Activist priest Franciscan Father Daniel P. Horan claimed earlier this month that Bishop Michael Burbidge is transphobic after the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Arlington preached against the dangers of gender ideology. Father Horan accused Bishop Burbidge of dehumanizing people who are trans and not basing his teaching on facts. Another critic, trans advocate Rev. Emma Chattin of the Metropolitan Community Church, dismissed the bishop’s position in an interview with NBC News: “With all due respect, [Bishop Burbidge] is not a physician, is not a psychologist.”
Bishop Burbidge received all this backlash for his clear and compassionate teaching document, “A Catechesis on the Human Person and Gender Ideology,” which explains the basic Catholic teaching on sex and gender and outlines the loving and Christian response to those suffering from gender dysphoria.
Instead of calling the bishop names and questioning his credentials, let’s look at the facts and listen to the stories of real people who have been hurt by gender ideology. Gender ideology, as clearly defined in Bishop Burbidge’s teaching, is “the claim that a person’s biological sex and personal identity have no necessary connection and could in fact contradict each other.” Gender dysphoria, more specifically, is the distress a person experiences when they believe there is a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity.
A closer look at the research shows that rates of gender dysphoria are skyrocketing, and the teens affected are also suffering from mental illness and high suicide rates. Instead of high-quality mental health treatment and patience, they receive so-called gender-affirming therapy and medical treatments that leave them irreversibly sterilized and physically altered.
As Bishop Burbidge’s document noted, “our culture is experiencing a rapid rise in the number of persons claiming an identity contrary to their biological sex.” In fact, there has been a thousandfold increase in the last 8 years. In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) described gender dysphoria as a very rare disorder, with an incidence of fewer than 1 in 10,000 people. It was even less common among girls, with an incidence of about 1 in 40,000. In the last decade, gender dysphoria among teens has skyrocketed. According to a 2021 study in the journal Pediatrics, nearly 10 percent of high school students surveyed misidentified themselves as “gender diverse,” including trans, non-binary, or genderqueer. This study did not ask participants to rate their level of distress about their gender, so it is not a pure indicator of the rate of clinical gender dysphoria. Even so, this figure represents a thousandfold overall increase in teens who do not identify as their biological gender in 8 years, and is higher than the previously accepted 2 percent or 3 percent, based on a 2018 survey.
Abigail Shrier, in her book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, studies this astounding trend, and notes that the vast majority of teens experiencing dysphoria are girls who start reporting symptoms in adolescence — a drastic change from before 2013, when most cases of gender dysphoria were boys who exhibited symptoms in earlier childhood. She explores various groups that have been fueling the trend, including web-based trans influencers, peer groups, teachers, counselors, and doctors who support and actively disseminate gender ideology.
Proponents of gender ideology celebrate this increase as evidence that children now feel more comfortable stating a gender identity preference, whereas people in past generations had to suffer in silence and secrecy. It’s a rehash of the coming-out-of-the-closet narrative of yesteryear. This narrative likely comes from a place of compassion and a desire to allow children to feel accepted for who they are. However, its proponents miss the key fact that gender dysphoria, by definition, is an experience of distress within one’s own body. The fact that 10 percent of the high school students surveyed identify as “gender diverse” reflects a drastic increase in suffering, and makes these adolescents vulnerable to irreversible medical treatments that they may later regret.
Not surprisingly, people who identify as trans also experience a host of other mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, autism-spectrum disorders, and attachment problems. These co-morbid disorders are serious and children suffering from them should be given the best possible mental health treatment.
Some people claim that the other mental health problems experienced by adolescents identifying as trans will disappear if the child is given total acceptance and is supported through social and medical transition. The narrative attempts to depict a child’s symptoms (depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, etc.) as primarily the result of being “born in the wrong body,” and, the narrators claim, if they can change their gender, the symptoms will naturally resolve. This narrative is both naive, and not supported by research. The fact is that even people who undergo the surgical mutilation of medical transition continue to experience poor mental health outcomes. The most thorough long-term study of these issues found that the suicide rate of people who had undergone sex-reassignment surgery rose to 20 times that of comparable peers at 10-15 years post-surgery. They also had significantly higher rates of psychiatric hospitalizations, substance misuse, and violent crime. Simply put, so-called sex reassignment doesn’t work.
Children and adolescents who experience gender dysphoria experience a higher rate of suicidal thoughts. Proponents of gender ideology use this risk of suicide as a threat against parents. They erroneously claim that if parents do not wholeheartedly support social and medical gender transition, their child will kill themself. The question, “Would you rather have a living son or a dead daughter?” is wielded against terrified parents to shut down their questions or doubts about their child’s novel gender identity.
