What is happening when teenagers say they are trans, and then a few years later say they aren’t?
Possibly, they are really trans but societal transphobia is so bad that they have gone into denial again. The relentless opposition of parents may be insurmountable. The desistance myth, that they are in some way “cured”, that they have regained a healthy sense of self, is part of that transphobia.
What does “really trans” mean? Compare “really gay”. Some men are attracted to other men. Society calls them “gay”. From vilification and prosecution in 1966, there has been increasing tolerance from mainstream society and gay pride pushing boundaries, asserting gay men’s right to be who they are. Some people are born gay. Some people are bisexual. Most people are straight. And prisons alter that narrative, for some people choose to have sex with other prisoners, who were straight on the outside. Ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian ideas of what same sex love or sex was don’t fit, either.
There’s a mostly accepted concept of “really gay”, so that people identify as gay, are seen as gay, are accepted as gay, share stories of knowing they were gay as young children. Teachers say they can spot them young, too. Conversion therapy is going to be made illegal.
There is some conception of “really trans” which fits some of that: knowing when young, having particular attitudes to your body. I fit that. I despised my body. I felt detached from it, as if I were a separate intellect. Then I transitioned, and I love my body, I feel it is me. Transition cured the detachment. Yet, there is fierce opposition to making anti-trans conversion therapy illegal. What if the trans identity is a delusion, and the person can be made comfortable in their birth sex, which some would call their real sex? There is even the allegation that transition is anti-gay conversion therapy: gay men transition to female and are thereby “converted” to being straight. ICD 11 says trans is not a medical condition, but many people have not got the memo.
The “detransition voices” website would have you believe trans is a poisonous myth. Rachel was born in 1990, came out as lesbian aged 22, having been molested by her father when she was four. She was homeschooled into repressive Christianity, with strict gender roles. She was raped four times, the first when she was 14.
She identified as trans aged 22, and detransitioned five years later, having taken testosterone. Now, she calls transition running away from Patriarchy and its oppression of her female self, a quick fix. It was a fantasy, it failed, she had to cope with reality, to “deal with my shit on my own”.
The detrans voices site recommends Lisa Marchiano in Quillette, who writes an easy morality tale of Carl Jung. Aged 12 he was shoved to the ground by another child, and hit his head on the pavement. Later he wrote, “The thought flashed through my mind: ‘Now you won’t have to go to school anymore’.” He started having fainting spells, which felt real to him but doctors could find nothing wrong. He had a six month “picnic”. Then he overheard his father say, “What will become of the boy if he cannot earn his own living?” Jung called this “the collision with reality”.
I met a woman who may have been like that. After a car accident aged about 12, she was still an invalid in her early twenties. Her immigrant husband by arranged marriage was her full time carer. The doctors could find nothing wrong with her. Seeing his complete subjugation, we called him “Mr Bibi”.
Marchiano says trans is “victim culture”, a way of avoiding our fate by imagining ourselves sick. Her answer is the Stoic Marcus Aurelius’: “I am rising for the work of man”. There is a happy ending- people taking control of their lives and finding health and energy- but there is also a living Hell, for those who persist as seeing themselves as victims. It’s a neat moral for Quillette: the poor have themselves to blame, the rich are meritocrats.
In your teens you find who you are. This shocks parents and the old: sometimes, what the young come up with is entirely new. Death and birth is how human culture advances. Why not try on a number of identities, to find which one fits? If gender stereotypes do not fit, that does not mean that you are trans, but exploring that identity to see if it fits might help you know yourself better. Rachel found absolute clarity about what she did not want. Someone else might tease apart the various strands in this concept of trans, and find some work for them, some don’t. Nonbinary is more capacious, variable to fit the individual. Surgery becomes an option rather than the obvious course of action for someone who fits the trans box. Experimenting is how we find things out.
If someone identifies as a “desister”, they might look with horror on the trans community, and be glad that they have escaped medicalisation into loving their bodies, genders and whole selves. If they see themselves as having experimented, they will be grateful to others who experimented alongside them, all working to find out who we are. If this is impossible, that is because of society’s extreme transphobia.