Retransitioning can bring joy. So why are ideological detrans people unwilling to hear it?

Part of the crowd at a Pride Parade. In the center is a person holding up a sign, which says “Life is short be as queer as you want” in all caps. The word queer is in the colors of the rainbow. The person standing next to them is wearing a white baseball cap with rainbow hearts on it.
Photo courtesy of Raphael Renter.

Note: I’m defining retransitioning here as someone who stopped transitioning, whether medically, socially or legally, and then later resumed.

Content warnings: references to domestic violence, homophobic assault, addiction, and thoughts of suicide.

This post would not be possible without the love of my husband, whose pronouns are she/her and with her permission will be used throughout this post. Additional appreciation for all of the friends I’ve made in the past few years, as well as Devon Price’s recent post “Irreversible Healing: What Testosterone Has Done For Me”. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Something that I’ve noticed is how, when the subject of detransition comes up, often times trans folks or allies will bring up folks like me who detransitioned for a while and then retransitioned. Usually it isn’t received well. Especially if the person they’re talking to is detransitioned and holds anti-trans views, such as the notion that being trans is a result of what they call “gender ideology”. Sometimes the trans folks or allies will just be dismissed, other times they’re met with hostility for “throwing retransition stories” into people’s faces. You’re not supposed to go back once you’ve “woken up”. If you do, you’ve fallen.

I’ve wondered where these reactions came from for a while, particularly the hostility. It’s easy enough to assume that it’s transphobia, and that’s part of it, but I feel like that’s not quite the whole picture. Honestly, I feel like a lot of it stems from fear. Fear of changing again, of “giving in to temptation”, of finding peace in something that was so painful previously, of the possibility of having access to real mental health or social supports and transition. It’s a feeling I know well.

In some ways, my first transition was an abject failure. I had started testosterone just months after my last remaining grandparents had passed, getting ghosted by my Trump-loving extended family, and quitting opiates. I was single, having taken a break from dating for years after a string of abusive relationships, and still trying to figure out how to have a healthy relationship while trans. Didn’t have much in the way of friends either, other than a handful online. I was in my last year of my undergrad program too. That came with the extra pressure of finding a paid internship or job that would pay the rent. And I was quickly coming to the conclusion that the years of therapy I had been doing was keeping me more stuck than actually helping me move on with my life.

All of this put me in a pretty vulnerable position. Not completely, mind you. My immediate family was supportive, as were the few friends I did have, and I was going to shul when I could. And I really had made a lot of progress mental and physical health wise. But the collection of factors made things a lot harder than it probably needed to be.

I began reading writings from detransitioned women a month or two after starting T in 2017. I wanted to better understand their experiences after seeing them written off so frequently throughout transmedicalist Tumblr. They were almost exclusively lesbian radical feminists; the idea of ROGD wasn’t a thing yet and, bar one or two, no one wanted to talk about attraction to men. If they did, it was all framed as compulsory heterosexuality. No real talk of having “autoandrophilia” or being into yaoi either, despite the derisive claims among transmeds. There was frequent talk of trauma though. Internalized homophobia and misogyny, autism, mental health struggles. All framed as the definitive “root[s]” of their dysphoria. I had a lot of those things in common with them and it started to get inside my head. Slowly at first. Then the dam broke.

The detrans women would share books about lesbian culture or butch/femme experiences, some of which I started to read. It gave me connection to something I felt I had lost, having grown up isolated in rural, conservative Maine with no exposure to queer or trans history. Connection can be painful. Destabilizing. Reading through one book, Stone Butch Blues, led to a flood of memories from my teenage years I had long since buried. Being the only visibly queer, closeted trans person in a tiny conservative town is like being the nail sticking out. You get hammered back into submission. And at the same time these memories were coming in, my T schedule was messing with my head. I’d go into deep lows the day before my shot, sometimes to the point of being suicidal, only to be fine when it was done. This cycle repeated itself the next week, and the next, and the next. The constant roller coaster was agonizing.

The questions started spinning in my head. What if I was just a dyke trying to run from myself? What if my attraction to men (I identified as a gay trans man before starting T, though it shifted a bit afterwards) was just me reenacting the trauma my peers beat into me? What if I was just a weird autistic girl who didn’t understand gender roles? What if I had replaced one substance in my life for another?

