Gender reassignment surgery is based on the false premise that a change to the body equates to a psychological remedy.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
11 June 2015
In the news of late is the well-publicized Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner phenomenon. This story is, like others of its kind, often accompanied by a certain level of romanticization and normalization of a radically body-altering surgical procedure termed “gender reassignment.” On the other hand, there are more than a few sites voicing highly derogatory comments directed personally at Jenner. Flawed distortions or character attacks, in whatever form, are inappropriate and unhelpful.
Having said that, the question of gender identity and reassignment surgery are important topics of discussion. First, it is important to foster an awareness of some of the causes of gender dysphoria. Second, there are grave concerns about gender reassignment surgery, which include negative outcomes, continued distress and ongoing gender confusion, and high rates of post-surgical suicide. Third, these topics provide an opportunity to promote the truth about the human person and human sexuality as it can be known by the light of human reason and as God has revealed it.
A brief caveat: I am not a medical doctor or a psychologist. The scope of this article is limited to exploring the problems associated with gender reassignment surgery touted as a solution for those who experience gender dysphoria due to childhood trauma or some other negative external influence. I simply want to reflect on the question of whether sexual identity can be altered by scalpel, hormones and cosmetics, and whether surgery is helpful for people who suffer some type of psychological gender identity disturbance.
The obvious question is, why would I write about a topic that involves psychology? The answer is, gender dysphoria involves the human person created in the image and likeness of God. It involves human sexuality, which is a divinely ordained reality, a sexual language built into the very core of the human person’s nature. Theology and philosophy, guided by the light of God’s revelation deposited in the Church, has much to say in these areas.
Further, this topic relates, both directly and indirectly, to other serious issues manifested in contemporary culture; namely, the misplaced value of feelings and emotion. There is today an overemphasis on emotion and a corresponding de-emphasis on reason, especially within the context of human sexuality, which plays out in a number of ways: high divorce rates, immoral sexual practices touted as “rights” that are based on emotional arguments, and the push for same-sex unions because it is the emotionally “fair” thing to do. It is no secret that U.S. culture is very mixed up about human sexuality.
It is unclear how many people in the U.S. self-identify as transsexual, or who experience some degree of gender dysphoria. Some studies claim about five percent of the population; others indicate it is significantly less. What is important to understand is this: while few people suffer from gender dysphoria, it is a serious problem often rooted in some type of traumatic childhood event or series of events.
Childhood trauma as a cause of transexual inclinations is not difficult to comprehend. The human child is frail, delicate and easily influenced and/or damaged emotionally; hence, the importance of a stable and loving nuclear family founded on the permanent, indissoluble marital union of one man and one woman. A problematic familial environment produces traumatized children, sometimes severely so. Sometimes a single traumatic event is enough to tilt things off balance.
Walt Heyer offers a revealing and disturbing window into the effects of childhood trauma with his story about a grandmother who clothed him in a purple chiffon dress and the subsequent teasing and sexual abuse at the hands of his dad’s adopted brother. Consequently, Walt suffered gender dysphoria for a number of years. Hoping for relief, he underwent reassignment surgery at age forty-two:
“It’s hard for me to describe what happened next,” writes Heyer. “The reprieve provided by surgery and life as a woman was only temporary. Hidden deep underneath the make-up and female clothing was the little boy carrying the hurts from traumatic childhood events, and he was making himself known. Being a female turned out to be only a cover-up, not healing.”
Johns Hopkins University was one of the first gender clinics in the U.S. to perform gender reassignment surgeries. After several years of performing these operations, Dr. Paul McHugh, the director of psychiatry and behavioral science at Hopkins, assigned Dr. Jon Meyer, chairman of the Hopkins Gender Clinic, the task of evaluating the outcomes of these procedures. He examined 50 subjects from Hopkins that included both those who had elected to have gender reassignment surgery and those who had not. Dr. Meyer announced his conclusions on August 10, 1979:
“To say that this type of surgery cures psychiatric disturbance is incorrect. We now have objective evidence that there is no real difference in the transsexual’s adjustment to life in terms of jobs, educational attainment, marital adjustment and social stability.” Meyer later told The New York Times, “My personal feeling is that surgery is not a proper treatment for a psychiatric disorder, and it’s clear to me that these patients have severe psychological problems that don’t go away following surgery.”
Gender reassignment surgery is no road to happiness. Walt Heyer writes, “Changing genders is short-term gain with long-term pain. Its consequences include early mortality, regret, mental illness, and suicide. Instead of encouraging them to undergo unnecessary and destructive surgery, let’s affirm and love our young people just the way they are.”
