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Department: Great Escapes
Transgenderism has been a hot topic over the past year or so, and most press coverage of it—from stories about bathroom ordinances to profiles of individuals who have undergone sex-reassignment surgery—has been sympathetic, if not outright supportive. Amid all this positive attention, little is being said about the dark side of transgenderism.
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Yet that side is very dark indeed. One study, which compared rates of suicide among people who had had sex reassignment surgery to the rates among male and female control groups, found that the incidence of suicide among the former was almost five times greater.1 A UK survey of transgender people under age 26 showed that 48 percent had attempted suicide, while only 6 percent of 16-to-24-year-olds in the general population had tried to kill themselves.2 Bullying and lack of acceptance are often cited as the reason for this great disparity, but they cannot entirely account for it.
Only a Cover-Up
Walt Heyer knows the dark side of transgenderism well. He is a 75-year-old man who underwent hormone treatment and sex-reassignment surgery in the 1980s, when he was in his forties, and lived as a woman for eight years. The surgery, though, did nothing to alleviate the deep sense of shame he felt over a traumatic childhood experience; "being a female," he said, "turned out to be only a cover-up, not healing." So, like many others who undergo such surgery only to experience sex-change regret, he became suicidal. It was not until he got help on the underlying cause of his gender dysphoria that he experienced true freedom. The process of "coming back to wholeness as a man," as he put it, wasn't easy and took many years, but, with help, he was at length able to "fully experience life as a man."
Walt has a background in psychology, and he now works to help other gender-dysphoric people learn the truth. Through his books (Paper Gender and Transgender Faith), websites (transgenderfaith.com and sexchangeregret.com), and articles (particularly "I Was a Transgender Woman," a 2015 piece for Public Discourse in which he relates his personal story), he spreads the word that "changing genders is short-term gain with long-term pain."
In an interview I had with him in August 2016, Walt pointed out that the high incidence of suicide and attempted suicide among transgender people is nothing new. Research from as far back as 1979 shows that hormone therapy and sex-reassignment surgery leave too many people unhappy—and often worse off than they were before. This isn't just a consequence of feeling bullied or rejected by family and peers. The problem is that most people with gender dysphoria have other mental health problems that don't get addressed.
Unfortunately, in today's climate, recommending counseling for gender dysphoria is regarded as coercive and abusive, and is even illegal in some places, so too many individuals with mental health problems from past trauma never receive the help they need. Additionally, many transgender people resist going to counseling because they do not want to find out that sex reassignment may not be the solution to their problem. When I asked Walt about this, he said that when people are distressed, they find power in re-defining who they are.
But no one is born transgender, and in any case, even if "gender" may be malleable, one's biological sex is not. As Walt knows all too well, even after drastic surgery, a person's biological sex remains the same. The surgery is merely cosmetic, in the sense of changing the appearance only, not the underlying reality.
In his Public Discourse article, Walt described his own gender reassignment as a "masquerade":
I knew I wasn't a real woman, no matter what my identification documents said. I had taken extreme steps to resolve my gender conflict, but changing genders hadn't worked. It was obviously a masquerade. I felt I had been lied to. How in the world had I reached this point? How did I become a fake woman? I went to another gender psychologist, and she assured me that I would be fine; I just needed to give my new identity as Laura more time. I had a past, a battered and broken life that living as Laura did nothing to dismiss or resolve. Feeling lost and depressed, I drank heavily and considered suicide.3
The Real Need
During our interview, I asked Walt if transgendered persons become suicidal out of embarrassment when they realize that the surgery did not work. He said that is a factor, but only part of the equation: "It is more than embarrassment. Suicide ideation comes from realizing that the transition did not resolve the gender dysphoria. The person's hopes and dreams are shattered. The person did not need a transition; he or she needed counseling."
Research bears him out. More than 60 percent of transgender people have co-morbidities with other mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. When sex reassignment fails to solve their mental health problem, they often feel they have nowhere else to turn.
Walt has had people contact him who were on the verge of killing themselves, and many have written to him about their regret after surgery. I asked how we could compassionately respond to someone who is struggling with gender dysphoria. He likened it to talking to a person with cancer: you would recommend that he get help from an oncologist. In the same way, a person with gender dysphoria should be referred to a counselor or psychotherapist for help. That is what he needs—not a surgeon. Walt also suggested simply talking with the person and listening to what he says about his life. There is a reason he has come to dislike himself so much. •
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