Walt Heyer and “sex change regret” (Gender Analysis 09)

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Hi, welcome to Gender Analysis. In the popular imagination, there are few subjects as fascinating as transitioning. It’s an intensely personal decision to do something most people never even contemplate, undergoing such a seemingly radical transformation both physically and socially. And our increasing visibility has inspired a moment of cultural reckoning, along with endless media coverage of our experiences. So, in the midst of this fascination, what happens when someone transitions back?


“Detransition” in the media

News stories about trans people are sometimes accompanied by the accounts of those who claim to regret their choice to transition. These examples serve to evoke doubt about whether trans people can be trusted to make such decisions. They raise the possibility that some may change their minds later after having made potentially permanent changes.

Perhaps the most frequently cited story is the case of Walt Heyer. Walt was assigned male, transitioned, and lived as a woman for 8 years before choosing to resume living as a man. He believes that he was not actually experiencing gender dysphoria, but rather a dissociative disorder due to childhood abuse, and feels his original psychologist should not have allowed him to undergo transition surgeries. But beyond simply sharing his own experience, Heyer believes everyone should avoid transitioning, and hosts a website, SexChangeRegret.com, with stories from others who allegedly regret their transitions.

Many of these stories appear to be authentic, and the fact that some people choose to discontinue transitioning shouldn’t surprise us. Every person makes their choice to transition based on a variety of individual factors. We each have our own needs, expectations, and goals, and we exercise our own judgment. And there are those who do transition but find that, for whatever reason, this isn’t what’s best for them. They may have mixed feelings about its impact on their lives, feel that particular medical treatments ultimately weren’t right for them, or consider themselves their assigned gender and return to living as such. Some do express a deep and genuine regret over these experiences. I know of such people – I’m friends with some of them.

But the examples Heyer cites are not a unified bloc. They are not all stories of lifelong anguish and painful consequences, and when we look at what many of these people are actually saying, it’s clear that their feelings are much too varied and complex to be reduced to “regret”.


A closer look at detransition stories

Heyer’s website hosts several exclusive stories, and links to numerous other articles referencing additional cases. I followed those links, which include articles by Heyer and Stella Morabito at TheFederalist.com, and then followed up on the links in those articles. This led to more stories on Morabito’s personal blog, Lynn Conway’s personal site, a resource page by the anti-trans group Ensuring Fairness, and articles in The Guardian and Standpoint magazine. After identifying each case cited in these articles as an example of regret, there were 30 individuals in total.

Some of these stories try to suggest that they draw these examples from a massive but largely invisible group. Morabito implies that regret may be common, saying:

The transgender lobby actively polices and suppresses discussion of sex-change regret, and claims it’s rare (no more than “5 percent.”)

She further suggests that “sex-change regret is far deeper and broader than reported”. In reality, the supposedly revealing cases reported in these articles are largely unverifiable, misrepresented, and very dated. Rather than easily dipping into an allegedly substantial pool of examples, these stories cite the same cases over and over, many of which are from the 1990s and early 2000s. Eight of these examples are either from completely anonymous sources or unidentifiable pseudonyms like “M”, “Gregory”, and “Dr. Stu”. These make up more than a quarter of the cited stories.



Among the remaining verifiable cases, it’s clear that their experiences have been falsely portrayed and oversimplified.

Josef Kirchner

Josef Kirchner, who was profiled in an MSNBC documentary, later said that he did not regret the experience of living as a woman or even having genital surgery. He also noted that he “had a lot of fun along the way”:

“…I do not regret the years spent living as a female. However, I will say if I had been allowed other options with what I know now, I would have elected for penile inversion surgery to recreate my genitalia to its present form and would have foregone living as female. I had a lot of fun along the way and believe my experience was no more or no less than any classically diagnosed transgendered person.”

Joel Nowak

Joel Nowak, who hosts the site Retransition.org, stated in a recent interview that he does not regret transitioning. Instead, he feels it was a decision he “needed to make at that time”:

And for every Walt Heyer, there is at least one Joel Nowak, who says he doesn’t regret transitioning in the first place. Sure, his life would have been easier, but he says, “I think I made the decision that I needed to make at that time. It is what it is.”


YouTube user shipwrecksilence states in their two most recent videos that they’re “really glad” they transitioned, and they wouldn’t be comfortable with themselves if they hadn’t done it:

“…I’m definitely not doing this because I’m in any way afraid of transition or against the idea of transition or anything like that. I’m still totally in support of it and I’m still really glad that I did it while I did. I definitely don’t think that I could be comfortable with who I am right now if I hadn’t transitioned.”

They also ask not to have their experience cited as a reason to avoid transitioning:

“If you are somebody who’s trans and has an issue with your gender, and that’s what’s causing you discomfort … then I think transition is probably something that you should look into. … I don’t think that you should use someone like me, even if you identify with me in some ways, as sort of like a reason not to transition, or that maybe you’ll be okay…”

Marissa Dainton

Marissa Dainton chose to go back to living as a man, but still found herself wanting to be a woman. She feels she was not originally misdiagnosed, saying: “I had to become a woman again.”

Renée Richards

Retired tennis player Renée Richards clearly expresses her lack of regret in a New York Times interview. When asked if she regrets having surgery, she replied: “The answer is no.”

Out of 22 named individuals cited in these articles, five of them do not express regret about transitioning, and three are even appreciative of the experience. To represent their stories as clear-cut cases of regret is extremely misleading. If regret is so common, what need is there for this obvious distortion?


