What happens if you change your gender, but then realise you’ve made a mistake?
Elan Anthony knows more than most about trans identity issues. Born a boy 42 years ago, he transitioned from male to female at 19 and then detransitioned to male three years ago. While his story is enlightening, it is also immensely challenging and it took him a long time and a lot of therapy to conclude that he had made a mistake.
“There are definite steps and support around transitioning, but not around detransitioning, so I felt I had to make my own road in many ways,” he says. “And realising that the transition had caused more problems than it solved was hard.”
It was also a shock because, as attitudes changed over the last two decades, one thing that stayed constant with Elan was the idea that gender identity was fundamental.
“I believed that I was female and that could never change. There were times I wondered if I’d got it wrong and should actually be a man. The idea of fluid gender is relatively new in terms of public awareness but it did actually exist in the 90s.
“I started to realise that I could have dealt with my own issues so much better without changing my body because that has brought so many more difficulties. Detransitioning isn’t as unusual as you might expect, but it is underground, for a number of reasons, and the trans community isn’t happy discussing this.”
He now thinks he was rushed into transitioning by well-intentioned but ultimately misguided people.
“I’m an only child and grew up in Ohio,” he says. “When I was young, I was bullied a lot, being very bright but physically weak, which singled me out as a super-nerd and resulted in a lot of violence. I started to fantasise about being a girl from about age six because that would make me safe and take me away from my place at the bottom of the male hierarchy.”
“As I reached puberty, these feelings became part of my sexuality and I experienced some gender dysphoria, but I was also attracted to women so it was confusing. When I was in high school I had several girlfriends and my gender dysphoria declined until I got to college. Initially, I didn’t meet any women so all my gender feelings came back. Looking back, I think that was because, as a freshman, I was back to being at the bottom of the heap, which affected my confidence.”
University counselling referred him to a gender clinic and it was then that he began to discover there were other people who felt the same way as him.
“It was a revelation – other people had these feelings too, and I could relate to them, so could be really happy.”
But he now sees that this is where things began to go wrong.
“I told the psychologist I wanted to be female but nothing about the other issues involved, such as being bullied. I wasn’t aware that bullying had anything to do with my gender issues, but he didn’t ask any deeper questions. So, I was just like, ‘This is who I am and this who I want to be’, and they were like, ‘That’s great!’, and after just two sessions I was given hormones, which was actually not good practice.
“I was young and there were very few young transitioners then, but it wasn’t that hard to become seen as a woman and I started to get a lot of positive attention. But I was put on really high doses of hormones, which were crazy. We don’t do stuff like this any more but I was on the equivalent of 17 birth control pills a day at one point so it felt like my brain wasn’t working right and it didn’t help my dysphoria. I had really big hands and a big jaw and so I still had the same problem of hating parts of my body.”
Elan’s parents weren’t very supportive when he told them he was trans, although his dad was a little more supportive than his mother. Unfortunately, his father died soon afterwards.
“My mom was always opposed to my transition. I only saw her twice over the 20 years I was transitioned. She never believed I could be a woman. We still talked on the phone regularly but our relationship was quite strained. When I detransitioned, it was difficult to tell her because, in a way, it was admitting she was right, although since then we have got along better.”
Realising he had made a mistake was a gradual process. “I couldn’t bond with people and eventually started therapy to work on why I couldn’t have relationships and why my body was so tense. I eventually realised that a lot of this had to do with trying to present myself as female, which was unnatural for my body. I was holding my shoulders in and my butt out and doing all sorts of things that were outside the natural movement of my body. This was causing strain and stress on my body and that was when I realised that this whole transition was a problem. It was a long process and the big revelation was that the roots of my problem lay with the early bullying and feeling unsafe being a man. I stopped taking oestrogen and started on testosterone.”
The isolation of detransitioning was hard, as are the uncertainties that now beset him. “Some of my friends couldn’t deal with it and some were supportive. But we drifted apart because I became a different person in many ways, as detransitioning caused me to question many of my values. I’m not open with many people about my past, except on the internet, but that is changing because I think keeping my transition/ detransition secret has led to me feeling some shame about it.”
EI started to realise that I could have dealt with my own issues so much better without changing my body
lan is studying psychology and aims to work towards a doctorate: “I’m interested in continuing to work on this subject, although I also do find it emotionally taxing, especially because there is a large movement towards promoting and supporting trans rights and trans issues in psychology right now. It sometimes can be difficult to be critical in any way of trans issues in that environment, but I am interested in helping people work with their dysphoria in whatever way possible.
“One of my biggest struggles is that due to the medical procedures I underwent, I have difficulty with dating, am unable to have children, and still having problems finding a good hormone balance. And it is difficult being part of the psychological community that is so pro-transition right now and being one of the few critics.”
Despite – or perhaps because of – the rollercoaster ride that has been his life for the last 20 years, his ambitions are surprisingly modest. “I would really like to just settle down with one person and have a nice quiet life, with meaningful work and a loving partner. I’ve had relationships with men and women, but never ended up getting married or having a permanent partner. I feel regrets about not having children and not being able to have biological children. This was something I didn’t appreciate when I was younger, but really feels like something missing now.”
He is very aware of the irony of his situation, transitioning originally at a time when there was minimal support and now detranstioning at a time when transitioning is totally acceptable, but detransitioning is less so.
“I don’t have much community around detransition and the overwhelming number of detransitioners are natal females who have their own community. I do know a few male detransitioners and have talked to them, and I think the next step for us is to have more of a community also.”
Detransitioning has brought its own pain, especially as he feels there is little leeway in offering any criticism about transitioning.
“Being critical about trans issues is definitely going against the grain right now in psychology. I have felt like I was fighting a constant battle for some time, but it feels like there are a lot more people speaking out about detransition, as well as more clinicians who are interested in looking at alternative ways to deal with dysphoria. In the beginning I felt like one of the very few people working on this but it feels different now.”
Elan as a young boy