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Why regret matters

I was hoping not to have to write this post, but recently I’ve noticed a tendency for some transpeople to dismiss stories of transgender regret. I’ve seen a couple of blog posts that attribute regret concerns primarily to “people who think transition is bad,” and criticize regretters who claim they were deceived. I don’t think there’s any malice intended, but it’s not a good thing.

A lot of transgender politics is based on the idea that MTF transpeople are women, and FTM transpeople are men, and thus that anything that interferes with transition is thwarting their destinies, and amounts to a crime against nature. Figuring out which gender-variant people are “really trans” and thus deserving of this categorizational boost is tricky, and the subject of endless flamewars, but what seems to matter most are action and intention: if you live full-time or have concrete plans to do so in the near future, a lot of transpeople will admit you to the club.

(As an aside, I have a fairly fluid, Roschian definition of “man” and “woman” that seems to please nobody but me: I believe that everyone is a woman in some ways and a man in others, and everyone’s balance varies. It’s not even the same for a single person from day to day. I just want to go on record that I am not interested in denying anyone’s claim to be either a man or a woman. What bothers some transpeople is that I’m also not interested in helping them to repudiate their categorization in the other gender.)

What causes a bit of a problem for the transgender worldview is that there are people who were once considered “really trans,” went all or partway through transition and became dissatisfied and regretted transitioning. There is a range of actions in response to this regret, just as there is a wide range of actions in response to transgender feelings. If they can manage and/or afford it, some will have surgery to undo or reconstruct as many of the body modifications they’ve done. Others will quietly share their feelings with their loved ones. Most people seem to be somewhere in the middle. No one knows how many cases of regret there are (Principle One), but I personally know of at least five, and there have been others documented by David Batty of the Guardian. Five people have recently come forward to accuse English gender psychiatrist Russell Reid of encouraging them to transition and have body modifications that they later regretted. (For balance, you can read testimonials from some of Dr. Reid’s satisfied patients.)

It’s understandable that many transgender activists feel uncomfortable about regret stories and try to distance themselves from them. After all, these stories are often used by religious “ex-gay” organizations to argue that transpeople should all detransition, hide in the closet and repress and deny their transgender desires. But there are other options beside repression and destiny.

I believe that transpeople cannot make a truly honest, balanced decision about transition without considering regret cases and whether these cases might apply to them. The fact of the matter is that there’s a tremendous amount of misinformation out there about transgenderism, from both sides, including junk science, opinion masquerading as fact, confusion of passability with essence, and the feeling-action bait-and-switch. Mental health professionals command a great deal of respect, and most of them take that trust seriously, but I’ve heard too many stories about gender specialists who diagnose someone as a “woman trapped in a man’s body” on the basis of a cursory examination.

I think I owe a lot of my stability to the fact that the second transgender story I heard was in fact a regret story. In the town I grew up in, there was a person who went through a difficult time with gender. The basic facts have been confirmed: this was someone who was born male and transitioned to female when I was in high school in the 1980s, but has been living as male for at least the past ten years. The details were always sketchy to me: I could swear that I heard that he had de-transitioned and re-transitioned at least twice. But I was deep in the closet and couldn’t muster the courage to ask about it, so I had to rely on what I overheard. Regardless of how many times he de-transitioned or how many operations he had, the important thing is that he de-transitioned at least once of his own volition and is now living in his originally assigned gender. I knew that fairly early on, and made the decision that I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks and wind up with body modifications I didn’t want.

I sometimes wonder if transpeople would be so quick to dismiss regret stories if they’d actually met someone who regrets transitioning or body mods. I recently met a man who told me that a few years ago he got carried away in a midlife crisis and took black market hormones for long enough to develop breasts. At one point he flipped them up with a small flick of his wrist through his baggy sweatshirt and remarked with a frown, “I’m going to have to get rid of these at some point.” Sure, he made a stupid mistake, and he was the first to admit it. But I couldn’t look him in the eye and tell him that he wasn’t misled either, or that his predicament wasn’t a serious one.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m no fan of repression, but for those who don’t know me it probably bears repeating: I don’t believe that transition is always a bad idea, and I think it’s almost always better to be out of the closet. I’m not some religious nut telling everyone to deny their nature and pretend to be Ward Cleaver. I’m just a believer in careful decisions. I want my transgender brothers and sisters to be happy and fulfilled, and that means not anguished and repressed or sad and regretful.

Because of this, I think every transperson should read at least one regret story. There are plenty in the Guardian articles linked above, and even on the Recovery Resources website, if that’s your taste. But one that I think is particularly well-written is the story of James “Cora” Birk. Be safe, and take care of yourselves.

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