INTERVIEW: Sam, Nele, and Ellie transitioned as young women, living as ‘men’ before realizing they’d made a mistake

Sam, Nele, and Ellie all lived as transmen before realizing they had made the wrong decision. Chantal Louis interviewed the three women, after they contacted EMMA, a German feminist magazine. This interview was published in EMMA in March 2020 and translated by Julia Beck to be republished at Feminist Current with permission.

Chantal Louis: When and why did you think you were trans? 

Sam (29): I was never overly feminine. I’ve had short hair since I was 10 and have always worn loose clothing. When I was young, people kept saying, “You look like a boy!” That’s why I got bullied a lot. I was told how I look and act is wrong, which made me an outsider. I developed a great amount of self-hate. Then a friend of mine, who still lives as a transman, explained to me that the path of transition exists. He recommended that I go to a therapist who knows how to treat trans people. I just wanted to talk to him to get clarity. I wasn’t sure at the time that I was trans. I just thought it might be a way for me to feel better. After 30 minutes, the therapist gave me the diagnosis that I was definitely trans, and told me that a transition would help me.

CL: A diagnosis after 30 minutes? How old were you then?

Sam: I was 22. The therapist then immediately set everything in motion. He gave me the number of an endocrinologist who also immediately confirmed the diagnosis. The very same day I got the prescription for testosterone. And then I thought: If everyone says this with such certainty, it is probably true.

CL: So what happened next?  

Sam: It all happened pretty fast. I had that first consultation with the therapist in March 2013, then in April applied to change my name. In order to do this, I needed two expert opinions, who both affirmed my “trans” status. By the way, one of the experts stated that he would support the change because I like women, and thus I would become virtually heterosexual. The name change was approved in October. Then I applied for the surgeries. In order to get them, I would have needed two new expert reports, but the health insurance company accepted the ones I’d already received, and approved the surgeries. In January 2015, 10 months after the diagnosis, I had a mastectomy (i.e. the removal of the breasts), and in May, I had a hysterectomy (i.e. the removal of the uterus and the ovaries).

CL: How did that make you feel?

Sam: Not good. On the one hand, it felt right at the time. It was a chance to get out of this victim situation and switch to the opposite side, so to speak. On the other hand, I wondered: “Why am I doing this? Is this really helping me?” I had a feeling it was all happening too fast. Before the mastectomy I was actually no longer sure, but I did it anyway. And before the hysterectomy, I was already reconsidering it. I had slowly begun to understand that my problem had to do with sex stereotypes. And that the fact that I have short hair and no “feminine” hobbies does not mean I am not a woman. So I wasn’t sure I really wanted the hysterectomy. But I was afraid that I would have to pay the cost of the approved surgery myself if I withdrew from it.

CL: This was a surgery with very significant and irreversible consequences.

Sam: Yes, but I hadn’t been properly briefed on that. I later found out for myself on the internet what it means to have your uterus and ovaries removed when you are not yet menopausal.

CL: Did you receive any therapeutic support during all of this?

Sam: No. I only had three hours [of therapy, total]. After that, the therapist told me to contact him if I had any further questions.

CL: Did no one else, for example your parents or teachers, ever question the diagnosis?

Sam: No. My mother, however, said that she supports me, even if I change my mind.

CL: How was your life as a transman?

Sam: As a man, I was treated differently. For example, I worked in a packaging warehouse long before the transition. I was often told, “You won’t manage that! This is too heavy for you! You’re too small for that!” After my transition, I worked in a warehouse, and had the same stature I had before, but no one questioned whether I could do it. That was pleasant, of course. But still, it felt wrong.

CL: And what about you, Ellie? 

Ellie (21): I’ve also been bullied. I was a tomboy as a child, and other children called me a “hermaphrodite.” I have always been very tall and had broad shoulders. I played basketball for many years, and people told me this was a boys’ sport. I always had the feeling that I was not like the other girls and came to the conclusion that I would fit in better as a boy. When I was 15, I came out to my parents as a lesbian. And then I realized more than ever that it felt strange to imagine myself as an adult woman.

CL: What did you do?

Ellie: I researched online and found a trans organization in Brussels. So I went to talk to them about what I was struggling with. The organization’s therapist explained to me that there is testosterone and the possibility of having surgery. When I left, I was totally confused and felt like I wasn’t ready for this. But the therapist had planted a small seed, and slowly I began to like the idea of altering my body. I found many YouTube videos of transmen on the internet, showing them looking better and better and becoming more popular. I began hating my female body. When I was 16, I told my parents I wanted a male body and therefore had to take testosterone.

