In 2015, twelve-year-old Patrick Mitchell told his mother that he thought he was actually a girl.
Two years later, Patrick has decided to “detransition” and live openly as male again. Patrick’s case has become a media sensation, with people using it to make generalizations about detransition, and transgender people in general.
But detransition is an incredibly complex issue, and the realities of detransitioning can’t be reduced to a simple sound bite.
As a twelve-year-old, Patrick was extremely unhappy with himself and could barely stand to look in the mirror because he “didn’t know who the person staring back at me was.” Since he was a young child, he had enjoyed wearing women’s clothing and had asked his mother if he could “turn into a girl” when he got older. When his mother mentioned the possibility he might be transgender, he smiled “for the first time in months.” And when Patrick faced legal barriers to transitioning (in Australia, going on hormones and puberty blockers requires waiting until the person is 16, and court approval) he became depressed and suicidal. Worried for her child’s mental health, his mother Alison gave Patrick her own estrogen medication.
Eventually, Patrick was able to take estrogen, grow out his hair, and be referred to by female pronouns at school. But in the process, he started wondering if he was actually a boy. At the beginning of the 2017 school year, when teachers started calling him a girl, Patrick let his mom know that he didn’t think he was actually transgender.
Many, like Australian pediatrician John Whitehall, as using this case as evidence that many people who are “diagnosed” as transgender aren’t trans at all. In his response to Patrick’s story, Whitehall went so far as to say that “the whole thing [medical treatment for transgender people] is experimental,” and not in line with the scientific method. But a look into the world of detransition reveals a far more complex story.
“Detransitioning” is when a trans man goes back to living openly as a woman, or a trans woman goes back to living openly as a man. Although detransition cases garner an abundance of media attention, these cases are relatively rare. Although “detransition sites” estimate that as many as 20% of trans people go on to detransition, a 50-year study in Sweden found that only 2.2 percent of people who medically transitioned reported regretting it afterward. Compared to the number of people who regret a typical cosmetic surgery (17% for a nose job), this number is vanishingly small.
Christine Milrod, a sex therapist who works with many transgender patients, believes the rate of detransition is so low because of the initial difficulty of transitioning. She cites the legal, medical, financial and social hoops that trans people need to jump through to transition, saying that, “In order to get there, you really need to have thought this through.”
Transition regrets don’t just reflect an individual’s choices. Often, they reflect societal discrimination and discouragement against trans people. Two years ago, Amber Roberts interviewed eight people who detransitioned, and found a trend that bucked the typical detransitioning narrative. Rather than detransitioning because they didn’t “feel like” the gender they had transitioned to, most were detransitioning because the pressure of being trans in a hostile society was too difficult for them to bear.
Chelsea Attonley, who the tabloid newspaper The Daily Mail described as “want[ing] taxpayers to reverse breast and gender reassignment surgery,” found that she initially felt “at peace with [herself] and that everything was right with the world.”
But as she continued to transition, she was stressed out by the difficulty of medically transitioning, and saddened by the face that many people weren’t accepting her transition. As she told Roberts, “I felt that I didn’t fit into the male gender role, and I didn’t fit into the female gender role, I was the third gender.”
Although she still believed she was female, she wanted to detransition because she worried that she wouldn’t be accepted or loved as a trans woman. “I wish I’d have gone through with the operation—the full way,” she told Roberts. “It’s a tragedy that I’m having to detransition.”
However, Chelsea’s detransition story had a happy ending. When Roberts checked back up on her several months after writing her story, she found that Chelsea had decided to go through with her transition and continue to live as openly female. As she told the Sunday People, “I’ve finally realized I could never be anyone but Chelsea.”
If detransition stories are so rare and complex, then why do so many media outlets paint them as the inevitable result of transition? Often, people who have detransitioned are used as political pawns against the legal or societal status of trans people. Both members of the extreme right “alt-right” and self-declared “radical feminists” on the left have used the stories of detranistioners as proof that transgender people are misled or fraudulent.
Ironically, the media focus on detransition can make it more difficult for people to realize that their transition was a mistake. Because so many use detransition stories as proof that transgender people are fake or misled, many in the transgender community push back against detransition narratives. This pressure makes it difficult for people to find the spaces to talk about the reality of detransitioning, and many of them have had to create their own spaces.
But for people like Patrick, the choice is personal, not political. Most detransitioners remain hopeful that transition can genuinely make people’s lives better, even if it didn’t work out for them. Joel Nowak, who recently detransitioned, told Vocativ, “I’m hoping that as we talk about gender and move forward, maybe there will be more options for people.”
Patrick will be undergoing surgery to reduce the breasts he grew while taking estrogen. To receive this surgery, the family will be traveling to South Korea, as few other countries permit so-called “top surgery” on minors. But Patrick doesn’t believe his decision to transition was a mistake because, as he told 60 Minutes, “that’s what I needed at that time.”
15. And even though it has made their family’s life more complicated, Mitchell doesn’t regret allowing her son to transition either.
16. “I don’t have any regrets. You don’t make any of these decisions lightly,” she told 60 Minutes. “I’m sorry that he was confused and for the dark times, but I’m really happy with who he is today.”