Transphobia in the Detrans Women’s Community

[CW: Transphobia, transmisogyny, ableism, references to sexual and domestic violence, homophobia]

During my time as a detrans woman, I said and did many things that I now see as harmful and transphobic. At the time, I thought I was acting in accordance with feminism and working in the best interest of transmasculine people. In my mind I was trying to help people, I would never have acted as I did if I thought I was doing harm. Nonetheless, my motivations do not cancel out the harm of my actions, nor do they excuse them.

Trans people often became upset and angry at me and other radical feminist detrans women. I would get defensive and angry in turn but now I understand why trans people saw and treated me as if I was a threat to them. I can see now that I was indeed a danger to them and they weren’t wrong to see me and treat me as such. Not all of their reactions may have been productive or strategic in terms of actually countering the threat I represented. Some trans people reacted in ways I still regard as hurtful but I understand where those responses were coming from. I can empathize now, understand why what I did hurt and offended other trans people so much.

When I reflect back on my own past actions, I can think of numerous examples where I acted against trans people. I can see now how the radical feminist detrans women’s community took an oppositional and paternalistic stance towards trans people. We were out to “help” transmasculine people by convincing those who were receptive to “reconcile with being female” and working to eliminate the social conditions that we believed gave rise to trans identity and the desire to transition. We saw trans women as either self-hating gay men or predatory fetishists and infiltrators. We may not have set out to physically exterminate trans people but we were still working for a world where trans people no longer exist. We thought we knew who trans people were and what they needed better than they did. We saw trans identity as being generated and affirmed by both the patriarchal dominant culture and queer and trans culture, so we thought nothing of challenging it. We saw ourselves as going against the grain of a harmful social trend, not reinforcing transphobia.

During all my years of organizing in the detransitioned women’s community, not once did we discuss how we could get our needs met and create resources and support systems for detrans women without compromising trans people’s access to medical care. Nor did we discuss how to prevent our stories from being used to argue against the existence of trans people or about how we could work together with trans people in order to create a healthcare system that better met our all of our needs. This is because we saw trans people’s identities as a form of false consciousness, a way of coping with trauma, a perversion, or otherwise unhealthy and unreal. We saw medical transition as inherently harmful, a form of medical abuse. We saw both trans identity and medical transition as products of an oppressive and dysfunctional society and were working towards a future where both were rendered obsolete. You know, “morally mandated out of existence.”

I want to discuss some of my own past beliefs and behaviors to demonstrate what kinds of activities radical feminist detrans women engage in. Most of these activities took place out of sight in radical lesbian feminist or detrans spaces. I was more moderate in public, when writing on my blogs for example. I also became less extreme in my views over time until finally so many of them changed that I decided to disengage from the radical feminist detrans community. What follows was me at my most fanatical, when I was a true believer.

I co-presented workshops on detransitioning at the last two Michigan Womyn’s Music Festivals, in 2014 and 2015. MWMF was a week-long lesbian feminist festival notorious for excluding trans women. The first time round, we presented a general workshop but it was so well attended and received that the second time we were able to present it as an intensive. Intensive workshops received more support from the festival and were scheduled in such a way so that presenters could explore their subject in greater depth. They also came with perks such as having the ticket price of one of the presenters covered and receiving a $100 honorarium, both of which went to me (I also got to skip the multi-mile line of cars waiting to enter the festival and go right in). In addition to me and my co-presenter, for both workshops we brought along other detrans and desisted women to share their experiences. For the first workshop there were six women total and for the second we had a total of eight. About sixty women attended our first workshop and about a hundred and fifty came to our second. During both festivals, women were also eager to speak with us outside our workshops. Word soon got out about the women who’d transitioned but then came back to womanhood and folks were eager to talk with us, ask questions and express their admiration.

What did we talk about at our workshops? We shared our personal stories of transitioning and detransitioning as interpreted from a radical feminist lens. We described how we had found each other online and started forming a community. And we presented our own theories of what caused female assigned people to develop gender dysphoria, see themselves as trans and medically transition. Here’s how we defined dysphoria at our first workshop:

“Sex dysphoria is the condition of being dissociated from your primary and secondary sex characteristics, and in its extreme form, manifests as the feeling of a phantom male body superimposed over or clashing against the dissociated physical female body.

Gender dysphoria relates to distress about the social roles imposed on you as a girl or woman, dissociation from self-concept as female; that can sometimes lead to severe body hatred including sex dysphoria.”

And here’s some of the notes we made for the workshop ahead of time, describing what we saw as causes and social influences pushing people to transition:

transition as a coping strategy to deal with trauma/patriarchy, trans identity and dysphoria as dissociation, disconnection from being a woman, being female

-damaged sense of self brought on by trauma and misogyny leads to self-turned against self

- transitioning/trans identity becomes dissociative coping technique, creating a new persona to adapt, creating a new self to try to replace/compensate for a damaged one, controlling the shape of the body in place of being able to control the world.

