Trans activists furious after essay in The Atlantic highlights “detransitioning”

By Jonathon Van Maren

If anyone wants to witness a small sampling of what “tolerance” looks like for trans activists, survey the reaction of their movement to an essay published by The Atlantic in their July/August issue titled “When Children Say They’re Trans.” Keep in mind, as you scroll through the waves of vitriol currently spreading across Twitter, that this publication is not a conservative one—it is a very liberal one. In fact, the last time The Atlantic was at the forefront of any controversy, they had just hired and then promptly fired the brilliant columnist Kevin D. Williamson (who was kind enough to come onto my podcast and discuss his book The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome some time ago) for controversial comments about abortion.

This, perhaps, is the source of their rage: A liberal publication daring to engage with trans ideology in a nuanced way, rather than simply spouting off a list of pre-approved talking points. Deviation from these talking points can attract a social media lynching almost immediately these days—even Kylie Jenner was viciously attacked for wishing her father Caitlyn Jenner a Happy Father’s Day, and posting a picture of him from back when he was Bruce. But that sin was insignificant compared to the crimes of The Atlantic, which began an essay with the story of Claire and her parents—a cautionary tale about the dangers of heeding trans propaganda.

Claire was a miserable teenager who, for a variety of reasons, felt isolated and out of place as she entered puberty. Hours of watching teenage trans YouTube stars convinced that maybe her gender (which The Atlantic still refers to as “assigned”) was the issue—perhaps if she transitioned into becoming a male, she would be happy. She broached her parents with her feelings, and although they had no problem with trans ideology in theory, they were understandably hesitant to get their daughter a double mastectomy, which she insisted she needed. Instead, they distracted her and created delays to give her time to think through her decision—and that may have saved her. If Claire’s parents had done what they were advised to do, they said, especially by trans activists online, they would have simply affirmed her decision and procured her the surgeries she thought she wanted. Instead, this happened:

Claire humored her parents, even as her frustration with them mounted. Eventually, though, something shifted. In a journal entry Claire wrote last November, she traced her realization that she wasn’t a boy to one key moment. Looking in the mirror at a time when she was trying to present in a very male way—at “my baggy, uncomfortable clothes; my damaged, short hair; and my depressed-looking face”—she found that “it didn’t make me feel any better. I was still miserable, and I still hated myself.” From there, her distress gradually began to lift. “It was kind of sudden when I thought: You know, maybe this isn’t the right answer—maybe it’s something else,” Claire told me. “But it took a while to actually set in that yes, I was definitely a girl.”

This story enrages trans activists because it begs an obvious but heartbreaking question: With skyrocketing rates of teens identifying as trans, how many kids have begun the process of transition with often irreversible surgeries—as Claire begged to—without having the chance to sit down and actually discover why they wanted to change so badly? How many teenage girls, suffering through a combination of depression, the turmoil of puberty, and the influence of YouTubers and other trans stars, have decided that their sense of alienation means they are not girls, and opt for a double-mastectomy? The answer is far, far too many. According to Jesse Singal in The Atlantic:

The number of self-identifying trans people in the United States is on the rise. In June 2016, the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that 1.4 million adults in the U.S. identify as transgender, a near-doubling of an estimate from about a decade earlier. As of 2017, according to the institute, about 150,000 teenagers ages 13 to 17 identified as trans. The number of young people seeking clinical services appears to be growing as well. A major clinic in the United Kingdom saw a more than 300 percent increase in new referrals over the past three years. In the U.S., where youth gender clinics are somewhat newer—40 or so are scattered across the country—solid numbers are harder to come by. Anecdotally, though, clinicians are reporting large upticks in new referrals, and waiting lists can stretch to five months or longer.

Singal’s essay actually lauds many aspects of the transgender phenomenon—the “freedom” of gender nonconformity, the normalization of hormone treatment for dysphoria, and the “rich new language” being cooked up by gender studies majors so that we all know how to talk about this stuff. Singal accepts nearly all of the fundamental premises of trans ideology, and celebrates much of the movement as a genuinely good thing. But Singal also notes that all leading health organizations urge caution and deliberation before any steps towards transition are taken—but that trans activists are urging just the opposite:

The leading professional organizations offer this guidance. But some clinicians are moving toward a faster process. And other resources, including those produced by major LGBTQ organizations, place the emphasis on acceptance rather than inquiry. The Human Rights Campaign’s “Transgender Children & Youth: Understanding the Basics” web page, for example, encourages parents to seek the guidance of a gender specialist. It also asserts that “being transgender is not a phase, and trying to dismiss it as such can be harmful during a time when your child most needs support and validation.” Similarly, parents who consult the pages tagged “transgender youth” on glaad’s site will find many articles about supporting young people who come out as trans but little about the complicated diagnostic and developmental questions faced by the parents of a gender-exploring child.

