On this episode of Mic Dispatch, correspondent Serena Daniari discusses detransitioning, or gender transition reversal, with those who’ve done it before — like Walt Heyer, who once transitioned from male to female, but later reversed his gender and has since resumed living as a man. Daniari then speaks with Laura A. Jacobs, a therapist who specializes in gender identity and transgender issues.
Walt Heyer: When a surgeon goes in and starts carving you up, you live with the scars. And you live with the memories of what happened. As exciting as becoming a transgender female was, going back to being Walt was even more exciting.
Natasha Del Toro, anchor, Mic Dispatch: In this episode, our correspondent Serena Daniari reports on the process of detransitioning — or reversing a gender transition. She talked to two individuals who detransitioned for very different reasons.
[Interviewer in Gordon James Klingenschmitt clip: Do you believe when you had gender reassignment surgery that you actually became a woman?]
[Heyer: No, no. That’s probably the greatest medical fraud of all time.]
[Heyer, in Christian Institute clip: The idea of helping people with hormones and surgery does far more harm to the individual long term and is not appropriate treatment for people suffering with mental disorders.]
[Heyer in Creflo Dollar Ministries clip: Everybody who struggles with this has, you know, gender dysphoria, but underneath gender dysphoria is a co-morbid disorder, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dissociative disorders.]
[Heyer in Klingenschmitt clip: We’ve been duped. Society’s been duped. It’s all phoney baloney.]
Daniari: Throughout my transition, I’ve often been faced with haunting questions. Did I make the right choice to change my body? Was my transition worth the expenses, the daily ridicule and the harassment? I’ve wondered whether or not this is the life I truly want to lead. I went to Phoenix, Arizona, to speak to Walt Heyer, one of the most visible and outspoken examples of a person who reversed their gender transition. Heyer has made numerous media appearances on conservative outlets speaking against the validity of gender-affirming medical treatments. Walt, who lived as a woman for eight years, now believes that transitioning was an unnecessary journey.
Heyer: There’s always these little creepy questions that no one wants to talk about, because they’re sort of taboo. Are you really a woman? Was it superficial? Was it — was it real? I thought, “The only way that I can really prove whether it’s real or not is to detransition.” I transitioned in 1983 and began to detransition in about 1990, 1991. I’ve gone back to being Walt, and so I’m married now for 21 years and that’s, in brief, my journey.
Daniari: I kind of want to rewind a little bit just to get a bit more of your backstory.
Heyer: It started at the age of 4, 5 for me. You know, I was very curious about gender. Grandma was a seamstress. Whatever happened, I ended up with a purple chiffon dress at the age of 4 or 5. I was sort of taken back by how she admired me so much as a little girl in that purple dress, and it planted a seed within me that I was much better as a girl than I was as a boy. Time went on and, in April of 1983, I underwent gender reassignment surgery and became Laura Jensen. I had the full top and bottom surgeries. The initial reaction was really powerful. I felt like I had finally made it. [Then] I found all the roadblocks were hitting me about getting work, and so I ended up homeless. And I started looking in my own life. I began to think, “Well, was this really necessary? Was taking hormones and undergoing radical surgery really going to resolve the issues that got you to this place?” But the detransition process is not quick, it takes time, because you have built all these things around your life. As a female, you have all these things in place, and to sort of dismantle them, I found, is really difficult — much more so than it was to transition.
Daniari: There have been points where you have described your body as being broken.
Heyer: When a surgeon goes in and starts carving you up, you have all kinds of scars all over you. You live with the scars, and you live with the memories of what happened.
[Heyer in Klingenschmitt clip: It is categorically, scientifically, intellectually, biblically or any other way possible to change from one gender to the other.]
[Heyer, in Christian Institute clip: Gender reassignment surgery really doesn’t make you a female. It’s much more to being a woman than just having some cosmetic surgery and hormones.]
[Heyer in Creflo Dollar Ministries clip: When you start playing with that design that God has for you, you know, you end up in the dump heap.]
Daniari: And what is the optimal outcome out of all your public speaking, your outspokenness about detransitioning? What is the goal you’re trying to achieve here?
Heyer: The goal is — all I want to do is raise awareness, so that if anybody going into the transition process has doubts or concerns, for them to go and get counseling — ultimately to prevent people from an unnecessary surgery that could hurt their life. That’s all.
Daniari: I spoke to Dr. Toby Meltzer, a leading surgeon who specializes in transgender patients, to understand more about the requirements to get surgery.
Meltzer: Gender-affirming surgery from male to female, that’s a year or more of hormone therapy, a year or more of living full-time and two letters from therapists are required for surgery. So that being said, if you look at genital surgery, well, that’s the one that is irreversible in most — I mean, irreversible in the sense that we can’t put it back, it’ll never be the same. We have a — did a published outcome study back in 2002, we had a total of about almost 300 patients who responded to a survey, and we had three patients who had regrets from having surgery out of that number. Now, of those patients, they didn’t actually regret having the surgery as much as having to give up part of their lives to have the surgery — meaning family members, jobs and things that they couldn’t feel like they could replace.
Daniari: Although Walt detransitioned because of regret, his story is not indicative of everyone who detransitions. I spoke to Robyn Kanner, who once detransitioned as well, but for entirely different reasons. After transitioning from male to female early in life, Kanner was assaulted. Shaken by the incident, she detransitioned back to male shortly thereafter. Years later, Kanner regained her confidence and has transitioned back to living as a woman.
