January 13, 2016 (ThePublicDiscourse) — At times, I felt as if I were trapped in the audience of a never-ending timeshare resort sales pitch. When would the predictable sound bites be over?
The Danish Girl is stuffed with fluffy, gooey sentiments designed to convince “homophobic” or “transphobic” heterosexuals that the painful twists and turns of a transgender person’s life are really a healthy and courageous quest to embrace his or her true self. The film overflows with familiar LGBT talking points. At a key moment, the lead character exclaims, “I finally am who I am!”
The Danish Girl, based on the novel of the same name by David Ebershoff and directed by Tom Hooper, tells the story of Lilli Elbe, one of the first known recipients of sex-reassignment surgery. The movie stars Eddie Redmayne in the role of Einar Wegener/Lilli Elbe, the emerging transgender female. Alicia Vikander costars as Gerda, his devoted wife, who loves her husband deeply and remains faithful to him throughout the years of his downward spiral.
Although the acting was well-done, the film is ultimately little more than an LGBT sales tool. It is true that transgender people are suffering. But what the film fails to address is that, all too often, transgender patients continue to suffer even after surgery, because their psychological problems remain untreated. I know from first-hand experience, as I was once a transgender woman, and I regret my sex-reassignment surgery.
The movie is set in Denmark in the 1920s. When we first meet him, Einar, the husband, is a stable, bright landscape artist with some success in the art world. He exhibits no noticeable gender quirks or homosexual tendencies. Gerda, also an artist, is an attractive woman who loves her husband, but she struggles to gain recognition as an artist. They seem to be an ordinary couple in love.
Things start to turn strange when Gerda is in need of a female model to complete a painting. Gerda asks Einar to help her out by posing as a woman. Obviously, this is the first time Einar has ever done this; he needs his wife’s guidance to don the soft nylon stockings. Einar slips his feet into the lacy, too small women’s sandals and adopts a feminine pose for the painting. He is a reluctant helper, yet good-naturedly yields to Gerda’s wishes. They make it into a playful game—a game that ends up going too far.
Gerda is taken in by the excitement of Einar posing as a female. She encourages the emerging female, whom they teasingly call Lilli, to be lovely and beautiful. Gerda discovers her untapped artistic passion when sketching him and he, in turn, is entranced by the drawings of himself as a woman. The trigger is pulled. Einar falls in love with the way he looks dressed as a female. This is not transsexualism but a sexual fetish, driven by the energy and excitement Gerda’s encouragement has unsuspectingly tapped into. Einar sneaks off to cross-dress privately and to explore the sexual allure of himself dressed in the soft silky fabrics.
The medical term for the behavior Einar is exhibiting—a man’s being sexually aroused by the idea of being or becoming a woman—is “autogynephilia.” Einar exchanges his marital love for his wife for self-love of an image in the mirror and on canvas.
The play-acting reaches a new level when, for some reason, Gerda encourages her husband to accompany her to an art showing in female guise. Gerda dresses Einar with a wig, applies his makeup, and chooses an ensemble. Gerda coaches him how to walk and carry himself as a woman. The night of the party, Gerda enjoys the excitement of using Einar’s disguise to fool their acquaintances until she catches him in a romantic kiss with a homosexual. Lilli is out of the gate, running laps of pure joy, by the time Gerda finally sees what she has unleashed.
Gerda finds herself unsure of what to do with Lilli, whose unwanted and unannounced appearances are becoming more frequent. Gerda reaches out to a friend of Einar’s from childhood with whom Einar has lost contact. When she tells Einar his friend wants to see him, Einar tells her about a long-forgotten incident from his youth when his friend kissed him because he was “so pretty.”
The movie relentlessly marches on to show Lilli’s step-by-step emergence, Einar’s complete disappearance, and his abandoned wife’s anguish, loneliness, and frustration as she grieves the loss of the man who was once her husband. Watching the wife’s anguish reminded me of another movie, A Beautiful Mind, in which a wife looks on powerlessly as her husband tumbles deeper and deeper into mental illness.
Parallels to My Life
The experiences of my early childhood evoked within me the same desires that awakened within Einar. In Einar’s case, the childhood experience that influenced his later life occurred when his male playmate kissed him because he looked “so pretty.” In my case, I had a grandmother who secretly cross-dressed me starting at age four. She sewed special dresses for me to wear and told me how pretty I was when I modeled them for her.
Like Einar, I married a woman and lived as a man. Like Einar, I cross-dressed in secret and eventually began going out in public dressed as a woman. I, too, felt energized by the experience. After some time, my desire to be a woman grew stronger, and I felt I had no choice but to transition to “Laura” (the name of my female persona) in order “to be who I am.” Like Lilli, I wanted to kill my male identity so that Laura could live. That is why I underwent a full surgical transformation.
Lilli did not have the opportunity to live as a transgender female to see if living life as a woman fulfilled her expectations and served as her path to peace. She died from an infection a few days after the second reconstruction operation. Today, transgender surgery techniques aren’t particularly life-threatening. After undergoing sex-reassignment surgery, I lived as a transgender female for eight years, some of the time working and living in San Francisco. Right after surgery, like Einar, I was elated about finally having made the transition. Yet the excitement soon wore off.
Over time, I discovered that life as a woman could not give me peace. To my dismay, I still fluctuated between being Walt and being Laura, sometimes several times in one day. Whatever caused me to want to change my gender identity had not been solved by sex-reassignment surgery or by living as a woman. I kept searching for an answer.
