For Ky, taking testosterone wasn’t ever “a lifelong decision”.
At the age of 20, she started to take the hormone to get more masculine features. While she liked the physical effects, she didn’t like all of the social changes.
After a few years, Ky started to wish she could be seen less as a trans man and more as a genderqueer woman. In her mid 20s, she decided to stop the treatment. “I medically transitioned when I was 20 but I always had a more complicated experience of gender. I fell somewhere between the definitions of trans man and butch,” she says.
Ky is now 35 and identifies as a transmasc butch dyke, and uses she and her pronouns.
For seven years she was known as a ‘detransitioner’, someone who undergoes a social or medical transition to change gender and then decides to stop or reverse the transition. From 2012 to 2019, Ky publicly renounced her transition, telling people her decision to live as a man was a mistake. It was during those seven years that she joined a group of campaigners who used her decision to reverse her transition to spread hateful messages about transgender people.
This group of campaigners is varied, with splinter groups and enmities within it. Those who are part of it often refer to themselves as ‘radical feminists’ and are commonly known as ‘gender critical campaigners’.
Ky is US-based but the gender critical detrans movement is prevalent across the UK too. The movement plays a major part in accelerating transphobic rhetoric online and in the media.
Ky left the gender critical movement and has chosen to share with Refinery29 her rare insight into the realities of the anti-trans groups to help others understand how the movement uses people who have detransitioned for personal gain.
Ky is one of a small but known group of people who once considered herself detransitioned.
No one is sure of how many detransitioned people live in the UK. A recent study scanned patient assessment reports created between August 2016 and August 2017 of more than 3,000 patients at a national gender identity clinic for words related to detransition. Around 0.47% of those patients expressed some desire to detransition, totalling 16 patients out of 3,398. Out of the 16 patients, three decided to detransition permanently.
Like Ky, not everyone who detransitions regrets their decision to transition in the first place. Some people might detransition because they face a lot of stigma and abuse for living as a trans person in society, or because they do not feel like the binary genders ‘man’ and ‘woman’ describe who they are.
Others might have complications with gender reassignment surgery or struggle to deal with the growing costs of transitioning and the administrative burden of changing their name on their birth certificate or other legal documents. It might be that they simply do not feel like it is the right time for them to continue with their transition.
There’s little information out there for people who decide to reverse some or all of the effects of a transition. This meant few people could understand Ky’s decision and help her in her time of need, leaving her susceptible to the recruitment tactics of gender critical campaigners.
There’s little information out there for people who decide to reverse some or all of the effects of a transition, and an even smaller number of people to turn to for support. This lack of space for nuance meant few people could understand Ky’s decision and help her in her time of need, leaving her susceptible to the recruitment tactics of gender critical campaigners.
“I was looking for people who had had similar experiences, or had a more complicated transition story,” Ky tells R29. “I started looking online and then found some blogs by detrans women [which] were pretty much all written by radical feminists.”
In her search, she landed on a Yahoo group for detransitioners. She wrote a couple of posts in the US-based group and waited to see if anyone would respond. It was when Devorah, a detransitioned woman, responded that Ky’s life started to shift.
“We corresponded via email. She had a lot of transphobic views. She hid them from me at first and then slowly unveiled them over time. She was transphobic but she hadn’t connected with any radical feminists yet.
“I’d see these theories about trans people slowly working their way into the messages, growing more and more apparent.”
The pair also met up with four other detrans women who were speaking at a workshop there. Michfest attracted a lot of women who supported the festival’s anti-trans message. When a few of those women heard Ky and Deborah speak at a workshop, they formed a small but enthusiastic reception for them. Upon meeting Ky later on, the women said they were thrilled to hear that she and Devorah had decided to re-identify as women.
Like other gender critical campaigners in the movement, the women believed the pair were proof that transgender identities are not real and that transitioning is imposed on traumatised and vulnerable young people who later end up regretting their transition.
“I got bullied growing up because I was not what a girl was supposed to ‘be’. When I told some people in the movement that, they were like, ‘Oh yeah, internalised misogyny is why you transitioned,'” Ky says.
“Some lesbian feminists at the festival said they were waiting for someone like us to show up so they could say ‘Yes!’ and prove they were right the entire time.”
The fact of the matter is that Ky’s decision to transition was influenced by a wealth of factors. Namely, she says, living as a trans man allowed her to explore the masculine aspect of her gender with less scrutiny. It had little to do with internalised misogyny at all.
Some of the people who greeted Ky referred to themselves as lesbian radical feminists and explained that transgender men ‘erase’ women and, in turn, lesbian culture. Ky says they perpetuated hateful beliefs that transgender women are ‘fake’ and ‘predators’ whereas transgender men are considered to be ‘sad and lost’, with a past trauma or misogyny they cannot reconcile as a woman.
Detransitioners like Ky who are used by the gender critical movement are instructed to fixate on the idea that their transition is a mistake and may be encouraged to fully detransition, or even implore others to renounce their transition and live as a cisgender person again.
What was really compelling was this idea that if I joined in, I could finally get over this pain I’ve been carrying. I could finally get over this trauma and feel better about myself. But like life, it didn’t work like that.
After speaking to the women she met at Michfest and reading some gender critical literature, Ky started to refer to herself as a ‘detransitioned woman’. “Detransitioned women are seen as ripe for recruitment. They saw us like they see ex-gays dealing with internalised homophobia,” says Ky. “You’re not supposed to call yourself trans, you’re a woman with gender dysphoria.”
When Ky became an active member of the movement, she was in a vulnerable spot.
“I had recently quit drugs and I was learning to function in a healthy way as an adult. I was embittered because I’d had a bad experience in a queer house share that went wrong.
