Woman Who Thought She Was a Man on Transgender Treatment: 'It's Not a Cure at All'

chairs with male and female symbols

Transgenderism has gained steam and tremendous popularity in recent years, and the stigma of people switching from one gender to another has greatly diminished, if in fact it hasn't gone the opposite way. A growing number of transgender people who took hormones and surgery to identify as the opposite gender are expressing regret and returning to their birth gender. Their stories are particularly harrowing.

Max Robinson, a 21-year-old Oregon resident born a woman who once identified as a man, later soured on her transgender hormones and surgery. "It's not a cure at all," Robinson said. "If you go into it really screwed up you're going to come out of it really screwed up. Make sure this is what you want to do."

Robinson was insistent. "Make sure there is no other option because this is truly the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. You put everything that you are in jeopardy," she insisted. "Be sure."

This woman's transgender experience (female to male) is often referred to in shorthand as F-to-M, but in reality she went from F-to-M-to-F. In retrospect, the tell-tale signs of a false transition emerge throughout her story, but in the moment when she was 15 and decided she was a man, nothing could convince her otherwise.

"As soon as I started thinking about transition I had obsessive thoughts of doubt," Robinson admitted. She wondered whether she would come to regret making her body masculine, and so she did.

Robinson recalled expressing her doubts to her therapist, and worrying that internalized misogyny might account for the desire to transition. When the therapist asked her if she really believed that, she said no. She did not raise the issue again because she didn't want to give the therapist "any reason to doubt that surgery was right."

Robinson's remarks, first printed in The Economist's 1843 magazine, are harrowing and revealing. Indeed, the magazine explained that after the social transition, the woman "felt he was treated better because he was now a man in a culture that privileges men. His anxiety and depression faded into the background."

That very statement — that this temporarily transitioning woman considered society to be "privileging" to men — revealed a great deal about Robinson's mentality. "The grass is always greener" is a horrible reason to put one's own body through the process of chemical and physical gender transition. The woman herself admitted that "the longer it went, the less I felt like that."

Indeed, Robinson recalled facing drawbacks to being seen as a man. "Women he passed on the street were 'scared' of him. He couldn't talk about his childhood without lying or leaving things out. He found laddish banter distasteful."

Then she went through a different transition. "I'm not going to stop transitioning but I acknowledge that transitioning isn't always positive for everyone," she recalled thinking. "Gradually, very slowly, the more I was honest about what I was feeling, the more it became clear to me that I wasn't having a very good time with it."

After four years of identifying as a man and nearly two years of looking like one, Robinson reverted to her original gender.

But the damage had already been done. This woman had taken testosterone for years, and she had had her breasts removed. Even after detransitioning, her voice remains deep, she continues to have a beard, and her chest will never grow back. "Strangers think I'm a man a lot of the time," she admitted.

Robinson "detransitioned for several reasons; the most significant one was that she is not transgender," the newspaper reported. "She was unhappy as a child not because she was a boy trapped in a girl's body but because she didn't understand that she could be the kind of girl who hated girly things but loved other girls, without having to metamorphose into a man."

"The question of whether a child can really know herself remains unanswered. Max was sure, and she was wrong. Ever since she was 15, she had attributed troubles such as anxiety and depression to gender dysphoria," the magazine reported. "Max and her therapist overlooked, or discounted, the possibility that her mental health problems, far from being symptomatic of gender dysphoria, could actually be the cause of it."

The science of gender identity, the basis of transgenderism, is still in its infancy, the magazine reported. Studies have shown that a majority of children who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria (the condition of persistently feeling like they were born in the wrong body) — between 73 percent and 88 percent — will not grow up to be transgender adults. These figures are disputed, but they make sense given the shifting attitudes of children.

Dr. Thomas Steensma, a member of an influential group of Dutch clinicians, said reliably distinguishing between children who will preserve their transgender identity into adolescence and those who will not is impossible. The American Psychiatric Association also accepts this view.

Dr. Diane Ehrensaft, director of mental health at the gender clinic at Benioff Children's Hospital in San Francisco, Calif., said that out of the hundreds of patients she has seen, only one has ever regretted a medical transition. A 50-year study in Sweden found that only 2.2 percent of people who medically transitioned later said they felt regret.

But Robinson, the F-to-M-to-F, said that many who transition never inform their doctors, and so are not reflected in such statistics. While she said people like her are a "tiny subset" of the transgender population, she reported finding a network of detransitioned people numbering just over one hundred.

Those transgender people who later regret their medical transition will struggle with various health problems, 1843 reported. There are limits, both to the original transgender switch and to detransitioning.

Hormones cannot undo all the effects of puberty. If breasts have grown, testosterone cannot make them disappear. If an Adam's apple has already dropped, estrogen can't bring it back up. If a beard has begun to grow, estrogen can't make it disappear.

Kids who identify as transgender can take puberty blockers, which pause the natural development of adolescent sex characteristics. While blockers are often described as "fully reversible," their longterm effects on brain development are unknown, and possible side-effects include abnormal bone growth.

Cross-sex hormones of the type Robinson took carry even more problems, however. Their longterm medical and psychological effects remain unknown, but estrogen in biological males brings a clinically significant risk of deep vein thrombosis, and testosterone in biological females increases the chance of developing ovarian cysts later in life.

Furthermore, some of the effects of such hormones are irreversible. Testosterone in biological females will cause irreversible deepening of the voice and augmentation of the clitoris, while estrogen in biological males will cause irreversible enlargement of breasts.

The uncertainties of this science make the debate over child and youth transgenderism particularly problematic. If clinicians cannot be certain which children will regret their gender transition and which will not, at what age should a child be allowed to take such medical steps? On the other hand, if someone truly suffers with longterm gender dysphoria, it could be psychologically painful not to undergo medical transition.

Dr. Bernadette Wren, head of psychology at the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) in London, emphasized that even puberty blockers may damage fertility longterm.

"Can a 12-, 13-, 14-year-old imagine how they might feel as a 35-year-old adult, that they have agreed to a treatment that compromises their fertility or is likely to compromise their fertility?" Wren asked.

These are serious questions, because Robinson is far from the first person to be permanently scarred by a medical gender transition.

Robinson's own case — and the very existence of her detransitioning community — suggests that some people do indeed fall between the cracks. Men and women who as children and adolescents think they need to transition into being a different biological sex come to regret that transition, and are left with painful longterm scars.

In an age where transgender people are celebrated as brave, however, it seems the culture is slow to accept this fact. A university in Britain recently rejected a proposed study on people who regret gender transition, because it might be "politically incorrect" and lead to "attacks on social media."

These people should not be rejected just because their stories don't fit the dominant transgender narrative. Their struggles are real, and parents would be right to warn their children against such a dangerous potential outcome.

So little is known for certain about transgenderism, and it is vitally important to understand why people mistakenly transition and the longterm scars that come from such a mistake. Even if transgenderism should be encouraged as healthy for some (a position which is still debatable), gender transition is not healthy for everyone who wants it, and this is a harrowing thought.