During a subway commute at the start of the year, I noticed two men whispering to each other while looking in my direction. I avoided eye contact, hoping the situation wouldn’t escalate. I just wanted to get home after a particularly exhausting work day.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” one of them asked me. They both laughed. I turned the volume louder on my iTunes, but it couldn’t mask the vitriolic, transphobic language that continued for five agonizing minutes while I waited to get off at my stop. I felt ashamed, but more so, I was tired. It was after this incident where insidious questions about my transition began to reach a boiling point. For years, I had been able to cast aside my personal doubts about transitioning but compartmentalizing my feelings started to become unavoidable.
Months later, Jesse Singal’s cover story for the Atlantic popped up on my various social feeds. In the piece, Singal questions whether or not trans youth should have access to trans-affirming health care, citing the potential for regret as a factor to consider. The piece served to emphasize my own questions about my decision to transition. Was changing genders actually worth it? How would my transition measure out if I did a cost-benefit analysis? It also caused a stir in the trans community (in part because of Singal’s alleged history of antagonizing trans reporters, according to Them). Robyn Kanner, a New York City-based trans writer, wrote a public rebuttal to the story titled, “I detransitioned. But not because I wasn’t trans.” Kanner told me Singal’s piece ultimately erased the many nuances of detransitioning discourse.
“The piece that Jesse wrote for the most part writes about a few individual people who wanted to transition and then tried it and realized it didn’t work for them, encouraging parents to gate-keep the whole process,” she said in an interview with Mic Dispatch. “He did a very good job highlighting those stories, but because he’s not trans, he missed a whole slew of other people who probably had a different experience like my own.”
To explore the controversial topic of detransitioning — reversing a gender transition — from an open and honest perspective, I reached out to Walt Heyer, one of the most prominent and visible examples of a person who transitioned from male to female, lived as a woman for eight years, and then detransitioned back to male.
I met Heyer in July at the Found:RE hotel in Phoenix, Arizona. Although Heyer doesn’t live in Phoenix, he agreed to meet me there. Going to Heyer’s home was off the table, per his request. He told me that he has received hundreds of death threats from transgender people around the world who have been offended by his anti-trans rhetoric. He was only comfortable being interviewed if the details regarding his whereabouts were left obscured, so I obliged.
I couldn’t sleep the night before my interview with Heyer. For years, I had watched him refer to transitioning as “the biggest medical fraud of all time” and suggest that trans people have mental disorders. He had become a monster in my mind and was also the physical embodiment of the doubts and questions regarding my gender that had arisen over the course of my transition. I feared that sitting across from him would mean looking in a mirror, and confronting my deepest anxieties. Heyer’s comments about the inefficacy of trans health care is the exact kind of rhetoric that incites a moral panic among cisgender people that casts doubt on the necessity of trans health care. But for the majority of trans people who medically transition, they are happier socially and professionally.
Upon meeting Heyer, I was immediately taken aback at how disarming and kind he was. I expected him to be combative, but instead he was candid and open to hearing my own thoughts. To understand how his perspective on gender has evolved, I began by asking Heyer about his early recollections of gender.
“I was very curious about gender primarily when I was at my grandmother’s house, grandma was a seamstress and the way she made money was to make dresses and clothing for women, and that was the way she was able to feed herself and my grandpa,” Heyer said in an interview for Mic Dispatch. “I ended up with a purple chiffon dress at the age of 4 or 5.”
Heyer explained that after receiving admiration from his grandmother while wearing the purple dress, it planted a seed in his mind that he would be better as a woman. He would later undergo gender-affirming surgery and live as Laura Jensen for nearly a decade.
“I think being a trans woman is zany and fun and exciting and, you know, it’s colorful, it has a lot of elements to it that you sort of get excited about it,” Heyer told me. “But, you know, there’s always these little creepy questions that no one wants to talk about because they’re sort of taboo. I call it sort of like a hangover. I’m an alcoholic in recovery, but it’s sort of like when you wake up in the morning and you’re going, ‘Hmm, I don’t know, you know, is this, is this real?’”
After facing many questions and ending up homeless, Heyer began to seriously reconsider his decision to transition. He started wondering whether or not his gender issues were actually the symptoms of a comorbid disorder, eventually diagnosing himself with a dissociative disorder.
“I realized that it was really deep, that it was very real, that it was very painful,” Heyer said. “[I asked myself] was taking hormones and undergoing radical surgery really going to resolve the issues that got you to this place?”
Heyer’s experience with detransitioning is not a universal one. Dr. Toby Meltzer, a leading plastic surgeon who specializes in transgender surgeries, published a study in 2002 that surveyed almost 300 patients about whether they regretted having gender-affirming surgery. Just three patients reported that they regretted their decision, Meltzer told me.
“Of those patients, they didn’t actually regret having the surgery as much as having to give up parts of their lives to have the surgery, meaning family members, jobs and things that they felt like they couldn’t replace,” Meltzer said.
Heyer’s experience of detransitioning, while valid, is very much the exception and not the norm. In fact, questioning one’s decision when changing something as fundamental to who we are as our gender more often than not elicits doubts and second thoughts. After all, trans women are subjected to harassment and violence at staggering levels. The near constant abuse is more than enough of a reason to prompt a trans person to wonder whether or not transitioning is actually worth it.
A few years ago, Kanner experienced this firsthand. During a walk home, she was assaulted by a group of men who hurled transphobic slurs at her. Shaken by the incident, she cut off her hair and didn’t talk about gender for two years. It was only after she regained her confidence and built a support system that she decided to transition back to female once again.
Kanner is now well-adjusted as a trans woman with no regrets about her past choices. A reminder that for many who reverse their gender transitions, the catalyst is not the sudden feeling of regret, but instead, the desire to avoid persecution and alienation. For many people, our lives are in a constant state of transition and detransition. We have the ability to take autonomy over our identities and play with gender until we find the right fit. The process is far from linear. It’s a fluid and ever-changing series of decisions and options.
Check out episode 16 of Mic Dispatch — only on Facebook Watch.