Despite the notable failures of anti-trans rhetoric to deliver at the ballot box in recent years, right-wing media remain stalwart in pushing politicians to adopt increasingly strident positions against gender-affirming care ahead of the 2024 election. To that end, conservative outlets have wielded a handful of detransitioners — people walking back their transition after deciding it was not the right choice for them — to present regret over gender-affirming medical care as more widespread than it is.
Throughout 2023, right-wing media repeatedly platformed anti-trans detransitioners, frequently citing Chloe Cole, Luka Hein and Prisha Mosley, and honed in on stories of other detransitioners who began trying to sue their doctors. Cole, who first gained attention for her anti-trans tirades in 2022, has since spoken at the Conservative Political Action Conference, as well as events with Turning Point USA and Young Americans for Freedom.
These same detransitioners were promoted by anti-trans politicians and jetted around the country to testify in favor of anti-trans legislation in states other than their own. Ads for a documentary from PragerU titled DETRANS, which focuses on a detransitioner still “fantasizing about being a guy,” were plastered across X (formerly Twitter) after a $1 million ad buy in early November.
Detransitioners also captured significant mainstream media attention last year. The Atlantic kicked off 2023 by highlighting the significance of the movement, arguing at that point in time that it was still overlooked. In May, The New York Times featured Cole and ex-detransitioner Elisa Rae Shupe, who previously helped leak thousands of documents related to the anti-trans movement and opened up about her experiences within.
The Washington Post published two December articles on detransitioners: one focusing on Mosley and a second article covering pro-trans detransitioner Carey Callahan. The article on Mosley painted her as a “politically homeless” moderate even though she has argued gender-affirming care should be banned, whereas Callahan made efforts to renounce her anti-trans past, which included co-founding the Gender Care Consumer Advocacy Network with Corinna Cohn. Cohn is a self-described “ambivalent transsexual” who co-hosts the Heterodorx podcast.
Testifying before Congress last July, Cole shared that after her top surgery, her breast tissue was incinerated — a common practice for surgically removed tissue to avoid contamination, though right-wing media have taken to comparing it to garbage disposal.
In testimony to the Kansas legislature, Mosley compared her gender-affirming care to self-harm and called her providers “doctors selling snake oil.” Her Ohio testimony not only echoed Cole’s story about her breast tissue being incinerated, but also perpetuated the debunked social contagion theory that young people are being peer pressured or influenced by social media to transition.
The emotional appeal of their testimonies is at the heart of these detransitioners’ roles in the anti-trans movement. Discussing an appearance on Fox News with Xtra magazine, Shupe said that she was considered an “inferior sales tool” as a detransitioning man because her story was “not as good of a seller as a damaged young woman.” For those eager to promote detransitioners, the article explains, “it was all part of the game, which was less about truth and more about finding the right emotional buttons to push in order to provoke an anti-trans backlash.”
“Finding anti-trans narratives that would ‘sell’ to the general public was a constant concern for this crowd, and Shupe says it didn’t much matter if the narratives were based in fact or not,” Xtra wrote.
While right-wing outlets like Fox News claim “more and more teens and young adults are detransitioning,” actual rates appear low, and detransitioners overwhelmingly cite anti-trans discrimination or a lack of acceptance as factors in their decision.
A 2022 study published in Pediatrics found that 97.5% of trans youth maintained their trans identity after five years. Other studies of detransition estimate rates anywhere from less than 1% (most consistent with a more recent meta-analysis) to as high as 13%, with an outlier of about 30% belonging to a narrowly tailored study focused only on hormone prescriptions to military dependents.
The 2021 study yielding 13% accounted for those detransitioning due to external harassment; 35.6% cited parental pressure, another 32.5% pointed to community or social stigma, and another 26.9% alluded to potential job discrimination.
One of the most comprehensive data studies on transgender people to date, the 2015 United States Transgender Survey, found only 8% of respondents detransitioned at one point, with more than half of that number doing so temporarily. Much like the 2021 study, people who detransitioned said pressure from work, community, and family were the largest factors.
By comparison, many common procedures have equal or higher rates of regret. As many as 3% of patients regret LASIK surgery, 13% regret prostate cancer surgery, and 18% regret knee replacement surgery. Considerable regret also occurs in other facets of everyday life: 26% of people with tattoos regret getting at least one of them, and around 8%-17% of parents regret having children.
More importantly, research shows that gender-affirming care improves mental health outlooks and decreases suicidality for trans people. A brief study in 2023 found that patients seeking testosterone had a “statistically significant decrease in gender dysphoria” and a “clinically significant decrease in depression and a decrease in suicidality” when receiving hormone therapy immediately rather than being delayed. A 2022 study found that trans youth who received gender-affirming care had “60% lower odds of moderate or severe depression and 73% lower odds of suicidality” a year later.
At the start of 2024, detransitioners are already reappearing in the headlines, this time both supporting and opposing gender-affirming care. A January 3 episode of NPR’s Here & Now podcast featured Callahan discussing why she “is now advocating against bans on trans health care.” A day later, Fox News published an article garnering sympathy for anti-trans detransitioners who feel ostracized by the community they advocate against.
It seems all but certain that conservative outlets will continue to promote detransitioners in 2024; with over 300 anti-trans bills already proposed for the coming year, there will only be more opportunities to hype their testimonies. And although right-wing media have repeatedly amplified campaigns against access to gender-affirming care, some detransitioners — like Ky Schevers, who helped spark the detransition movement before finding it “repressive,” “toxic,” and addled with internalized misogyny — say that they do not regret the changes they’ve undergone.
“Trans people deserve access to support,” Schevers told Slate in 2021, “and it makes no sense to shut down people’s access to medical transition just because some people end up detransitioning.”