Can Surgically Altering the Human Body Repair a Psychiatric Disturbance?
Plastic surgeon Dr. John Hoopes, the chairman of the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic, announced to a news conference of 100 reporters on November 21, 1966, that “If the mind cannot be changed to fit the body, then perhaps we should consider changing the body to fit the mind.”
But is that an effective solution? What about healing the mind? That is, if the body is irreparably altered to fit a person’s mistaken perception of how he thinks his body should look, what happens when he later discovers his body was not the problem? Surgery would compound and exacerbate the situation, not remedy it. It is the error of trying to change “what” I am by altering the “way” I look. That is essentially a flawed methodology, and it is precisely what happened to Walt Heyer.
The body is not the sum total of the human person. Said another way, altering the body does not change a person’s being. For example, suppose I lose both my legs in a car accident. Granted, this would affect me in a number of ways; however, I remain a human person of body and soul, retaining my personhood and full human dignity. My human nature remains unchanged. The “I” of who I am persists. I am still essentially and ultimately the same person as I was before the accident. Gender reassignment surgery is a misdirected and ineffective procedure because it places the wrong emphasis on the sexual faculties of the human body and neglects to take into account the reality of the entire human person.
Further, gender reassignment surgery cannot be reset: each of the changes made are not all surgically reversible. Human dignity dictates that the proper course of action is not surgery but psychological evaluation, treatment, and care.
It is important to think about what drives some of the choices to undergo surgery. Are these choices emotionally driven, and, if so, is it wise to alter a person’s body in order to render it into conformity with subjective feelings?
Let’s try a thought experiment: suppose a person were to become convinced that he is a cat trapped in a human body. Is it prudent or moral to add and/or subtract from his body in order to shape it surgically in an attempt to render it in feline form? Would not the logical and moral solution, one in harmony with human dignity, be to concentrate on healing him psychologically? He is a human person created in God’s image and likeness; if he thinks he is a cat, he is mistaken. No amount of body-altering surgery can change the nature of his being from human to feline.
Granted, gender reassignment surgery is not an attempt to change species; it is an attempt to force one’s body into conformity with an incorrectly perceived gender identity. Therefore the above analogy only goes so far. Yet the point is that surgery undergone in order to fit the body to the mind is not a solution.
Male and Female He Created Them
“God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). In the context here, the obvious import from Genesis is that at conception, the initial life-origin point of coming into being, the human person is created by God and given a particular and distinctive maleness or femaleness. This masculinity or femininity is, then, not something merely skin deep; it is not something that can be exchanged by appearances at the hands of a surgeon. It is, rather, something built into the entire fabric of the human person. It is a male/female sexual imprint that is more than a simple physical/biological aspect of the human body. Sexuality is woven into and “concerns the innermost being of the human person as such” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2361). And, as such, it is permanent.
“Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others” (CCC, 2332). Sexuality, then, is integral to the human person; it gives to the person the capacity to love and generate new life, along with an ability to form human bonds. Clearly, sexuality is a divinely ordained gift of immeasurable value for humanity that joins us together as a people.
Male and female are two distinct ways of being human. The masculinity or femininity of the person is woven into every human cell at the chromosomal level, but more than that, it is an ontological reality. That is, it is incorrect to speak of the human person as merely a body with physical characteristics, however we might like to label them. Nor is the body a costume that merely imparts particular physical functions to the wearer. A man is not a man merely because he looks like a man; nor is a woman a woman merely because she acts like one. Human sexuality, a divinely created reality embedded in the depths of one’s being, involves the whole and entire human person.
The Divine and Human Solution
Gender reassignment surgery is based on a faulty understanding of human ontology. The human person’s sexuality cannot be reduced to merely bodily appearances or biological functions surgically altered at will. The scalpel has not the power to exchange maleness for femaleness or vice-versa. The human person is vastly more complicated than that.
Given the importance of psychological treatment, the most complete and ultimate solution must not be overlooked: Jesus Christ. It is often the case that people seek healing in the wrong places and in the wrong ways. The power God has to heal interiorly, at the very foundation of our being, is often viewed as something of fiction, a fairytale hope reserved for those who have recourse to nothing else.
Christ has the power to lift us to the heights of love; from that vantage point, filled with divine light, whatever ails us seems as little more than dust in the wind. It is Jesus who confers unyielding peace and strength by way of his grace and the gift of his Spirit, whose transforming love and energy enables us to endure all things for the sake of the love of him who endured suffering and death for us.
To all those who are suffering: do not overlook the infinite, transformative and fiery healing power of God. Do not forget, Jesus first suffered for you.
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Photo Credit: Alberto Frank, Flickr.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.