The words ‘detransition’ and ‘detransitioner’ are not yet in the OED, but I predict they soon will be. Detransitioners are individuals who have at an earlier time transitioned to live in the gender they felt themselves to be but have since returned to live in their original gender. The existence of those who choose to reverse gender transition is not new, but the number of people currently going public with their own stories is.
The past few years have seen a steady increase in the number of people opening up about their experience of detransitioning, and the subject has gained increasing prominence in the media, though not without controversy. In the UK, 2019 saw the launch of the Detransition Advocacy Network, a group that aims to offer support to detransitioners, and a detransitioner, Keira Bell, was the lead claimant in a 2020 High Court case that will have significant implications for the way children and teenagers with gender dysphoria will be helped.
With the increasing prominence of detransitioners and the growing concerns about the treatment of children in relation to gender identity, it feels like we may be entering a new chapter in the story of transgender in the modern West. For Christians this new chapter raises a number of new questions. Key among these is, ‘How should we respond to the increasing number of detransitioners?’ Here are some initial reflections.
Remember the humanity of each person
Christians must resist the urge to use the stories of detransitioners to win arguments.
For some, the temptation may be to point to these stories and say – even if not in such stark terms – ‘told you so!’ This is an inappropriate response to these stories. It’s inappropriate because the existence of detransitioners, even if increasing in number, is not conclusive proof that transitioning is always unwise. The evidence can and should lead to the conclusion that transitioning should be approached with great caution, but it cannot, on its own, provide a logical argument that transitioning is always wrong. What if the problem was actually that some who have transitioned were never good candidates for the process? Isn’t it plausible that there could be others for whom it is helpful? I am not saying that this is my view – I think there are other logical and ethical objections to be raised against transitioning – but my point is that the stories of detransitioners alone cannot prove that transitioning is always unwise. If we use the stories to make that point, our argument will easily be shot down.
More importantly, however, we mustn’t use the stories of detransitioners to win arguments because they are stories of real people who have been through and often are still going through intense suffering. We should not see detransitioners primarily as a weapon in our arsenal for cultural debates, but as those deserving of our compassion and care.
Offer care and support
One of the important issues which is being raised as more detransitioners go public is the lack of support offered to help people navigate the difficult journey of returning to live in line with their biological sex. Many have reported that while it was comparatively easy to get the support of medical professionals for their original transition, it has been very hard to gain support for some of the medical complications that can arise from detransitioning. Campaigns for this area of support to be improved are something that Christians should champion as an expression of love and compassion.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it became known that the best place for detransitioners to go for love, acceptance, and support was a local church?
Our church families should be places where detransitioners can feel welcomed, loved, and cared for. Of all people, Christians should be those who are able to accept others regardless of their background and what choices, good and bad, they have made, because that is how God has accepted us. As communities of people called to love each other and to live as family for each other, we are uniquely positioned to care for those who are feeling bruised and broken by things they have been through. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it became known that the best place for detransitioners to go for love, acceptance, and support was a local church? (Just as it would be wonderful if the same were true for those who are experiencing the pain of gender dysphoria whether they have transitioned or not.)
Avoid the urge to generalise
Many who detransition do so not simply because transitioning failed to bring the peace they desired but because they came to recognise the original root of their gender dysphoria and the initial desire to transition. Detransitioning is often made possible because this root cause can be better addressed in other ways. This is a useful observation, but there is always the risk that the experience of one person is generalised and assumed to apply to everyone with gender dysphoria when this is in fact not the case.
In reality there seem to be many different root causes of gender dysphoria, including trauma, internalised homophobia, gender-atypical preferences and personality, and autogynephilia.1 In some cases, there is no obvious cause. This diversity of experiences should caution us against assuming that every case of gender dysphoria is the same and that therefore the same helps can always be applied.
The stories of detransitioners can be helpful in alerting us to the various factors that can be at play in an experience of gender dysphoria, but we mustn’t think they give us the answer for everyone.
Encourage caution when transitioning is considered
With all the important caveats given above in mind, the increasing number of stories emerging from detransitioners should be received as a caution against quick transitioning. Many people have been told that their internal feelings are a good and safe guide to their true identity, and that going through a long, complex and often invasive process to live in line with this sense of self will relieve their distress, only to find that transitioning doesn’t help them and that the narrative they were told actually masked a deeper problem which needed to be addressed.
Many of the detransition stories are also raising questions about the role of medical and psychiatric professionals in the support offered to those experiencing gender dysphoria. A common theme in the stories is that there was little serious assessment before a medical transition was approved and that the full effects of the various treatments offered were not openly explained. This theme is particularly prominent in the stories of those who began their transition during their teenage years and is the reason why there is growing pressure for a more thorough assessment of treatment options and processes being offered to children and teenagers. Used carefully and sensitively, the experiences of detransitioners are an important element in this ongoing conversation. We should pray that the courage of those currently sharing their stories means that in the future others will be spared the suffering they have experienced.
I believe there is a place for the stories of detransitioners in the cultural conversation about trans. Used carefully and sensitively, there may even be a place for them in the pastoring of people who are seriously considering transitioning. But we have a responsibility to handle these stories well and to use them fairly, motivated by a love for others and aimed at helping every person to find and experience the fullness of life offered to us by our Creator.
This article has been adapted from a blog originally posted on thinktheology.co.uk.
- Autogynephilia is an experience where a biological male finds himself sexually attracted to the idea of himself as a female.