What Happens When People Regret Changing Their Gender?

For decades, the trans community fought valiantly for societal acceptance. As discrimination and misrepresentation surged, so did the quiet determination to be better understood.

In the last few years, those strides finally arrived in leaps and bounds. All across the globe, the LGBT movement meant that more were able to embrace and celebrate themselves.

Since then, treatment for gender dysphoria has become more widely available, facilitating ways in which people can live in their preferred gender. In particular, many have reported the joy and fulfillment the surgery brought.

Yet, what happens to trans individuals who regret their gender reassignment surgery? It is not as rare as many may presume, yet it is less spoken about.

One such person who transitioned and later regretted the decision was Walter Heyer. With a highflying career on the Apollo space mission, a wife and two children, to the untrained eye, Walt appeared to have it all. Yet, under the surface was a buried turmoil – one that had festered since childhood.

“I started cross-dressing at the age of four and eventually was diagnosed with gender dysphoria. My gender therapist provided access to female hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery was performed in April of 1983. I became Laura Jensen,” Walt said.

For eight years, Walt was “reported to be happy” but that began to dwindle. He realised that transitioning to a woman did not address his underlying unhappiness.

“I have heard from people who regret 30 years post-surgery,” he continued. “Also, studies do not separate those who were ‘homosexual’ pre-transition from those who were ‘heterosexual’ and the outcomes are different. So the question about ‘happiness’ is more about how long after reassignment the survey was taken and whether they were homosexual or heterosexual.”

Whilst studying psychology at a California University, Walt unearthed research that revealed that people with gender dysphoria were prone to a variety of comorbid disorders.

“I discovered people who were diagnosed with gender dysphoria often had “coexisting” disorders like separation anxiety, body dysmorphia, dissociative disorders, depression and other disorders that mimic the behavioural characteristics of gender dysphoria,” Walter said.

“The alarm went off when Dr. Charles L. Ihlenfeld – a homosexual man and transgender activist – who administered hormone therapy to some 500 post-operative transgender people, shocked the transgender community in 1979 with his findings by saying: ‘There is too much unhappiness among the people who have the surgery, and too many of them end in suicides.’ This was supported later in July 2004, when researchers found that after undergoing reassignment surgery, people were traumatised often to the point of suicide.”

It was after this that Walt grew more concerned about the long-term ramifications of his own surgery and started to detransition back to male in 1989. He described the process as difficult and gut-wrenching, but he was determined to restore his life. Since then, he has founded SexChangeRegret where he offers support to others struggling post-surgery, and has authored six books on the subject. He is also a public speaker on the subject of transgender identities.

Walt’s inbox is full of emails from transgender individuals who later regretted their decision. Many have reported having disorders like autogynophelia, transvestic fetishes, and other psychological and emotional disorders, which were not diagnosed prior to transition. Walt believes that as a result, many were incorrectly given hormones and needless gender surgery.

One 27-year-old who transitioned from a man to a woman wrote to Walt about their distress saying: “Had I known all this before committing to irreversible procedures, I would never have done it. I think we are going to see a wave of regretters in the next ten years.”

In 2004, the Guardian reported that research from the US and The Netherlands suggested that up to one-fifth of patients regret changing sex. In 2017, Dr. James Caspian, a psychotherapist, proposed to undertake a study to further explore what causes transgender people to want to detransition. After working for over ten years with patients from the trans community, he had become increasingly concerned about the numbers interested in reversing their surgery to go back to the gender they were born into. His research, however, was denied by Bath Spa University so as “not to offend people”.

He told BBC Radio 4, “The fundamental reason given was that it might cause criticism of the research on social media and criticism of the research would be criticism of the university and they also added it was better not to offend people.”

Walt firmly attests that in medicine, it is important to investigate all outcomes – good and bad. He said that too often, those who have regrets about gender reassignment surgery are often ignored or disparaged.