-common traits among detransitioned women:

-gender-nonconforming, butch, don’t fit sexist definition of woman physically and/or psychologically,

-self-destructive-eating disorders, self-injury, drug and alcohol addiction,

-history of trauma, often sexual abuse, rape, and/or incest, abusive relationships, but doesn’t need to be sexual, can be peer rejection, ostracism, social isolation, suicide of a significant figure

-encountered pressure and/or encouragement to transition, sometimes directly by trans people, sometimes by trans “allies”, sometimes less explicitly and subtly through constant reinforcement of gender message, i.e. more attractive as a boy, get treated better when passing, assumed to be trans or already on testosterone, encouraged to see reactions to trauma as evidence of dysphoria

-often lesbian or bisexual, suffers from internalized lesbophobia

social pressures to transition- misogyny, internalized woman hatred, being treated like shit for being female, especially a deviant female. gender ambiguity can create constant social friction, passing can make life much smoother and safer, go from being treated like freak to being treated like a human,

limited ideas of what a woman can be, plus now female outliers and gender rebellion is framed as trans, as not female

factors in queer culture: idealization of masculinity, faggotry, denigration of lesbians, femaleness, hierarchy of identities, pressure to be “real”, pressure to be queer/”transgressive”, fetishization/tokenization of trans, queer theory/idea that individuals can rewrite sex/gender, create new sexes and genders, “queer” shit up, lack of a systemic perspective on sex/gender, disconnection from older gay/lesbian culture, lesbians and lesbian feminists especially aren’t cool, trans is unquestionable.”

Starting in 2016, detrans women began organizing in-person gatherings called Blood and Visions specifically for detransitioned and desisted women. These gatherings took place on radical lesbian land in the Pacific Northwest. I remember about twenty women attending the first gathering and I believe the most that ever attended was twenty-seven or so. It was a chance for women to meet each other in person, hang out, present and attend workshops, talk politics and strategize. Much of the time people were just enjoying the company of others who’d had similar experiences but many also used it as a chance to organize and plan political actions.

At the first of such gatherings, I presented a workshop on political strategizing for detrans and re-identified women. These were my working notes:

“Political Strategizing

These are some thoughts I had around addressing the trans movement/transitioning as a manifestation of patriarchy. I’m interested in hearing what other kinds of political projects or activities womyn would like to get involved in. I noticed reading through these notes that I’m interested in a very offensive, culture/psych war approach as well as creating a radical womyn’s culture. I don’t expect everyone to be so ready to fight. I’ve been detransitioning for long enough now that while I’m still working through my shit, healing from transition is not my focus at the moment and I’m more interested in creating cultural change out in the world. I recognize other women could be more interested in creating more support and resources for womyn working through their trauma, learning how to live in the world as a womyn again, dealing with the effects of hormones or surgery, etc. There’s plenty of work to be done on many fronts and weneed diverse approaches and activities.

I want this to be a space for womyn to share and discuss ideas, find other womyn with similar interests to work with, get motivated, talk about what they’d like to see happen. It’s also fine to sit and listen

-Take a womyn-centered approach. Don’t frame as a reaction to trans politic/culture. Present as an issue affecting womyn: womyn transitioning, womyn loosing spaces to gather, threats to lesbian spaces and culture, etc. Connect this to womyn’s general situation. The problem is not just the trans movement, the same problems and suffering could exist without the trans movement. The root problem is patriarchy, all womyn are still unfree, restricted, threatened by violence, surrounded by sexist propaganda/culture and so forth. As long as womyn live under the rule of men and have limited options some of us are going to take it out on ourselves one way or another. Transitioning is just one form it can take.

-Get out of the defensive/don’t be reactionary as much as possible. Don’t definre womynhood by what we’re not. Basically don’t get sucked into arguing whether trans women are women, etc at least not more than necessary. These arguments are set up to drain us and take up our time. Trans activists try to put us on the defensive so that our speech references them and grants them some kind of realness in a backwards way. It’s good to recall that arguing against something implies that it could be true.

If we can make our reality concrete and apparent it will be clear that males aren’t women by implication. If we’re effective at establishing our reality, we give ourselves more space and power to exist and act while simultaneously challenging patriarchal definitions of womanhood, including but not limited to trans. They are after all not the only ones with fucked ideas of what we are.

-we should start from the premise that women’s reality and the difference between female and male is actually obvious and what needs to be explained is why other people can’t see that. We need an explanation for why trans identities seem real when they’re not, why males can be perceived as women, etc. We want people to start to questioning why they believe in trans politics and if it could be for reasons other than that they’re true. We have to learn about and grapple with how the other side sees shit if we’re seriously going to change what they think. Get psychological.