I started writing about what I was feeling, processing out loud. Anti-trans parents and therapists swarmed around me. The writings got posted by anti-trans conversion therapist Lisa Marchiano in Facebook groups for transphobic parents of trans youth and later on Twitter, under the guise of me being detransitioned when I wasn’t yet. I ended up joining Twitter to see what happened. The flood of messages from transphobic parents soon followed, wanting advice on how to “save” their kids. It was overwhelming and none of these people seemed to know — or care — that I was profoundly alone and miserable. Nor did they seem to care that I didn’t want my writings weaponized against other trans people. I ended up pulling the more viral posts, then setting the blog to private, before deleting it all when these parents and other transphobes kept trying to get around the lock or find Google caches.

By this point I was about 8 months on T. I still wasn’t talking to most people, save email and instant messaging or Skype. After locking things down I spent a lot of time circling between periods of anger, pain, and grief. Intrusive thoughts of why and how I should kill myself, just repeating themselves in perpetuity. And then I had a traumatic experience with my first HRT provider. The office had asked if I was okay with a shadowing provider during an appointment when I was due for a refill, but didn’t inform me that it was to train people in other offices. My provider responded badly after I tried to bring up how I felt coerced into providing training I hadn’t consented to or was given the true freedom to decline. Instead of responding to the concerns themselves, she escalated by violating patient privacy without my written consent — again. Soon, my weekly shots became unbearable. In my mind, the filled syringes resembled heroin. I was too terrified to unpack what that meant yet.

Eventually I found full time work, doing peer-to-peer support, though I had first tried being stealth. That didn’t pan out. One of the people I was supporting read me as female and called me she to the case worker on my team she was working with. That confused the hell out of my colleagues. It took a while but I realized that my reason for going stealth was also fear. Fear of being visibly trans, marked, when Trumpsters were marching just blocks from my home and I could now so acutely remember what that meant for my safety. I was going to have to let go of that fear if I wanted to be free. I was going to have to be out at work.

That was just one of several mental barriers I had to overcome. But it took a while to get there and I had to fall a few more times first. Another was fear of doctors. I had switched providers, but the experience with my first HRT provider haunted me to the point of filing a complaint to the board. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay attached to the system for much longer. What if I got hurt again? What if I could manage fine without T? I had managed for so, so long before, after all. What if the T was actually bad for me, given the mental cycling I kept having? Sure, it was helping me physically, but what if, what if, what if. Give in to the fear, under the false guise of “recovery”, and drop the syringe.

Then I suddenly experienced vision loss after I finished tapering off T. My night vision was rapidly declining, with big grey holes where my central focus should be. At times light was so glaring that I couldn’t tolerate computer screens or be outside without sunglasses.

Mock-up of night blindness with central vision loss. There’s a large patch of grey in the center, blocking view of a line of cars along the street at night. Almost everything is pitch black save the glow from lights and reflections off car surfaces.
A general idea of what my night vision looks like now.

My worst fears were realized. Because it happened at the same time as stopping hormones, my brain immediately assumed it was connected, a concern further entrenched by the transphobes still surrounding me. Off I go to the various doctors again, with endless medical and legal dead ends. The transphobes kept whispering in my ear. It’s my fault, I destroyed myself by transitioning. No, it’s my doctors’ fault, they destroyed me for their own profit. Go sue them. Go start an organization to prevent people from turning out like me. Oy, what a mess. I am not built for trying to restrict people’s options. It didn’t help that I was in the process of fleeing Maine, what with the right-wing marches getting worse and my shul getting vandalized, only to land in the home of a (seemingly supportive but not really) detrans radical feminist. She viewed testosterone as inherently toxic to people assigned female at birth, despite how it’s helped me physically. Being around this kind of thinking online is one thing, it’s another entirely when it’s every day and in your home. The whispers escaped the internet and were now in real life.

Throughout both my first transition and my detransition, I was running away. I was afraid of myself, the world, and getting hurt by those with power over me or on the other side of my own walls. I had gone from having neighbors roleplaying mass shootings that I could hear with brutal clarity from my living room in Maine to a radical feminist roommate who couldn’t control her own anxiety about transition. I was afraid of failure. Curiously, I was also afraid of happiness. What I could have if I knew how to get it or if I had people in my life actually supporting me. But to get it I had to get out.