To put it bluntly, if Claire’s parents had taken the advice of the Human Rights Campaign, their daughter would have ended up with a double-mastectomy rather than the therapy she needed. Regardless of Singal’s sympathy for the trans cause, that fact is impossible to ignore. Many examples of “successful transition” are listed, and the concerns of LGBT groups are sympathized with—but yet, trans activists are gunning for Singal simply because the essay also addresses concerns with what is unfolding:

Some kids are dysphoric from a very young age, but in time become comfortable with their body. Some develop dysphoria around the same time they enter puberty, but their suffering is temporary. Others end up identifying as nonbinary—that is, neither male nor female.

Ignoring the diversity of these experiences and focusing only on those who were effectively “born in the wrong body” could cause harm. That is the argument of a small but vocal group of men and women who have transitioned, only to return to their assigned sex. Many of these so-called detransitioners argue that their dysphoria was caused not by a deep-seated mismatch between their gender identity and their body but rather by mental-health problems, trauma, societal misogyny, or some combination of these and other factors. They say they were nudged toward the physical interventions of hormones or surgery by peer pressure or by clinicians who overlooked other potential explanations for their distress.

Some of these interventions are irreversible. People respond differently to cross-sex hormones, but changes in vocal pitch, body hair, and other physical characteristics, such as the development of breast tissue, can become permanent. Kids who go on puberty blockers and then on cross-sex hormones may not be able to have biological children. Surgical interventions can sometimes be reversed with further surgeries, but often with disappointing results.

The concerns of the detransitioners are echoed by a number of clinicians who work in this field, most of whom are psychologists and psychiatrists. They very much support so-called affirming care, which entails accepting and exploring a child’s statements about their gender identity in a compassionate manner. But they worry that, in an otherwise laudable effort to get TGNC young people the care they need, some members of their field are ignoring the complexity, and fluidity, of gender-identity development in young people. These colleagues are approving teenagers for hormone therapy, or even top surgery, without fully examining their mental health or the social and family influences that could be shaping their nascent sense of their gender identity.

That, in the eyes of trans activists, is blatant heresy—and Singal goes further, noting that many parents do not receive the full range of information they needed when confronted with a child who has or claims to have gender dysphoria. The LGBT community urges them to affirm and begin the path to transition, and teens often are impatient to get the process started—and many parents have told horror stories of even getting kicked out of support groups for the parents of trans kids simply for asking whether or not physical transition is the best way forward. The peer pressure to get on board is enormous, and can have tragic results:

Cari Stella is the author of a blog called Guide on Raging Stars. Stella, now 24, socially transitioned at 15, started hormones at 17, got a double mastectomy at 20, and detransitioned at 22. “I’m a real-live 22-year-old woman with a scarred chest and a broken voice and a 5 o’clock shadow because I couldn’t face the idea of growing up to be a woman,” she said in a video posted in August 2016. “I was not a very emotionally stable teenager,” she told me when we spoke. Transitioning offered a “level of control over how I was being perceived.”

Carey Callahan is a 36-year-old woman living in Ohio who detransitioned after identifying as trans for four years and spending nine months on male hormones. She previously blogged under the pseudonym Maria Catt, but “came out” in a YouTube video in July 2016. She now serves as something of an older sister to a network of female, mostly younger detransitioners, about 70 of whom she has met in person; she told me she has corresponded online with an additional 300. (The detransitioners who have spoken out thus far are mostly people who were assigned female at birth. Traditionally, most new arrivals at youth gender clinics were assigned male; today, many clinics are reporting that new patients are mostly assigned female. There is no consensus explanation for the change.)

I met Carey in Columbus in March. She told me that her decision to detransition grew out of her experience working at a trans clinic in San Francisco in 2014 and 2015. “People had said often to me that when you transition, your gender dysphoria gets worse before it gets better,” she told me. “But I saw and knew so many people who were cutting themselves, starving themselves, never leaving their apartments. That made me doubt the narrative that if you make it all the way to medical transition, then it’s probably going to work out well for you.”

I disagree with much of what Singal has to say, but I applaud the genuine courage it took in today’s suffocating media culture to actually tell the stories of the detransitioners, who are much-maligned and consistently ignored. Singal has also exposed, once again, the intolerance of the trans activists: Regardless of the fact that he both accepts and defends the premises of the trans ideology and despite the fact that he also tells many stories of “happy endings” to transition, that’s not good enough. He disobeyed the rule that trans activists have laid out for the media: If you can’t say everything nice, don’t say anything at all.

It will be interesting to see how this discussion unfolds.


For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.

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