CL: How did your parents react? 

Ellie: My mother told me that, at 16, she thought this decision was too early. That made me very angry. After all, the message online was that this reaction is “transphobic.” I didn’t realize she was just worried about me. I then put so much pressure on my parents, they took me to a gender clinic. The therapist there explained that I am not a trans, but a victim of trans-hype in the media. After that, I convinced my parents to bring me to a therapist at the trans organization. He said of course I was trans. My parents were very concerned about the long-term effects the hormones would have on my health. A male gynecologist recommended by the organization told my parents there was no reason to wait with the hormones — the earlier you start, the better the result. He also said that all the effects of testosterone are reversible.

CL: But that’s not true. 

Ellie: No. He lied, and I knew it. But I just wanted my parents to agree. Which they did. At 17, I had the mastectomy. I am Belgian and in Belgium there is no age limit for sex reassignment surgery. You just need to find a doctor who will do it.

CL: And what were the results? 

Ellie: At first I was very happy with it. I thought I looked good as a man and got a lot of compliments. I felt comfortable with my body, but I was uncomfortable with my role. People treated me as a boy, but I had no experience as a boy, so I always felt I was playing a role. For example, I switched to the boys’ group in school sports, and I found it very difficult to adapt to their expectations — so rough and so competition-oriented.

CL: And how was it with you, Nele? 

Nele (23): I reached puberty very early. I was nine and one of the first girls in class to have big breasts. I got hit on in the street and whistled at. So my first connection with my female body was rejection. On the other hand, I was very conformist and measured my self-esteem by how much men liked me. I was a very feminine girl.

CL: Then why did you want to be a man?

Nele: At first, I urgently wanted to be thin. I wanted to lose weight to get rid of my breasts and hips. Then I slipped into an eating disorder. I wanted to starve my body away. During this time I also realized that I like women. Then I came more and more to the point that I could no longer identify myself as a woman. Today I know that this was related to the gendered roles I had in my mind of women. I didn’t want to be so feminine, but at the same time I had the idea that if I am not feminine, I am worthless as a woman.

CL: And then? 

Nele: I started researching breast removal online because I had a real disgust for my breasts. This led me to the topic of trans identity. I wondered whether this could be the case with me, because I had never been a tomboy. But then it was said that every trans person is different. I knew that I had overcompensated with my extreme femininity. It then made sense to me that I was transgender — that I was born in the body of the opposite sex. In my early 20s, I came out as trans and started therapy.

CL: How were the reactions? 

Nele: My parents said that the most important thing for them was that I was okay. They could no longer forbid me to do it, and they didn’t want to endanger our good relationship. The therapist prescribed testosterone after three months. He explained that normally he would not do this so quickly, but he was more confident with me than with any other patient before. I wanted to go through with it very quickly, thinking, “All my life I have felt uncomfortable in my body, and now I have finally found the solution! Why wait any longer?”

CL: Did the therapist ask you about your conflict with the female sex role? 

Nele: He believed the cause for the eating disorder and depression was me being born transgender.

CL: Born?

Nele: Yes. Therapy was all about questions like, “How did you feel about the fact you were misgendered* again yesterday?” “Why are you wearing that T-shirt? It makes you look like a woman.” The therapist said, “If you want to be accepted as a man, you need short hair.” So he totally reinforced the sex stereotypes.

CL: Why did all three of you not consider the possibility of living as lesbian women who do not fit the typical stereotypes?  

Sam: I grew up in a small town, and things there are still relatively conservative. I knew very early on that I was into women, but I never associated it with the term “lesbian.” There’s always been negative talk about lesbians, especially butch lesbians. Therefore, I didn’t want to be one.

Ellie: When I realized as a teenager that I liked women, I looked for lesbian bars, but I didn’t find any. There was a big gay scene in Brussels, but no places for lesbians. And then I went to the trans organization with my questions. And they only gave me the one option: I have gender dysphoria; I’m trans. And so my role models became transmen.

Nele: I hadn’t seen any [lesbian] role models either.

CL: But there are now quite a lot of openly lesbian women, from TV host and former news anchor Anne Will to Barbara Hendricks, the first openly lesbian minister in Germany. And there are shows like Orange is the New Black.

Nele: But this trans path is being laid out in front of you. And I didn’t know anyone who said, “I’ve reconsidered, and I’d rather live as a lesbian.”