-Target audience should be other womyn. Want to build a radical womyn’s culture that can create the world we want to live in and effectively resist patriarchy. More short-term, if we can take away female support from the trans movement they’ll lose a lot of power and ability to act. Without womyn backing them they ain’t got shit. Even if we respond directly to trans activists it’s their female supporters we should have in mind.

-We should reflect and analyze, alone and in groups, on why we used to believe in trans ideology and what happened to change that. What happened to get to where we are now, what stages did we go through, how long did it take, what did it feel like, where and how did the old argument/beliefs come apart, etc. Important to remember that this typically doesn’t happen all at once and can be quite terrifying and stressful to go through. It can be a long drawn out process. It would do well to create media for people at different stages of questioning and a large body of work in general.

-Again this is in the context of creating radical womyn’s culture, this is a sub-project. We need to focus on building strong womyn and lesbian culture. While informing more womyn of past work done by radical feminists is essential, we need to continue what they started and also produce culture directly relevant to our experiences. More work by lesbians coming out of the queer and trans scenes, what it means for us to be womyn now at this point in history, what we’re doing, and so on. We need to work on being productive and effective. Get dangerous. Figure out what we want instead of the bullshit we’ve been given and go out and do it.

-A lot of trans allies probably don’t really see trans people as their proclaimed gender identity and attack terfs as a scapegoat to deal with their own guilt. Call out that hypocrisy. Point out that treating trans people as too fragile to be criticized is patronizing not respectful.

-Point out the abusive behavior of many trans activists and their allies. Speak out more about abuse and authoritarianism in the queer and trans scenes in general. Also the misogyny.

-Don’t treat this as identity politics. Act to be effective, not to validate a political identity. Don’t keep having the same argument. If both sides are just repeating the same ideas back and forth at each other, nothing really gets done. I’m tired of seeing the same slogans and arguments regurgitated over and over. It doesn’t really matter if you’re right if no one else gets it so argue to change people minds, not just for the sake of arguing. figure out what works and what doesn’t. Actually arguing directly doesn’t work well all the time because it puts people on the defensive. Presentation matters and information can be presented in ways that don’t automatically arouse people’s defenses.

-Exploit liberal guilt. They confuse us with trans anyways, might as well use it.

-Use a lot of references to concrete reality and experiences.

-study and make connections with related movements, for example anti-psych/radical mental health/mad pride, radical women’s health/self-help movement, gay lib campaign to get homosexuality out of the dsm, etc.

-Want more writing about the trans movement/transitioning from womyn who lived through it.Like published writing in print, not just online. I want to write a political analysis in the vein of Raymond but from the first person.”

[If people are curious about my notes for this workshop or the workshop presented at Michfest and/or want a deeper explanation of some specific point, feel free to contact me. I aim to help people understand the subcultures I used to belong to. I’ll either try to answer questions directly or work the answer into future essays.]

At the time, I saw myself as a part of a larger radical lesbian feminist cultural/political movement, as did many other detrans women. We weren’t just trying to resist the trans movement but also build an alternative radical feminist culture and recruit as many women, by which we meant female-assigned people, as possible. We saw trans women, especially trans lesbians, as threats to “real women” and the radical lesbian culture we were trying to preserve and contribute to. My workshop was popular, almost every woman present attended and some took notes.

Around the same time, I started researching social psychology in order to influence people more effectively through my writing. I thought that my writing would have greater impact if it didn’t come off as overt propaganda. I tried to be subtle but my intent was still to recruit and change how people thought about transitioning and trans identity, change how they thought of themselves if possible. I started researching cults in particular because I saw the queer and trans community as cult (a very common belief among detrans women) and wanted to learn how to “deprogram” people “trapped” in it.

I even changed how I told my own story, emphasizing certain details, leaving out others in order to use my own experiences to get specific ideas across. At the time I didn’t think of what I was doing as strange or deceptive, I was just so driven to promote what I believed in that I changed my story without really thinking about it. Now looking back at how I talked about myself and my past, I can see how I distorted my narrative in order to better fit the ideology I was trying to sell.

If radical feminist detransitioned women attend a women’s festival that excludes trans women to present transphobic theories about transmasculine people, if they gather together and work on ways to engage in “psych/culture war” against trans people and recruit as many female-assigned people into their subculture as possible, I don’t see how trans people are being unreasonable when they respond to such people as a threat. As I said, many of these activities were taking place out of sight but some detrans women openly expressed their views about transitioning and trans identity. Regardless of whether we were open about what we believed or whether we tried to tone it down in public, trans people could often tell there was something off about many detrans women and they were right. They could tell that whatever our outward behavior and supposedly good intentions, we were acting in ways that could do them harm.

