I am a genderqueer transmasculine butch who went through something akin to conversion therapy combined with ideological radicalization coming from a transphobic radical feminist perspective. According to that ideology, trans identities are false and the product of living in a patriarchal society, so I tried to “de-trans” myself in order to fit the radical feminist ideal of lesbian womanhood.
I lived as a detransitioned woman for about seven years. I was part of a detransitioned women’s subculture that is heavily invested in transphobic radical feminist ideology. Not everyone who participated in the subculture were radical feminists or believed fully in the ideology but much of the resources, spaces and media that came out of that subculture was created by those who did. At the very least, one had to be willing to tolerate such beliefs if one was going to belong in the community. Originally, most of our interactions took place online but later there were in-person gatherings as well as meet-ups at various lesbian feminist festivals, including the last two years of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.
In this subculture, many believe that trans identity and gender dysphoria arose from trauma and internalized misogyny and/or lesbophobia. Living as a trans person or transitioning are seen as dysfunctional ways of coping with life in a homophobic patriarchy. Transmasculine people are seen as women who have been so hurt by sexism that they’ve dissociated and create false male personas in order to survive. To “heal”, one must renounce trans identity, reconnect with womanhood and “reconcile with being female”. Adopting radical feminist ideology, “consciousness raising”, and practices to get more in touch with one’s body are seen as cures for dysphoria. The particular theories and practices of this subculture were still forming when I first came across it and I played a prominent role in creating and promoting them.
Members are also encouraged to share their stories publicly both to raise awareness of detransitioning but also to promote the idea that any transmasculine person could potentially detransition and “reclaim womanhood”. Under the name Crash or CrashChaosCats, I blogged, made videos, co-presented workshops, published some of my essays, and gave media interviews, both to increase visibility of detrans women and specific issues and difficulties they face and also to promote transphobic radical feminist ideology. I was one of the more public detrans women and helped to create and spread a particular understanding of detransitioning and detrans womanhood strongly influenced by transphobic radical feminism. Many other detrans women also wrote blogs, made videos and other forms of online media. While some focused on sharing and documenting their experiences and offering tips on how to deal with difficulties that arise while detransitioning, many also promoted radical feminist views of transition, trans identity and detransition.
When I first started to consider detransitioning, I was in my mid-twenties and had experienced a shift in my gender identity from a genderqueer trans man towards feeling more like a butch lesbian but still genderqueer. I was curious about reconnecting in some way with womanhood, since I hadn’t really explored that possibility before I had transitioned in my late teens. I was also questioning why I had transitioned. I experienced a lot of bullying when I was younger for being very gender nonconforming and had long harbored worries that I had transitioned in order to escape the stigma of being visibly different or because I just couldn’t handle being a very butch woman.
I was also in a very vulnerable point in my life but didn’t realize that at the time. I had recently quit drugs after being addicted to cannabis for almost a decade. I also had to leave a queer collective house I’d been living in after getting into serious conflicts with some of my housemates. I was hurt, angry and upset and was also still learning how to cope with intense emotions without getting high. All this helped make radical feminist ideology more appealing and I used it a kind of replacement “drug” for years until I found better ways to cope. It gave me structure, a clear role, and offered me a solution to my problems. It put me in touch with many women who were eager to “support” me, both other detransitioned women and lesbian feminists.
I met a woman online who had detransitioned many years ago but said she still hadn’t fully processed the experience. She was six years older than me and seemed a lot more together in her life compared to where I was at. I felt very isolated with what I was going through and she was the first person I came across who said she had gone through something similar. I ended up relying on her heavily for emotional support.
We both ended up reading a lot of radical feminist books, blogs and websites and ended up pushing each other further into that ideology. There were already a handful of detransitioned women blogging who interpreted their experience along radical feminist/gender critical lines. Later, both me and my friend started our own blogs and met other detransitioned women online that way. Some women started creating private forums and later private facebook groups. I participated in the forums but not the Facebook groups.
I came to hate myself for transitioning in the past and living as a trans person. I thought I had really messed up my life. I thought I had to reject that part of myself in order to heal from past trauma. There were plenty of times were I felt like I’d ruined my life so badly that I felt like dying. I never made any attempts but my suicidal feelings could get so strong that it could take a lot of effort not to give in. Though I had stopped smoking weed, I still drank and many times I got drunk alone in order to cope with my feelings.
