I had a bad day yesterday. I was tired from working, everyone I interacted with seemed cranky and I was frustrated by my lack of success in connecting with people within the LGBT community offering ANY outreach or support for those who detransition (or are wondering about it) and who need help with the many psychological, medical, legal and social issues they will encounter.
About the only people I can find actively doing this are usually fundamentalist Christians who require that you repent for the “sin” of being who you are and accept Jesus Christ as your savior. Last night I found another resource provider – Dr. Wim Distelmans, who made news this week for performing euthanasia on post-op ftm to relieve their “unbearable psychological suffering” after a sex change surgery failed to meet the patient’s expectations.
Coming at the end of my long day I saw this story and as I read it experienced a profound episode of cognitive dissonance. I read the headline several times. I even read the first few paragraphs of the story and my brain still couldn’t process what was being said or what it was even talking about.
And when I finally began to comprehend the horrible reality, that a beautiful human being, Nathan/Nancy Verhelst, was so unhappy after a sex change operation that they decided to end their life and that their decision was supported and assisted by a doctor, I became even more depressed. And angry. I had a lot of trouble sleeping last night.
The early reporting that is coming out on this is very sketchy and “tabloidy”. I have learned that there is always more to stories like these so I don’t want to make too many assumptions. Someone pointed out that the story had misgendered Verhelst – the photo caption used one gender and the story used another. The sad truth is that we may never know what pronoun Verhelst would have wanted us to use. Maybe Verhelst didn’t even know for sure.
I have to respect Verhelst’s decision, but I also strongly argue that it was not necessary, at least from the details of the story as reported so far. My dream is for us to get to a place where this NEVER happens again (although for now I am sure it will, this has been going on for years under the name we use when it is not medically sanctioned – suicide – and it quite common for trans people both pre and post-op.)
One of the few quotes attributed to Verhelst in the reporting is an expressed dissatisfaction with the results of his surgery. “When I looked in the mirror, I was disgusted with myself. My new breasts did not match my expectations and my new penis had symptoms of rejection. I do not want to be … a monster.”
This in particular haunts me – I went through something similar. Starting in the the months after my surgery I too became afraid of mirrors. I somehow managed to get through life completely avoiding them for years. And, needless to say, during that time I totally “let myself go”. I loathed my body and basically gave up on it. I gained a massive amount of weight. My hair was a knotted mess. Forget about passing as a female, I was no longer passing as a human being who cared about life.
I know we have screening processes for people who undergo gender reassignment surgery and the medical community also does what it can to ensure that people have realistic expectations for surgical outcomes. But I think sometimes we, the people who go on this journey, still secretly hope for more than is realistically possible. Even though we are often very rational people – a lot of us expect something mystical and magical will occur on that operating table. The fact that many of us, including Verhelst, refer to a relatively short medical procedure as our “second birth” underscores our belief that this surgery carries with it the same incomprehensibly wonderful magnificence that is the true “miracle” of birth.
I have met many transsexuals who after surgery describe a specific kind of depression that impacts them. It is often temporary and they are able to happily get on with their lives in their new gender, but after the surgery a lot of people just feel kind of let down when they realize it isn’t as transformative as they had thought it would be. Some flesh has moved around, there are some new physical realities (and opportunities) but basically life is still “life”.
Again, going by the limited details available in this story (I feel I need to keep repeating this disclaimer – I am going to stop but please be mindful that using sketchy tabloid-style reporting to talk about very real issues of life and death is always tricky) it seems like Verhelst was looking to surgery to escape to a new life. Or to say it another way, maybe Verhelst wasn’t running to one gender as much as running from another.
I think a lot of us trans people do this and I will talk more about this some other time. Although everyone’s story is unique, I have noticed some differences between the experiences and motivations for transition between MTFs as a group and FTMs as a group. Verhelst’s story is something that I have heard from other (though certainly not all) former FTMs. It is not so much about becoming a man – it is more about escaping the social and biological hassles of being female. From the reporting:
“I was the girl that nobody wanted,” he said. “While my brothers were celebrated, I got a storage room above the garage as a bedroom. ‘If only you had been a boy’, my mother complained. I was tolerated, nothing more.”
And then there is this heartbreaking quote from the mother:
“When I saw ‘Nancy’ for the first time, my dream was shattered. She was so ugly. I had a phantom birth. Her death does not bother me,”
Again that word – “birth”. You know – there is part of me that wants to believe this is a hoax. I am still not entirely convinced that it isn’t but that probably is a remnant of my cognitive dissonance. Assuming it is true, if this is really what the mother said it is no wonder Verhelst felt so devastated. Again, more unrealistic expectations – surgery would never repair the relationship between mother and child, nor was it going to heal the scars left from years of emotional and psychological hurt inflicted on a helpless, scared little girl. With any dreams of validation and acceptance perceived to be gone, Verhelst apparently felt there was no other option but death.
