It’s not conversion therapy to learn to love your body: A teen desister tells her story

Noor is the 14-year-old daughter of Brie Jontry, spokesperson for 4thwavenow (see here for more from Brie).

Noor believed she was male for 2.5 years, from age 11-13, but has changed her mind. In a Skype interview (transcribed below), we asked Noor to tell us about her journey towards a trans identity, and how she came back home to herself as female.

 Noor, along with her mom Brie, are available to interact in the comments section of this post, as their time allows.

All artwork in this post is by Noor.


For a couple of years, you thought you were transgender. How did it start? Why did you think that?

It started when I was 11. I thought I might be trans after spending time online where I saw people saying that if you feel dysphoric, you must be a different gender. So many people were saying it, that I came to believe it. At first, I identified as agender and then after thinking about it more, I realized I was a boy because I wanted to be “masculine.”

What did that mean, be “masculine?”

 For me, it meant wanting the physical characteristics of adult males: a beard, being taller and strong. And being masculine was about feeling safe.

Were you dysphoric?

I felt like I didn’t want to be in my body. I didn’t like it. It kinda felt like my body wasn’t mine and I wanted a different one.

What was going on that made you feel like that? What was it about your body that “wasn’t yours?”

A few different things. Mostly, it was previous trauma and being in the early stages of puberty. I don’t know anyone who isn’t uncomfortable during puberty, but at the time, I thought the way I was feeling was something extreme and different.

I used being trans to try and escape being scared about being small and weak. I thought that if I presented myself as a man I’d be safer.

What first got you thinking about being trans?

Things online. First, it was on DeviantArt. It’s an art-sharing website, but the DA communities I was in, which were made up of kids drawing animals and other original characters, went from sharing and commenting on each other’s art to being super dramatic and depressed. It also turned into a disrespectful “call-out” culture.

noor color cat

Some of the people I was watching, whose art I admired, came out as trans. Some people posted about how much they hated themselves and how badly they wanted to transition. Some started to transition and talked about how amazing they felt. Suddenly, a lot of the people I knew on DA were making transgender artwork.

Why do they call it “DeviantArt”?

There are some “deviant” areas of DA but the places I spent time in were for kids sharing art but I don’t think it is the main focus anymore. It was originally a great art site and I made a lot of friends there and everyone was very nice to me. I liked it. It was a friendly art community.

But now it’s mean. And it’s also a place for kids to post about all their self-diagnoses and identity issues. I know lots of kids who post about their self-diagnosed schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

All these self-definitions, are they real?

I think the kids believe they’re real. But I don’t. If someone calls themselves “schizophrenic,” I believe they believe they have it! But it isn’t a disorder a teen can self-diagnose.

Were there other online places besides DeviantArt that influenced you?

I started to use Tumblr, also because of the art. Reading people’s bios, I learned more about being trans and that what I was feeling is called “dysphoria.” There are a lot of artists there expressing their dysphoria in comics and I identified with some of the things they were saying

From Tumblr, I found YouTube transition videos. When my dysphoria got worse, I started watching a bunch of FTM videos. All of the ones I watched were like, “I feel amazing!” and “I am finally my true self!” I thought it was weird that no one regretted anything but I wanted to believe medical transition would help me too. I started wanting hormones and maybe even surgery later.

I also talked to some of my friends. I was in a homeschool group and lots of the kids there were also trans.

“Lots” of the kids were trans? How can that be, when trans make up a miniscule proportion of the population?

 I wonder how accurate the data is that tells us only a “miniscule proportion of the population” is trans, because most teens I know identify as anything other than “cis.”

Hollow wolfIn my homeschool group, there were only two girls who didn’t have trans identities. Talking about gender identity and sexuality was very popular with my friends and also some of the parents. There was a parent who identified as pansexual and “demi gender” or something like that. She came and talked to all of us about using preferred pronouns and sexuality stuff. She was a facilitator there but not for my group. It was just a bad time even though I had a few really good friends there. There were some kids who were always talking about how oppressed they were and they weren’t. At all. They thought disability and mental illness were cool. They’re not. It was hard for me to hear them talk about all their self-diagnosed issues when I had to give myself insulin every day (I’m diabetic) and I hated my body. Also, my grandfather had just died. My mom started not wanting me to go there because I would get really anxious and have panic attacks and she would come pick me up early.