I learned to reframe and interpret my life story and feelings according to radical feminist ideology. I learned to see any sense of being a gender other than woman as something that originated from outside of me, not as part of who I was. People in the radical feminist detransitioned women’s community are encouraged to see themselves as women struggling with gender dysphoria and to see any sense of being a gender other than woman as a symptom to be managed, not an identity to express. While some flexibility is allowed in the name of “harm reduction”, the preferred solution to dealing with gender dysphoria is accepting one’s body and learning to see oneself as a woman. Feeling different from women was seen as a delusion to be overcome. Since people in that community believe that people transition and identify as trans because of social influences, there is a lot of pressure on members to live up to certain standards so as not to be a bad influence on others.
Eventually I started having doubts and my sense of gender started to shift again, becoming more male/genderqueer. I’d been living as a butch woman for years at that point and while parts of that felt right, I also felt like I had to expend a lot of effort to be a woman and it didn’t feel as satisfying as it was supposed to be. I spent a lot of time trying to convince myself that I had to keep living as a woman, trying to frame my re-emerging transmasculine/genderqueer identity as a bout of gender dysphoria brought on by stress that I could work through and overcome.
Detransitioning as a Conversion Practice
Something that really helped me figure things out was hearing about the experiences of gay people who’d survived conversion therapy. I happened to go to a book reading by Peter Gajdics, where he read from The Inheritance of Shame, his memoir about surviving conversion therapy, and some of what he described resonated with me. He talked about how he became convinced by his therapist that trauma he’d experienced as a child had made him gay and that he needed to stop being gay in order to heal from his trauma and stop suffering. Listening to him, I felt a uncomfortable flash of recognition.
Hearing his story made it possible for me to consider that I’d been fed a lie about how my transness was some kind of traumatic wound I needed to heal from. Something I wanted to believe because I was in pain and desperate and that story seemed to offer me a way out. I started reading more about conversion therapy and noticing more similarities between what I’d read and what I’d gone through but kept this all to myself at the time and didn’t quite let myself accept what I was figuring out. It was like part of me was realizing what was going on and another part wasn’t ready to see what had happened and tried to carry on as if everything was working just fine. It would be years after that book reading before I actually gave myself permission to take my perceptions seriously and get out but it planted a seed and I’m very thankful that I attended.
While I see similarities between my experiences and those of people who’ve undergone conversion therapy and/or participated in ex-gay ministries, I recognize many differences as well. Most of the experiences I came across were those of gay people trying to change their sexuality, while I was trying to dismantle my gender identity. They were also trying to become straight or assimilate into a homophobic Christian subculture that has a lot of power in the larger culture while I was attempting to live as a lesbian in a radical feminist lesbian subculture that has far less power and access to resources. There was also less structure than formal conversion therapy or established ex-gay ministries. The radical feminist detrans women’s community was largely inspired by the consciousness raising groups of second wave feminism, so there was a strong emphasis on detrans women coming together to offer support to each other and figure things out on our own, rather than turning to any kind of professional.
Another differences is that much of my engagement with the detrans women’s community happened online. I became radicalized through consuming gender critical/radical feminist media and began interpreting my experiences through those ideologies. I participated in online spaces where these interpretations were supported and reinforced. In many ways, my experience resembles how people are recruited online into other political ideologies and hate groups. In addition to researching conversion therapy, I’ve also studied online radicalization and how people are recruited into hate groups in order to understand what I went through.
It would be more accurate to describe what I went through as a conversion practice rather than conversion therapy. Conversion practices would include conversion therapy but also any activity or treatment, whether formal or informal, that tries to change, suppress or eliminate a person’s sexuality, gender identity or expression. It’s a newer term created by people trying to combat all efforts to change or repress people’s sexuality or gender because conversion therapy is not broad enough to describe what some people experience. Another attempt to capture a wider range of practices is SOGICE or sexual orientaton and gender identity change efforts.
I am personally grateful that people are coming up with more language and working to broaden people’s understanding in order to recognize that any attempt to change a person’s sexuality or gender identity is harmful. It’s harmful whether it takes place through therapy, in a religious setting or in a supposedly radical subculture. Like those who went through more formal therapy, I was encouraged to think that part of who I was a problem that I needed to fix in order to “heal”. The fact that this was justified with feminist theory and encouraged by radical feminists and lesbians didn’t make it any less damaging.