The fact is that suicidal thoughts are a symptom of depression, and they can be treated effectively through counseling and psychiatric medication. Every mental health professional is equipped to address and treat suicidal thoughts as a routine part of their training. The accepted treatment for suicidal thoughts is based on thorough assessment, exploring and addressing the triggers of the thoughts of self-harm, developing skills in emotion regulation and coping, and interventions designed to keep the person safe. For adolescents, these interventions include removing dangerous items like guns or medications from the home and making a plan that involves additional supervision and care from parents, or short-term inpatient treatment. These kinds of treatments have been found to be highly effective, and they should be widely implemented in communities.
The truth is that many children will outgrow gender dysphoria when allowed to undergo puberty naturally, and that practically none will if they are started on puberty blockers and hormonal treatment. Several studies have found that 73-94 percent of children who experience gender dysphoria will align with their birth sex if allowed to pass through puberty naturally without pre-puberty social or medical sex transition. However, in a study of gender dysphoric adolescents who were given puberty blockers, all of them decided to move forward with medical gender reassignment and they continued to experience the same level of gender dysphoria.
Instead of encouraging parents to arrange appropriate mental health treatment for their child, so-called gender affirming practitioners recommend transition, which includes changing name, pronouns, and style of dress first, then moving on to lucrative hormonal and surgical interventions. Puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones arrest normal sexual development and lead to irreversible sterilization. Longer-term use of testosterone by natal females can lead to irreversible facial hair growth, baldness, voice deepening, sterilization, and other sexual problems. So-called gender-reassignment surgery destroys otherwise healthy breast tissue and reproductive organs, impairing future sexual function, reproduction, and breastfeeding.
Puberty blockers and hormones continue to be routinely and widely used in the U.S. for confused and impressionable minors, even though their ethical use is questionable. They have been banned for use in minors by an internationally recognized gender clinic, the Karolinska Hospital in Sweden. The clinic made this change in policy because of concern that adolescents are not mature enough to provide consent to this kind of treatment, and also because the benefits of this course of treatment do not outweigh the risks and damage they cause.
A growing number of adults seek to detransition and return to living as their biological gender; these adults have to cope with the great harm that has been done to their bodies by medical interventions. They have also been publicly criticized, harassed, and cancelled for being transphobic. Their stories have been unfairly dismissed and underrepresented by news and media outlets because their real-life dramas go counter to the prevailing cultural narrative influenced by gender ideology.
Keira Bell is an icon of detransitioners. As a teenager, she presented to a gender clinic in England, and she was given hormonal treatment starting at age 16, followed by a double mastectomy at age 20. She later regretted the decision. She writes, “The further my transition went, the more I realized that I wasn’t a man, and never would be. We are told these days that when someone presents with gender dysphoria, this reflects a person’s ‘real’ or ‘true’ self, that the desire to change genders is set. But this was not the case for me. As I matured, I recognized that gender dysphoria was a symptom of my overall misery, not its cause.”
Miss Bell followed up by suing the clinic that performed the procedures. She writes, “My team argued that the Tavistock [gender clinic] had failed to protect young patients who sought its services, and that — instead of careful, individualized treatment — the clinic had conducted what amounted to uncontrolled experiments on us. Last December, we won a unanimous verdict.”
You can read more of her story, in her own words. Unfortunately, the U.K.’s Court of Appeals overturned the decision last week.
Walt Heyer is another vocal advocate for those who detransition, and he shares his own experience of gender reassignment regret. He wrote, “in April of 1983 I had gender reassignment surgery. At first I was giddy for the fresh start. But hormones and sex change genital surgery couldn’t solve the underlying issues driving my gender dysphoria. I detransitioned more than 25 years ago. I learned the truth: Hormones and surgery may alter appearances, but nothing changes the immutable fact of your sex. I met a wonderful woman who didn’t care about the changes to my body, and we’ve been married for over 20 years. Now we help others whose lives have been derailed by sex change.” Mr. Heyer provides a forum for others to share their stories, which are often shushed or overlooked in many other places.
For Catholics and others seeking the common good, it is essential to explore these issues in a faith-filled, scientific, and compassionate way, not according to the prevailing cultural narrative of gender ideology. We cannot ignore the truth that a growing number of individuals are being harmed by the effects of this ideology, and many are being deceived, manipulated, dehumanized, and permanently physically harmed. As Bishop Burbidge wrote, “Situations involving gender dysphoria must always be addressed with pastoral charity and compassion rooted in the truth.” To do so is not transphobic, but based on the very best Christian teaching and practice, of “truth in love,” (Ephesians 4:15).
Irene Pruitt is a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Virginia. She has 17 years of experience providing psychotherapy to individuals and couples in various settings. In her writing and speaking, she explores the integration of faith and psychology.