On-Purpose Allyship and De/trans Liberation
This is a post inspired by and written for the July 2021 Gender Exploration Carnival, on the theme of Activism and Community.
Content warnings: discussion of transphobia and medical transition, TERFs and their ideology; one frank mention of genitals
Disclaimer that I cannot possibly speak for all trans or detrans people, and that I can only possibly speak for my experiences with this small, anti-GC detrans support group.
When I use "detransition" I mean to stop and/or take action to change the effects of medical sex/gender transition, partially or in full. When I use "desist" I mean to cease identifying as trans and re-identify with one's assigned gender.
I don't remember how I first found my way into the detrans support community I hang around these days. I think my first actual exposure to the idea of detransition in a nuanced light was actually on this site (Pillowfort), from another user a while back who was detransitioning and seemed ... happy about it? That was new to me, though it really shouldn't have been considering I had "detransitioned" before. I hadn't thought of it that way at the time, but reading this other person's posts I related on some level. Just like I relate to a lot of detrans people for different reasons. Not all of them, for sure, but I've come to really understand why detransition can be a helpful concept and tool now.
I'd consider myself a regular of one detrans community now, since finding one that stands against "gender critical" ideology. My first post was something very long about my frustrations with common transition narratives, not knowing how to relate to the concepts of transition or detransition or retransition, and about my complicated history with my body and gender. And the responses were supportive, varied, and understanding. I found a lot of people who stood for freedom of form, and freedom to just exist outside of common ideas of transition in general. I'm not going to say it's something nobody in any trans community anywhere couldn't also support, but it feels similar to the difference in attitudes toward bodies and gender I find in intersex spaces. Maybe there's just something different when mainstream trans narratives don't include or work for you? Hard to say.
People might be wondering what I'm doing talking about detransition and detrans people in the first place, though. "Aren't they all cis, or desisted from trans identity?" one might ask. Others often assume detrans people are "almost always" transgender people without social support who just re-closeted, and who will have to transition again to be happy. A lot of folks might be reasonably apprehensive due to the way detransition is weaponized by transphobes and used by TERFs in especially vicious ways. I get all that. And I'd like to shed some light on it.
As I typed this, I struggled a lot to try and paint a fair and broad picture of the detrans people I've met that didn't erase their diverse experiences by painting them as "all actually trans, too!" And at the same time, I really wanted to shed light on the lesser-known fact that not all detrans people identify as cis, desist from trans identity, or re-identify with their assigned genders in a straightforward way. In fact, I got curious and asked once, specifically because I noticed a lot of folks still ID'd as trans, and found that overall most of the detrans people in the space I'm in haven't necessarily stopped identifying with transness. Many still find it a useful way to describe themselves and their own experiences, and especially when they don't identify as a binary gender. Others feel like transition was a temporary solution to a real pain for them, and that they made the right choice even if it wasn't a permanent one. Some others don't find transness useful, because they're otherwise cisgender even if they're transsexual, and it would give people the wrong idea about their goals and identity -- but they still didn't feel like cis would ever encompass them either. One person even expressed that being called cis felt like erasure, and I thought that made a lot of sense. Even those who do re-identify as cis and find that to be their truest self, whether they feel like they were or were not trans for any period of time, now have an experience and a struggle that most cis people don't.
Transphobia doesn't necessarily stop impacting you just because you detransition, and I'd argue detransitioners get their own special brand of transphobia. One where they are shamed for ever having transitioned in the first place, and held up as an example of the "worst case scenario" of transitioning. They are seen as having "ruined" their bodies, have narratives of regret and self-hatred expected of them, and are misunderstood by trans and cis people alike. Even the most well-meaning people will be confused and potentially upset, and the more transphobic people will treat detrans people as either naive or crazy to have ever transitioned in the first place. Trans people will come to detrans spaces, too afraid to transition because they don't want to "end up making the same mistake you did," and asking for reassurance they won't turn out to be Like Them. Cis radfems will concern-troll about how "trans ideology" is harming people, and how detrans people should blame gender ideology for their pain and work to restrict transition access so nobody can make the same "mistake" they did. Detransition is weaponized, along with the people who choose it, against both transitioning and detransitioning people. And in the end, even if you desist and detransition, as one person so frankly put it -- "it won't erase the fact that I'm a man with a pussy." You could say some detrans men have more in common with trans men than cis men, when you look at it that way.