 Trans activists and some gender therapists insist that some people are “born in the wrong body” and that causes terrible dysphoria. They claim this is very different from not just conforming to gender stereotypes (even though many published accounts of dysphoric people also include stereotypes). Is dysphoria real?

It is definitely a real feeling! But being uncomfortable is part of being human. If you can’t cope with those feelings, then you need help learning better ways to cope. My psychologist understood I had dysphoria and we worked through the trauma that caused it.

Feelings are feelings. Feeling something doesn’t mean it is true or real. I didn’t understand that at first.

noor catAnd I thought that I would feel better as a boy. I wanted to stop my natal puberty because I didn’t want to be female. I thought taking testosterone would make me male. But now, I don’t think it’s healthy to be hurting yourself with hormones. Taking T is a very harmful thing to do to your body. There are YouTube channels where they’re talking about how great T is. But I wonder what they’re going to say in a few years? I wonder what’s going to happen to their bodies? If they say it’s totally safe, they’re wrong. I wanted to medically transition, so I looked up a lot about it. All I found was, “oh this is safe for you, you’re gonna feel better.” But then I found some other articles, that talked about heart disease; things like needing a complete hysterectomy in 5 years if you’re on testosterone because of what it does to your uterus and ovaries. My mom found other things for me to read. But you know what? At first, I didn’t want to believe that it was dangerous. I even thought I could block puberty forever and when my mom said that wasn’t true, I argued with her.

I talked to our friend who is a scientist and she told me more things about blockers and my brain development. I trusted her and I trusted my mom so I knew they were telling the truth but I didn’t want to believe them.

In my homeschool program, I tried to talk to my friends about this stuff but they said it was transphobic and I was wrong.

Do you think there are some young people for whom transition is a good choice ?

I know one person who’s on testosterone, and I believe transition is the only way for him to be happy. At the same time he’s very aware of how it’s going to hurt him.  I think he’s very young to transition, even though he’s 19, it’s very young. But he believes something bad will happen to him without testosterone.

Some people may need to transition but it should always be a last resort.

How is your dysphoria different? Why is medical transition not appropriate for you?

Extreme dysphoria might mean you can’t get out of bed in the morning or function at all.  But thinking about it in a more critical way, what teen doesn’t experience being uncomfortable about their bodies? Dysphoria is just an extreme version of that discomfort.

It was that bad for me for a while, and sometimes it can still be bad, but I’ve learned to move my body when I feel that way and do other things that don’t feed the feeling.

What kind of things do you do to work with your dysphoria?

I draw. I pet my animals and play with my Madagascar hissing cockroaches. I don’t lay in bed doing things that make me feel worse.

I used to watch FTM transition videos when I felt dysphoric. They made me feel even worse and also jealous and anxious that I might not transition soon enough and that I would never be masculine enough.

I know this sounds cliché but you have to find something to love about yourself instead. For someone like me, who thought I was FTM, think about the ways you’re already “masculine.”

Discomfort about your body and sometimes dysphoria are a normal part of being a teenager and having your body change.

I know some people who feel so wrong that they want to mutilate their bodies. That was me for a little while but it isn’t me now. Even when I was wearing a binder, I thought I looked physically better but I still hated my body.

So the image you presented to the world was “better” but it didn’t make you feel any better?

I remember being 11 and it was the beginning of summer. I was downtown with friends and their parents and one of the men made a joke about the way another little girl was dressed in short-shorts and a tank top. He said something like “I’ll never let you dress that way” to his daughter even though her brother was already dressed just like that! Then, a little bit later in the day, when a woman walked by he said “I love booby season.” That’s the kind of thing that made my dysphoria worse and made me sure that I would be happier as a boy.

noor muralIt made me think of myself a little better when I was wearing a binder but it wasn’t a good solution because it was physically hurting me. They’re not comfortable. I didn’t care then that it hurt to wear it and it didn’t really help wearing it, because I knew I still had boobs. My ribs still hurt and sometimes it is still hard to breathe even though I haven’t worn a binder in over a year.