Social and situational influences

When someone does regret transitioning, it’s worth examining the reasons why. Several of these articles generalize such cases to argue that transitioning isn’t appropriate for anyone in the first place. But in these examples, transition is acknowledged as the proper choice for them – and this choice is unfortunately complicated by external factors.


YouTube user Kristofwales posted a video about detransitioning, stating that they don’t feel like they’re in a safe enough environment, while encouraging others who do want to transition. They also say they might transition at a later time:

“I just don’t feel the environment that I’m living in is safe to do that. If it was well and good, the world was peaceful and whatnot, then, you know, do it, because it’s who you are. … Maybe I’ll probably transition later on, who knows?”

Sandra MacDougall

Sandra MacDougall’s story was recounted in The Scotsman, which states that “she wishes she was still male”, and explains that this is largely due to attitudes in her community. She describes her experiences of being verbally and physically abused in public, sexually assaulted by several men, and disowned by her family. Her chief complaint about transitioning is that it came with extremely difficult social consequences imposed on her by others.

Matthew Attonley

Matthew Attonley is described by the Daily Mail as feeling that “she has never been fully accepted as a real woman”. He says he doesn’t “look like a proper woman” and believes he can’t have “an actual female body”. This doesn’t indicate that transitioning was inherently the wrong course of action for him. Instead, it suggests that he may have benefited from more transitioning if it were possible for him to look as he wanted.

Ria Cooper

Ria Cooper, tastefully heralded as “Britain’s youngest sex swap patient” in the Daily Mail, says “my decision has alienated my family”. Cooper also feels unable to find love as a woman, and believes living as male will address these issues:

Ms Cooper also says the hormone injections left her with extreme emotions and a high sex drive, but that she can not find the love she craves with either sex.

She believes she will have better luck in love as a ‘trendy’ gay man, and that returning to being a male will help heal the damaged relationships with her family.

‘I don’t want to live in isolation, away from everyone I love. This is the only way forward. I just want to be happy and this is my last chance.’

Once again, this is a case of someone whose dissatisfaction is largely due to being mistreated by others. This is hardly a condemnation of transitioning, because transition treatments aren’t meant to make cis people stop being assholes. It’s also worth mentioning that Cooper still uses Twitter under the name Ria Cooper and has been posting pictures in unambiguously feminine attire from 2013 to the present.

Out of 17 named individuals who do express regrets, four have done so for reasons other than transitioning being simply wrong for them. If we omit these, we’re left with 13 cases cited in this set of articles, having voiced their regrets over a span of more than 20 years. This is not an especially large number. It’s clear why Heyer, Morabito, and others promoting a narrative of regret have to reinterpret and recycle these stories: they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel.


Studies on regret and its causes

These anecdotes are few and flimsy, and those who stir up fears of regret have no excuse for relying on them so heavily. Rigorous studies on transition outcomes and regrets have been available for years. In a 2003 study of 232 trans women who had received genital reconstruction from the same surgeon, none were consistently regretful, and 6% felt regret sometimes. Eight respondents were regretful because of inadequate surgical outcomes, five were regretful because of social and family issues, and two occasionally returned to living as men on a temporary basis. This pattern is consistent with the personal accounts we’ve seen citing social difficulties or shortcomings of transition treatment.

Another study in 2005 found that out of 162 trans adults, only one reported that she would choose not to transition again, and another had some regrets but would choose to transition again. Five participants only felt regrets during treatment, and did not want to return to living as their assigned gender.

A study in 2006 similarly found that out of 62 trans people who had undergone surgery, one woman said she occasionally regretted it, and continued to live as a woman. And in 2009, a study of 50 trans women who had received genital reconstruction found that only two felt regret sometimes. It’s no surprise that Walt Heyer has to reach so far to find so few cases of regret: all of the available research on the subject indicates that this is extremely uncommon.


Trusting and respecting trans people

This notion of regret invites cis people to imagine what it would be like to make such a mistake and end up “trapped in the wrong body”, as the cliché goes. This imaginary exercise is all too real for the trans people who are discouraged from pursuing treatment by those who insist on exaggerating this remote possibility. I’ve examined Walt Heyer’s work because my friends get emails from their unsupportive family members citing his website as if it’s reliable. He and others portray themselves as an embattled minority pitted against cultural orthodoxy, but the truth is that he is the orthodoxy.

The social forces discouraging us from transitioning are powerful and incessant. The penalty for being true to ourselves is often the loss of basic inclusion in the world: we lose our friends and family, our jobs and our homes, our respect and our dignity, and even our safety. We’re questioned about why we would choose to transition and whether we might regret it – but the more relevant question is why so many would choose to hurt us for this, and why they have no regrets about it.

If you’re worried that trans people will make poor decisions about their lives, trying to persuade them with false information or violent consequences is not going to help them make better choices. What does help is providing open and supportive environments where they can see themselves more clearly without having their self-understanding invalidated by everyone around them. I spent years exploring my gender at my own pace before transitioning. I could do this because my family respected who I was and didn’t try to push me in their own directions. And from the day I finally decided to transition, it was only two months before I started treatment. These were the choices that were right for me, and I’m better off for having had the opportunity to decide this for myself. So please, don’t make us regret who we are.

I’m Zinnia Jones. Thanks for watching, and tune in next time for more Gender Analysis.

Update: As of November 2015, both Chelsea Attonley and Ria Cooper have stated their intentions to resume transitioning. (18 Nov 2015)

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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