Letter to the editor: ‘Truth with love’ means love all

I read with interest and disappointment the June 29 “Community Forum” submission by Renee McGuinness of the Vermont Family Alliance. However heartfelt her intentions, she is working to undermine our long overdue progress toward humane treatment of people who don’t experience their gender as the one they were assigned at birth.

Her comments referred to the recent screening at Vergennes Union High School via Zoom of Walt Heyer, an 82-year-old Californian who came to believe he was really more of a woman at heart. He underwent surgery 40 years ago to make his body more in tune with his feelings. After living in this transgender identity for eight years, he regretted his transition. He sought to reverse its effects and went on to become a public speaker advocating that such “gender-affirming care” was a damaging response to mental illness that could be avoided by giving one’s life to Jesus.

McGuinness told us the meeting presented “truth with love.” She also accused those who tried to stop the use of the public school facilities (including school officials) of “disregarding Walt’s own lived experience” and setting themselves up as the “arbiter of the entire community’s values.” She thanked three people who had shown up for the large Pride Joy protest of the event outside the high school and also came inside for the presentation. She jumped to the conclusion it was likely they heard “facts about so-called gender-affirming care they had never heard before.”

Alas, this call for open-mindedness rings hollow. Anyone paying attention has heard it all before. Consider the conclusions drawn from the elderly Heyer’s unfortunate but now scarcely relevant experience and the “key points” cited by McGuinness. For instance, she implies that a dangerous exclusion of mental health therapists from medical decisions began in 2013 when experts reclassified “gender identity disorder” as “gender dysphoria.” But there is no data cited that people are now foregoing counseling in making such decisions — I certainly haven’t seen any sign of it in cases I’m aware of as a minister.

In fact, counseling is much more widely available than it was when Heyer got his surgery, and the protocols for successful treatment are much better known. I suspect we can agree that there will always be people who invest too much hope in transitioning as a cure-all for a wide range of things that are wrong in their life. And there are questions with no easy answers for how to integrate gender transitions with categories of life like competitive sports where the physical aspects of gender identity are still considered to impact performance.

But if McGuinness wanted a true dialogue, she might have noted that although there are people like Heyer who, even today, regret getting gender-changing surgery and seek to get it reversed, the studies suggest that represents around 1% of cases. Most people don’t regret steps to align with their true gender identity, even if the results aren’t all that they hoped. In fact, even people who undergo further medical treatment to reverse their transition as Heyer did often say they don’t regret having tried transitioning.

McGuinness (and Heyer?) also are misleading in harping on potential side effects of hormones and medical procedures involved in transitioning with no counter-balancing reports on the health impact of not transitioning for people who want that. And it’s hard to know what “key point” McGuinness took from Heyer when she told readers that Sweden, which she calls a pioneer in gender affirming care, found that the suicide rate “is 19 times higher 10 years after transitioning.”

I wish she had noted that the authors of the Swedish study being cited repeatedly said it wasn’t designed to test whether transition surgery had any impact on suicide, either positive or negative. Strangely, she didn’t mention that figures she attributed to Heyer’s talk applied only to the early years of the Swedish study. It’s been reported that no significant suicide differences appeared in the latter period covering 1989-2003. Nor did McGuinness mention the much more modest increase in suicide rates compared to the average population in a more recent Dutch study, or that it would be foolish to expect surgery to completely eliminate the impact of traumas prior to medical intervention.

I wish McGuinness had been as concerned about the lived experience of our trans neighbors as our regard for Heyer’s testimony. We ought to be especially concerned for those teens seeking to transition as puberty arrives and their gender identity looms larger in their lives. All of us who deal with them hear stories about the bullying and stress many of them suffer. What McGuinness and Heyer see as grounds to stifle access to gender-change hormones and medical treatment is more likely an indicator that it needs to be more freely available, sooner, and with more support for the small part of our population that says they need and want it.

This is where a responsible and loving search for truth points. It’s why we can hope that the demonstrators outside the high school while Heyer was earning his living fueling the culture wars are recognized as the real Vermont family alliance, whatever McGuinness’s group chooses to call itself.

Rev. Barnaby Feder


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