The kids I know who are trans brag when they’re having a hard time breathing. They act like it is a cute little “trans-relatable” experience when they feel like passing out from wearing their binders for too long.

What made you change your mind?

 I realized that the only reason I was trans was because I wanted to feel big and safe and also, I didn’t conform to what I thought being female looked and felt like. But then I learned that being female isn’t a feeling. It’s a biological reality and I could feel however I feel without it meaning I was male.

Also, I have type 1 diabetes. On my five-year anniversary of going into the hospital to be diagnosed, a friend who was on testosterone injections texted me to complain about her monthly shot (she has detransitioned and uses female pronouns now). When I read her text, I felt anger, but I knew she wasn’t trying to hurt me or be mean. But I was so jealous. She didn’t have to get shots. Why would anyone want to be dependent on medication if not absolutely necessary for a serious medical condition? I saw everything clearly. I changed my mind at that moment. I would never transition medically.

At first, even though I knew there could be side effects with blockers and testosterone, I was okay with going ahead with that. Because if I hurt my body, I was in control of that. When I identified as trans, there was always a way I was hurting myself: wearing a binder, pinching myself, picking at my skin, cutting.

But why should I hurt my body to feel control over things around me that are messed up?

I remember driving to one of my homeschool programs and I was telling my mom that I wanted to transition because I would feel safer. And my mom said something about me turning my back on other women. I also realized that I was wrong thinking transitioning would make me safer. It wouldn’t. And I’d also always be afraid of not passing.

Your mom told us she took you to the Philly Trans Health Conference so you could learn more about trans issues—you even had a pizza party with Jazz Jennings. It sure sounds like your mom was open-minded about all of this.

My mom was always very open minded. She never pushed anything on me or tried to push any ideas away from me, unless it was something dangerous, like crossing the street without looking.

One of our friends posted my mom’s interview on Facebook and one of the comments was “this mom is pushing things on her kid.”  It was never like that at all. My mom wanted me to explore the thoughts I was having. She just didn’t want me to medically transition but even then she was being supportive. She never flat out said “no,” she just said that I needed to think about it and research it.

Do you think if she had been more resistant, if she’d said, “no way we’re going to that conference” or “no way you’re a boy” do you think that may have made you want to do it more?

I definitely think that. You know, as a “stubborn teenager” I would have wanted it more.

What was it like going to that trans conference? Did you feel connected to the other kids there?

All the kids were really friendly. But I did feel some pressure after talking to kids there to “look more masculine.” It was interesting. It wasn’t a bad experience.  But most of them were like Tumblr-SJW trans; I definitely got that vibe from them. When I was identifying as trans, I was what they call “truscum” or “trans-medicalist:” you have to have chronic dysphoria to be trans, and you definitely want to get some kind of help for that problem—not necessarily hormones, but maybe talk therapy if you just want to learn to cope with your dysphoria.

Philly trans health banner 2015

None of those kids were trans-medicalists like I was. I hate saying the word “snowflakes” because it seems rude, but…There was stuff like, “you can’t be a trans boy unless you get your head shaved and dyed.”  It’s like the trans-boy starter pack. They all had the same haircut. I don’t remember if anyone said exactly “you need to cut your hair and take hormones” but I felt that vibe from the other kids who were all talking about their anxiety over passing and being more “masculine.” I wasn’t wearing a binder yet but I was sure I was trans. I had long hair and I loved my hair so I didn’t cut it. Even then, I thought it was silly that all the transboys I knew had the same haircut, shaved on the side and dyed blue or green or some blue streaks, and that they thought boys had to have short hair.

That sort of made me question. I mean, all these kids were following the same exact trend. I never wanted to brag about being trans. Stuff like pronouns was the least of my concerns; I just wanted to deal with my dysphoria.  Because that’s a mental feeling, something people can legitimately feel.

In the banquet hall where they had a pizza party for trans kids and their parents, a few of the moms had their kids pull up their shirts to show off how great their binders worked to flatten their breasts. My mom remembers that a few transboys also showed off their bare chests and people talked about what a good job their surgeons had done. Some of them were like 14 or 15.