Transphobia is responsible for so much of the isolation and struggles detrans people face, and yet I really don't see or feel support for detrans people in trans activism. When it comes up in many online circles, I continue to see the same popular sentiment -- detrans people don't exist. Sure, maybe it's not said outright, but it's implied by constantly being handwaved off as either all being secret re-closeted trans people (with the implication or outright statement that transition is the only healthy way to cope with dysphoria), or as being 100% cisgender after detransition and having nothing to do with transness any more and no voice in trans issues. Not detrans, but cisgender. Not "made their own journey," but "has never walked with us at all." When all detrans people are either "really trans" or "just cis," then there are no detrans people.
This leaves a lot of detrans people with few spaces to go, and even fewer where there aren't radfems and other transphobes ready to radicalize people and weaponize their trauma against trans people. Some of the biggest detransition support websites I could find in a web search were run by "gender critical" feminists and directed to further radfem propaganda. The radicalization doesn't come from nowhere, and I see the same pain in intersex communities where people have been hurt by a lack of allyship from trans people and lash out as a result. Transgender people aren't responsible for transphobia, or intersexism, or any of the lateral aggression that gets hurled our way due to inter-group struggle -- but we do have a responsibility to do better to the people who are falling through these cracks because we weren't there for them in the first place.
Detrans people deserve better than to be seen as a black-and-white example of the worst possible outcome of transition. They deserve better than being expected to hate or mourn their cis bodies as lost to transition. They deserve better than to be a taboo subject and a political weapon. And trans people? Deserve better than to see detransition as the worst possible thing that could happen to them, too. Trans people deserve to know about the reality of detransition so it doesn't put very-needed transitions on hold due to a paralyzing fear of the possibility. They deserve to know what regretting transition is really like, so they know it isn't the end of the world and it's not actually the sacred ruination of gender that conservatives want them to believe it is. I think it hurts trans people to shy away from the reality that people do detransition, and to not challenge the stigma against it and ally with detrans people. For as long as we believe the transphobe narrative that detransition is the worst possible outcome of transition, we take away a real option for ourselves and others, and generate more anxiety around it than needs to exist.
And up until now, I have been very carefully picking when I use "they" versus "we." I've been cautious about what group to align myself with, as if I can't possibly represent both. Truthfully, I still don't know how to relate to the concept of detransition (or transition, for that matter.) I don't feel like I have anything to meaningfully "de"transition back to, especially in a social sense. But in other ways, I have transitioned, detransitioned, retransitioned, and am looking forward to both detransitioning in one way and continuing my transition in another way in the upcoming months. I have trouble knowing if I should feel like I've detransitioned or gone through an eternal cycle of re-transitions. A lot of times I just give up on the idea of transition entirely, and feel like transness is only a useful concept for me to find community and communicate an idea shorthand and not a personal identity I hold. And none of this is because I'm re-closeting or reidentifying as cis. It's all just because bodies, gender, sex, health, identity, and navigating all of these things together is more complicated than convenient, and the cissexist pressure to "get it all right" and feel perfect about transition is suffocating.
Spending time in trans spaces has given me the freedom to explore gender in ways I wouldn't have if I hadn't had access to them. And spending time in a friendly detrans space has done the same thing for me in different ways. I want other people to find the same freedom in both perspectives, and to find strength and support in each-other across experiences like I feel I have. If trans and detrans people come together on purpose, then we cannot be weaponized against each-other, and I hope for a time when they'll be accepted as experiences that can co-exist under the same umbrella, fighting for the same liberation.