Sun 6 Mar 2022 — 15 min

Trans Safety Network undertake a lot of investigative work looking into conversion therapy advocacy and networks connected with it so as to expose them.

We paid for Ky to write up this piece after seeing her Twitter thread on the same subject matter, using donations generously provided by our readers.

We are publishing this because there is a lack of readily available information around these topics in the public domain, and this contributes to the continued difficulties in raising the necessary public awareness of how these harms are perpetuated.

Back when I was still in the detransitioned radical feminist community, I watched the Miseducation of Cameron Post with another detransitioned woman. That movie is about a teenage lesbian in the US who's sent to a Christian ex-gay camp after she’s caught messing around with another teenage girl. Part of what they do at the camp is look for "root causes" of being gay and try to find "what's behind" their feelings, what kind of trauma or other experiences supposedly caused their "same-sex attraction disorder". The gay kids have to fill out a worksheet with an iceberg on it; the tip of the iceberg represents being gay, and the larger section of iceberg underneath the water is supposed to symbolize their real underlying problem. Their gayness and/or gender nonconformity is supposed to be a "symptom" of this larger problem, usually unresolved trauma or experiences in childhood that supposedly interrupted their “normal” development.

After we watched this movie, the other detransitioned woman told me that the iceberg exercise and other ways the counselors at the camp approached being gay reminded her of how she talks to people trying to overcome gender dysphoria. At the time this woman, Devorah Zahav, was one of the main leaders and organizers of the detransitioned radical feminist community. She set herself up as someone who had worked through her own gender dysphoria, made peace with being a woman and having a female body and who was now able and eager to help others do the same. She relied heavily on radical feminist and lesbian separatist culture and theory, as well as her background going to therapy, support groups, 12-step groups and using books like The Courage to Heal to process her own trauma. She wrote a blog called Redress Alert on Tumblr, where she pushed her theories that people assigned female developed trans or nonbinary identities as a way to cope with trauma, misogyny and/or homophobia and encouraged such people to “reconcile with being female.” She believed that trauma could cause “women” to “disidentify from being female”, reject their “female bodies and womanhood”, and create a trans or genderqueer identity as a kind of dissociative identity disorder. She taught that in order to heal from this supposed dissociative disorder these “dis-identified women” had to give up their trans identities and accept the “femaleness” they were trying to escape from.

In addition to writing a blog, she helped organize online and in-person support groups (though the in-person one was very short-lived) and created the first in-person gathering for “re-identified women” that was held on lesbian feminist land in Oregon. By that point, she had also corresponded with over a thousand people who wrote to her looking for help. She developed deeper relationships with a much smaller number of people and actually met a smaller number still. She was one of the most influential people in the detransitioned radical feminist community and had given guidance and advice to hundreds of people by that point.

I was one of the first people she corresponded with and our relationship had evolved over time as I helped her create the detransitioned radical feminist community. We started out as friends and eventually started dating. I was still dating and living with her when we watched the movie together.

Watching that movie made her anxious because much like the people in it, she encouraged people to treat their gender dysphoria as the symptom of a larger, unconscious problem. She told people that they needed to discover what was behind their feelings in order to find this root trauma or problem and heal from it. She asked me how she was different from those people in the movie and I knew she was asking me to find a way to deny that what we were doing in our own community was more or less the same thing, that we were practicing our own kind of conversion therapy.

This was a reoccurring pattern in our relationship, where she would turn to me to help her rationalize and deny harmful behavior. And I don't remember what I said but I came up with some bullshit answer about why what she did was different from what the ex-gay people in the movie were doing. She was asking me to help hide what she was doing from herself and I did my best to do so, while at the same time knowing on some level that I was concealing the truth from both of us.

I was even bold enough to say that I felt like I could understand and relate to what those ex-gay people were trying to do by digging into their feelings, while also asserting that what we were doing was completely different. I suppose the main reasons we thought we were different was because we weren’t anti-gay and encouraged people to “unlearn internalized homophobia” as a way to “overcome gender dysphoria” and we thought that our methods actually worked. Except that they weren’t working for me anymore and it was getting harder and harder for me to pretend otherwise.

