Former New York magazine writer Jesse Singal recently published a cover article for The Atlantic during Pride season, about transgender children and the issue of “desistance” and moral quandaries of caring for transgender children. This has long been a contentious issue in the transgender community and is a little-known topic outside of it.
Desistance is the term used to describe people who are transgender but go back to their birth gender. Singal has long drawn the ire of trans people because of his choice of topics, and he is not highly regarded by them, to put it mildly. Singal has continued to cover trans issues and with his latest article has caused such a huge uproar in the community.
Singal's interest in transgender issues appears to have started when Kenneth Zucker's clinic in Toronto was shut down under allegations of abuse of his patients as well as criticisms of his methods — which many argue include conversion therapy on children. Singal has long written about the issue of bad pop psychology and the politicization of it. This has butted heads with the transgender community, which has long been critical of not only Zucker but of the concept of gatekeeping and the accessibility of transgender care. When you consider that many transgender people experience difficulties finding qualified doctors, it only amplifies the issue.
Singal began to push back against the trans community with a study he was later forced to admit he misinterpreted even after multiple people both in and out of the trans community told him it was off. The study was about desistance among children who said they had gender dysphoria. Fights about the term "desistance," trans identity, and the science involved continued, and with his most recent article he doubled down again, foolishly.
The honest truth is that the issue of desistance, already contentious, is only amplified when it comes to the focus on children and teens who identify as trans or are diagnosed with dysphoria. Desistance is a bad word that confuses the issue and doesn't reflect the complexities of gender dysphoria, gender expression, and the psychology and biology of being transgender. It implies that you can stop being transgender with the right therapy, which has long been disproven. The issue is that there are people with gender dysphoria — which you can have without being transgender — who are being diagnosed by themselves or by inexperienced medical practitioners incorrectly as trans and beginning the process of transitioning only to realize it's not the actual problem. Yes, those people are real, it's not a myth, and that is only one part of this issue.
Where desisters meet with a concern of the community at large is that desisters are often used in bad faith to say that being transgender is not a real medical issue. For decades, the transgender community has criticized outdated modes of treatment, which involved what they saw as gatekeeping. If one was not "properly" trans, then you didn't get access to hormones and surgeries. The reaction to this has gone so far as to have some trans activists advocate for hormones on demand without a therapist's permission, which itself is a contentious issue as it involves self-medication. Now they see the pushing of the small number of detransitioners as another form of gatekeeping and a weapon to be used to urge conversion therapy.
Where this leads to is where Singal got involved and went off the rails. There is a legitimate concern about the politicization of science and social justice. Anyone slightly familiar with the history of how science has been abused, from climage change denial to conversion therapy, smoking and cancer, GMOs, Nazis, eugenics, and Tuskeegee, knows that science pushed with an agenda is dangerous. They myth that only right-wingers do this is where Singal and others like him push back — they claim the left does it too. We do, and the greatest yet probably distracting example is the suppression of science that was considered ideologically incompatible in the Soviet Union. With most transgender people being ideologically on the left and very passionate about the issue, that's where Singal went wrong and ended up pushing the issue of desistance incorrectly, for which there honestly is not a lot of science. In fact, there's not as much science on being transgender as one would think. This leads to the issue of trans people being fearful of further science either proving or disproving a medical cause. If there is none, the fear is we can be forced to be "converted" through therapy, but if there is a medical cause, we can be medically "cured."
When you couple this with child psychology and how we form our identities, you add a whole extra layer. Even today, among the most brilliant academics, there are heated debates over the nature versus nurture issue. How much of our gender expression is genetic and how much is learned from society? Children are incredibly malleable and explore their identity and change the way they express themselves all the time, with gender expression being a part of that. Child psychology is such a complex issue that it is its own subfield and few psychologists work with both, if at all. This is where the issue of politicized science comes in as well as our own lack of understanding of science as well as the issue of the history of transgender medical care and the issues of agency of children in their own care and also the very nature of transgender culture and identity. It is almost a universal that transgender people wish they could transition sooner or were born the right gender to begin with. Individuals like trans teen Jazz Jennings are lucky people and extremely rare. Few have such a concrete understanding of their gender identity so young, much less have an accepting family and willing doctor.
One thing that benefited Jazz and others like her were very gender-normative behaviors for how they identified. This leads us back around again to the old issue of gatekeeping by therapists who looked for certain behaviors and expressions. I know that I would have never qualified to transition as a child in the 1980s because I didn't like pink dresses or play with Barbies, but I still didn't fully like being a boy and never felt quite like one; transgender expression is a spectrum. We vary as widely as the girl working at the makeup counter and the girl jumping out of military helicopters — just like cisgender women. Yet all of us never felt like the gender of the bodies we were born into. At the same time, though, we push a gender-normative appearance and behavior both internally in the community and society at large.
Each one of these topics — from science to child psychology, gender expression, gatekeeping, medical care, discrimination, and more — is difficult enough to unpack on its own, much less crammed into pop psychology articles written by someone who is not an expert. Leaving other things discussed in the community about Singal aside and without addressing his motivations, he's just not the person to be discussing this issue. His subject expertise is not only wanting, but he will never, ever be trusted or accepted by the trans community as a good faith actor based on his past interactions. There are experts on this matter, both trans and cisgender, who can discuss these matters more intelligently. We need as much good information and insight as possible, because many of us are still wrestling with these issues ourselves.
AMANDA KERRI is a writer and comedian based in Oklahoma City. Follow her on Twitter@Amanda_Kerri.