As a Kardashian, Caitlyn Jenner must be used to tabloid rumors by now. A report that began circulating over the weekend, however, upped the ante on Internet gossip: Writer Ian Halperin claimed that the former Olympian, who came out as transgender in an interview with Diane Sawyer last year, is experiencing “sex change regret.”
Halperin, author of "Kardashian Dynasty: The Controversial Rise of America’s Royal Family," an unauthorized biography on the reality TV clan, told The Wrap that transitioning has “been very hard” for Jenner. Halperin continued, “She’s thrilled she has raised awareness about how transgender people have long been discriminated against but I think there’s a chance she’ll de-transition in the next couple years.” That claim, which was based on “whispers,” would trickle its way onto the Washington Post, Fox News, CBS News, and even the New York Times. As a kicker, there's now a story on a site called Report Quickly, which bills itself as "a combination of real shocking news and satire news"—with no visible differentiation between the two—that claims she was getting her “man parts back.”
The "detransitioning" claims were quickly debunked by Jenner’s rep, who told the New York Daily News: “Not worth commenting on such an idiotic report. Of course it's not true.” Her friend, New York Times writer Jennifer Finney Boylan, further responded in an op-ed for The Advocate. “[R]egret over coming out?” Boylan wrote. “Not a chance. If there’s one constant in Caitlyn’s life since last spring, it’s been a sense of joy at having finally found the courage to be herself.” As Boylan explained, Halperin never actually met with Caitlyn Jenner to confirm the accusations before speaking to The Wrap, nor did the publication reach out to Jenner’s camp about it.
There are some who would suggest that by aligning herself with the most ubiquitous reality TV dynasty in the history of the medium, Jenner asked for this. But Jenner, contrary to popular belief, isn’t “just another tabloid figure.” No matter what you personally think about her, Jenner’s public transition and how we report on it matters greatly to the vast community she represents. Statistics show that the overwhelmingly vast majority of those who do transition lead healthier, happier lives because of it, but others may choose to reverse the process. While detransitioning is exceedingly uncommon, the media fascination doesn’t help those who may be struggling with their transition—for any number of valid reasons. What we need is a culture that supports transgender people, not one that spreads shameful gossip to tear them down.
For those unfamiliar with the subject, you might be wondering how many trans folks actually “detransition.” While people like Caitlyn Jenner have increased the visibility of transgender people in the media, the trans community remains a population that’s vastly under-researched in academic circles. That means hard numbers on the subject are difficult to come by, but as the research that does exist suggests, the rate of postoperative “surgical regret” is extremely low. “Virtually every modern study puts it below 4 percent, and most estimate it to be between 1 and 2 percent,” the Huffington Post’s Brynn Tannehill reports. This is much lower than a 2014 poll from The British Association of Aesthetic and Plastic Surgeons showing that two-thirds of all cosmetic surgery patients regretted going under the knife.
Nonetheless, stories on trans people choosing to “detransition” are vastly overreported by the press. After coming out as transgender, Walt Heyer would change his driver’s license, birth certificate, and legal documents before realizing that womanhood was not right for him. Heyer has since spent his career using his isolated experience as confirmation that being transgender is a fraud and transitioning simply doesn’t work, reporting on the small number of cases that confirm his bias. In an interview with CNN last year, the author compared Jenner’s coming out to a night of heavy drinking. “It’s sort of like, you know, going down to the bar and you’re having a good time and you drink it up good and then, you know, you wake up with a hangover,” Meyer claimed.
In a personal essay, he further attacks the notion that being transgender is a valid identity. “Changing genders is short-term gain with long-term pain,” he writes. “Its consequences include early mortality, regret, mental illness, and suicide.” Heyer is correct that there is an “alarmingly” high rate of suicide among transgender people: As USA Today reports, 41 percent will attempt to take their own life. In 2014, a trans high school student, 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, reminded the public of these grave realities. “The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living… because I’m transgender,” she wrote in a Tumblr post. What Heyer doesn’t understand, however, is that these tragic incidents have little to do with “sex-change regret” or whether being transgender is the right decision. It’s about the lack of social and medical support people like Leelah Alcorn too often face.
More simply put, it’s not being transgender that’s the problem—it’s how society continues to treat trans people. According to statistics from UCLA’s Williams Institute, 90 percent of transgender folks have been harassed in the workplace. Currently, you can still be fired in 32 states for being trans, and the fear of being let go because of your gender identity is not a passive one. A separate report from the Center for American Progress indicates that 26 percent of trans people have been terminated due to their trans status. Facing the specter of joblessness, many transgender people may choose not to disclose their identity in the office.
Without federal workplace protections for trans people, the rate of poverty, unemployment, and displacement in the trans community is incredibly high, particularly among people of color. According to the Human Rights Campaign, transgender people are disproportionately likely to be jobless: In 2013, 14 percent of trans people reported lacking stable income, as compared to seven percent of the general population. A 2015 report from the Movement Advancement Project and Center for American Progress also indicated that transgender people were four times more likely than their cisgender (or non-trans) counterparts to make less than $10,000 a year (which, for reference, comes out to under $27 a day). Further studies indicate that 1 in 5 homeless people are trans.
Even though celebrities like actress Laverne Cox, punk singer Laura Jane Grace, and author Janet Mock have helped start a national conversation on trans identities, there’s still so much work that needs to be done. Transgender people face an extraordinarily high rate of violence in their daily lives, with a record number of trans women murdered in 2015; that rate hasn’t slowed down this year. Other trans folks may lack acceptance from friends, relatives, and family members or struggle to find gender-affirming care from medical providers. Although Medicare changed its policy on funding transition-related surgery in 2014, Mississippi passed a law in April making it legal for doctors to refuse transgender people treatment, should they cite religious objections.
In a cultural climate that remains hostile to trans people, it’s completely understandable that any person might have difficulty coming out, even someone as rich and powerful as Caitlyn Jenner. Jennifer Finney Boylan explains that Jenner’s transition has been hard. But the things that have made the process the hardest are the things that make transitioning stressful for just about everyone: “the abandonment by friends, uncertainty about the future, [and] the fear that she might make the life of her family more difficult.” Since the Diane Sawyer interview, numerous reports have suggested that Jenner is now estranged from various members of her famous clan. “Sex change regret” might not be common, but these kinds of family tensions absolutely are.
Sure, some might choose to detransition, but many may make the decision to begin the process again when the time is right. This shouldn’t be taken as a sign that transgender people are fickle flip-floppers or that a trans woman might wake up one day and realize, “Oh gee, I guess I really am a man after all.” That’s not really how it works. Instead, what we need to be focusing on is combating the pervasive transphobia that forces people back into the closet. This is the exact same fear that makes some feel as though being affirmed as the fullest version of themselves isn’t a realistic possibility. We need to recognize that detransitioning is the symptom, not the cause.
In her farewell note, Leelah Alcorn called upon all of us to “fix society” and make it better for transgender people everywhere. It’s time to listen.