At that point I'd already been researching conversion practices and had started to recognize that what I was doing to myself was actually very similar to what ex-gay people did to manage their own feelings. At the same time, I was still deeply invested in the detransitioned radical feminist community and didn't see how I could leave. I was trapped between the growing awareness that I was engaging in conversion practices that were no longer working while also feeling a deep commitment to the community that I’d spent years building up with Devorah and other women I still cared about. I was trying to make the best of a situation I felt stuck in. I came up with some bullshit answer to Devorah’s question to hide the troubling reality from both of us, so we could keep living in the fantasy we'd created around ourselves, that I felt trapped in but didn't know how to leave.

In truth, I watched that movie because I wanted to see how similar my experience was and I read the book it was based on for the same reason. I’d started reading about conversion therapy and the ex-gay movement after attending a book reading by Peter Gajdics, where he read from his memoir The Inheritance of Shame. In it, he describes going to a therapist who convinced him that his homosexuality was caused from being sexually abused as a child and that he needed to overcome being gay to heal from the trauma of being abused. I was shocked at how much I related to his experience, how much it resonated with me. Before that I’d always brushed off any comparisons people made between my experiences as a detransitioned woman and ex-gay people, because after all wasn’t I a butch lesbian? How could I be like people trying not to be gay? But when I heard Gajdics actually describe what his experience of going through conversion therapy was like, I was shaken by how much I recognized my own life in his words. It forced me to face the disillusionment that had already been growing by that point. I had been awakened to a problem I now needed to investigate further.

So I started to research more about conversion practices. I read Gajdic’s book and other memoirs by conversion therapy survivors. I also found a book called Pray the Gay Away, by a sociologist who studied gay and lesbian people in the Bible Belt of the United States. That book had a chapter on the ex-gay movement, including the author’s experience of attending a conference organized by Exodus International, which used to be one of the largest ex-gay organizations in the US before it shut down in 2012. Reading that book, I learned that ex-gay Christians still encounter homophobia from conservative Christians even after “leaving homosexuality” and that they try to counter this by arguing that the “sin” of homosexual behavior is no worse than other sins. This reminded me of how detransitioned women often still encountered ignorance and hostility from transphobic cis lesbians and radical feminists. They acted as if we were forever “tainted” by our transitions and time spent living as trans people. We tried to counter this by arguing that yes, we had given into patriarchy but so had most women in one way or another before finding radical feminism, and our way of trying to survive in patriarchy was really no worse than what other women did. The semi-outsider status of ex-gay Christians in conservative Christianity and the strategies they used to argue for better treatment reminded me of the status of detransitioned women in radical feminism and the arguments we made to try to get other feminists live up to their promise of sisterhood.

Reading about conversion therapy and ex-gay groups helped me confirm that what I was doing was another kind of conversion practice. It helped me begin to understand what I'd gotten myself into. But even as my understanding and recognition grew, I wasn't ready to leave because that would mean completely uprooting my current life, cutting off a lot of people I still cared about and starting over. I wasn't ready to even think all of that out consciously. I was preparing for my eventual escape not fully realizing that was what I was doing.

So I lived in this in-between place, figuring out that I was a trans person who converted to a transphobic ideology, while still pretending everything was fine, still trying to make my detransition work. Hell, I started putting even more effort and energy into digging into and dissecting my feelings of gender dysphoria, trying to get at their supposed roots in unresolved trauma. And then I’d go back to doing research, reflecting on my experiences and pondering how I was basically an ex-trans person. And then come up with all kinds of reasons why I couldn’t actually live as a trans person, or call myself trans. So it went, on and on, for years.