“I think feeling out of sorts in that space and feeling out of place made me easy pickings to be radicalised,” she added. “What was really compelling was this idea that if I joined in, I could finally get over this pain I’ve been carrying. I could finally get over this trauma and feel better about myself. But like life, it didn’t work like that.”
Beau, a Cajun writer and director who lives in Seattle and uses he/him pronouns, understands the experience of detransitioners caught up in the movement better than most. Beau, assigned female at birth, was part of a network of UK and US organisations which worked to peddle transphobic views and recruited detransitioners to join the movement.
In 2020, Beau became one of the first ex-gender critical campaigners to publicly renounce the movement. In a watershed Medium post, Beau detailed the tactics used by the “cult-like” ideology to radicalise him.
“I’m not detrans but I’m in a unique place since I was a trans kid for several years, and I blocked out my experience due to trauma, and am now back to exploring my gender identity,” he says.
Beau saw the coordinated social media and recruitment tactics up close during his two years in the movement. To bring detransitioners on board, gender critics “put them on a pedestal and love bomb them”.
“The goal is to get trans people to detransition or to never medically transition. Detransitioners get praised and platformed, and they’re used until they’re no longer useful,” says Beau. “At ‘best’, I’ve seen a split among gender critics between wanting to use them as tokens for their cause and wanting them to totally disappear from the discourse.”
“They really are just trying to draw vulnerable people in who are traumatised so they can use and abuse them. It’s pretty unfortunate and definitely a pattern,” Ky adds.
Beau also says that the movement likes to keep its followers “in a state of trauma” to control them and ensure they won’t leave. He has sympathy for detransitioners who are swept up in the movement, even if they’re spouting anti-trans ideas themselves. “Even gender critical detransitioners in the movement are working out issues. Patience and an attempt to understand would go a long way with both groups,” Beau adds.
Ky might have been an active and well-known member of the movement but it didn’t stop her experiencing abuse from other radical feminists.
The gender critical movement converges on one important point: trans women are ‘really’ men, who are the ultimate oppressors of women. So while some gender critical campaigners branded detransitioned women as cowed men, others saw them as “representatives of the patriarchy”. Ky, who still presented with masculine characteristics because of her time on testosterone and her gender identity, was an easy target for a movement that didn’t know how to channel its misguided frustrations about the power of cisgender men.
“Detransitioned women are not necessarily as physically threatening or dangerous as cis men, so they’re easier targets,” says Ky. “I once heard someone call me a caricature of a cisgender man and that was horrible. Gender critical detransitioners aren’t always supportive of each other because there’s a lot of insecurity.”
When Beau decided he wanted to explore his gender identity and use he/they pronouns, he says he was met with a lot of hostility. One member tried to blackmail him, threatening to out him to the people he knew in the movement.
“When I wrote about my experiences, one group made and sold a T-shirt to mock me for speaking out as a survivor,” he added. “One old gender critical friend even tried to prevent me from having surgery or medically transitioning. They still want to control you after you leave.”
Even though he managed to escape, Beau realised his struggles wouldn’t be over when he severed ties with the group.
“These people alienate you from your real life friends and make you a social pariah online, so when they warn that anyone outside the movement won’t accept you, there’s a lot of truth to that,” he added.
For Ky, the illusion began to fade when the most powerful members of the movement joined forces with hardcore Christian right groups which supported eradicating transgender identities altogether. In a bid for freedom, she moved to a remote farm to disconnect from the detransition movement, and stayed offline. Even though she had physically distanced herself from the group meet-ups and group members, she struggled to cut off Devorah.
“She was pretty abusive,” she says. “I had a lot of my doubts about the detrans movement in private because at that point I was dating Devorah. She turned really controlling and I had to keep a lot of things hidden.”
By the time Ky moved to the farm, she and Devorah were just friends. Devorah persuaded Ky to host a detransitioner meet-up at her farm; it was then that Ky knew it was time to leave the movement. “I was with this group, and I did not feel comfortable sharing what I [was feeling] as I came to terms with being some kind of transgender person, and I realised transitioning actually didn’t mess my life up,” she says. “I felt more comfortable with my body but I was sitting with all of these people talking about how horrible transitioning is.”
In 2019, Ky cut ties with Devorah and the gender critical detransitioners for good. “I think if I wouldn’t have been in a relationship with her, I would have left a lot earlier, but I take responsibility for my actions,” she says.
As former detransitioners like Ky come forward to share their story, they give us a rare insight into how gender critical campaigners in the UK and US weaponise the transgender community to prop up the movement.
Now, gender critical campaigners are part of the mainstream in ways a lot of people struggle to understand. Popular anti-trans columnists have gained clout in certain corners of the media, while Twitter is used by gender critical campaigners to recruit detransitioners and proliferate anti-trans messages.
“The movement has morphed and mutated in ways none of us could have ever imagined. There’s a series of splinter groups, and enmities inside of those,” says Ky.
Ky, who now writes regularly for her blog in support of the transgender community, found during her time in the movement that gender critical campaigners are just as obsessed with gender as the likes of men’s rights groups which use someone’s gender to designate the limits of their ability and their place in the world.
As Ky shows, any outliers risk harm and manipulation if they stand in the way. “Detrans people are fed mixed messages. Having a female body is supposed to make you a woman but if you feel anything different than that, it’s a bad feeling and a problem to be solved,” she says.
In one poignant post, she summarises what it’s like to be free of any gender binary, and reflects on her time as a vulnerable recruit.
“I can finally speak my mind and say what I want without having to worry about detrans women disapproving of me. They can accept or reject me as I am. Every time I write out my truth, I feel myself heal a little bit more and find a bit more space to exist.”
If you are an LGBTQ person and you are struggling with issues similar to those raised in this article, you can reach out to MindOut, the LGBTQ mental health service.
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