Defining Desistance: Exploring Desistance in Transgender and Gender Expansive Youth Through Systematic Literature Review

Transgend Health. 2022 Jun 13;7(3):189-212. doi: 10.1089/trgh.2020.0129. eCollection 2022 Jun.


Background: Desistance is a concept that has been poorly defined in the literature, yet greatly impacts the arguments for and against providing gender-affirming care for transgender and gender expansive (TGE) youth. This literature review aims to provide an overview of the literature on desistance and how desistance is defined.

Methods: A systematically guided literature review was conducted on March 27, 2020, using CINAHL, Embase, LGBT Life, Medline, PsychINFO, and Web of Science to identify English language peer-reviewed studies, editorials, and theses that discuss desistance concerning TGE pre-pubertal youth for a minimum of three paragraphs. Articles were divided based on methodology and quantitative data were quality assessed and congregated. Definitions of desistance were compiled and analyzed using constant comparative method.

Results: One qualitative study, 2 case studies, 5 quantitative studies, 5 ethical discussions, and 22 editorials were assessed. Quantitative studies were all poor quality, with 83% of 251 participants reported as desisting. Thirty definitions of desistance were found, with four overarching trends: desistance as the disappearance of gender dysphoria (GD) after puberty, a change in gender identity from TGE to cisgender, the disappearance of distress, and the disappearance of the desire for medical intervention.

Conclusions: This review demonstrates the dearth of high-quality hypothesis-driven research that currently exists and suggests that desistance should no longer be used in clinical work or research. This transition can help future research move away from attempting to predict gender outcomes and instead focus on helping reduce distress from GD in TGE children.

Keywords: barriers to care; desistance; gender identity; transgender and gender expansive youth.

Publication types

  • Review