Kanner: It got to a boiling point probably when I was, like, 19. My dad had just passed away. I decided like, “This is the time, I’m gonna transition.” I socially transitioned, I changed my name, and it wasn’t good. And I’d always sort of feel less than woman. I was sort of really going at it alone. It was a very isolating experience, right. I didn’t have a therapist to go to and be like, “This is what’s going on. I’m having a hard time.” So without any tools, it all sort of collapsed. And it collapsed one night where, I was freelance photographer at the time, and a gig got out like around 2 or 3 a.m. and I couldn’t afford a cab home, so I was walking home and the walk home was about, like, a half-hour walk. And three men sort of started yelling at me and using language like, “Who’s this tranny?” All these things like that. And then they sort of came over and pushed me around, and I was able to basically run out of the situation, and I was like, “I gotta get out of here. Like, this isn’t — like, this is not working for me.” And I shut down, right. No language, no tools, no conversations, I just sort of shut down. And I chopped off all my hair and I didn’t talk about gender for two years. I mean, I detransitioned because there were cis people in my life that sort of forced me to detransition. Like, I couldn’t live like I wanted to live, right. So I took some time away and then I went back to it and I feel really good that I did. I — there’s never a day where I’m like, “Really wish I wouldn’t have done that.” Like, I’m so glad that I continued to explore gender.
Heyer: As my life went back together, I began to see that I was really getting real. I liked who I was. I didn’t have to identify as a transgender. That kind of bothered me, because I didn’t particularly like being a transgender.
Daniari (voiceover): After listening to Heyer’s past rhetoric regarding the trans community, I felt the need to confront him about his personal views.
Daniari: In many ways, you are a physical embodiment of a lot of the baggage and anxiety that I think a lot of trans woman maybe quietly think to themselves. But at the end of the day for me, I, at this point in my life, I do feel like it was worth it. So, do you think transitioning is a viable option for some people?
Heyer: I think it’s certainly a viable option for some people. I don’t ever find them, because they don’t contact me.
Daniari: But what do you see when you look at me? Do you see me as a woman, do you see transgender women as women, or do you see us as something else?
Heyer: Well, I, again, I think that my view’s skewed, because I was one, you know. So I think — my heart goes out to anybody who has gone through this. I see you as a female who is happy with what they’re doing. Obviously, you’re very successful and you present yourself well, so, you know, bless you.
Daniari (voiceover): For most people, we are in a constant state of transition and detransition in all aspects of life. Our journeys are not linear, but instead, a fluid and ever-changing series of decisions and options.
Heyer: As exciting as becoming a transgender female was, going back to being Walt was even more exciting.
Kanner: There’s also trans people who have an incredibly challenging time just living in the world, so it should come as no surprise that sometimes we need to take a second to recover before we go back at it again. This is — gender is — We get very stuck on this one way to live and this one ideal, but the reality is, is like, people are different, they have different experiences, they’re going to do different things. It doesn’t invalidate each other.
Daniari (voiceover): To help us further explore the complex topic of detransitioning, I sat down with Laura A. Jacobs, a gender therapist who specializes in transgender issues.
Daniari: I’m very candid in the video about questions I faced myself about my own transition, you know, because my journey hasn’t been easy by any means. And oftentimes, I’ve wondered if these questions made me less of a trans person. Can you talk to me a little bit about whether or not it’s normal to experience questions and concerns?
Jacobs: First of all, it is perfectly normal. In fact, you know, when we’re changing something as fundamental to who we are as our gender, this is such an important part. It’s such a central part of our identities. Think about it. Gender plays a role in almost every facet of life. Any major decision is gonna have some ambivalence, some regrets, some second thoughts for most people. So nowadays, we really think of that as actually healthy.
Daniari: And Walt, in the video, referred to trans-affirming health care as “phoney baloney” and the greatest medical fraud of all time. You, as someone who’s a mental health professional, what did that sort of make you think?
Jacobs: It’s really sad that these ideas still persist, because unfortunately the data really shows otherwise. The data really shows that trans people — when we are affirmed, when we are supported — thrive. We do far better in every measure of mental health. And in fact, what we’re finding now is that there’s far more negative consequences of the regret for people not transitioning than people transitioning.
Daniari: And what are some of the nuances that get missed when we talk about detransitioning and gender in general?
Jacobs: Gender is such a fundamental part of who we are and how we relate to the world and, for trans people, we have this wonderful opportunity to be pulling that apart, to be questioning that in a really honest and direct and nonjudgmental way. For many people, that leads them to a place where they have explored one gender, maybe they’ve explored another gender, maybe they’ve explored multiple different ways of living different genders before they find what they feel is the way they want to live their life.
Daniari: What struck me about Robyn’s experience of detransitioning is that she talked about a profound lack of support and resources. Is this something that is common, or are we seeing a rise in trans-supportive resources and infrastructure?
Jacobs: Both the stories you raise really show that there’s a lot of social pressure for trans people. Walt, Robyn — they both faced a lot of difficulty moving through the world, moving through society. What we are finding more and more is that it is not being trans that makes life difficult for people. What I would say is create a society in which we accept people and are supportive of people regardless of how they express themselves.
Daniari: Thank you so much for joining me and helping me unpack some of these ideas.
Jacobs: My pleasure. Thank you.
Del Toro: There’s clearly a lot to unpack from Serena’s reporting, and we’d love to hear your thoughts. So leave us a comment below, and thanks for watching.
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