Community, Responses, Women and Transness

We are all “some people”: Katie Herzog, Julia Serano, and the wrong kind of detransitioners

I’m very late to this Stranger article party, because over the past month I’ve driven over 2600 miles in a U-Haul truck, dealt with the bureaucratic nightmare that is immigration after having changed your name and gender marker twice, and settled down in a different country on a different coast. But I’d still like to talk to you all about how I’m absolutely done with popular trans writers pretending that there are two kinds of detransitioners, and one of those kinds is Bad.

I’ll start off with discussing the (now slightly less) recent media coverage of people like us and the subsequent backlash, which was my original plan for this post. But now, I want to go beyond that. I want to talk about a mode of discourse on detransition that I’m noticing writers like Julia Serano espouse more and more.

Detransitioners aren’t real, apparently, unless they adhere to one of two politically comfortable narratives. A detransitioner may exist if she is either a Good Detransitioner, a tragic victim of transphobia forced back into the closet, or if she is a Bad Detransitioner, an attack dog sent solely to bark out the speaking points of the TERF agenda with no words of her own. Yet at the same time, that second type–the Bad Detransitioner, with her negative experiences in the trans community and her belief that she was pressured into transition–is so rare that those people don’t functionally exist.

This is an unrealistic way of looking at us, and it’s not helpful to anyone. Detransitioners, with our unusual experience of both traditional transition and alternative methods of coping with dysphoria, with our peculiar existence outside the trans/cis binary, are a potential resource for protecting, healing, and uplifting all people who are marginalized because of their dysphoria and gender non-conformity. We are also people who deserve help and healing ourselves. Rejecting an entire aspect of our experiences eliminates the nuance we are capable of expressing and erodes the solidarity we should be sharing with the trans community.

The Good Detransitioner/Bad Detransitioner framework I’m talking about is nowhere more clear than in the responses to media coverage of our narratives–yes, I am talking about Katie Herzog. I think she wrote a good piece about us, which I’m sure you’ve already read if you have any interest in detransitioners’ stories, so I’m not going to break it down here. What I am going to note is this: Herzog actually talked to us. People talk about us all the time. I hear detransition mentioned mostly as something not to worry about when considering whether to start hormone replacement therapy, or occasionally I hear about detransitioners as artifacts that prove the dangers of transphobia to people who should have transitioned happily. But Katie Herzog talked to us. And then she published our own words.

Herzog’s original piece quotes women I know and respect. These are women who, like me, found that transition could not heal their dysphoria, and who, like me, chose to detransition and to find their own way into reconciliation with their bodies. They’re women who have spent a great deal of time reflecting on how gender works in this society, how we perform it and discuss it and embody it. Their stories share commonalities, and Herzog drew those commonalities out carefully, while maintaining distinctions between each story. She didn’t group detransitioners into a political monolith of victims on one side or boogeymen on the other.

And while a piece on detransition that quotes detransitioners at all is a thrilling novelty for me, Herzog surpassed even that level in her research–she quoted trans people, she quoted parents of trans kids, and she quoted medical professionals both respected and loathed by the trans community. She cited previous research and did her own. Herzog’s article examined our stories first through our own words, but it connected them to a broader cultural situation. And that’s what journalism should do.

However, I’m told, it wasn’t a good article at all. Rather, it lacked nuance. It was ignorant at best and hateful at worst. According to Julia Serano, it’s “pitting detransitioners against happily transitioned people.” It quoted the wrong detransitioners and it didn’t quote enough trans people. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Bad, bad, bad.

Serano writes, dismissively, that there are “*some* [sic] people who have detransitioned who feel (at the time of their transition, or in retrospect) that they were pressured into transitioning.” She immediately minimizes this–though that experience exists, we shouldn’t care about it, because those people are so very rare compared to the Good Detransitioners, who wish they could still be trans but are too afraid–and accuses Herzog of selecting only these some people to interview in order to use them to attack trans people and transition in generally.

While this would be rhetorically convenient for Serano were it accurate to the reality of the detransitioned community and to the article itself, I have to respectfully disagree.

First, this is the same thought process that asks, “Why should we care about trans issues when trans people are such a small part of the population?” The argument is wrong in that context, as I’m sure Serano would agree, and it’s wrong here as well.

Also, it’s not at all how Herzog structures the article. She doesn’t present detransitioners’ perspectives as being unilaterally in favor of destroying transition as an institution, and she doesn’t directly juxtapose detransitioners’ words with trans people contradicting them, or vice versa. Instead, she uses many interviewees both inside and outside the trans community to construct a holistic view of the responses to detransition, both trans and otherwise.

As Herzog points out in her response to the response to her piece, much of the way she does this is by voicing the concerns that the very detransitioners Serano refers to as “some people” have brought up themselves–and that trans writers like Danni Askini also mention–about the use of detransitioners’ narratives by the right-wing to destabilize legal protections for trans and gender non-conforming people. I recently experienced a joyful gathering of fellow detransitioned women–a rare opportunity in person–and one of our main discussion topics was how we, as individuals and together, plan on addressing the appropriation of our stories by the right-wing. I won’t go into the details of our discussion or of our gathering, as I believe that would do a disservice to the privacy of that space, but I will say this: Herzog brought up the same hate groups we discussed, and she names the consequences of these groups’ actions for marginalized trans and gender non-conforming people explicitly and without reservation. As she writes in her response, these points were exactly the points that trans writers were asking her to address.

