Chris Sweeney is an author and columnist who has written for newspapers such as The Times, Daily Express, The Sun and Daily Record, along with several international-selling magazines. Follow him on Twitter @Writes_Sweeney
People who opt to change their gender and then choose to reverse the process often face mistrust and a lack of support. RT.com spoke to two detransitioners who shared their story of the painful journey back from being trans.
Transitioning from one sex to another is a radical process. It’s commonly misunderstood, and most ordinary people are confused about how to even refer to the individuals involved. But there’s an entire group of people who are even more widely misunderstood: detransitioners. They committed to living as the opposite sex, only to change their mind and revert to their original gender.
Few detransitioners are comfortable speaking publicly, but two agreed to share their journey with RT.com.
Oliver from Minnesota in the US was born female. She said: “Growing up I was called a tomboy. I didn’t feel I related to the other girls, all my friends were boys or outcast girls that didn’t fit in. I’d mostly be by myself. I remember getting a pair of boy’s shoes and being elated. I held on to them until they fell apart. I wanted to wear boys’ clothes, but that was too much for my parents as they’re fundamentalist Evangelical Christians.”
Calvin Lunt, from Liverpool in the UK, was born male. He recalled, “When I was being this flamboyant little child dancing around the living room I was called a f****t and queer at the age of five. I know it sounds weird, but I had to become a woman to become a man.”
While both had very different experiences, it’s clear their journeys began as children. For Oliver – who changed her name as an adult – it became progressively harder to understand her body.
Puberty was traumatic, and she recalled, “My mum bought me training bras, but I was like, ‘what are these even for?’ There is nothing there. I felt like my body was being leased. I asked, ‘Why doesn’t my dad have to shave his body? Why is my body hair disgusting?’ I was like a little feminist kid.
“Being a girl was reinforced to be this very specific closed-off box and I never identified with that. So that why it was easy to say: ‘I must not be that’. I was told for so long that being gay was a sin, and ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’. I didn’t understand what ‘trans’ was in high school. When I got into college, I looked up trans and there was this feeling… should I be looking into this? But it was almost with dread.”
Homophobia is something that also entered Calvin’s teenage years. He is gay, but felt it was something he had to hide. He explained, “I felt different growing up as a gay kid and not seeing something I could connect with. I know from a young age that I was more effeminate; I enjoyed being around women and feminine energy more. What I’ve learned is there’s a lot of trauma in my background when it comes to male authority figures and men in general. As I grew up and rejected more of the masculinity, that’s when I had to find something to express what was going on in the inside.”
Both turned to transitioning in time. Calvin began hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in what he refers to as “self-medicating”.
He was getting the hormones from outside the medical system, and said, “If someone wants something, they’ll go find it. It’s like drug addicts. I believed it was going to complete me and make me happy; I thought it would make me finally become the person that I thought I should always be.” He began to develop breast tissue and his skin became dewier.
In contrast, Oliver entered the formal system and found it welcoming. She told her parents about being trans at Easter in 2015 and started testosterone the following year. That caused her to develop an Adam’s apple and have ‘male-scented’ sweat, while her voice changed.
She said, “There’s a thing called bottom growth where your clitoris becomes masculine. It grows bigger and you can kind of experience erections, and your sex drive shoots through roof. I was 20 but felt like a teenage boy going through puberty.”
Due to a new surgeon arriving at Oliver’s hospital, waiting times for surgery were slashed and she was booked in for 2017. Her medical insurance paid for it, so she had both breasts removed. She said, “It was very fast but I was like, ‘This is what I’ve been wanting for years and everyone else thinks I’m so lucky that I’m able to do this so quickly.’
In Calvin’s case, he had gradually built up to presenting as a female and was known to family and friends as Cal. He felt supported, but that changed as he flew to Thailand to begin a new life. Calvin recalled, “I had a layover in Abu Dhabi airport. I was presenting as a trans woman. I was tired and needed to use the toilet; I went to the women’s bathroom and I was escorted out. I sat down, I put my hoodie and sunglasses on, and I went to go in the man’s bathroom. They escorted me out of that too and told me I wasn’t using any bathroom. I had to sit there for three hours and hold it in.”
After Thailand, he moved to Amsterdam before returning to Liverpool. By this stage he was drinking heavily, so he entered rehab and was placed in a women’s house to recover. By entering the system, he was still on hormones and had an appointment to get breast augmentation. The plan was to do that and then have facial surgery where his jaw would be broken, shaved away, his eyebrows lifted and hairline brought forward to appear more feminine. But there wasn’t enough tissue to work with, so the surgeon postponed the process for six months.
Calvin said, “There was a sense of relief when I left the office and I questioned that sense. What I learned was I will never be happy, it’s this thing I am constantly chasing. It was me realising that I was trying to fix the outside, but on the inside, it’s messy. There was a lot of pain on the inside.”
