Telling the Whole Story: A Closer Look at the Detrans Women in When Children Say They’re Transgender
Orginally posted on Health Liberation Now!
Many articles about detransitioning present an incomplete and misleading view of the detrans community by failing to address the beliefs and politics of its members. An example of this is Jesse Singal’s Atlantic article When Children Say They’re Transgender which features three detrans women, Max Robinson, Carey Callahan, and Cari Stella. Robinson’s and Callahan’s stories are told in much greater depth than Stella’s, who is briefly mentioned and quoted. In the article, they are presented as women who used to think they were trans, transitioned and later came to detransition and believe that they had underlining issues that they wish had been explored. They are cited as a reason for requiring more psychological assessment before allowing people to transition. While the article mentions that there is a growing community of detransitioned women, it doesn’t mention that many in this community believe and promote transphobic radical feminism. All of detrans women featured in the article were at least sympathetic to transphobic feminism if not enthusiastic proponents of it. All of them knew each other, promoted each others’ work and engaged in organizing and activism. Additionally, they all have connections to anti-trans organizations such as FourthWaveNow and some have worked with anti-trans researchers and conversion therapists.
I personally knew and have met all of these women. I attended the same private strategy sessions and collaborated with some of these women for years. Some I used to consider friends but have since cut ties with for personal and/or political reasons. I will be concentrating on these women’s work and not their personal lives. I mean to uncover and highlight their politics and activism because you can’t fully understand ideologically motivated detrans women without understanding what many of them believe in or the work they do on their own behalf. It helps to know that they have ideological motivations in the first place.
Max Robinson is a radical lesbian separatist who detransitioned after converting to radical feminism. In 2016, Robinson wrote an essay that was first published on FourthWaveNow and was later republished in the anti-trans anthology Female Erasure. Her essay tells the story of her transition, conversion to radical feminism and detransition. Her detransition coincided with a shift in her beliefs, moving from radical queer to radical feminist and coming to see trans identity, transitioning, and the radical queer community as a manifestations of patriarchy. A good portion of the essay is dedicated to stories of abuse and violence committed by trans women and transfeminine people and how this “proves” that trans women engage in “male violence” and should not be allowed in women’s spaces. She praises Janice Raymond as supposedly being able to predict the dangers and threats that “transexually-constructed lesbian feminists” present to the larger lesbian community.
Cari Stella was interviewed on FourthWaveNow where she argues for more gatekeeping and encouraging exploration of “alternative treatments” for gender dysphoria before allowing a person to access medical transition. Stella later conducted a survey of detransitioned and desisted women, recruiting participants from Tumblr, Facebook groups and FourthWaveNow and getting a total of 203 responses. One interesting result to note is that “[b]y far, the two most common reasons for detransition were shifting political/ideological beliefs, at almost 63%, and finding alternative coping mechanisms for dysphoria, at 59%.” Stella later went on to create a research study on detransition with Lisa Littmann, the researcher best known for her flawed study on the pseudo-disorder “Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria.” I took the survey created for the detransition study and found that it was very slanted towards proving the “social contagion” theory. There were many questions about social media use for example, something I found very frustrating because it had little relevance to my experience as a someone who transitioned before many of the listed social media sites existed or were popular.
Stella also created a dating and social media site for transphobic feminists called Terf4Terf. In order to join, one had to verify that one was both “biologically female” and held radical feminist politics. Prospective members were expected to submit a video of themselves or other evidence to prove their sex, and something like a blog or social media profile to verify their politics. As a “female-only space”, transmasculine people with radical feminist politics were allowed to join but had to accept being referred to with female pronouns while participating in the space.
Carey Callahan attended the last Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 2015, where she was part of a panel of detrans women at a detransition workshop that I co-facilitated with another detrans radical feminist named Devorah Zahav. The workshop presented transmasculine identity and transition as maladaptive coping mechanisms rooted in trauma and internalized sexism and was attended largely by transphobic lesbian feminists, many of whom were thrilled to receive “proof” of their transphobic beliefs. Carey was never a radical feminist but she hung out and worked with both detrans radical feminists and older transphobic lesbian feminists.
Callahan also has connections to anti-trans conversion therapist Lisa Marchiano. For example, Marchiano consulted Callahan for Layers of meaning: A Jungian analyst questions the identity model for trans-identified youth, an article published on FourthWaveNow in 2016. Marchiano distrusts young trans people’s ability to understand what they are or know what they need. Her article argues against affirming trans youth and instead advocates for a “mental health model” that uses therapy to find out the “true roots” of a trans person’s identity and gender dysphoria. In other words, conversion therapy that seeks to prove that the trans person’s sense of self is merely a symptom they can get over with the help of mental health professionals like Marchiano. Marchiano frequently cites the experiences and work of detransitioned people to back up her claims, including Callahan. She links to Callahan’s blog as a place to find “alternative treatments” for gender dysphoria.