It is important to add that there is nothing in the reporting that states Verhelst wished to detransition. What is clear is that after surgery Verhelst could see no further options for leading a fulfilling life. Whether it be considering retransition or one of many other options available (perhaps spending time with other people who have faced some large obstacles in life but persevered and found some sense of fulfilment) I think that it was too soon and tragic to throw in the towel.
Since I started my blog, one of the main questions I get asked a lot is “do you think people should be prevented from having gender reassignment surgery” or “are you afraid that your story will be used by those who wish to prevent people from getting gender reassignment surgery”. My answer is straightforward – I just want people to be able to do what is really necessary for themselves to be ok in their journey through life. If it is gender reassignment surgery that is going to help them get there – I say “great”. But I also think that this surgery is often used in place of addressing the harder to fix problems. A MTF gender reassignment surgery can be completed in as little as 90 minutes. Going through and attempting to heal the emotional scar tissue that builds up over the years for some of us is not so easy. Whether it is a biological disposition to depression (or other mental health issue) that afflict some of the unlucky amongst us, or having to live through any the cruelties that we has a human race are all do adept at inflicting upon each other, a lot of us have deep problems that can not be solved as quickly (or magically) as we would like.
I think that those who work to discourage any discussion of the fact that mental health issues can, in some cases, be a contributing factor to gender identity issues are doing a disservice to everyone. I have encountered many trans people who suffer from major mental health issues and yet move forward with transition – believing that their psychological issues arise only from being “born in the wrong body”. I am not saying anyone who has a predisposition for depression (for example) should be automatically excluded as a candidate for surgery but let’s be ok with talking about the potential root causes that lead someone to want to change their sex a little more instead of always going directly to the “born in the wrong body” stuff. I think more research needs to happen surrounding transsexualism and depression. Huge kudos go out to Jay McNeil, Louis Bailey, Sonja Ellis, James Morton & Maeve Regan and the Scottish Transgender Alliance for their important research and findings on transsexual mental health.
And while we’re at it let’s stop perpetuating acceptance of the totally unverified statistic that only 1-10% of all people who have had gender reassignment surgery have some form of regret. The fact is nobody really knows. The reason always given for this lack of data has always been that “trans people are too hard to track”. I think this has been true in the past, but I think we are easier to follow now if someone will make the effort. And there are still difficulties within the trans community feeling good about working “hand in hand” with academia. Over the decades there has been a build up in the distrust of academia (which is often encouraged by some of the more prominent members of the trans community) which discourages trans people from cooperating with any sort of research. That has to be healed. Members of the academic community are certainly not blameless here either – they need to repair some very real damage caused by a small number of individuals who abused their position of trust and respect as academics to engage in some pretty unethical behavior.
And lastly – I should not be having as much trouble as I have been finding resources from within the LGBT community itself for coping with detransition. When I call (as I did last week) and speak with the nice woman who answers the phone at the World Professional Association for Transgender Health: WPATH she should not be taken aback when I ask about resources for people who detransition. All she really could offer me was a polite “that is a really good question” and admit she had no idea where to direct me.
If there are organizations within the community who are doing this SOMEONE PLEASE LET ME KNOW. I am still hoping you are out there. And if you are please work at making yourself easier to find!
This conversation needs to be OWNED by the LGBT and specifically transgender community in a way that it isn’t presently. At the very least the trans community and their allies need to become more responsible stakeholders and contributors in these difficult conversations regarding regret, depression and detransition. Trans is in the news more than ever and almost everyone I know, straight, gay, bi or whatever, has a family member or knows someone who has faced some sort of gender identity challenge. Why is the conversation about detransitioning mainly coming from people who are anti-trans? Why are these resources coming from those who are least likely to provide an affirming and non-judgmental environment for people to work through these difficult issues?
And now it has come to this – euthanasia? Really? That’s all we’ve got?
As the trans community becomes more and more an accepted strand in the of the fabric of our society (at least some parts of it) it also has a responsibility to step up and start talking about difficult issues it has so far ignored. There are a lot of real people who’s existence is not even acknowledged, people who feel they have nowhere viable to turn to for help because they don’t have anywhere viable to turn to help. The people who feel that their only real option is to give their lives to Jesus or to just suicide out. Or the uncounted and unnoticed who just quietly withdraw from society all together – the people who become timid and afraid of life and withdraw to their rooms – their sole interaction with others now mostly online (this was and still is me in many ways.)
The trans community needs to evolve to the next level and become a better community partner. Taxpayer dollars and various grants going to many agencies and nonprofits based on the fact that they are serving the trans community. The transgender community is right to take pride in the strides it has made over the last few years but it also can’t be afraid to take some of the difficult steps that it needs to get to the next level. The time has more than come.
Things cannot stay as they are. The current status quo is not sustainable.