I’ve also made up my own term to describe what I went through, ideologically-motivated detransition, meaning detransition driven largely by a transphobic belief system rather than just a shift in identity or dissatisfaction with one’s initial transition. I also use it to describe detrans people who’ve been radicalized into a transphobic ideology and use their experiences to push anti-trans views. I made up that term because while I recognized similarities between my experience and conversion therapy, there were also the aforementioned differences. In many ways, my experience of conversion practices/gender identity change efforts combined with political radicalization is distinct and it makes sense to come up with particular language to describe it.
One more important difference is that unlike most people who go through conversion therapy and/or participate in ex-gay ministries, I played a role in creating the conversion practices I engaged in. I and other detrans women drew on our personal experiences, radical feminist theory and our idiosyncratic understanding of trauma and dissociation to come up our own methods to treat “female gender dysphoria”. I helped to create and promote ideas and practices I now see as harmful and I accept responsibility for any damage I’ve caused. I now seek to hold myself accountable and work to undo that harm however possible. Among other things, I work to educate people on how ideologically-motivated detransition can function as a conversion practice and/or radicalization into organized transphobia.
I had a hard time fully disengaging from the radical feminist detransitioned women’s subculture. It took about three years from when my first doubts started for me to start cutting off contact with that subculture and to start taking in what had happened. I knew things were wrong but I had a hard time fully believing in my own feelings and perceptions. I’d internalized the idea that my feelings were untrustworthy because I’d developed “false consciousness” from living in a patriarchy and that I should look to radical feminist theory for guidance on how to make sense of myself and my life. I had this story that supposedly explained my life that was like a script I was afraid to deviate from. I got stuck in a role that I got a lot of rewards for performing. I knew what part I was supposed to play and it was hard to give up even years after it had stopped feeling authentic.
Part of why it was hard to give up was that I encountered resistance from some detransitioned women when I changed how I talked about my life. I got the impression that I was supposed to stick to the story of being a lesbian deceived by patriarchy who’d been deeply harmed by transitioning. I didn’t feel like I had the freedom to decide that detransitioning and living as a woman hadn’t worked out for me. I felt lots of doubt and regret but I didn’t feel safe talking to others in the community. Instead I kept my feelings to myself and kept trying to make detransitioning work for me long past when it actually felt like it was helping.
I also knew that some detrans women maintained friendships with trans people while secretly holding transphobic views. I’d seen detrans women privately express concerns and distress when one of their friends transitioned while hiding their true feelings with their friends. This made me feel like I couldn’t trust other detrans women to be honest with me. I believed that if I came out as trans there was decent chance many would say one thing to my face in order to maintain the friendship but have a very different view of me they would discuss with others behind my back.
I myself had engaged in similar behavior when I acted as a representative of the detrans women’s community. I moderated my views when talking to outsiders or writing for my blog and kept my more extreme and transphobic beliefs hidden. This was a relatively common practice among detrans women who were afraid of the social consequences of expressing overt transphobia.
I cared a lot about people I knew in the detrans women’s community and it was very hard to give up that sense of belonging but eventually I had to let go. I realized that I had to cut off ties and disconnect if I was going to move on with my life and heal.
I should make clear that I don’t think every detransitioned person is a self-hating trans person, even those with radical feminist views. The radical feminist detransitioned women’s community is one of the only places detransitioned women can find support, so someone could adopt those views in order to belong. I do think it’s possible for a lesbian or gender nonconforming woman to transition due to internalized homophobia or sexism and of course such a woman deserves support but she should be able to find it without being pressured into adopting a particular ideology. The radical feminist detrans women’s community can end up hurting both vulnerable trans people and detrans women. There’s often more emphasis on advancing radical feminist ideology about trans identity and transition than actually healing or getting what one needs to be happy.
If anything, my experience has convinced me that there need to be way more resources for detrans people that are non-ideological and just focus on helping people solve whatever problems they may have, get whatever it is they need to move on with their lives. No one deserves to get co-opted to push a hateful political agenda.
I also want to develop better resources trans, detrans, non-binary and gender nonconforming people. I want there to be spaces where people can explore and heal from the effects of sexism, transphobia, homophobia and other forms of oppression without a particular political narrative being imposed on them. I want there to be more resources for people who struggle with both trauma, gender dysphoria and/or dissociation. I want there to be support for people who have a complicated time figuring out their gender and/or how to best manage their gender dysphoria, who for whatever reason find their experiences fall outside the standard (de)trans or (de)transition narrative. I want to draw on my past experiences and learn from my mistakes to create better resources for people, resources center people’s happiness and well-being instead of ideology.