So did that event push you more or less in the direction of thinking you were trans?

It pushed me toward wanting to medically transition, but I saw what those kids were doing as trendy. Like, there was a whole line of penis packers there, in different colors and sizes. There was a neon pink one hanging up on the wall. It was horrifying. There were some for 6 year olds. Six year olds shouldn’t be worrying about what’s in their pants unless there’s a problem going on. I think it would make little kids sad to think about having to fake it.

Did you want one?

God, no. During that time I did want a penis, but not a fake one.

So you eventually wanted surgery?

No, I didn’t want bottom surgery. I just wanted to be a biological male.

So the gender therapists and activists might be saying right about now, ok. This kid figured out she wasn’t really trans. No harm done. Mom and dad, chill. Use their pronouns. Take them to a trans conference or a gender therapist. No harm done.

I think if I had gone to a gender therapist, I would still think I was trans now. If my mom had thought that hormones and blockers were the best solution for my anxiety and dysphoria, I would be taking T right now.

I’m glad she didn’t believe I was a boy trapped in a girl’s body. I’m glad she found a psychologist who saw how scared and angry and hurt I was and who wanted to help me with those things first instead of also helping me transition to be a boy.

But parents should be supportive and respectful of their kids. They should take them seriously and learn about side effects of transition and alternative opinions about gender together. Let them break stereotypes and talk about those stereotypes and where they come from and how they hurt people, not just girls, boys too. And kids need good therapists who will ask them questions they never thought of.

Until quite recently, believing oneself to be the opposite sex was considered a mental disorder and treated as such.

It is a mental disorder sometimes. People who feel mild dysphoria are like “I hate this thing about my body” which is different than “I hate this thing about myself and I am willing to hurt myself to relieve the feeling.” The second is a mental disorder. Somebody wanting to hurt themselves is a mental disorder. Dysphoria always has a deeper root.

“Trans” isn’t the right word. We’ve learned to know it as trans but really what I think some people feel is extreme, chronic dissociation, possibly from trauma and PTSD.

And for adults, it is different. Adults can do whatever they want, even if they don’t have dysphoria or other mental health issues. But kids need their parents and sometimes a psychologist to help them think about why they feel the way they do.

I don’t know any trans kids who have gender-critical therapists. And by the way, being gender critical wasn’t pushed on me either, but my mom and my therapist and other friends would gently suggest that I think about things beyond just “being trans.” They’d say I should think about why I felt that way, the reasons for feeling that way, and any other perspectives or reasons someone might feel that way. And that I should also think about my history and my experiences and relationships and why I might feel uncomfortable or not want to be a girl.

Parents who put their kids on hormones are trying to take care of their kids. I know they want to do the best thing. But what if they haven’t heard other ideas and they don’t understand about being gender critical, or about how to see their kids’ identity or presentation without stereotypes?

Most parents just want their kids to be happy, and their kids say “I need hormones to be happy.” Some kids even threaten to kill themselves if they don’t get the treatments they want. I’ve also seen kids say that after they started cutting, their parents took them seriously, and let them take hormones. There are places online that tell you, “This is how you come out to your parents to get hormone therapy.” I always hated those, because it was always … just threaten something to get what you want. That’s just putting so much pressure on your parent to make an impulsive decision and it’s such a terrible thing to say. I know people who’ve killed themselves and also people who have tried to kill themselves. People who are suicidal need help and love but using suicide as a threat is manipulative and cruel.

 Did you see a lot of that online?

 Oh, everywhere. Everywhere. Most ways to come out were like, “say this, you’ll be sure to get them to take you seriously.”

We see this in every news article—“Would you rather have a live daughter or a dead son?” It’s why most parents decide to agree to medical transition. It’s the worst thing that could happen to a parent. It sounds like people are being coached to say they’re suicidal, when they aren’t?

 I think being truly suicidal is rare. Like the true trans thing.  Some trans identified people I’ve known will threaten to cut or hurt or even kill themselves when they would never do any of those things. For the few that are serious, it ties into mental illness: If you are going to kill yourself because of gender roles, or stereotypes, or even dysphoria, that’s a mental illness. And it can’t just be fixed with a bunch of medication. Some of the accounts of boys trying to cut their penises off in the bathtub—that’s clearly a sign of mental illness.