Sam: The lesbians I know are 20, 30 years older than me. At my age, women who are de facto lesbians usually refer to themselves as queer in order not to appear transphobic.

CL: Why does saying you’re a lesbian make you seem transphobic? 

Sam: Because it indicates that you are attracted to biological women, and therefore generally not to penises. But very often transwomen are “women” who do have penises. And since lesbians are not attracted to transwomen, this is considered transphobic.

Nele: I also called myself queer or pansexual.

CL: Didn’t anyone ever tell you that, as a woman, you can also exhibit behaviors that defy sex roles? 

Ellie: My father told me that I don’t have to act according to my role and that I don’t have to take hormones. But I didn’t understand that then. I was also simply going through puberty and on a collision course with my parents. And they were under a lot of pressure from the trans organization and the doctors. It would have been so important for everyone to say, “Let’s have a look at the different options you have!”

Sam: It simply happens super fast that you get this trans identity imposed, and that you impose it on yourself. You get this message from the trans community that when someone questions your trans identity, it’s transphobic. Therefore, there are many parents who no longer dare to say anything at all.

Nele: My mother asked me if there were any other solutions. But I didn’t show the slightest doubt to the outside world because I was afraid that the chance to transition might be taken away from me again.

CL: Were you informed about the medical consequences and risks of hormones and surgery?

Nele: The gynecologist only spoke of the positive effects: the deep voice, the hair… The things I wanted.

Sam: Before the hysterectomy, nobody explained to me what would happen if for some reason I had to stop taking testosterone. When I stopped taking testosterone after almost three years, I went to an endocrinologist because my body was no longer producing its own sex hormones. It was the same endocrinologist who had prescribed me the testosterone. He just said he didn’t know what to do now either. It then took me over half a year to finally find a female gynecologist who had at least a bit of an understanding of that issue. I take estrogen pills now. But they will affect my liver in the long run.

Ellie: I had severe pain in my uterus. When I took the problem to the gynecologist who prescribed the testosterone, he said, “The uterus is just a painful organ.” And it is also not true what many doctors claim: that a female body to which testosterone is administered becomes a completely male system.

CL: Have you been informed of the increased risk of cancer?

Ellie: I asked my gynecologist if testosterone increases the risk of cancer. He said that there seems to be one study that came to this conclusion, but that this study shouldn’t be taken seriously. Another doctor had already explained to me that my life expectancy would shrink, but I did not care. I was 16. I never thought about my health at all. That came later.

Nele: My endocrinologist said, “Testosterone is assumed to increase the risk of cancer, but this is not true.” But I must also say that even if he had told me that the risk of cancer would increase, I would not have cared at that time. I was at a point with my eating disorder that I could no longer go to university and had problems maintaining social contacts. For me it was transition or suicide. And that is another problem: therapists and doctors waved this hormone administration through, even though there was a person with eating disorders sitting in front of them, who totally rejected her body and showed self-harming behaviour. They should have realized that I could not make a healthy decision for myself at that moment.

CL: The guidelines for the treatment of children and young people are currently under revision in Germany. The idea that doctors and therapists should only work according to the so-called “affirmative approach” (i.e. confirming the desire for transition) is being discussed. You experienced this “affirmative approach.”

Sam: If the therapist is not allowed to question anything, then the whole point of the therapy is lost. And the point should not be that you simply get your piece of paper, but that you are really receiving help. And if it turns out that the right way for you is to transition, then that’s okay. But it should also be possible that there is another way.

Nele: Transition should not be forbidden to anyone, but it requires great caution. Medical treatment has serious consequences, some of which are irreversible. I think that therapists should be obliged to look at the underlying problems.

Ellie: One must also see whose interests are actually at stake. It is often said that it is better for a child to transition as early as possible. The child would then not have to go through puberty twice. But is that really about the child? Or is that about the child not disrupting our image of a “real” boy or a “real” girl? And then you have to contemplate. That takes time. But often everything happens so quickly, as I have experienced myself.

Sam: When I read the statements of so-called experts who say that if a little boy puts on his mother’s high heels more often, then this could be a sign of transsexuality, I get so angry. We need to overcome these stereotypes.

Nele: I have often heard about detransitioners like us who have difficulty finding therapists because therapists work exclusively according to the trans affirmative approach and find it difficult to accompany and support someone on the opposite path.

Ellie: Everything that is not one hundred percent trans-affirmative is increasingly defamed as “conversion therapy.” This increases the pressure on therapists even more.

CL: Have you ever thought about suing your therapists or doctors for their carelessness?