There was a similar awakening for Oliver, as with the top surgery now complete, she was experiencing unexpected sensations. She admitted, “I hated that part of myself and felt like my chest prevented me from passing as a male. One of the symptoms of testosterone is vaginal dryness. What that actually means is atrophy; your vaginal walls can get thinner and are easier to bleed. It’s very painful. I didn’t know at the time that can extend to your cervix and uterus.
“Males don’t have to deal with these things. Trans women don’t either. My body is female and it was telling me. I’d get my period and my chest would still feel tender and sensitive as I had left over breast tissue. My body was saying, these things are kind of still there.”
While both had plotted different courses, it’s here that their stories converge, as they both began to feel that transitioning was not truly what they wanted. So, they started to detransition.
For Calvin, it was more of a mental process as there were no surgical alterations to contend with. But it was far from simple. He said, “Towards the end of my journey as a transwoman, I did an LGBT retreat, [and] we did this session… ‘how to be a woman’. They taught us how to wear a cardigan, how you should wear a T-shirt, how you should change your voice. I stood up and said, ‘This is a load of bollocks’.
“There were mental blocks there, I was dislocating from who I was. When I was 27 and I was dead certain, I was doing videos on Facebook that were getting 1.5 million views, I was telling the world… but then it didn’t go the way I thought it would.”
Oliver began trying to piece things together after discovering she was autistic. This caused her to wonder if that was the real reason for not fitting in as a child, and she said, “It’s easy to blame myself, especially since I came out as a trans at 17. I waited on everything and took my time. I felt I needed these things and I was an adult, so I should take responsibility for the decisions I made.
“But there’s a part of me that [thinks] it wasn’t just me making random decisions; so much of those feelings came from how I was socialised and views of men, women and bodies. Ironically, if I knew I felt weird because of autism, if my parents had helped me get diagnosed as a kid, maybe I wouldn’t have done all this.”
While there is burgeoning support for people who want to transition, those who go the other way face serious issues. Oliver can’t rely on her health insurance this time and although she is more sure of who she is, the network of help has gone. She said, “When I was going through the process of transitioning, there was this narrative that we don’t have enough support or care. I believed that and that’s still the case in a lot of areas. But I’m in a liberal city, so it was an easy process for me.
“Not my family, but everyone else was saying good luck on this journey to the new you. I still have a lot of those same friends, but the reason they don’t know I’m detrans is that I’m scared to tell them. It’s embarrassing to be have been so loud about it and now say, ‘I was wrong about everything’. They want transition for trans people covered by insurance, but what happens when someone says: ‘This treatment that was supposed to be helpful didn’t actually work for me… it made my life worse and I want to reverse it somehow?’
“I don’t think there’s anything in the insurance that says there are people who are going to want to change. My [last] top surgery was covered; can I get this [next] top surgery covered? Can I please get implants or a fat transfer to have boobs again? I haven’t seen anyone get it covered yet. It seems gender clinics are scared to touch it.”
It’s been no easier for Calvin, who lost friends and bookings from his job as a drag queen performer.“A lot of backlash came, and a lot of people didn’t understand. I’ve had many people message me privately who’ve also gone through the same experience,” he said. “The scary thing for someone thinking of detransitioning is doing it, because you’ve got all these people to come with you. For me to come out as trans had a sense of ‘this is who I am’. But when I came to the decision that it wasn’t the right path for me, it was scary. People called me a liar, an attention seeker and some said I was misrepresenting the community.”
Calvin feels society should ask difficult questions instead of being concerned about political correctness. He added, “People are scared to have a conversation and there’s a lot of things we can’t say as it may offend people. We walk on eggshells a lot. What I noticed is, no one ever asked me how I was feeling. It was always ‘you look amazing’. It was always about the external. Now I can balance both and see that I’m actually able to be myself and be Calvin, and not have to change everything on the outside.
“A lot of TERFS [Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists] who are transphobic have jumped on the back of my story and used it as a way of attacking the community. That’s where people have got me mistaken. I just want what is best for the community and to protect it.”
Some of the antagonism to detransitioners is that the trans community feels that they will erode its legitimacy. There’s been a long struggle for acceptance and rights, and it feels if too many people detransition then it will undermine all of that. A tearful Oliver said, “Acknowledging that I was female has been wildly freeing. I want to be able to say I’m female and have it mean I’m biologically female. I felt I didn’t have a gender but gender is a social construct and my sex is female. A lot of trans people’s fear comes from that you’ll take away what they need to live.”
Now that both have found their correct path, it seemed apt to ask what advice they would give parents about any children who could be in the same position as they once were. Both shared the same sentiment.
Calvin advised, “Allowing children to be children is so important, and not saying ‘my child is a boy because he likes to play with bikes’. No, bikes are not just for boys. When I went through my counselling, they asked what kind of toys I played with. They were going to decide if I was trans by what I played with. A lot of kids are confused by social media and bombarded, so kids’ innocence is being taken away.”
Oliver was even more direct. Her words of wisdom for any parents with kids like her were simple: “Just love them.”