An Accurate Portrayal—To a Point
The movie accurately portrayed the deep emotional and psychological problems that transgender people experience, illustrating how infuriatingly difficult these issues are to diagnose and treat. It did a good job in showing how gender discomfort can start from a seemingly small incident in childhood and then grow in adulthood into severe gender discomfort that eventually leads to sex-reassignment surgery.
The audience watches as Einar progresses from reluctantly cross-dressing to help his wife with her painting, to being sexually aroused by the idea of dressing in women’s clothing, to enjoying becoming Lilli and ultimately rejecting his identity as Einar and his marriage to Gerda. Lilli fervently wants the genital surgery, even at the risk of her life. Immediately after the surgery, Lilli appears truly happy with her decision.
Most transgender people would say this is true in their experience; in fact, I saw this same progression in my life. However, because Lilli died after the second surgery, the movie could only portray pre-transition longings and the immediate effect of the surgery, not the long-term reality of life after the transition. In my case, transition promised a good life, but after the initial euphoria wore off, it delivered only despair. Until I determined to stop living as Laura and to do whatever it took to be Walt, peace eluded me. Being open to being restored to manhood changed everything.
When a proper diagnosis of my dissociative disorder was made, the first effective treatment could begin. It took several years, but as I persisted with the treatment for dissociative disorder, my feelings of wanting to be a woman dissolved until they were completely gone. I learned that sex-reassignment surgery had not been necessary, but it was too late. My body was irreversibly mutilated.
Disorders Breed Disorders
The usual diagnosis for patients who identify as transgender is “gender dysphoria.” According to the DSM-5 (the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), gender dysphoria is characterized by a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and one’s biological sex, lasting at least six months. Although it isn’t talked about much, studies show a majority of transgender patients suffer from other comorbid (co-existing) disorders.
The movie shows the comorbid disorders of Einar quite clearly. First, we see the onset of autogynephilia, a mental sexual disorder in which Einar becomes the object of his own affection in the identity of Lilli. After being nurtured and indulged for a while, this escalates to a narcissistic obsession of self-gratification at the expense of his relationship with his wife.
We see Einar’s emerging desire to become the female in the paintings his wife Gerda has so beautifully drawn. The yearning becomes an obsession. His powerful new emotions change his view of himself as a man. Eventually, Lilli dissociates from Einar, and two personae exist within one person. This is called a dissociative disorder. Unchecked, Lilli takes total control and turns Einar into the canvas picture of Lilli, the female.
Lilli says Einar is dead and gone. That statement demonstrates a disorder rather than reality, because Einar is standing there talking. I made similar statements about Walt. I talked about wanting Walt’s death and conducting a proper funeral service for Walt so Laura could live unencumbered by Walt. That is a disturbed mind talking. As it turns out, I too had a comorbid disorder.
The makers of The Danish Girl are clearly trying to sell the popular idea that trapped inside of Einar all his life was a girl. Do not be fooled by the “sales pitch.” Look a little closer, and you will see a misunderstood and undiagnosed series of mental disorders that led Einar to become Lilli, the transgender woman. Transgender people are not born that way; they evolve from experiences that shape their emotions and desires.
Providing Real Psychiatric Care
At the end of the movie, as the credits rolled, I turned to the middle-aged lady seated next to me and asked her what she thought. She replied, “It felt like propaganda! I live in a neighborhood where people in need of psychiatric care wander the streets, but no one is there to help them.”
In a way, this description applies to transgender people as well: they are in need of real psychiatric care, but they often have no one to help them. Over 60 percent of patients with gender dysphoria suffer from the existence of comorbid disorders. These commonly include psychological or psychiatric disorders such as dissociation, sexual fetishes such as autogynephilia, and mood disorders such as depression. In nearly all cases, these disorders could be resolved without any surgical intervention if patients receive proper treatment, including psychotherapy and medication.
A 2011 survey found that 41 percent of transgender people reported attempting suicide at least once. Unhappiness and suicides were first reported in 1979 by a doctor at Harry Benjamin’s gender clinic, endocrinologist Dr. Charles Ihlenfeld. After six years administering cross-gender hormone therapy to five hundred transgender patients, Dr. Ihlenfeld said that 80 percent of the people who want sex-reassignment surgery should not have it. The reason? The high rates of suicide among the post-operative transgender population. More startlingly, Dr. Ihlenfeld stated that transgender surgery was never intended to be a life-long treatment solution, but only a temporary reprieve.
Although their intentions may be good, many activists for transgender acceptance actually keep transgender people from getting the help they need. Because coexisting mental disorders are not treated properly, it is likely that high suicide rates among the transgender population will continue.
In one scene of The Danish Girl, a specialist diagnoses Einar with paranoid schizophrenia. Before the doctor can come back with a team to lock him away, Einar understandably runs away in fear of the barbaric treatment awaiting him.
I look forward to the day when today’s practice of endorsing sex-reassignment surgery for all who express dissatisfaction with their birth gender is looked upon as equally barbaric.
Walt Heyer is an author and public speaker with a passion to help others who regret gender change. Through his website, SexChangeRegret.com, and his blog,WaltHeyer.com, Heyer raises public awareness about the incidence of regret and the tragic consequences suffered as a result. Heyer’s story can be read in novel form in Kid Dakota and The Secret at Grandma’s House and in his autobiography, A Transgender’s Faith. Heyer’s other books include Paper Genders and Gender, Lies and Suicide. Reprinted with permission from The Witherspoon Institute.