Finally, the assumption upon which Serano’s argument rests is simply false. It’s not just some people who feel pressured to transition. Every detransitioned person I have ever spoken to, whether online or off, has expressed a similar discomfort with their treatment as they were considering transition. I have not met a single detransitioner who didn’t feel pressured to transition in some way, whether because her homophobic family thought she’d be better off as a straight man than a lesbian woman, or because her LGBT support group couldn’t conceive of a woman who was still willing to be butch while using she pronouns, or because her partner secretly wanted to be dating a trans man for the identity politics cred, or because no one could understand how she could be a woman attracted to men and yet so masculine herself. In this survey, run by and for female detransitioned/reidentified people in 2016, many women share comments about feeling “pressured” or “misled” in their early transitions, and the overwhelming majority list either “found alternative ways to cope with dysphoria” or “political/ideological concerns” as reasons for their detransition, instead of any external force that drove them back to the closet. We’re not just happily transitioned people who are too scared of transphobia to continue. Pressure to transition, from a variety of sources, is all too real.

This is not to say that I, or indeed most detransitioners, believe in a cabal of trans lobbyists brainwashing bystanders into choosing transition to line the pockets of their medical practices with surgery money or to bolster their political base. When I say that we have all experienced pressure to transition, I am talking about a very narrow situation.

In this situation, not everyone experiences pressure to transition. Rather, it’s gender non-conforming people, especially women, who experience it almost exclusively. Furthermore, the pressure we experience is rarely premeditated or badly intended. It comes not from any one source, but from a combination of pervasive societal misogyny that tells us our lack of femininity makes us unwomen, well-meaning LGBT friends who ask us our pronouns with a pointedly increased frequency compared to everyone else in the room, news stories about families who struggled in dealing with their gay children but could somehow immediately understand and embrace those children once they transitioned, and a variety of other subtle, implicit cues that say, “Everyone like you transitions. It’s the only option for people like you. So when are you going to start?”

While I know that male detransitioners also sometimes feel that they were pressured into transition, I’m not familiar enough with those experiences to discuss them in the context of Serano’s dismissiveness. I can only speak to my own experience, and the experiences of the women in my community. And in that community, the feeling of having been pressured, whether intentionally or not, is universal. If that experience makes us the wrong kind of detransitioners, if it makes us some people, then I suppose we will all just have to embrace being some people.

Ultimately, my problem with Serano’s argument that Herzog selectively quoted the Bad kind of detransitioners (who don’t really exist) instead of the Good kind and thus purposefully structured her article as a battle between poor, sad detransitioners and evil, scary trans people is not simply that it’s inaccurate to the strong work Herzog did. It’s that that argument erases truths that we as a community have worked so hard to find for ourselves. Truths that have helped us to heal. Truths that, for the good of all people who deal with dysphoria, the trans community must address.

Detransitioners–most of whom are gender non-conforming, most of whom still experience dysphoria–want to stand in solidarity with trans people in many ways. Ultimately, many of our goals are the same. We want to see people stop being abused and oppressed because the way they do gender doesn’t “match” their sex. We want to see more effective and accessible treatment for dysphoria, so that dysphoric people like us and like trans people don’t have to suffer so much and for so long. We want dysphoric people to stay safe and happy and alive. While we may disagree about the best way to make it happen, it’s fundamentally the same goal.

Voicing our own experiences may make us some people according to Serano, and other writers like her, but it does not stop us from working toward a future where both trans and detransitioned people can live their lives in peace.  Our experiences both inside and outside the trans  community and the trans medical industry give us a unique opportunity to identify problems and sites of progress that no one else can see. When we point out problems like the pressure to transition that many gender non-conforming women feel, we highlight an opportunity to find ways to determine which dysphoric people will benefit from most transition and which dysphoric people would more benefit from other interventions. We provide an opportunity to reach toward more holistic ways of healing both trans and detrans people’s relationships with their bodies and their genders. Writers like Katie Herzog aren’t pitting us against trans people when they give us a platform to voice the problems we’ve dealt with. They’re illuminating nuanced experiences that would otherwise be stolen out of our mouths by right-wingers and used against us and against trans people.

As detransitioners, we have a moral obligation to tell our stories, because doing so will help uplift all dysphoric people who are hurt by this society’s rigid insistence on gendered behavior, whether they choose to transition or not. I understand that hearing us is uncomfortable, especially compared to the dominant mode of trans discourse in which transition is the ultimate, perfect answer. But that doesn’t make it any less necessary. And it doesn’t make us any less real.

We may just be some people. But there are a lot of us, and we’re not going away.

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2 thoughts on “We are all “some people”: Katie Herzog, Julia Serano, and the wrong kind of detransitioners

  1. It strikes me as odd that people are quick to demonize de-transitioners but there is also a current of supportive images, discourse and rhetoric around how those experiencing dysphoria but do not choose medical transition are valid. As if realizing afterwards somehow means you can never go back? Like the doors of a hospital are a one-way valve and people must never exit them?

    Here’s some examples with a lot of notes on Tumblr, for instance:

    So people can apparently do anything they want but can’t say “no this wasn’t for me, thanks,” it seems.

    1. I have definitely noticed this same trend–I think it comes largely from a place of fear. It’s not ideologically consistent to question the validity of detransitioners’ transitions, but it is frightening, once you’ve defined your identity, to realize that some people did not find that identity to be permanently helpful, and that it’s possible you could end up the same way. I felt pretty similarly, when I was trans.

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