You’re 14. Pretty young still. How do you know you’re not going to change your mind again or want to go on testosterone?

I’ve read a few comments on Facebook about my mom’s interview. One was really insulting because it said that I’m too young to know what I want and that my mom is manipulating me.

But if I had said I am trans, I’m sure that person would believe me and not worry that my mom influenced me. So, can’t I also know that I’m not trans?

How can any thirteen-year-old or their mom know that they’re “really trans” either? That’s why you shouldn’t make any permanent changes to your body at such a young age. I don’t know anyone my age who hasn’t felt uncomfortable about their bodies at some point. Everyone I know wishes there was something different about their bodies.

If it is on your mind 24/7 and you feed that idea, you give that idea power – and you start to feel like you need to do something to your body to feel better.

The idea of gender is harmful. It encourages dysphoria. It locks people into stereotypes.

Some people say that you shouldn’t help kids feel comfortable about their bodies or even feel okay with being a little uncomfortable. They say that’s “conversion therapy” to talk someone out of wanting to hurt themselves. It isn’t conversion therapy to learn to love yourself or at least, feel like you can live in your own body without hurting it on purpose.

That was Dr. Ken Zucker’s goal: to help younger children, especially prepubescent children, come to feel peace about themselves and in their own bodies. He says that in childhood, gender identity is subject to change, and if you can help a child not become a permanent medical patient, that’s a good thing.  It was controversial, but in at least some cases, he discouraged “gender nonconforming” behavior in young kids—things like toys, haircuts, and clothes more typical of the opposite sex. What’s your opinion on that?

 Toys and clothes don’t have genders. Kids should get to play with whatever they want and wear whatever they want. Kids should be allowed to explore the things that they find interesting. When I was little, I didn’t see clothing or toys as gendered. Parents need to keep gender ideas like that away from their kids. “Female” isn’t a way of dressing.

I was shopping with my mom when I was little, before I thought I was trans, and we were in the “boys” part of the store because I liked those clothes better. They’re more comfortable and have better pockets. And a salesperson came up to us and asked my mom, “What is your son looking for?”

I wasn’t offended. But it’s silly that she thought because we were looking at comfortable clothing we were shopping for a boy.

And agreeing with a girl that she is really a boy because she doesn’t like to wear dresses might lead to going to a trans support group or seeing a gender therapist and other things that result in a kid thinking they need hormone therapy. If medical transition wasn’t available,  I don’t think it would matter if a girl thinks she’s a boy for a while, because she wouldn’t be encouraged to do things that are harmful.

Parents should give their kids more choices about more things in life but not about things that will harm them.

What would you say to other girls who think they are boys? Any advice for them?

 There’s nothing wrong with your body. To be straightforward, you will never be male. You will never have a Y chromosome. You will never have a real penis. Stop hurting yourself. Not wanting to be female doesn’t mean you’re really male. Not wanting to be female makes sense when girls are sexualized before we’re ready to even feel sexual, and when people think we’re weak both intellectually and physically, when people don’t take us seriously, when people tell us to smile and be nice.

You weren’t born in the wrong body because that’s not possible.

You were born into a society where looks mean everything. But really our bodies are just what keep us alive. Why don’t we fight back against the idea that any person looks wrong as they are? Your “outside” doesn’t need to “match your inside.” The outside isn’t important enough to hurt yourself over.

Get angry at gender stereotypes. You can dress however you want but that’s called “fashion” or presentation. Your identity should be who you are and the things you do, not what you look like. I have resting grouch face. I don’t need to train my face to look kind or have surgery to make my face look kind, I just have to be a kind person.

You think, how can I act male? There’s no such thing as acting male. Male is a biological sex and you will never be that. Just act like you.

Go outside. Move your body. Make art, do something. Don’t spend time with other people’s stories about self-loathing and self-diagnosis. Stop feeling oppressed when you’re probably not oppressed. I know transitioning can make you feel like you get a lot of control but medically transitioning doesn’t give you power. It just makes someone else money.

Find people to talk to and ask for help if you need it. And find people who will ask you hard questions.

Advertisements