“The Atlantic” Tried to Explore Trans Issues—and Totally Missed the Mark

The publication's July/August cover story centers on "detransitioners," or people who regret pursuing gender-affirming healthcare.

It’s not every day that The Atlantic, one of America’s oldest and most respected cultural commentary outlets, tackles transgender issues. Certainly a national magazine should be exploring topics that affect the LGBTQ community, and the timing—Pride month—seemed ideal.

The article, unfortunately, was disappointing and disconcerting. “When Children Say They’re Trans,” the magazine’s July/August 2018 cover story, opens with an anecdote about Claire, a Pennsylvania teen whose journey grappling with gender dysphoria culminated with her realizing she was not transgender. Then, writer Jesse Singal segues into more interviews with so-called “detransitioners,” or people who realize after undergoing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or gender-confirming surgeries that they are, in fact, not trans.

Singal admits that “detransitioners” make up a “small but vocal” minority of the trans community. It’s especially interesting given “What’s Missing From the Conversation About Transgender Kids,” Singal’s July 2016 piece for The Cut. That story presents a heavily critiqued study about “desistance,” which found that some 80% of youth who experience gender dysphoria eventually “desist,” or become comfortable in the gender identity they were assigned at birth. Singal himself even confessed that he “goofed” and misinterpreted the study in his reporting.

It appears that Singal hasn’t completely abandoned the idea of trans youth “desisting,” though. As he writes for The Atlantic:

For many of the young people in the early studies, transitioning—socially for children, physically for adolescents and young adults—appears to have greatly alleviated their dysphoria. But it’s not the answer for everyone… [Some clinicians] worry that, in an otherwise laudable effort to get [trans] young people the care they need, some members of their field are ignoring the complexity, and fluidity, of gender-identity development in young people. These colleagues are approving teenagers for hormone therapy, or even top surgery, without fully examining their mental health or the social and family influences that could be shaping their nascent sense of their gender identity.

Those sensitive to the lived experiences of the trans community are likely cringing right now. Singal argues in favor of a more nuanced approach to supporting trans youth, but his writing and reporting feel remarkably tone-deaf. The language he uses (“When children say they’re trans,” “Your child says she’s trans”) suggests that trans youth don’t know or understand what they’re experiencing. The story’s print headline outlines a hypothetical situation in which a transgender 13-year-old wants HRT and gender-affirming surgeries, erroneously implying that these options are readily accessible to most trans teens. They aren’t—at least, not without careful attention.

Worse than that, the voices Singal leads with and chooses to center—mostly “detransitioners” and skeptical medical professionals—create an unbalanced and woefully incomplete depiction of the trans community.

Focusing on the counter-narratives of “detransitioners” is harmful because it actively fuels transphobic rhetoric. In 2016, trans writer, journalist, and activist Julia Serano wrote a Medium essay exploring how anti-trans groups and individuals use detransitioners as pawns:

Purveyors of the cisgender-people-turned-transgender trope insist on citing the existence of such people (and occasionally exploiting their personal stories) to forward trans-antagonistic or trans-suspicious agendas. They turn these individuals into anecdotes that seem (to people who are largely trans-unaware) to prove their thesis that “cisgender people are being turned transgender.”

I’m not arguing that Singal himself is transphobic, though others certainly have. But his piece for The Atlantic certainly reads like a cautionary tale for parents of trans kids, suggesting at least in part that families of trans youth should proceed with skepticism and trepidation when pursuing gender-affirming healthcare.

And his pithy nod to the high rates of suicide and suicidal ideations among transgender youth, comprising just three paragraphs of his story, is flat-out irresponsible, especially when paired with his discussion of “social contagion”: “[Some] parents are worried that their kids are influenced by the gender-identity exploration they’re seeing online and perhaps at school or in other social settings, rather than experiencing gender dysphoria.”

Singal’s story privileges the concerns of parents of transgender teens over the anguish of trans youth themselves. I worry that it perpetuates an age-old narrative of queer youth (and, honestly, young people in general) not knowing or understanding their own feelings or their own bodies.

But more sinister than that, this story and others like it will be used as anecdotal evidence by transphobic parents, guardians, and medical professionals to justify denying transgender youth potentially life-saving healthcare.

Of course, puberty and all of the feelings that come with it are incredibly nuanced and confusing. And one-size-fits-all solutions to complicated issues are never ideal. But neither puberty, nor the inherent complexity of gender dysphoria, can be used as a blanket justification for invalidating and failing to support trans youth.

Going forward, media outlets must actively employ transgender writers and reporters to cover trans issues. Approaching the lived realities of a marginalized group from an inner-community point of view is incredibly valuable—and can prevent pieces like Singal’s, which give the experiences of a vocal minority far too much weight, from dominating our cultural conversations.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.