The Atlantic's cover story yesterday opened with the tale of Claire, "a 14-year-old girl with short auburn hair and a broad smile." But Claire isn't your typical 14-year-old girl. Readers learn that Claire once considered herself a transgender boy, who was ready to start taking testosterone and have surgery to remove her breasts when she realized that she actually wasn't trans at all. As it's presented in the article, Claire's story serves as a warning to parents of trans kids: "Detransitioners" (people who take permanent measures to transition, like hormones or surgery, and then regret it) exist, and you need to be careful that your kid doesn't become one of them. While there's nothing inaccurate about the article (people like Claire do exist), many in the trans community are worried that focusing on a small group of people who regret their transitions takes away from the monumentally larger group who survive because they're able to take hormones and have surgeries.
This article can and will cause real, tangible harm to the trans community and trans youth. You know who's subscribed to the Atlantic? The parents of trans kids. My parents in particular, who tried to hospitalize me against my will to "cure" me of my transness.— Victor Manuel Markhoff (@victormarkhoff) June 18, 2018
To be fair, The Atlantic article does mention that detransitioners are a minority and that transgender youth fair far better when their loved ones believe and support them. But the overall framing is still problematic. Consider, for a moment, if the story had been about ex-gays instead of detransitioners. A handful of people who claim they were able to change their sexuality (through something like the power of God) don't take away from the huge numbers of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people who still exist. Yet, hearing about people who were able to "choose" not to be gay bolsters anti-gay groups who believe that being queer is easily changeable. So a story like this, which focuses on the rare people who feel that their transitions were a mistake, could add credence to misguided arguments that people choose to be trans because it's trendy.
Many people also call this kind of narrative transphobic, because it reinforces the idea that being transgender isn't real. "The idea is that we have to protect cis people from thinking they're mistakenly trans," says Jesse Kahn, LCSW, director of The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Collective. "When in actuality the folks that I work with that have done anything that resembles shifting their desires around transition are still trans." Maybe they decide not to take hormones anymore or realize that they don't actually want gender affirming surgeries, but they still consider themselves somewhere on the transgender spectrum. A person who transitions medically and then later realizes that they are cisgender (not non-binary or gender non-conforming or simply happily trans without hormones) is incredibly rare.
But imagine what reading stories about people who regret their transition feels like when you're the parent of a trans child. A parent's greatest fear is that they'll make a choice that hurts their kid, says Sara Kaplan, the mom of two transgender children. It was that fear that made her realize that supporting her kids in their transitions was the only choice. "Affirming a kid's gender to me is a life or death situation," she says. She's seen the statistics that back that feeling up. Odds of a transgender person attempting suicide or abusing drugs and alcohol are significantly reduced (almost on level with non-transgender people) when they have their families' support. Yet, the fear of making a bad choice for their child also keeps some parents from helping their child transition (like Claire's parents, who told her they were looking into resources but were actually waiting for her gender dysphoria to pass).
"When people talk about this narrative and this fear, they almost present it as if doctors and surgeons are just passing out hormones on the street and that's not all the case. It's a process," Kahn says. The general rule guiding a child's transition is "consistent, insistent, and persistent." A child can't just tell their parents that they feel like a boy instead of a girl and then start testosterone the next day. Before anything permanent can happen (which, btw, isn't usually allowed until someone is at least 16), both the kid and their parents are evaluated by mental health professionals, Kahn says. Even adults who want gender affirming surgeries (like those that add or remove breasts and reconstruct genitals to match their gender) need to work with a therapist to make sure they want to change their body.
"If I want to go in and get rhinoplasty or calf implants, any surgery that's going to be me moving toward an ideal of what other people think my gender is supposed look like, I wouldn't need approval," Kahn says. "Your ability to question whether that's something you could regret later isn't assessed." So why do we worry so much about the possibility that someone could regret physical changes like body hair growth and breast augmentation or removal? It's because society doesn't allow for fluidity in gender in the first place, Kahn says.
So, when thinking about people who "detransitioned," we need to remember not only that their experiences are rare, but that everyone deserves the right to explore their gender. If a child consistently says that they're transgender and is persistent about wanting to transition, then they should be allowed to make the first steps without terrified parents questioning their needs.