Meet the ‘detransitioners’: the women who became men – and now want to go back Telegraph 16.11.19
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‘How could I remove my healthy breasts when I’d seen my mother lose one of hers to cancer?” asks Charlie Evans. Until recently, the science writer from Margate identified as transgender, convinced, along with increasing numbers of young women, that she had been born in the wrong body.
After undergoing a ‘social transition’, for which she changed her name from Charlotte, as well as her pronouns, her passport and driving licence, in order to live as her chosen sex, she refused to go through with the gender reassignment operation that would give her the sexual characteristics she thought she wanted.
But earlier this year, at 28, she faced coming out for a third time in her life: having announced in her youth that she was a lesbian, then trans – now, finally, she is a ‘detransitioner’.
It’s a phenomenon that’s almost as new as transgenderism itself – but one that the movement in Britain rather you didn’t talk about.
Charlie says there were a series of epiphanies that lead to her not so much coming out, but going back in. It was around the age of six that she convinced herself she was actually a boy. “I liked football, I liked trucks, I liked girls,” she says, “therefore I was a boy.”
This was no mere childhood phase, one that would fade faster than an obsession with One Direction. Charlie now realises, after extensive therapy, that the feelings of gender dysphoria that developed were the result of what she is only willing to describe as “abuse” outside the family.
It began when she was eight and cemented within her a loathing of her female body. “The trauma exacerbated and accelerated feelings that were natural for a child who didn’t conform that, I now see, I would have outgrown,” she says.
After appearing on television to talk about her experience of detransitioning, Charlie began to talk more generally her gradual realisation that “you can’t be born in the wrong body – it’s our minds that need treatment, not our sex”. She has since been contacted by several hundred others who are undergoing a similar recalibration.
They come from across the UK, as well as mainland Europe, Canada and Mexico, are generally under the age of 25 and conform to a transgender “trend” reported across several western countries. It sees more adolescent girls than boys identifying as trans for the first time, and in ever expanding numbers; over the past decade, the UK has experienced a 4,400 per cent increase in girls being referred for transitioning treatment.
Having identified since her teenage years as trans, Charlie, who is about to embark on a PhD, now lives as a bisexual woman. She decided to detransition this year after the scars left by her mother’s mastectomy prompted her to question why she would want to have her own healthy body parts removed. This realisation was backed up by a trip to Ghana where insisting her pronouns were respected seemed like such a first world problem.
Key to her epiphany was also undertaking long-term counselling with therapists who weren’t gender specialists. “Unpicking what happened to me as a child was enough to take the edge off me feeling so uncomfortable with the body I wanted to be chopped apart,” Charlie says. “I wouldn’t have got that if I’d gone to a gender identity clinic, because they have to affirm your belief.”
Other who have contacted her since she became the poster girl for this band of brothers who are now sisters once more, have embarked on hormone treatment, leading to beard growth in females and permanent lowering of the voice. In males, there is a softening of features and breast growth.
A few have undertaken full surgical reassignment: double mastectomies, hysterectomies and oophorectomies – removal of ovaries. At least one woman has had phalloplasty: Debbie (formerly Lee), in her early 60s and a victim of extensive childhood trauma including sexual abuse, had flesh removed from her arm to make a penis. She now wants it removed and to be given implants to simulate the healthy breasts she had excised when she was 44.
“So many of these women describe a mental state where I do not believe they could have consented to these surgeries,” Charlie says.
Most, according to Charlie, report remarkably similar characteristics and experiences: eating disorders, autism and social awkwardness, childhood trauma sometimes as the result of sexual abuse, mental health problems. Charlie herself suffers from generalised anxiety disorder and depression. Lots are lesbian and possibly experiencing homophobia, even their own internalised attitudes.
All, she claims, were “sold this idea that transitioning was magically going to solve their problems”.
“I’m in communication with 19- and 20-year-olds who have had full gender reassignment surgery who wish they hadn’t, and their dysphoria hasn’t been relieved. They don’t feel better for it.”