On some level I knew I was lying to Devorah, that I'd watched that movie expecting to see myself in the characters’ struggles to stop being gay, I just wasn't ready to leave yet. And I was afraid to tell her or other detransitioned women the truth. I kept most of my doubts, disillusionment and research into conversion practices secret, largely because when I did try to open up and talk with Devorah it didn't go well. But I knew things were coming apart for me, this whole world I'd built around myself, this community that I’d helped build with her. I wasn't ready for it to all come down. To walk away from so much and start over.

I still can't quite believe that conversation even happened, like why would you ever need to prove to yourself that what you're doing isn't conversion therapy if that isn't what you're doing? Devorah was doing the same thing those ex-gay people were doing and on some level she recognized that. She wanted me to help hide this recognition from herself, help her pretend that what she was doing was different, that she was really helping people instead of helping them suppress and kill off a part of themselves. But it wasn’t different. She was just doing her own form of conversion practices. Looking for the "root causes" of being gay or trans in trauma or early childhood experiences so you can stop being trans or gay is conversion therapy! She just based her practices in transphobic feminism and lesbian separatism instead of conservative Christianity.

I feel so much gratitude to all the people who've helped raise awareness of what conversion practices are actually like, who've put their stories out there or created fictional portrayals, because it helped me figure out what I was going through and get to the point where I could leave. I tell my story and talk about my experiences because I know just doing that can help people figure out if they're trapped in a similar situation, even if it takes them a long to to actually get out.

Conversion practices teach you not to trust your own mind because it’s been tainted or broken by some kind of harmful external force or a set of experiences that knocked your development off track. Believing in your own thoughts and feelings can take time when you've been taught not to trust them, to constantly dissect them to find the "unresolved trauma" or "internalized oppression" that's supposedly hiding behind the them. You learn how to reframe them to fit the ideology you've absorbed because you hope that these ideas and practices will make your life better and help you stop suffering. You end up losing the ability to trust your own mind and you're encouraged to see your thoughts and feelings as the tip of the iceberg that you need to ignore, so you can dive deeper into the waters below to find their "real meaning", nevermind that you're actually drowning.

In the end, I finally listened to myself and got away. But it took years to get to that point and I’m still re-learning how to trust my thoughts, feelings and perceptions now years after I left. I'm still healing from all I lived through. But I made it through, I made it out. And I know other people from my old community who've gotten out too.

Some people from my old community call me "crazy" and dismiss what I say now, some have even accused me of making things up. If that's what they have tell themselves, if they have to deny my experiences to keep going, then it's not really about me. That's a reaction coming from where they are in their own lives and their relationship with themselves. My experiences are still real, no matter how much others may deny them. And I knew others in my old community wouldn’t be able to accept my realization of what I was doing to myself. That’s why I knew I had to leave and why it took me so long to go. Their denial is painful but I can accept it. Maybe someday they'll be able to accept that I'm just doing my best to describe an intensely painful, traumatic time in my life. Maybe not. I can live with either possibility.

I just want people to find what they need. I want people who are engaging in anti-trans conversion practices to have an easier time getting out than I did. I believe in people's ability to free themselves. I believe if you give people enough information and encouragement to trust their self-knowledge that they can see for themselves if they're engaging in conversion practices. No one else can pierce through that denial, the person has to be ready to go there and free themselves. I also believe more material supports should be available for people who want to leave communities that promote conversion practices. Actually getting out can involve not only seeing the problem but in some cases needing resources to relocate, find a new social support network or friend group, even a new job. Leaving behind conversion practices could mean a person has to rebuild their life to one extent or another and ideally they shouldn’t have to do that all by themselves.

I tell my story so other people can have an easier time trusting their feelings that something is wrong, so they have an easier time believing themselves instead of what others tell them is going on inside of them. I want people to know that if they feel like they're killing a part of themselves off, they can stop. I want them to know that if detransitioning hurts, they can stop. If it doesn't seem like it's working, they're not doing anything wrong and they don't have to try harder. They can just stop, they can leave. It might be hard but it's better than lying to yourself for years.