Detransition.on August 9th, 2013 at 3:49 am
Time flies like an arrow. So does a gender transition: in a straight line, in one direction. A person feels at a very deep and basic level that he or she is the wrong gender. After a lifetime of internal struggle, that person begins the process known as “transition.” Psychological and medical treatment are sought, friends and family are notified, and months or years of expensive and trying ordeals, that person has completed her or his transition and never looks back. It’s a one-way street.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work, and how it works for the vast majority of transgender people who embark on a transition (there’s no way of knowing how many transpeople never transition and instead suffer the pain of living the wrong gender their whole lives). Satisfaction with one’s decision to transition, for those who complete it, is very high. Almost no one ever regrets it, no matter how much it can often complicate and even degrade a person’s life quality of life.
The term “complete transition” in this context is a little tricky. For purposes of this post, a transition is complete when a person has come out to all family and associates, begun a regimen of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) if indicated, legally changed his or her name (if necessary) and identity documents, and settled into their destination gender.
I set that out to distinguish it from the abortive transitions most of us go through in early adulthood, when we try crossdressing and maybe attend a support group, but then get frightened or overwhelmed and flee back into the closet. Gender identity dysphoria (GID) is a condition that gets worse over time, and most of us don’t transition for reals until the alternative becomes unthinkable. Once that happens, nearly 100% get on with things and have no regrets.
But no percentage ever reaches 100, and when a transition is abandoned, for whatever reason, and the transperson returns to his or her original gender, we call that a “detransition.” Detransitions happen in a very small number of cases and for a variety of reasons.
Transitioning in the first place, at any age, is very difficult and stressful, not just for the transitioner but also for his or her family, friends, and coworkers. A transitioning teen may encounter parental resistance, and may then abandon the transition so as not to become homeless. Older transitioners may stop to keep peace with their spouses or children. Others may find it impossible to get or keep a job unless they remain in their original gender.
Sometimes there are medical considerations. Hormone replacement therapy can be dangerous for people with certain medical conditions, and while HRT is not strictly necessary to transition, not having access to it could be a deal breaker for some.
Sometimes, the social stress of transitioning, especially if a byproduct of it is unwanted notoriety, is just too great, and people will retreat into the familiar. They may not want to be that original gender anymore, but it’s what they know and understand. I appreciate this feeling, and I’d be lying if I said giving up never crossed my mind during the years 2007 to 2011.
It’s timely to bring all this up, because Don Ennis (nee Dawn, ne Don), a U.S. network news producer who very publicly came out as trans (male to female) a few months ago has now just as publicly declared “nevermind.” The story has been widely reported. Some news sites have been less than respectful.
Why did he do this? The news stories quote several possible reasons, all of which I find highly dubious, and which aren’t even self-consistent. He or his doctors (or bad reportage) say that he was misdiagnosed with GID because of a hormonal imbalance or because his mother gave him female hormones when he was a child, and he became aware of the misdiagnosis after suffering “transient global amnesia.”
I’m not an endocrinologist or any other sort of doctor, but I don’t know of any cases in which a hormonal imbalance has changed a person’s gender identity. Hormone therapy has been used in the past in attempts to “cure” GID, and hasn’t worked. And by the way, it’s been used to try to “cure” gays and lesbians, as well. If it worked in either situation, we’d all know about it.
The “transient global amnesia” part is just bizarre. Frankly, it reads more like a Gilligan’s Island plot than anything that’s happened in real life. And how amnesia could cause a person to change their gender identity (or change it back) is a mystery for the ages. I simply don’t believe it. It’s ludicrous.
But the upshot is that he claims he never had GID, was misdiagnosed, and now knows this and has resumed his life as a man. Is this true? Maybe. Occam’s Razor suggests he just got scared back into the closet, and I’d need to see a truckload of confirming evidence before I change my mind. This reminds me of two other narratives.
British millionaire Sam Hashimi transitioned and became Samantha Kane, then seven years later detransitioned (or retransitioned) into Charles Kane (why he chose to re-name himself after Orson Welles’s most famous creation is a separate mystery). He also claims he’d been misdiagnosed. If so, I wouldn’t be quick to blame his doctors. They tend to take patients at their word and simply confirm their patients’ long-held beliefs about themselves. “Transsexual” is a self-description that doesn’t invite much skepticism.
Mr. Hashimi/Ms. Kane/Mr. Kane’s experience reads like a comedy; his misguided transition is only one example of his poor impulse control. More often, a case like his is a tragedy. Mike Penner was a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times who came out as transsexual in a 2007 column, changed his name and byline to Christine Daniels, and began a blog chronicling his transition.
By all accounts the Los Angeles Times, Penner’s family and friends, and the sports personalities he covered in his job were every bit as supportive and accepting as he needed them to be. His life became a model for how well a transition can go.
In 2008 the blog was abandoned and, without comment or explanation, Penner resumed his former name and identity. He never offered any explanation.
In November 2009, Penner killed himself.
I hope history isn’t repeating itself with Mr. Ennis.
There’s been some handwringing in the LGBT community about the fallout a story like this creates in the public mind. The expected jeering can easily be found (I won’t provide links) over at the religious right and similar news sites. I think that’s the least important thing going on here. The intolerant jerks already think we’re all delusional whack jobs, while physicians and progressives know that statistically these things happen and they’re no reason to change any attitudes about policy or care. This is an individual’s story, about only that individual.