When Missouri lawmakers passed bills banning transitional care for minors, California activist Chloe Cole traveled to Jefferson City to tell her story as Exhibit A.
After living as a transgender boy for years and having a mastectomy at 15, Ms Cole says she felt suffocated by a male identity and overwhelmed by the changes in her body. She decided to detransition, returning to her feminine identity.
She also decided to speak out. She told her story in Florida and Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah. Republican lawmakers generally listen intently, sometimes in tears. In March, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida told Ms Cole’s story in his State of the State address, as she received a standing ovation.
While Republican-controlled state legislatures passed more than a dozen bills this year banning transitional care for minors and moving to restrict adult care, Ms. Cole and less than 10 activists like her – people who transitioned and then changed course — became the faces of the cause, according to a New York Times review of media coverage and legislative testimony.
These activists are a fixture at legislative hearings and rallies. Their experiences have been aired in conservative media as cautionary tales. In Wyoming, a lawmaker named his bill to ban transitional care for minors “Chloe’s Law.”
Most people who make the transition do not change course. And yet, the influence of these activists is striking.
Their stories of regret and irreversible physical transformation tapped into strong emotions over rapidly changing gender norms – from hardened prejudices to parental concern. Lawmakers have used these stories to override objections from all the major medical associations, which oppose the ban on transitional care, as well as testimonies from a much larger number of transgender people who say transitioning improved their mental health.
“They really don’t care,” said Chelsea Freels, 17, a transgender high school student from Missouri who testified at legislative hearings there to oppose bills backed by Ms Cole. Ms Freels says hormone therapy has helped her thrive. She is more socially comfortable and deeply involved in the robotics team. But she says Republican lawmakers look the other way when she tells them that story.
“They’re on their phones,” she said in an interview. The Missouri legislature last week passed a transitional care ban for transgender youth.
As more American teens identify as transgender, it’s hard to say how many will transition medically — many transgender people don’t — and precisely how many will later change course. The methodology, demographics, and even definition of detransition vary widely from study to study, typically showing that between 2% and 13% of people detransition, and not always because of regret.
Leading medical groups in the United States, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association, say transitional care should be available to minors and oppose legislative bans. Many experts say policymakers should ensure access to high-quality care, including thorough individual assessments to determine which treatments are appropriate and at what age.
Conservative movement leaders say it’s important to amplify the voices of people who feel misled by doctors and want to warn others.
“We are happy to work with people who are prepared to resist the corrosive effects of gender ideology, especially when it is imposed on children,” said Jay W. Richards, director of the DeVos Center for Life, Religion and Family. at the Heritage Foundation.
But many transgender rights activists and others warn that the overemphasis on a minority distorts political debate.
“Why are we blaming the treatment of trans youth rather than saying, what infrastructure needs to be in place to ensure trans children are properly assessed?” said Dr. Madeline Deutsch, president of the United States Professional Association for Transgender Health. “It’s like saying, ‘We have unlicensed drivers on the road, so we basically have to get rid of automobiles.'”
“America’s New Hero”
Elisa Rae Shupe was well known in the transgender rights movement: first as an outspoken transgender woman, then as the first American to change her legal gender to non-binary.
So when she posted an essay in 2019 saying her transition “was just a sham” and that she wanted to “live like the man I am again,” conservatives took notice immediately.
Laura Ingraham invited Ms Shupe on her Fox News show. The Heritage Foundation, whose Daily Signal news site had published his essay, offered to take him to Washington to oppose an anti-discrimination bill. A Family Research Council radio producer sent her a Bible bearing her birth name and called her “America’s New Hero”.
Before long, Ms Shupe, a 59-year-old army veteran, was caught in what she calls a ‘spider’s web’ of activists opposing transgender rights.
“I had no limits on what I was going to do to please people and help them win,” she said. “At every turn I had people praising me, which motivated me to do more and more.”
But last year, she reaffirmed her feminine identity and started living as a woman again. She backed out of her work with conservative groups and this year gave hundreds of her emails with her former allies to The Times and other outlets.
Ms. Shupe’s emails show her close ties to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a leading force behind the state’s wave of legislation. The group recruited her and others who had detransitioned to file an amicus judicial brief with the Supreme Court arguing that federal law did not prohibit anti-transgender discrimination. (The court disagreed.)
This later helped her petition an Oregon court to reinstate her gender and birth name on the legal documents. The petition argued that she was not transgender, but suffered from a sexual perversion which caused “confusion” over her gender.
In an exchange with a lawyer for the alliance, Gary McCaleb, Ms Shupe urged him to adopt a fringe theory which asserts that transgender women are actually men sexually aroused by imagining themselves as women.
Mr McCaleb expressed concern that he sounded bigoted, but then asked Ms Shupe to help present the idea in an acceptable way, ‘because I suspect it is indeed a fundamental contributor to this scourge on our human souls”.
Mr. McCaleb referred the comment to a spokesperson for the alliance, who did not respond to questions about the email or the group’s work with Ms. Shupe.
Ms Shupe has also worked closely with Walt Heyer, 82, an activist who runs a website for people who regret the transition and connected some of them with Tory activists.
In emails to Ms. Shupe, Mr. Heyer described scouring social media to find others who had detransitioned, hoping to post their stories in right-wing outlets.
When Ms Shupe wrote her essay, Mr Heyer – who did not respond to requests for comment – emailed his praise.
“You’ve taken the trans craziness away with every turn of the phrase,” he wrote, joking that he could now retire, before adding, “Unfortunately I will have to keep working because my lecture is the main source of income and prevents us from eating in the garbage cans of the neighborhood.We also have to sell books.
The loudest voices
In March, Chloe Cole helped organize a “Detransition Awareness Day” rally in Sacramento. She expressed the hope that it would be the “greatest detrans rally of all time”. Forty people took part.
Ms Cole, who did not respond to interview requests, is perhaps the best known of the small group of activists who have detransitioned. The list includes Billy Burleigh, who has testified in at least six states; Luka Hein and Prisha Mosley, who testified in at least five cases each; and Cat Cattinson, who testified in at least three cases.
Ms. Cole and Ms. Hein are among the few activists who transitioned as minors, which makes their testimony particularly powerful. They often talk in detail about the changes in their bodies and their realization that they may never have children.
“I’m way too young to feel like a broken woman, but it’s hard to look in the mirror,” Ms Cole told a Florida House panel in February.
Ms. Hein did not respond to requests for comment.
Asked about the group’s figures, two other campaigners, Mr Burleigh and Ms Cattinson, said they believe they represent many people who are not made public. “A person who regrets their transition, or who has suffered serious damage to their health because of it, is one too many,” Ms Cattinson said.
But interviews with other detransitioned people suggest that the views of these activists do not represent the full range of circumstances that drive people to detransition.
One, Darius Chirila, 26, said he detransitioned not because his identity had changed, but because of the side effects of the hormones, the uncertainty of taking them indefinitely and the discomfort of being visibly transgender in the South. He is considering making the transition again.
Matthew Donovan, 36, a sociology student at Columbia University, said they detransitioned partly because of community rejection and economic insecurity, and partly because they realized that it was possible to be non-binary, which suited better.
And Carey Callahan, 41, who detransitioned about nine years ago and opposes anti-transgender rights policies, said the politicization of detransition has made it harder to improve care. She has criticized conservative groups who view her life as “water” for their political purposes.
“I feel pretty awful that this has been turned into a bigger health care take for people,” she said. “It’s always been an issue of incomplete health care.”
Kirsten Noyes contributed research.
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