Sam: I tried in vain to get the costs for the second name change reimbursed by my therapist, because he gave a false diagnosis and did not complete the prescribed 30 therapy sessions with me. But he simply listed the appointments, and I cannot prove that it was indeed only three sessions. I have also thought about suing the hospital for malpractice because I was not properly informed there. But lawsuits against hospitals are very difficult to conduct, and I am afraid of losing a case like this and then having to sit on even more costs.

Nele: I’ve been thinking about that, too. In my opinion, the medical experts made a false diagnosis and should at least refund me the money for my expenses. But I have no money for a lawsuit and even if I did, I wouldn’t have the strength for such a legal action at the moment.

Ellie: I think the doctor who lied to my parents back then about the supposedly reversible effects of testosterone should be held responsible. I’d like to do something about that, but I don’t want to do it alone. And I don’t know of any other cases yet, although of course they exist.

CL: What was the catalyst for you to realize, “I want to go back, I want to detransition”? 

Ellie: There were several reasons. First, the testosterone caused me health problems. I had vaginal atrophy, which is what some women get after menopause due to the lack of estrogen: itching, burning, vaginal inflammation. Also cramps in the uterus. So I had to take estrogen, and I found it absurd to add more hormones to my actually healthy body. And then I realized that I had never had the chance to get to know my natural body. In addition, I have an older friend who is a feminist and lesbian. I’ve shared a lot with her. She told me about her struggles in her own youth and I saw so many parallels between her and me. And when she asked me why I take testosterone, I was able to explain why I started taking it, but not why I continued to. Another key moment was that after my transition I played on men’s basketball teams and never felt comfortable there. When I joined a lesbian team, it was awesome, I loved playing with lots of lesbian women, and I realized that I wanted to be one of them. And then about a year ago, after four years on testosterone, I knew: Now is the time for me to stop the transition.

Nele: Like Ellie, I also got health problems from testosterone. But of course we also discussed feminism a lot. I’ve come to realize that my eating disorder played a big role. The testosterone boosts the metabolism and makes me thinner; it makes my hips and breasts disappear. And I understood that the hyper-sexualization of my breasts was the reason I rejected my breasts so strongly. And I questioned my own sex role stereotypes: For me, women were loving, nice, compliant people — always friendly, helpful, and conflict-averse. I just didn’t want to be that anymore. But just as I had hated to be perceived as a woman before, I became increasingly uncomfortable being perceived as a man, because it put me in a new box. So it is also my political conviction: I understood that I could not live as a woman in this society because this society does not treat women well.

CL: You have all been perceived and treated as men. Now you have decided to live as women again. You must go through another physical change. Certain changes like your deep voices or the removed breasts are irreversible. This will probably not be easy.

Sam: I was desperate to pass as a man with no ambiguity. Since then, I’ve decided that I don’t care how people perceive me. Today, I think that if someone tells me I am too masculine for a woman, or that I must therefore be trans, then that is his or her problem. I now have the strength to cope with it. And I have a very supportive environment: my mother, my girlfriend, her parents, my friends. Now I feel good the way I am.

Nele: Three months ago I stopped the testosterone which I had taken for two years. So now I will get hips again and it will certainly feel strange and maybe not always good. But I can deal with it differently now.

CL: And how are you now perceived by the world around you? 

Nele: I have no idea! [laughs] I think everyone is confused and so am I. The other day I was at a buffet and I completely filled my plate. Around me was a group of young women, and they all had very little on their plates. And at first I thought, God, my full plate, how embarrassing! Then I remembered that the girls perceive me as a man and was relieved, because as a man I am allowed to do that. But now I want to learn to allow myself these things as a woman. I paid for the plate, so of course I put a lot on it!

CL: Nele and Elie, you have created the “Post-Trans” platform on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. What has the reaction been like?

Nele: We shared our first post in transgender groups because we thought that there would certainly be detransitioners or simply trans people who find other narratives interesting. But we received many negative reactions there. I was unfriended, called a “TERF” (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist), and blocked on social networks. But some of our friends also reacted very positively.

Ellie: We try to keep the platform as neutral as possible, which means we only post the stories people send us, without changing them. Because the most important goal is visibility. We want the experiences of detransitioners to be heard.

Sam: It is very important that we educate and inform so that other girls and young women do not end up in the same situation we did.

*Being referred to as the “wrong” sex.

This interview was conducted by Chantal Louis for EMMA Magazine and translated by Julia Beck. Chantal has been an editor at EMMA since 1994.

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