Stories about trans people looking to reverse their surgeries are far more complicated than tabloid headlines would have you believe.
In the past month, the UK press has highlighted a number of trans people who have decided to reverse their transition, or "detransition." Chelsea Attonley was described by the Mirror as "want[ing] taxpayers to reverse breast and gender reassignment surgery," while Ria Cooper was described by the Daily Mail as "Britain's youngest sex swap patient to reverse her sex change treatment." At first glance, it's easy to see why those unsupportive of trans rights would swoop up these cases as confirmation of their biases.
But instead of moaning about how much transgender reversal surgery would cost the NHS, I set out to speak to the people wanting to undergo surgery again, to find out why they'd considered embarking on the process of detransitioning. What they told me painted an altogether different picture from that of the aforementioned articles. After speaking to Ria and Chelsea, I learned that neither of them actually wanted to—or indeed ended up—detransitioning permanently, and their reasons for questioning their transition were not as clear-cut as the Mail and the Mirror had made them out to be.
Chelsea originally realized she was transgender in 2000; she underwent two years of therapy, then hormone treatment and a breast augmentation, which took eight years in total. She is yet to have a vaginoplasty. She told me that initially, it completely removed her depression. "Overnight it just disappeared," she told me. "I felt absolutely amazing, I felt at peace with myself and that everything was right with the world."
But things then started to shift and her feelings changed. "I had to stop the transition because it was affecting my mental health too much and starting to affect my body." Her doctors started to wean her off the hormones slowly to let her body adjust. She also decided to reverse her breast augmentation and have full chest reconstruction surgery, which has been a source of anxiety for her. "I'm worried about the scarring and I'm worried about them having to take away so much skin and move the nipple. I've got all the milk ducts and all the natural tissue I developed from the estrogen, so I'm really worried about what is going be left."
Detransitioning can happen at any stage, so does not necessarily mean total reversal surgery. It could simply mean reversing hormones, or in Chelsea's case, hormones and breast augmentation. If Chelsea had already had vaginoplasty, then detransitioning would be much trickier. Dr. Marci Bowers, who has been performing transgender surgery in the US for 12 years and is transgender herself, told me that although she's never performed it, it would be very difficult. "There's no good way to do it—surgeries work well now but to undo that you risk being mutilated. You're not really going to get back what you had. It's tough."
Complete reversal surgery would involve closing the pelvic space and creating a neo-phallus: This would cost somewhere around $75,000 and 100,000 and comes with many added cautions. Dr. Harold Reed, who has performed over 1,500 trans surgeries, remarked: "Of course there is an enhanced risk, any time you operate in areas that have had previous surgery the blood supply is not as healthy as it was if they'd never had any surgery."
Chelsea chose to start her detransition because she felt lost. "I felt that I didn't fit into the male gender role, and I didn't fit into the female gender role, I was this third gender." Chelsea felt she was always viewed as a trans woman and not simply a woman. "One day I looked in the mirror and I thought to myself, 'God, if I can't even look like a woman and I don't feel like a woman, I'm not going to be a woman.'"
A concern for many trans people is "passing"—being perceived by others as the right gender. Being able to "pass" ensures a lot less public scrutiny; it ensures you don't stand out. But passing isn't always easy, as trans woman and activist Charlie Craggs points out. "Hormones are amazing but they're not going to turn you from Jay Z into Beyonce," she told me. "You're just going to look like Jay Z in a wig."
Dr. Reed agrees. "You can have someone who said they want to be a woman and have his genitalia removed but that doesn't make them a woman in society's eyes." There have been so many examples of trans women walking in to all-girls bathrooms and being told they aren't in the right room "because they don't pass well."
This may explain why it's more common for someone who has originally transitioned from male to female to want to detransition; the eight most common examples of those who have detransitioned are all male to female to male. According to Dr. Bowers, female to male to female detransitions are almost unheard of. "I've never heard of a female to male detransition and I think that's fascinating—you never hear it because they're so convincing as men. It would be difficult to imagine. I've just never heard of it happening."
Despite these things, even as I was on the phone to Chelsea, her stance began to change. "I wish I'd have gone through with the operation—the full way," she told me. "I still feel like a woman." She is experiencing gender dysphoria around her penis and said, "It's a tragedy that I'm having to detransition." She even regrets cutting off her hair; why does she feel the need to detransition?
For Chelsea, one of the main reasons is that she wants to find "true" love. "It's more difficult for transgender people, it's a lot easier with other transsexuals," she said. Unfortunately, there is still a strong social stigma for those dating trans women and Chelsea feels that she would be more accepted as a gay man, worrying that men just think of her as a kink. "They think that you've just got breasts and a penis and they fancy you sexually, but I could not find true love, I never felt like they wanted me for me, I felt like they wanted me for my body." It seems that some men fetishize trans people rather than view them romantically, as thinking and feeling people. "You go to clubs and then they wake up the next day and they don't want to hold your hand in the street," Chelsea said. "I think it's because they think people on the street will judge them."
After ten years of being trans, Chelsea said it's broken her. "I think if you want an easier life, you've got to fit into these roles that society has made. I know people say, 'Be unique, be different', but it's really difficult being unique and being different. It's far easier to be 'normal' so to speak. Its an easier life just to be accepted."
Since first speaking to Chelsea, I have found out that she has decided to start taking estrogen again and will have a vaginoplasty at some point in the future. She's now realized that conforming to society's concept of 'normal' was not going to make her happy. "It's taken a while but I've finally realized I could never be anyone but Chelsea," she told the Sunday People.
A trans woman named Charlie sympathizes with Chelsea's struggle. Since she has transitioned, she said, "The rest of the world hates me more and I get a lot more abuse and face a lot more hurdles in every sense—relationships, jobs, everyday life. But despite this, I've never loved myself more and been happier in myself which is all that really matters." Charlie presented it almost as a lose-lose situation: internal happiness and no social acceptance, or social acceptance and internal strife. Why should anyone have to choose?
"I think people automatically put all the ownership on the person who is detransitioning, saying, 'You were clearly not trans then' if that's what they decide to do," Charlie continued. "But maybe they are trans but they just can't hack it because society is horrible and it's fucking hard."
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Ria was on hormone blockers and then estrogen but stopped taking them because she had a mental breakdown and couldn't leave the house or afford the trips to London to visit the hospital. "I'd never say that I made the wrong decision in transitioning because I didn't, but I was going through so much," she told me. "I was doing escorting and then I got attacked by a client. Everything just went wrong for me and that's why I had a breakdown."
Despite this, Ria said she is definitely not detransitioning, adding that "the press will do anything for a story, they chat so much shit." She is going to her doctor as soon as possible to talk about getting back on hormones and is doing her best now to raise money to pay for the rest of her surgery herself as she cannot bear to wait any longer.
The rate of detransition as a whole is very low—of those who transition, it is estimated that just 1 percent go on to detransition. However, I only came across eight people in the world online who have actually gone through with it. "The numbers are so incredibly low," Dr. Bowers told me. "If anything, it reinforces the validity of gender transition in the first place."
When you stop and really listen to them, Chelsea and Ria's doubts do not undermine the transgender cause in any way. They simply highlight how difficult it is to live as a transgender person in a society so rigidly defined by binary genders.