One of Callahan’s essays was published in Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body, an anthology edited by anti-trans academic feminists Heather Brunskell-Evans and Michele Moore. Among the contributors are gender critical parents, conversion therapists and others who pathologize trans youth and oppose pediatric transition. In her essay Callahan describes detransitioning and finding the detransitioned women’s community. She cites the writing of other detrans women, including myself, Robinson and Stella.
In 2017, Callahan along with two detransitioned men, Joel Novak and Elan Lepovic, was part of a panel on detransitioning at USPATH, a regional conference put on by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. As part of her presentation, Callahan showed a series of short videos made by Cari Stella, Max Robinson and myself in order to represent the experiences of detrans women.
Callahan, Stella and Robinson were all acquainted with each other. They read and sometimes cited each other’s work, participated in the same online communities and attended many of the same events. They took part in meetings with other detrans women where they worked out plans and strategies to achieve specific goals. Their views and end goals are not identical but they all share a critical stance towards the informed consent model and an interest in promoting “alternative treatments” for gender dysphoria instead of medical transition.
Both Callahan and Robinson were among the detrans women who attended Artemis Camp, a “female-only” gathering organized by Ruth Barrett. Barrett is a Dianic witch, transphobic feminist and editor of Female Erasure, the aforementioned anti-trans anthology. The anthology is over six-hundred pages of transphobic bile and misinformation and includes many notable anti-trans writers and activists, including Sheila Jeffreys, Cathy Brennen, Lierre Keith, Jennifer Bilek, Gallus Mag, Miriam Ben-Shalom and Elizabeth Hungerford. [Full disclosure, one of my old pieces is also published in that anthology.] Barrett was in the final stages of publishing the book when Artemis Camp took place. Detrans women had been invited to the gathering in order to participate in a ritual on “reconciling with being female” lead by Barrett.
In 2016, at the Ohio Lesbian Festival, Callahan, Cari Stella, Devorah Zahav, myself and a few other detrans women had a strategizing session with older lesbian separatist writers and activists. All present had transphobic feminist politics or in the case of Callahan, were sympathetic to such politics. Among other matters, we discussed creating an anthology of detrans women’s writing and connecting with Janice Raymond, who some of the lesbian separatists knew.
Stella and Robinson were repeat attendees at Blood and Visions, a gathering for detrans and re-identified women that was held annually from 2016–2019 on“womyn’s land” in the Pacific Northwest. Callahan also attended in 2018. Both Stella and Robinson attended my political strategizing workshop at the first gathering, where I discussed ways to resist the trans right movement and promote radical feminist ideology and culture.
Callahan, Robinson, Stella and myself were all part of a rather tight-knit community that planned and worked together to achieve particular goals. We cited and promoted each other’s work, as well as the work of other women in our community. We promoted particular stories and ways to understand transitioning, trans identity and detransitioning. All of us were influenced by transphobic radical feminist ideology and most of us embraced it. While not every person in the community held these beliefs, many of the most active didn’t believe that trans identity was real, authentic or healthy. Most of us believed that neither trans people nor medical transition would exist in an ideal world free from patriarchy.
People cannot properly understand or evaluate detrans women’s stories if they don’t know the politics and ideology that dominate much of the detrans women’s community. It makes a difference learning that a detrans women started to regret her transition after coming to believe that all trans identity is a result of living in a sexist society and that all transition is medical abuse. If a detrans women underwent a political conversion around the same time as her detransition or has links to anti-trans feminists or conversion therapists, that needs to be part of the story. Detrans women sometimes hide their views and activities from outsiders but there’s plenty of evidence of what many of them think since they blog and publish their perspectives. For example, you can’t find out that Robinson attended Artemis Camp by searching for her name online but you can find her article on FourthWaveNow and learn that she was published in Female Erasure.
Journalists need to do the necessary investigative work to uncover and report the full story of the detrans community, including its ideological beliefs and political connections. And trans journalists, activists and allies need to be ready to fact-check and dig deeper when articles on detransitioning seem to conveniently line up with transphobic agendas and narratives. I hope by writing this article I can do my part to bring a clearer picture of the detrans women’s community, its ideology and politics.