When Missouri lawmakers took up bills to ban transition care for minors, Chloe Cole, an activist from California, traveled to Jefferson City to offer her story as Exhibit A.
After living as a transgender boy for years and getting a mastectomy at 15, Ms. Cole says she felt stifled by a male identity and distraught by her body’s changes. She decided to detransition, returning to her female identity.
She also decided to speak out. She has told her story in Florida, and in Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah. Republican lawmakers typically listen attentively, sometimes in tears. In March, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida relayed Ms. Cole’s story in his State of the State address, while she received a standing ovation.
As Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed over a dozen bills banning transition care for minors this year and have moved to restrict care for adults, Ms. Cole and fewer than 10 activists like her — people who transitioned and then changed course — have become the faces of the cause, according to a New York Times review of news coverage and legislative testimony.
These activists are fixtures at legislative hearings and rallies. Their experiences have been splashed across conservative media as cautionary tales. In Wyoming, a lawmaker named his bill to ban transition care for minors “Chloe’s Law.”
Most people who transition do not change course. And yet, the influence of these activists has been striking.
Their stories of regret and irreversible physical transformation have tapped into strong emotions about rapidly shifting gender norms — from hardened prejudice to parental worry. Lawmakers have used these accounts to override objections from all major medical associations, which oppose bans on transition care, as well as testimony from the far larger number of transgender people who say transitioning improved their mental health.
“They don’t really care,” said Chelsea Freels, 17, a transgender high school student in Missouri who testified at legislative hearings there to oppose bills that Ms. Cole supported. Ms. Freels says hormone therapy has helped her thrive. She is more comfortable socially and deeply involved on the robotics team. But she says Republican lawmakers look away when she tells them this story.
“They’re on their phones,” she said in an interview. The Missouri legislature last week passed a ban on transition care for transgender youth.
As more American teenagers have identified as transgender, it is difficult to say how many will transition medically — many transgender people do not — and precisely how many will later change course. Methodology, demographics and even the definition of detransition vary widely from study to study, which typically show that between 2 percent and 13 percent of people detransition, and not always because of regret.
Leading medical groups in the United States, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association, say transition care should be available to minors and oppose legislative bans. Many experts say policymakers should ensure access to high-quality care, including thorough individual evaluations to determine which treatments are appropriate and at what age.
Leaders in the conservative movement say it is important to amplify the voices of people who feel they have been misled by doctors and want to warn others.
“We are glad to work with individuals who are willing to stand up to the corrosive effects of gender ideology, especially when it is being pushed on children,” said Jay W. Richards, the director of the DeVos Center for Life, Religion and Family at the Heritage Foundation.
But many transgender-rights activists and others warn that the outsize emphasis on a minority is distorting the policy debate.
“Why are we indicting the treatment of trans youth rather than saying: What infrastructure needs to be in place to ensure that trans kids are properly evaluated?” said Dr. Madeline Deutsch, the president of the United States Professional Association for Transgender Health. “This is like saying: ‘We have unlicensed drivers on the road, so we need to basically get rid of automobiles.’”
‘America’s New Hero’
Elisa Rae Shupe was well known in the transgender rights movement: first as an outspoken transgender woman, and then as the first American to change her legal sex to nonbinary.
So when she published an essay in 2019 saying that her transition “was all a sham” and that she wanted “to live again as the man that I am,” conservatives took immediate notice.
Laura Ingraham invited Ms. Shupe on her Fox News show. The Heritage Foundation, whose Daily Signal news site had published her essay, offered to fly her to Washington to oppose an anti-discrimination bill. A radio producer for the Family Research Council sent her a Bible inscribed with her birth name and called her “America’s new hero.”
Before long, Ms. Shupe, a 59-year-old Army veteran, was enmeshed in what she calls a “spider web” of activists opposing transgender rights.
“I had no limits on how far I would go to please people and help them win,” she said. “At every turn, I had people heaping praise on me, which motivated me to do more and more.”
But last year, she reaffirmed her female identity and returned to living as a woman. She renounced her work with conservative groups and, this year, gave hundreds of her emails with her former allies to The Times and other news outlets.
Ms. Shupe’s emails show her close ties to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a leading force behind the state legislative wave. The group recruited her and others who had detransitioned to file an amicus brief to the Supreme Court arguing that federal law didn’t prohibit anti-transgender discrimination. (The court disagreed.)
It later helped her petition an Oregon court to restore her birth sex and name on legal documents. The petition argued that she was not transgender, but suffered from a sexual perversion that caused “confusion” about her gender.
In one exchange with an alliance lawyer, Gary McCaleb, Ms. Shupe urged him to embrace a fringe theory that asserts that transgender women are actually men sexually aroused by imagining themselves as women.
Mr. McCaleb expressed worry about appearing bigoted, but then he asked Ms. Shupe to help present the idea in a palatable way, “because I suspect that it is indeed a fundamental contributor to this blight upon our human souls.”
Mr. McCaleb referred comment to an alliance spokesman, who did not answer questions about the email or the group’s work with Ms. Shupe.
Ms. Shupe also worked closely Walt Heyer, 82, an activist who runs a website for people who regret transitioning and has connected some to conservative activists.
In emails to Ms. Shupe, Mr. Heyer described scouring social media to find other people who had detransitioned, hoping to publish their stories in right-wing outlets.
When Ms. Shupe wrote her essay, Mr. Heyer — who did not respond to requests for comment — emailed his praise.
“You took the trans madness down at every turn of a phrase,” he wrote, joking that now he could retire, before adding: “Unfortunately I will need to keep working as my conference speaking is the major source of income and prevents us from eating out of the neighborhood trash cans. Also need to sell books.”
The Loudest Voices
In March, Chloe Cole helped organize a “Detransition Awareness Day” rally in Sacramento. She expressed hope that it would be “the largest detrans rally ever.” About 40 people participated.
Ms. Cole, who did not respond to interview requests, is perhaps the best known of the small group of activists who have detransitioned. The list includes Billy Burleigh, who has testified in at least six states; Luka Hein and Prisha Mosley, who have testified in at least five each; and Cat Cattinson, who has testified in at least three.
Ms. Cole and Ms. Hein are among the few activists who transitioned as minors, making their testimony particularly potent. They often speak in graphic detail about the changes to their bodies and their realization that they may never have children.
“I’m far too young to feel like I am a broken woman, but it’s hard to look in the mirror,” Ms. Cole told a Florida House committee in February.
Ms. Hein did not respond to requests for comment.
Asked about the group’s numbers, two other activists, Mr. Burleigh and Ms. Cattinson, said they believed they represented many people who have not gone public. “One person who regrets their transition, or has suffered severe damage to her health because of it, is one too many,” Ms. Cattinson said.
But interviews with others who have detransitioned suggest these activists’ views do not represent the full range of circumstances that drive people to detransition.
One, Darius Chirila, 26, said he had detransitioned not because his identity changed but because of side effects from hormones, uncertainty about taking them indefinitely, and discomfort with being visibly transgender in the South. He is considering transitioning again.
Matthew Donovan, 36, a sociology student at Columbia University, said they detransitioned partly because of community rejection and economic insecurity, and partly because they realized it was possible to be nonbinary, which fit better.
And Carey Callahan, 41, who detransitioned about nine years ago and opposes anti-transgender-rights policies, said the politicization of detransitioning had made it harder to improve care. She criticized conservative groups that view her life as “grist” for their political goals.
“I feel pretty awful that this has been turned into taking more health care away from people,” she said. “This has always been an issue of incomplete health care.”
Kirsten Noyes contributed research.