The ex-gay movement crawled so the detransition movement could run

OPINION: We’ve been here before. And history shows what might happen next

Few trans issues have captured media attention over the last few years quite like detransitioning. Countless breathless headlines have graced mainstream publications, like Reuters and The Atlantic, imploring folks to stop “ignoring” detransitioners. A small handful of detrans people have even rode the wave of media coverage into full-time careers advocating against gender-affirming care for trans youth—and sometimes against access for adults.

One such detransitioner, Daisy Strongin, recently made a splash by being featured in far-right, Christian conservative propaganda organization PragerU’s video on detransition. The video got some exposure after buying a permanent, non-removable ad space on X’s (formerly Twitter) trending and search page. Strongin’s social media showed that she still thinks often of transitioning to living as a man, but now refuses to do so for religious reasons, after she recently converted to Catholicism.

“Detransitioner” is a broad and loose term in today’s lexicon. It has most often been used to describe people who went through various stages of medical transition, from hormonal treatment, to top or bottom surgery, and eventually deciding to go back to identifying as their assigned gender. But it can also apply to social transition, and to anyone who even briefly identified as a different gender than their assigned gender and changed their mind later.

Studies on the topic have shown that detransitioning is exceedingly rare: trans people represent about 0.6 percent of the human population, and of those, approximately one percent will detransition at some point. The most commonly expressed reason for detransition is due to familial or social pressure, along with losing access to gender-affirming care. Detransitioning due to regret, the much ballyhooed media narrative, is especially rare.

To understand the pull that today’s detransitioners have on many transphobic cis people—especially in the media—you have to understand a little bit about gay history. Before detransitioners became a media fascination, there was the “ex-gay” movement. Once upon a time, it was so-called “ex-gay” people grabbing headlines.

Back then, it was people who decided they weren’t really gay who were generating buzz. Often, this meant people who, like Strongin, had tried to pray away the gay. As with today’s detransition movement, the ex-gay movement had different prongs—a religious side, and a more secular one. Regardless of their approach, all ex-gays claimed that it was possible to choose not to be gay. Many of them married a member of the opposite sex as “proof” they’d managed to become straight.


Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, a clinical psychologist, made a name for himself by claiming he had formulated a therapy to help gay people “overcome” their same-sex attractions. In reality, he practised conversion therapy. He claimed that all people “were naturally heterosexual, but that childhood trauma, possibly exacerbated by a domineering mother and a detached father, might lead to homosexuality,” as described in his New York Times obituary published after his death in 2017.

What’s interesting about Nicolosi’s claim is how it echoes through to today’s anti-trans advocacy. Over this weekend, anti-trans group Genspect held a conference in Denver in order to sell its ideas about so-called “exploratory therapy” for trans youth and adults.

Exploratory therapy is meant to counter the affirming approach that has become common in treating trans youth in North America. According to its proponents, it’s designed to help a trans patient examine their feelings of their own gender identity. Practitioners encourage people to find a reason or cause for their transness—such as childhood trauma or comorbid mental health issues—and then therapists use that information against their patients to deny transition treatment.

Groups like Genspect go to great lengths to claim they are not transphobic or anti-trans, instead choosing to portray themselves as saviours of young people from the alleged evils of gender ideology.

So why bring up Dr. Nicolosi here? He too claimed he was not anti-gay while running a full-on conversion therapy practice. “We’re not imposing, we’re not forcing people to change,” he said in a BBC interview. He claimed instead that he was “just exploring” questions like “What kind of experiences might have happened in your childhood that’s turning you away from women?”

“Detransitioners and ex-gays offer a false hope to bigots that otherwise naturally occurring LGBTQ2S+ identities can be overcome.”

Genspect, and others who support “exploratory therapy,” are doing the same thing, but instead of doing it with the sex of prospective romantic partners, they’re doing it with the patient’s gender identity.”

Detransitioners and ex-gays draw attention because they offer a false hope to anti-queer and anti-trans bigots that otherwise naturally occurring LGBTQ2S+ identities can be overcome through religion or therapy. Their existence bolsters the specific political argument that being gay or trans is actually a choice and that enough pressure exerted on individuals will discourage queer and trans people from living out their true identity.

It’s a false and harmful narrative.

The ex-gay movement once crawled so that the current detransitioner movement could run. But the ex-gay movement’s trajectory gives us a window into what the anti-trans detransitioner movement will likely look like in the future.

As broader social acceptance of gay people rose, and especially after marriage equality became law of the land in the U.S. in 2015, the ex-gay movement pretty much completely collapsed. Most of the high-profile ex-gay media darlings left their straight marriages and came out once again as gay or lesbian. Many of them denounced their previous advocacy, recounting how painful of an experience it was.

Some proponents of the ex-gay movement, like newly minted Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, who partnered with ex-gay group Exodus International in the early 2000s, have moved on to target trans people more recently. Johnson has one of the most vehemently anti-trans records of any federal legislator.

The anti-trans detransitioner movement will pass. While some people detransition under duress, others do legitimately choose detransition for themselves. And many detransitioners remain supportive of trans rights and access to care for trans people. Detransition as a concept will not completely disappear once the movement passes. Detrans people need support and shouldn’t be demonized for their identities, just as trans people need support and shouldn’t be demonized. And just as with the ex-gay movement, the existence of detransitioners does not mean we need to restrict gender-affirming care any further.

What we need for both trans and detrans people is acceptance of gender nonconforming bodies in general. Mind your own body and leave ours alone.

Katelyn Burns is a freelance journalist and columnist for Xtra and MSNBC. She was the first openly trans Capitol Hill reporter in U.S. history.

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