Why Was the Media So Quick to Accept Caitlyn Jenner ‘Detransition’ Rumors?

Caitlyn Jenner’s rep says she has no plans to transition back to living as a man. Why was the press so eager to report a false story?

Danny Moloshok/Reuters

Tabloid rumors have swirled around Caitlyn Jenner since before she was Caitlyn Jenner.

But it’s rare for a mainstream news outlet to lend them credence the way that CBS News did when they relayed the rumor that the most famous transgender woman in the world might “detransition” and return to living as a man.

That particular piece of hearsay started with Ian Halperin, author of the tell-all Kardashian Dynasty: The Controversial Rise of America’s Royal Family, who told The Wrap that he had heard from “multiple sources” that Jenner regretted her transition and might transition back.

Those whispers were amplified by a range of tabloids including The Daily Mail and, of course, Fox News, but it was shocking to see CBS and The Washington Post rush them to print so soon. After all, Halperin hadn’t named any of his “sources” and Jenner had not yet provided comment.

It seemed like little more than gossip. Probably because it was.

It didn’t take long for a Jenner rep to categorically disavow Halperin’s claims, telling the New York Daily News, “Not worth commenting on such an idiotic report. Of course it’s not true.”

CBS, in turn, was forced to update its headline from “Reports: Caitlyn Jenner Regretted Sex Change, May De-Transition,” to “Caitlyn Jenner’s Rep Responds to De-Transitioning Report.”

But why did the rumor that Jenner would detransition take hold so quickly and so forcefully? Why would major media outlets relay it without conducting a simple fact check, cowardly attributing it to Halperin but choosing to publish anyway?

The answer is deeper than just the endless pursuit of scandal in service of page views: “Detransition” stories appeal to a particular and disappointingly large audience of people who want to believe that gender transition doesn’t work, that it’s not a proven form of therapy, and that no one can be happy once they have crossed the gender divide.

In reality, detransitioning is extremely rare. As Vocativ’s Tracy Clark-Flory reported, it is estimated that only 1 to 2 percent of people regret surgical intervention during a transition. Choosing to end hormone replacement therapy before seeking surgery may be more common, but it is still infrequent compared to those who choose to continue treatment.

But uncommon experiences have a way of surfacing on the Internet, and detransition tales are no exception. Last year, transgender blogger and activist Zinnia Jones catalogued as many of them as she could find. The truth, she found, was often more complex than tabloids would have you believe.

Some detransitioners, Jones discovered, don’t express regret over their transition but still think detransitioning is the right choice. Others reported detransitioning not because they were dissatisfied with their treatment but because of the discrimination they experienced afterward. Some even “retransition” later on.

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For example, when a young British transgender woman named Ria Cooper expressed regret over her hormone therapy in 2012, The Daily Mail jumped on the story, writing that she “has decided to change back in to a man after suffering huge mental anguish as a woman.” Vice followed up with her last year and learned that she was planning to go back on hormones and raise money for surgery.

“The press will do anything for a story,” Cooper said, noting that her earlier decision to stop taking hormones had come in the midst of a mental breakdown.

But it’s not just the press writ large that loves a good detransition story; it’s the conservative press in particular. The Federalist repeatedly publishes articles by noted detransitioner Walt Heyer, who openly advocates against transgender rights and believes that 20 percent of trans people experience regret.

As Clark-Flory notes, the far-right outlet Breitbart and conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh have both jumped on the detransition bandwagon.Even The Wall Street Journal gave column inches to anti-LGBT psychiatrist Paul McHugh, who claimed that a 2011 Swedish study suggests that sex reassignment surgery increases the risk of suicide—a citation that is relished by the far right because it seems to support the “sex change regret” storyline.

Cecilia Dhejne, the lead author of that study, later told TransAdvocate that her work was being willfully misrepresented.“Of course trans medical and psychological care is efficacious,” she said. “A 2010 meta-analysis confirmed by studies thereafter show that medical gender confirming interventions reduces gender dysphoria.”

In fact, Dhejne and her co-authors had warned against McHugh’s misinterpretation in the study itself, writing that “the results should not be interpreted such as sex reassignment per se increases morbidity and mortality.” Their work was not intended to scare people away from seeking sex reassignment surgery but, as the authors concluded in the study, to “inspire improved psychiatric and somatic care after sex reassignment.”The boring truth about transgender health care is that it is effective. There are standards of care that have been developed by qualified professionals. And those standards of care, as Dhejne told TransAdvocate, have been tested multiple times.

But when you need to cater to an audience that doesn’t want to accept the validity of transgender identity, those facts are often left out. That’s certainly what has happened in Jenner’s case.According to The Wrap, Halperin said that “one source” told him that Jenner was experiencing “sex change regret” and that the transition had been “much harder than she anticipated.”

“Based on his research,” The Wrap reported, “Halperin believes that Jenner will de-transition in the next couple of years.”

What The Wrap didn’t report, of course, was any of the medical research cited above, which shows that detransitioning is rare and which suggests that claims like Halperin’s should be taken with a whole shaker’s worth of salt. CBS didn’t cite that research, either.

Spreading detransition tales with no confirmation and no context isn’t just an appeal to a lowest common denominator, it’s a decision—conscious or not—to tell uninformed opponents of transgender health care exactly what they want to hear.

Every outlet that decided to piggyback on The Wrap’s “scoop” will be updating their stories with comment from Jenner’s representative if they haven’t already. But the damage has been done. The rumor doesn’t have to be true. It just has to stick.