Symposium speaker shares personal journey with gender dysphoria

| Bridget Ryder | December 12, 2017 | 0 Comments

Walt Heyer speaks during the “Man, Woman and the Order of Creation” symposium at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Dec. 11. Heyer transitioned to female and underwent sex reassignment surgery in the 1980s, but later transitioned back to a man and has an international ministry and a website, SexChangeRegret.com. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Walter Heyer opened the Dec. 11 symposium “Man, Woman and the Order of Creation” at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul with his personal story of regretted transition from man to woman, his transition back to his biological sex and his healing encounter with Christ.

“I am sharing with you what happens when you don’t celebrate your gender properly and how it can turn your life upside down,” Heyer told the crowd of more than 400, which included lay leaders and clergy, among them Archbishop Bernard Hebda, Bishop Andrew Cozzens and several other Minnesota bishops.

As a child growing up in the Los Angeles area in the 1940s, Heyer spent a lot of time with his grandmother, who babysat him. At age 4, Heyer became curious about the chiffon and lace she used as a seamstress, about the clothes she made and about being a girl.

In his grandmother’s care, the “seed of dysphoria” was planted. Heyer explained that for gender dysphoria to take deep root in a person, two ingredients must interact — a person’s interest in being the opposite sex and a person who enables or affirms that desire. Heyer’s grandmother became his enabler. Seeing his interest, she sewed him his own purple chiffon evening dress.

“This became, as grandma said, ‘our little secret,’” Heyer recounted.

For two-and-a-half years, every time he went to his grandma’s house, he put on the chiffon dress and pretended he was girl. His grandmother reflected back to him his desire to be a girl with love and affirmation of him in his girl persona. At home with brothers, though, he was a regular boy wearing cowboy boots and ripped jeans. When he was 6 years old, he decided to take the beloved dress home and hide it in his dresser. Soon his mother found it and asked him about it. Shamefully, he told his mother the secret.

Heyer’s father reacted harshly. To “man up” his son, he would spank him with a wooden plank. Eventually, Heyer internalized his feelings, holding back his tears against the pain. Still, he didn’t forget about the chiffon dress.

“It lived with me. It became attached to me, and I became attached to it,” he said, noting that every night he laid in bed thinking about how he could become a girl.

At this time, he was also sexually abused by an uncle who had found out about the dress.

“By the time I was in my teens, the desire had never gone away, but I didn’t think it was possible,” he said.

Mentally he had adopted a female persona, “living a duality where I was a boy during the day, but ‘Crystal West’ in my head,” he recalled.

In reality, he had a seemingly great life as a teenage boy — kicker on the football team, a pretty girlfriend and a cool car. But he never stopped thinking about the chiffon dress and life as a girl.

Then in 1952, a headline broke that changed everything. It announced the first gender reassignment surgery. What he had only dreamed about became possible, he thought, but he had reservations; Heyer was concerned because he was attracted to women, not men.

With unanswered questions, he continued his successful life as a man, marrying and launching an engineering design career that led him to work on the Apollo project and then into an executive position in the automobile industry. In his early 40s, though, the stress of marriage, career and persistent thoughts of that dress coalesced into alcohol abuse.

In 1981, he told his wife he needed to see a gender therapist. Unlike during his childhood, there were now experts on the subject of gender. He went to see Paul Walker, the nation’s leading psychologist in gender issues and founder of what would become the World Professional Transgender Health Association that sets the standards for transgender care.

“I was confident that if I went to him, I could trust that what he told me would be true,” Heyer said.

By the end of Heyer’s first session, Walker had diagnosed him with gender dysphoria and told him the best treatment would be gender reassignment surgery. He told Heyer to wait two years and think about it, but he could start hormone therapy. Heyer stayed in touch with Walker and two years later, Heyer’s dysphoria still unresolved, Walker signed off on the sex reassignment surgery. At the age of 42, Heyer became Laura Jensen.

After an initial sense of euphoria in his new identity, his life spiraled downward. Already divorced, he then lost his job and soon became homeless. He was also drinking heavily. But he found shelter with a Christian pastor who accepted him as Laura, and then he began a new career where he was also successful. He then decided he wanted to become a psychologist so he could help other people transition.

During his studies, though, what he learned about the psychology of transgender people started to cast doubt on his own transition to a woman. Then a co-worker at a psychiatric hospital where he was interning suggested to Heyer that he might have dissociative identity disorder. He started seeing a new therapist, and after three months of regular sessions, she diagnosed him with dissociative identity disorder originating in his childhood. The cross-dressing with his grandmother, the beatings from his father and the sexual abuse from his uncle had made him not want to be the young boy he was.

“Living with the pastor, I realized I needed the love and grace of Jesus Christ,” he said.

Through a 12-step program, he began recovery. During his fourth step, he said he encountered Christ.

In prayer, “I saw Jesus coming toward me with outstretched arms … say[ing], ‘You will be safe with me,’” he recalled. In that moment, he knew that Jesus had restored him to share the power of Christ’s love with others.

Now married, Heyer said he has been living happily as a man for more than 20 years. He has an international ministry and a website, SexChangeRegret.com.

The daylong symposium also included speakers Ryan Anderson, author and research fellow at The Heritage Foundation; Deborah Savage, a professor at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity and director of the Siena Symposium for Women, Family and Culture at St. Thomas; W. Bradford Wilcox, sociology professor and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia; Dr. Michelle Cretella, president of the American College of Pediatricians; and Father Paul Check, former executive director of Courage International, a Church apostolate that ministers to people with same-sex attractions, and their family and friends.

The symposium’s controversial focus drew attention from protesters. Outside the auditorium, about 10 people chanted and held signs reading, “God loves queers. She made us.” and “Intersex kids are born everyday.” Several St. Thomas academic departments and campus groups sponsored an alternative event — “Trans Solidarity Day” — held concurrently with the symposium.

Opening the symposium, St. Thomas associate professor of business Jeanne Buckeye told attendees to think of themselves as a community standing before the sacred mystery of what it means to be a man or woman, and that all were united in their desire to listen, learn, understand and care for one another and others. The symposium was sponsored by the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute and the Siena Symposium.

Watch for more symposium coverage from The Catholic Spirit.

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