Detrans women often present themselves as the victims of trans people, as being treated unfairly merely for sharing their perspectives or trying to create resources for themselves. But take it from someone who used to belong to that community, many detrans women are working for a world without trans people and want to restrict access to medical transition. They believe that trans people are delusional and self-destructive. Many believe that trans women are dangerous predators and work to exclude them from women’s spaces. They use their experiences to promote transphobic belief systems. They work to change trans healthcare without consulting trans people or seriously considering trans people’s needs. Most are particularly opposed to pediatric transition and seek to restrict access to it as much as possible. Some of them work with transphobic medical professionals, including those who promote conversion therapy for trans youth. Much time and energy is spent trying to create a world where no one transitions rather than working on providing resources for people who detransition.

I couldn’t start seeing how my actions were harmful to others until I could see how they were harmful to myself. When I began to see how detransitioning and embracing transphobic ideology had hurt me, I became concerned about how my actions could have hurt others as well. I was concerned that I had reinforced harmful ideas about transmasculine people in particular. If the ideology and practices I had promoted had ended up hurting me, then surely they could hurt others as well and likely did. I had worked hard to influence other people and the larger culture and now I was worried that this influence had been negative rather than positive.

I also became disgusted by how I used to join in with other radical feminists and detrans women when they mocked trans women and talked about them as if they were disgusting dangerous perverts. I focused most of my attentions on transmasculine people but I still came to hold many hateful and ignorant beliefs about trans women and said a lot of things in private that I’m not proud of.

My most overt attack on a trans woman was when I wrote an antagonistic “open letter” to writer and activist Julia Serano, in response to an article she wrote that touched on detransition. The letter was written in bad faith, with the intention of using Serano’s renown to draw attention to my own work on detransitioning. I acted as if Serano was hostile towards detrans women and focused the bulk of the letter on presenting my own views of transition and detransitioning, such as how I believed people transitioned due to trauma and internalized sexism. I encouraged other detrans women to respond to her article as well, which some did. We managed to draw a good amount of attention to ourselves. Now I see my response to her article as totally out of line, disrespectful and transmisogynistic. Not only that but I fear it inflamed tensions and conflict between trans and detrans people.

Before I had gotten angry and defensive when trans people lashed out at me or other detrans women. As I began to see how detransitioning had hurt me and began to question the impact of my past actions, I reevaluated trans peoples’ responses to me. Some still seemed overly harsh, counterproductive or even cruel but I found it a lot easier to understand where they were coming from. In many instances I had to admit that they weren’t wrong to see my past actions as harmful to them. In some cases, as when I went after Serano, I had been the aggressor. I had been plotting with others to dismantle the trans community. I hadn’t been respecting trans people’s autonomy or their ability to know themselves. I thought about times when people had disrespected me in similar ways and I had also become enraged and acted out aggressively. The way some trans people treated me had hurt my feelings but now I could see why they had reacted as they did and I stopped feeling angry. I could see that they had a point and hadn’t been unreasonable to recognize that my behaviors were a problem.

I know a lot of detrans women don’t see anything wrong with what they’re doing because I used to think and act that way myself. I can understand how and why people can rationalize that kind of behavior. I can empathize but I can’t excuse it anymore. Regardless of the intentions or ideals motivating such actions, they still result in harm. Trans people are not being unfair to detrans people when we push back against ideas or behaviors that hurt us. We’re not being unreasonable in seeing and responding to the threat some detrans people pose to our autonomy and well-being. If detrans people set themselves against trans people, act as if they know better then we do, threaten our access to healthcare they’d be foolish not to expect resistance and outrage. If detrans women want to be listened to and treated respectfully by trans people, they better start showing some respect in return and recognize how their past and present actions are harmful and transphobic. They need to be accountable for their actions.

Despite how harsh this might sound, I don’t hate detrans women nor wish them ill. I know firsthand how hard it is to detransition and how many people, including trans people, often misunderstand that experience. I know what it’s like to be enraged at trans people for how some react to detrans people. I’m not trying to attack detrans women but to criticize harmful actions and beliefs that many detrans women engage in, that I used to engage in too. I try to be no less critical of myself as I am of other people.

Much of my recent writing is an attempt to hold myself accountable. I feel the need to speak out about my past actions and about the community I helped to create because I now find both to be harmful. I know a lot about the detrans women’s community that most people don’t know and I want to inform other trans people what they’re up against.

I recognize the harm I did and I can understand the rage trans people have directed at me. I seek now to use my past to give people insight into one of the groups that seeks to do trans people harm. I can name the transphobic beliefs that the radical feminist detrans women’s community has been grounded in from the start and talk about how we set out to oppose the trans community because we saw it as a form of patriarchy. We never set out to work with trans people as equals, at best we were trying to “save” them from themselves. I helped create the detrans women’s subculture and now it’s my responsibility to help undo whatever damage I’ve caused. The least I can do is name the damage, disclose what had previously been hidden and alert people to what many detrans women were really working for all along.