The oldest example may be Tiresias, a mythical blind Greek prophet. The story goes that he was changed into a woman by Hera as punishment for striking two copulating snakes with his staff. Tiresias's powers of prophecy were unaffected, and she lived successfully as a woman, including marrying and having children, before being turned back into a man after the (mythologically significant) seven years.
But mythology is all very well. What about reality?
He announced his gender dysphoria to his wife, and she soon divorced him. He went on to spent £100,000 on a series of operations to make him into Samantha Kane, culminating in sex-reassignment surgery in 1987. Samantha Kane was glamorous and attractive (the "ultimate male fantasy"), and enoyed a jet-set lifestyle as an interior designer in London and Spain.
However, after a few years Samantha began to regret her decision to transition. She disliked the way oestrogen made her feel emotional and moody. No matter how feminine she looked, she felt she was merely playing a role.
Kane: In fact, I found being a woman rather shallow and limiting. So much depends on your appearance, at the expense of everything else. I wasn't interested in shopping. My female friends would spend hours shopping for clothes, trying on different outfits. But having been a man I knew exactly what would suit me and appeal to men. I could walk into a shop and be out again in five minutes with the right dress. Nor have I ever been interested in celebrity magazines or the things that interest other women, but when I tried to talk to men about blokey things they didn't take me seriously.
Samantha Kane was engaged to a wealthy property owner, but the relationship collapsed, ostensibly because he did not consider her to be a "real woman".
So in 2004, Kane spent a large sum of money on further surgery, and returned to being a male, Charles Kane. He has reconciled with his son, and has found a new, female partner, Victoria. You can read a 2010 interview with the couple here.
Kane: I feel very philosophical, rather than bitter about what happened to me. Based on my own experiences, I believe sex-change operations should not be allowed, and certainly not on the NHS. People who think they are a woman trapped in a male body are, in my opinion, completely deluded. I certainly was. I needed counselling, not a sex-change operation. In many ways I see myself a victim of the medical profession.
Here is an articulate and powerful account of one person's detransition. The author is himself a doctor.
If I could only go back to the day before my surgery in March of 2005 -- I would run from that surgeon’s knife. I have lived and worked as a surgically altered man trying to play the part of a woman for six years. I spared no expense at trying to make it work. In fact, I spent an estimated $250,000 on various surgeries, and probably at least that amount in clothing and accessories. I took estrogen in every conceivable form. In return, I lost my lucrative job, my family, my social standing, and vital body parts. All for the sake of being true to myself—how tragically laughable.It's well worth reading that essay all the way through; the bitterness is palpable.
When I started researching this article, I found much more than I expected to on this subject. As sometimes happens, this subject was intended to be a footnote to a different post, and has become a whole post by itself.
Many people who have detransitioned are vocal and angry, such as the author of this blog. There are support groups out there, such as this one. What strikes me about Kane is that, although he admits transitioning was a mistake, and asserts he is not bitter, he has come to think that surgical transitioning should never be permitted; that instead people should be counselled. What further strikes me is that he did not change back from Samantha Kane to Sam Hashimi, but instead into somebody new, Charles Kane, keeping that surname. Does this imply that his original dysphoria wasn't with his gender, but perhaps with his persona? I cannot possibly say.
Some commentators on the blogosphere have suggested that Kane did not spend enough time getting to know what it means to be a woman; that if he had, he would have found real contentment, instead of seeking to detransition. And it is absolutely certain that transition is an enormous life event; a rebirth, a renewal of you as a person, which must create enormous emotional, as well as physical, stress. I completely understand people who think: have I really done the right thing? Am I going to regret this? (I felt the same the last two times I bought a house!) On the other hand, I have it in their own words, and I believe that both of these people think that transitioning was ultimately wrong for them, and it looks to me like both of them gave it their very best shot.
On the other hand, there is a wonderfully balanced discussion here on this blog, Third Sex. I commend you to read the whole article, which is sensible, insightful and sympathetic. Diana writes:
Detransition is not bad, or inherently negative. If someone is detransitioning because they made a terrible mistake, that is obviously horrible, and I wish that person the best for their mental, physical, and spiritual health. But it seems to me that many others experience detransition as a more fluid change in their gender identity. Perhaps it is not common, but I do believe that gender is varied and that as people we are constantly changing. The idea that one transitions to the other sex today, never to traverse the bounds of gender again - is absurd.
The reality is that some people detransition. And I think a lot of us are scared that we could do that one day, and that this decision is wrong for us, too. The easiest way to combat that insecurity is to look at it in the face, and answer the question yourself, today. Personally, I had to address where that insecurity came from. Was it indeed from a part of myself that knew the real truth about who/what I was? Rather than denying the existance of detransition and writing those who detransition off as anything negative - we ought to acknowledge and accept this experience. Our own realities are not validated or invalidated by that of someone else. My transition is not harmed or hindered by anyone. I am in control of where I take my body, and why.For me, I think what this subject boils down to is this: what did Sam Hashimi, and the anonymous writer above, tell their doctors before the surgery? And how could those doctors be expected to differentiate them (educated, articulate, informed) from others, for whom transition is the right choice?
I believe surgical and hormonal transition is the right choice for some people. But I don't believe it is for everyone.
If we take a group of men who request sex change, a line needs to be drawn across that group, into some people who are suitable to have it done, and some who are not. If we draw that line strictly, fewer operations will be performed. Only those who are absolutely suitable will have the surgery, and detransitions will be fewer, but some people who yearn for transition (and might be fine afterwards) will be denied it.
If we draw that line more permissively, more operations will be performed. Fewer people will be denied transition, but here is the most important point. Inevitably, some people will transition who will come to regret that decision.
There is a very important discussion to be had on exactly where that line should be drawn, and what criteria are used to judge who falls on either side of it; including how old you need to be to make the decision rationally about whether or not to try to cross it. See this article for a more detailed discussion of one way this might be handled.
I wish you all a wonderful 2014.
Addendum: 26th January 2014
My thanks to Laura who drew my attention to Don Ennis, who transitioned and detransitioned within a very short time, citing a case of transient global amnesia as his reason. Ennis' case has not been widely reported in the media, perhaps because he is himself a senior figure at ABC News. However, there is no shortage of scornful articles about him out there, and I must admit his excuse sounds pretty flimsy to me.