Transgender people who medically detransition — those who stop or switch gender-affirming hormone therapy or who undergo a reversal of a surgical reconstruction — report feeling stigmatized by clinicians and receiving inadequate professional support, researchers have found. As a result, such patients often avoid healthcare at the time they stop undergoing medical interventions, and many consider their overall care to be “suboptimal.”
“Clinicians providing gender-affirming care must be careful to avoid shaming patients who are pursuing hormonal cessation or switching or surgical reversals and instead strive to address current mental and physical health needs,” according to the authors of the new study, which was published July 25 in JAMA Network Open.
In a commentary accompanying the journal article, Jack L. Turban, MD, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, argues that discontinuation of gender-affirming care is rare and is “woefully politicized.”
Turban writes, “clinical protocols should be in place to support patients who have dynamic needs surrounding these interventions.” He adds that “gender-affirming care should encompass the entirety of an individual’s embodiment goals, even when those goals may have pivoted over time.”
For the study, Kinnon R. McKinnon, PhD, of York University, Toronto, Canada, and colleagues conducted video interviews with 28 Canadian individuals older than 18 years. All identified as “detransitioning, retransitioning, detrans, retrans, reidentifying, [experiencing] a shift in gender identity after initiating transition, or having stopped transition.”
Eighteen (64%) were assigned female sex at birth, and 10 (36%) were assigned male sex at birth. Twenty (71%) were aged 20–29; six were aged 30–39, and two were older than 40. Twenty-one were White. One participant who only socially transitioned was removed from the analysis of medical transitions. About half who medically transitioned did so between the ages of 18 and 24.
Reasons for stopping a medical transition included concerns about physical or mental health, surgical complications, postoperative pain, unsupportive parents or romantic partners, discrimination in the workplace, and difficulty accessing clinical care or gender-affirming surgery.
One participant, who had been assigned female sex at birth and who now identifies as female, said the transition did not help. The process was “a hot mess,” she said. Because she’d known people who had experienced improvements in mental and physical health as a result of transitioning, especially after initiating hormone therapy, she kept going. But, she said, “the farther I got into transition, the worse my [borderline personality disorder] symptoms and my presentation was.”
Lack of Clinician Support ― Going “Cold Turkey”
Many individuals reported that they stopped taking hormones “cold turkey,” without the support of a therapist or a clinician, because they did not trust healthcare providers or had had bad interactions with the medical system.
Most of those who had undergone gender-affirming surgical removal of testes or ovaries in their initial transition said the care they received when they decided to detransition was “bad.” Clinicians were judgmental or had inadequate knowledge about the process, the researchers report. Some detransitioners said such encounters with clinicians added to their feelings of shame.
One participant who was born female and transitioned to male said she had good relationships with her clinicians and therapist, but she still felt “guilt and shame” about detransitioning back to female. She also worried that those clinicians would view her initial decision as a “mistake” or “through a lens of ‘regret,’ which was inauthentic to her feelings,” the researchers reported.
Another individual who had been assigned female sex at birth said that when she wanted to detransition, she consulted a physician about switching back to estrogen. “She wasn’t very tactful,” the person, who now identifies as female, recalled. “She made comments about how I should have thought about [my initial transition] harder.”
Participants said clinicians lacked sufficient information on detransitioning.
Turban noted that data are limited on the physiologic and psychological effects of discontinuing exogenous hormone therapy, “because it is such a rare occurrence.” He acknowledged that “more research is needed on the effects of discontinuation so that clinicians can better educate patients.”
The researchers found that most who sought to detransition consulted online forums and networks. The r/detrans discussion group on Reddit, for instance, now has 36,400 members.
Regret or Ambivalence Common
Some reported regret that they had transitioned, while others ― especially those who identify now as nonbinary or gender-fluid ― said they were happy with their initial choice.
Eighteen of the 27 had no regrets and/or had positive feelings about the gender-affirming medications or procedures they had received in the past. Six had regret, and three were ambivalent.
When asked whether she regretted having undergone a double mastectomy, an individual who had been assigned female sex at birth and who now identifies as female said, “Some days I do, some days I don’t.” She also said she is not considering breast augmentation. “I’m just going to leave myself alone,” she said, adding that “it’s part of my journey.”
A participant who had been assigned female sex at birth and who now identifies as a cisgender woman said that she is mostly regarded by others as a trans person now, although she does not identify that way. But she said taking testosterone in the past was the right decision. “At the time, that was absolutely what I knew I had to do,” she said. “I’m actually not upset about any of the permanent changes it had on my body.”
The researchers note that some participants said that “their parents or family circumstances explicitly forced, or implicitly encouraged detransition.”
Turban encouraged clinicians to consider how such external factors might “exacerbate internal factors,” such as internalized transphobia, which could lead to a discontinuation of gender-affirming care.
The study received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Development Program and a York University SSHRC Explore grant. Travis Salway, MD, a co-author, has received grants from Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Michael Smith Health Research BC, BC SUPPORT Unit Fraser Centre, Simon Fraser University’s Community-Engaged Research Initiative, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council outside the submitted
work. The other authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
JAMA Netw Open. Published online July 25, 2022. Full text, Commentary
Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland–based freelance journalist. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.
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