In recent years, the number of children experiencing gender dysphoria in the West has skyrocketed. Here is why detransitioned teens regret changing genders.
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“I was failed by the system. I literally lost organs.”
Chloe discovered she was transgender when she was 12 years old. She came out to her parents when she was 13 years old. In the same year, she was placed on puberty suppressants and given testosterone. She had a double mastectomy when she was 15 years old. She understood she had made an error less than a year later, when she was only 16 years old.
Chloe, now 17, is part of an increasing group known as “detransitioners” – people who want to undo a gender transition, typically after learning they identify with their biological sex. Sadly, many will have to live with the irreparable medical implications of a decision they made as adolescents for the rest of their lives.
“I can’t stay quiet,” said Chloe. “I need to do something about this and to share my own cautionary tale.”
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In recent times, the amount of children in the Western world experiencing gender dysphoria has soared. Exact data are tough to come by, but between 2009 and 2019, the number of children referred for transitional care in the United Kingdom climbed 1,000% amongst biological males and 4,400% among biological girls. Meanwhile, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research, the amount of young people in the United States who identify as transgender has nearly doubled since 2017.
Traditionally, transitioning from male to female was far more prevalent, with this group having persistent gender dysphoria from an early age. However, the tide has recently turned, and female-to-male transitions have gained the overwhelming majority (read below).
Dr. Lisa Littman, a former Brown University professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences, created the phrase “rapid onset gender dysphoria” to characterize this subset of transgender kids, who are primarily biological girls who become rapidly dysphoric during or just after puberty. Littman thinks this is because adolescent girls are more susceptible to peer pressure on social media.
Helena Kerschner, a 23-year-old detransitioner from Cincinnati, Ohio, who was originally a biological girl, experienced gender dysphoria for the first time at the age of 14. She claims that Tumblr pages with transgender activist content inspired her transition.
“I was going through a period where I was just really isolated at school, so I turned to the Internet,” she recalled. Kerschner had a breaking out with pals at school in real life, but she discovered a welcoming group online. “My dysphoria was definitely triggered by this online community. I never thought about my gender or had a problem with being a girl before going on Tumblr.”
She said that she was under political pressure to switch as well. “The community was very social justice-y. There was a lot of negativity around being a cis, heterosexual, white girl, and I took those messages really, really personally.”
When Chloe Cole, a 17-year-old student from California, joined Instagram at age 11, she had a comparable experience. “I started being exposed to a lot of LGBT content and activism,” she said. “I saw how trans people online got an overwhelming amount of support, and the amount of praise they were getting really spoke to me because, at the time, I didn’t really have a lot of friends of my own.”
Experts are concerned that several young individuals attempting to transition do so without first receiving a proper mental-health evaluation. Dr. Erica Anderson, a clinical psychologist who specializes in gender, sexuality, and identity, is one of them. Anderson, a transgender woman, has guided hundreds of young people through the transition process over the last 30 years. Anderson advocates for a deliberate, milestone-filled transition process that might run anywhere from a few months to many years. She is now concerned that certain young people are being medicalized without adequate control or oversight.
“I’m concerned that the rise of detransitioners is reflective of some young people who have progressed through their gender journey very, very quickly,” she said. She is concerned that some physicians may use medicalization to treat other personal or mental-health issues. “When other issues important to a child are not fully addressed [before transition], then medical professionals are failing children.”
40 percent of detransitioners who participated in a Dr. Lisa Littman-conducted online survey last year claimed that their gender dysphoria was brought on by a mental health issue, and 62 percent believed that medical professionals failed to consider whether trauma played a role in their decision to transition.
“My dysphoria collided with my general depression issues and body image issues,” Helena recalled. “I just came to the conclusion that I was born in the wrong body and that all my problems in life would be solved if I transitioned.”
Chloe had a similar experience. “Because my body didn’t match beauty ideals, I started to wonder if there was something wrong with me. I thought I wasn’t pretty enough to be a girl, so I’d be better off as a boy. Deep inside, I wanted to be pretty all along, but that’s something I kept suppressed.”
She concurs with Dr. Anderson that additional psychological testing is required to ascertain whether underlying mental health conditions may be impacting the urge to transition.
“More attention needs to be paid to psychotherapy,” Chloe said. “We’re immediately jumping into irreversible medical treatments when we could be focusing on empowering these children to not hate their bodies.”
Marcus Evans served as the clinical director of adult and adolescent services at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, a publicly financed mental health facility in the UK where many children and teenagers go for treatment for gender dysphoria, until 2019. However, he left his position three years ago because of what he believed to be the needless medicalization of dysphoric teenagers.
“I saw children being fast-tracked onto medical solutions for psychological problems, and when kids get on the medical conveyor belt, they don’t get off,” Evans said. “But the politicization of the issue was shutting down proper clinical rigor. That meant quite vulnerable kids were in danger of being put on a medical path for treatment that they may well regret.”
