation. Her case was ultimately dismissed, but Winn no longer treats minors and practices only online, where many of her patients are worried parents of trans-identifying children.
Detransitioners say that only conservative media outlets seem interested in telling their stories, which has left them open to attacks as hapless tools of the right, something that frustrated and dismayed every detransitioner I interviewed.
Parents are routinely warned that to pursue any path outside of agreeing with a child’s self-declared gender identity is to put a gender dysphoric youth at risk for suicide, which feels to many people like emotional blackmail.
Gay men and women often told me they fear that same-sex-attracted kids, especially effeminate boys and tomboy girls who are gender nonconforming, will be transitioned during a normal phase of childhood and before sexual maturation — and that gender ideology can mask and even abet homophobia.
“I transitioned because I didn’t want to be gay,” Kasey Emerick, a 23-year-old woman and detransitioner from Pennsylvania, told me. Raised in a conservative Christian church, she said, “I believed homosexuality was a sin.”
When she was 15, Emerick confessed her homosexuality to her mother. Her mother attributed her sexual orientation to trauma — Emerick’s father was convicted of raping and assaulting her repeatedly when she was between the ages of 4 and 7 — but after catching Emerick texting with another girl at age 16, she took away her phone. When Emerick melted down, her mother admitted her to a psychiatric hospital. While there, Emerick told herself, “If I was a boy, none of this would have happened.”
Many detransitioners say they face ostracism and silencing because of the toxic politics around transgender issues.
In a recent study in The Archives of Sexual Behavior, about 40 young detransitioners out of 78 surveyed said they had suffered from rapid onset gender dysphoria. Trans activists have fought hard to suppress any discussion of rapid onset gender dysphoria, despite evidence that the condition is real. In its guide for journalists, the activist organization GLAAD warns the media against using the term, as it is not “a formal condition or diagnosis.” Human Rights Campaign, another activist group, calls it “a right-wing theory.” A group of professional organizations put out a statement urging clinicians to eliminate the term from use.
Nobody knows how many young people desist after social, medical or surgical transitions. Trans activists often cite low regret rates for gender transition, along with low figures for detransition. But those studies, which often rely on self-reported cases to gender clinics, likely understate the actual numbers. None of the seven detransitioners I interviewed, for instance, even considered reporting back to the gender clinics that prescribed them medication they now consider to have been a mistake. Nor did they know any other detransitioners who had done so.