While there is no doubt there are growing numbers of people suffering gender dysphoria whose feelings of incongruence with their birth sex are improved by reassignment, according to those making contact with Charlie there are a significant number who have been left desperately disappointed – and with nowhere to turn.
“I feel like a young woman who got lost along the way,” says Keira, a 22-year-old from the south-east who contacted Charlie’s newly formed charity, the Detransition Advocacy Network, having undergone a mastectomy in 2017. It was part of her search for an identity she now realises never existed.
Describing a metaphysical no-man’s land, Keira says: “I was changing my body, but I knew I didn’t want to have phalloplasty, so I felt stuck between the two sexes. Then, as I moved into a better space mentally, dealing with my childhood issues, my whole perception suddenly shifted, along with my view of life. I realised no matter how much you change your body, you’ll never change your sex.
“I started to think about children for the first time, too, which I’d been vehemently against when I was at the adolescent gender clinic,” she adds.
Keira attended the Gender Identity Development Service at London’s Tavistock and Portman Trust, the only NHS facility for transgender young people. She says that when she was 16, after just three appointments, she was referred to an endocrinologist for puberty-blockers. Prescribed to “press pause” on puberty for children distressed by their developing bodies, the hormones do, however, carry health risks including to bone density and cognitive development.
For Keira, who had already started puberty, the effect was to halt future development and stop her periods. She then moved on to cross-sex hormones – testosterone for biological women transitioning, oestrogen for males – and appointments at the adult clinic at Charing Cross Hospital in London. Her voice deepened, she developed body hair and grew a beard. At the age of 21, she had her breasts removed.
But, after realising her mistake, Keira had her last testosterone injection at the start of this year – yet she is still having to shave and is routinely mistaken for a man.
It is not just a permanently lowered voice that is the legacy of Keira’s foray into gender reassignment, however. “I am so angry and I can’t see that going away,” she says. “Nothing was explored that may have better explained the way I felt about myself than that it must have meant I was born in the wrong body.”
She describes an unhappy childhood, deeply affected by her parents’ divorce and her mother’s alcoholism, leading her to retreat into a world where being a boy felt like it offered escape.
Now, she says, “I feel sick, I feel like I’ve been lied to. There’s no evidence for the treatments I’ve had, and they didn’t make me feel any better. It was maturity that did that.”
Her view is echoed by Sue Evans, a psychoanalyst who used to work at the Tavistock and is now crowdfunding to bring a test case against the trust to establish that children cannot give their informed consent to what she describes as radical, experimental treatment. Evans will be speaking about her case at the Detransition Advocacy Network’s first event in Manchester at the end of the month, the first ever public meeting for what is likely to be a growing demographic.
However, there is as yet no data on the number of people unhappy in their new gender, or those who seeking to detransition.
“I’m about the science, the research and evidence-based good practice in medicine,” says Evans. “And it just doesn’t exist when it comes to how we treat trans patients.
“This has been moved out of the medical domain and has become political and ideological,” she continues. “But the problem is it absolutely is a medical issue, because you’re about to launch people on a pathway that chemically and medically interferes with the basis of their body, who they are and their identity.”
As Charlie, Keira and Debbie have all found, there is plenty of help available for people who want to transition – but precious little for those who then change their minds.
There is so little acknowledgment that not everyone who transitions remains aligned with the opposite sex that Keira cannot easily undo her gender recognition certificate, which leaves her as legally male; she would have to apply for another one to ‘transition’ back to her birth sex.
“There’s a lack of interest in detransitioner studies and outcomes and data, because it doesn’t really suit the people pushing this ideology to know about the bad outcomes – even the doctors who are following a protocol with their head in the sand,” says Evans.
“Part of the trans message is you’re the consumer, you make a choice about your gender and we will curate a body for you to fit in with your requirements,” she continues. “Detransitioners are the rejects that go into the seconds shop. They’re not the good examples from the production line of bodies that transition. In a sense, they’re the damaged goods no one wants to acknowledge.”