Transitions are occurring more quickly and among younger people. According to the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, puberty blockers are frequently given to youngsters as young as 9 at the first evidence of development. Despite the Endocrine Society’s recommendation of 16, testosterone and estrogen injections are regularly provided before the age of 13 or 14. Additionally, children as young as 13 years old have occasionally undergone major procedures including mastectomies.
Even though minors must have their parents’ permission before receiving medical treatment, many parents nonetheless consent to procedures like surgery and hormone therapy on the advice of supportive doctors or even out of concern that their kid would harm themselves if treatment is not received.
“It’s very hard for parents to know exactly how to evaluate their own kids, and they rely quite heavily on experts to tell them,” said Jane Wheeler, a former regulatory health-care attorney who founded Rethink Identity Medicine Ethics, a non-profit that promotes ethical, evidence-based care and treatment for dysphoric children. “There’s obviously a lot of concern about the capacity for the adolescent or minor to fully appreciate what medicalization really means.”
The American Psychological Association supports the affirmative-care model, which is commonly followed by medical practitioners and validates a patient’s reported gender identification regardless of age. Detransitioners usually state that procuring medications is simple as a result. According to Dr. Littman’s poll, 55% of respondents believed that their medical examinations were insufficient.
When Helena turned 18, she just needed to visit Planned Parenthood once to receive a prescription for testosterone. She claimed that without ever visiting a doctor, a nurse practitioner gave her four times the usual starting dose in less than an hour.
With parental approval, Chloe claimed she underwent the complete journey from blockers to a mastectomy in just two years. The only resistance she claimed to have experienced was from her 13-year-old endocrinologist, who consented to prescribe her testosterone but not puberty blockers. However, she said that she visited a different physician, who easily provided her with the prescription.
“Because all the therapists and specialists followed the affirmative care model, there wasn’t a lot of gate-keeping throughout the whole transition process,” she recalled. “The professionals all seemed to push medical transition, so I thought it was the only path for me to be happy.”
Evans, the author of “Gender Dysphoria: A Therapeutic Model for Working with Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults,” now maintains a private clinic in Beckenham, England, with his wife, where he assists parents who are unsure how to treat their children’s dysphoria.
According to various research, up to 80% of dysphoric infants may eventually experience “desistance,” or coming to terms with their biological gender without resorting to transition. As a result, many specialists, including Evans, believe it is prudent to postpone possibly irreversible medical intervention for as long as feasible. “I’m not against transition. I just don’t think kids can give informed consent.”
All of these medicines have the possibility of major side effects, which critics claim are too dangerous for youngsters to properly comprehend. Puberty blockers can impede growth and affect bone density in the short term, but the long-term effects are unknown because they were just approved by the FDA in 1993. High cholesterol, cardiovascular illness, diabetes, blood clots, and even infertility are among side effects of testosterone. Only three states, Arkansas, Arizona, and Texas, now have legislation restricting gender-affirming therapies for children, like as surgery, hormones, and speech therapy.
The ramifications of hormone medication and surgery can be severe for those who ultimately regret their change. Helena’s emotional instability was exacerbated by testosterone, resulting in two hospitalizations for self-harm.
While being in the hospital, she realized that her transition was an error. “I saw a montage of photos of me, and when I saw how much my face changed and how unhappy I looked, I realized this was all f****d up and I shouldn’t have done it. It was a really dark time.”
According to Chloe, testosterone changed her bone structure, irreversibly sharpening her jawline and expanding her shoulders. She also mentioned that she has a lot of body and face hair. She has a huge scar across her chest from her mastectomy, which has made her hesitant to have surgery. “The recovery was a very graphic process, and it was definitely something I wasn’t prepared for,” she said. “I couldn’t even bear to look at myself sometimes. It would make me nauseous.”
Her fertility is the most serious issue. Chloe hopes to have children one day, but she is unsure if the years of testosterone shots have damaged the viability of her eggs. Her medical future is uncertain, but she is collaborating with doctors to find out. “I’m still in the dark about the overall picture of my health right now,” she said.
The transgender activist community frequently criticizes the idea of detransitioning, claiming that cases like Chloe’s and Helena’s will be exploited to undermine the trans cause as a whole.
This is reasonable but improbable given that up to 86 percent of trans people believe that transitioning was the best long-term choice for them, according to research. However, the number of unhappy detransitioners will almost certainly increase as more and more kids are trusted to make important medical decisions with long-term consequences.
Dr. Anderson, a transgender woman herself, is moved to speak out on their behalf because of this. “Some of my colleagues are worried that conversation about detransitioners is going to be more cannon fodder in the culture wars, but my concern is that if we don’t address these problems, there will be even more ammunition to criticize the appropriate work that I and other colleagues are doing.”
And like Anderson, these younger folks do not want to be silent despite having to deal with the effects of fast transition for the rest of their lives. “I want my voice to be heard,” said Chloe. “I don’t want history to repeat itself. I can’t let this happen to other kids.”
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