It was hard when I left ideological detrans spaces. Those whispers were still deeply embedded into my brain, even more so as I pondered T again. Probably didn’t help that the pandemic had hit, I was still sharing a space with the aforementioned detrans radical feminist, and Trump’s re-election campaign was ramping up. The big difference was that, this time, I wasn’t as alone. I had a new job where people understood my needs while empowering me to support local organizers as they guided their communities through the latest crisis. More crucially though was having a loving partner who had seen everything I had gone through for the past several years and, deep down, just wanted me to be happy with myself. We had met in that toxic world while she was still living as a detrans woman but was feeling increasingly disillusioned with her detransition and the detrans women’s community she’d helped form. We recognized ourselves in each other and emailed for years processing just what a clusterfuck we’d gotten ourselves involved with. Over time, we were able to help each other break the bonds those spaces held on us, giving us the freedom to explore ourselves together. Eventually she came out as transmasculine again, I contemplated T some more, and we got married days before the election. A socially distanced wedding with just three people standing in the back room of a closed church we found at the last minute while COVID and escalating fascism raged outside. Nothing, whether a stupid deadly virus or wanna-be dictator, was going to destroy the bond we built together.

It took a while, but eventually I overcame my fear and started T again over the summer of 2021. She and I were both nervous — how could we not be, with everything I had already been through and those horrific whispers echoing in perpetuity — but it made sense given how much it helped medically, and it was my comfort in my body that mattered. It was the first time I had been with someone who ultimately supported my decision to transition (unlike aforementioned string of abusive partners).

And you know what? I’m loving it.

I love the energy it’s given me. The freedom to explore new trails in the woods and find all kinds of goodies, something I haven’t been able to do since I was a kid. Wandering through strange, enchanted mushroom forests or along crystal brooks while watching other hikers’ dogs jump into the waters. I love how I’m in less pain again, with fewer migraines, and can (usually) stand up without falling flat on my face from dizziness. I love how, sometimes, the happiness bursts out of me and my husband finds me dancing in the grocery isles or other random playfulness. No rhyme or reason behind it, just because. I love finding new bits of fuzz on my stomach, the bearish furriness of my legs, the patches in my beard filling out and feeling my husband affectionately trace the new growth with her fingertips. I love the calmness and stability it’s given me emotionally, now that I’m on a daily dose without the peaks and lows that messed me up before. I love how present in my body I feel, even sexually. I used to dissociate pretty badly; now, not so much. I love being able to grow further and further into my freaky, fagdyky gender weirdness that felt so terrifying before. The traits that marked me as a target in my old neighborhoods now bring a profound joy, and unlike before they continue to as every new month passes. Is this what “gender euphoria” is? Because if so, cool.

The thing about ideological detrans spaces is that, even if they seem like they’re recovery-focused on the surface, they’re still built on that mindset of fear and avoidance. This isn’t unusual. Any recovery spaces can have this problem depending on the dynamic, even ones for substance use or chronic illness. Going drug-free requires maintenance, the will to ignore cravings and find distractions to fill the time or a meeting to attend. Identify your triggers, the things that could make you relapse, and do everything you could to avoid them or keep them under control. And no, you can’t keep them under control with other medications. While I’m sure some meetings are better, the ones I went to expected that you couldn’t be on any kinds of substances (sometimes even psychiatric!) to stay sober. There wasn’t much stock put into the idea of medication-assisted treatment, cannabis, or controlled use, even as they become more commonplace. And if you were on them, you definitely couldn’t experience happiness as a result of it. That meant you were high, you were still using, you needed to get your act together and get sober again. As for chronic illness spaces, I don’t think I’ve encountered a single one where people felt comfortable sharing joy their meds brought them. Especially if it’s pain meds. Euphoria from treatment wasn’t to be uttered. Relief from being treated well or from having more independence? Sure. But from the effects of the meds themselves? Perish the thought.

Even just writing out what brings me joy is challenging. I get mental blocks every time. I still have the thoughts in my head, telling me that I’m not allowed to find happiness in my second transition because it’s evidence that I’m getting off on a high instead of finally feeling like my skin is me. I’m certainly not allowed to consider surgery, something that’s been increasingly on my mind lately. I think about what my former peers would say — do say, sometimes about me directly — if they knew how happy I was. But I remind myself that often times it’s coming from their own pain, their own fears or urges they’re trying so hard to keep under control, and I’m just a convenient outlet for them to get relief. Maybe they’ll come out of it. Maybe they won’t. My hope is that they’ll be able to work past their own fear, in time, and find peace in the solution that works for them.

In the meantime, I can’t let their venom get to me anymore. I’ve no more fucks to give. My body and my happiness are mine, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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That weirdo Lee. Jewish, trans androgynos cripple w/ vision loss. Former (de)trans organizer. Now just trying to survive in this world. S/he, him/her, his/hers.

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Lee Leveille

Lee Leveille

That weirdo Lee. Jewish, trans androgynos cripple w/ vision loss. Former (de)trans organizer. Now just trying to survive in this world. S/he, him/her, his/hers.

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