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Transsexual Apostate: ‘What I know now about myself I only know now’

16 February 2024

Debbie Hayton and her wife, Stephanie, talk to Sarah Meyrick

Sarah Meyrick

Stephanie (left) and Debbie Hayton

Stephanie (left) and Debbie Hayton

IF YOU took part in the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) course, you may remember Debbie and Stephanie, who told their story in one of a series of short films. Originally a heterosexual couple, they met as students, trained as teachers, got married, and had three children.

Then came the bombshell: when he was in his forties, David (as he was then called) told Stephanie that he had been struggling all his life with the longing to be a woman. Until now, this was something that he had bottled up, with various degrees of success. But the need had become unmanageable — and he was undergoing a severe mental-health crisis as a result. After a great deal of preparation, he transitioned in 2012, and underwent full gender-reassignment surgery in 2016.

The impact was, naturally, monumental. “As far as I was concerned, we were happily married,” Stephanie said in the film. “Telling the children that their dad wanted to become a woman was probably one of the worst days of my life. I felt that I’d lost my husband. I wasn’t a widow. I wasn’t divorced. I wasn’t single, I wasn’t separated, but I was somewhere in the middle. That was a very hard place to be.”

Debbie, meanwhile, spoke of the “huge relief” of reaching the decision, but admits to having had little appreciation of the burden that this placed on Stephanie.

In the film, Stephanie spoke of finding comfort in Romans 15.7 (“Accept one another even as Christ has accepted you in order to bring praise to God”). The verse helped to change her perspective and allowed her to accept her spouse. They stayed together, initially, at least, because they wanted to be good parents to their children. “Life is better together than apart,” Stephanie said in the film. “We’re still good friends. We support each other.”

They had come through a lot, Debbie concluded. “If we can get through this together, then we can do anything.”

THIS four-and-a-half-minute snapshot of an extraordinary marriage is only part of the story. In certain circles, Debbie Hayton’s name is associated with an entirely different narrative, something that she explores in her book, Transsexual Apostate: My journey back to reality, out this month.

Within trans-activist circles, Debbie is viewed as a dangerous heretic. Once a prominent member of the TUC’s LGBT+ community, in the past five years she has been savaged on social media, accused of hate speech, and described as transphobic and “a danger to all children”. After 20 years as an active union rep, she has effectively been ejected from the trade-union movement.

The reason? Her insistence that, despite her transition, she is not a woman. She rejects as “a fantasy” and “false narrative” the notion that anyone is born in the wrong body.

“The sticking point is the concept of gender identity, that we all have a gender identity, and that gender identity determines whether we’re men or women,” she says. “That’s why I fell out [with the TUC], because I said: ‘No, we don’t.’”

It took a while for Debbie to reach this understanding (we’ll come back to this), but this certainty proved the point of no return for many trans activists. “At the time, there was this political push for self-identification, so that people could essentially choose the sex in which the law treats them, according to this gender identity. That was the idea.

“I started speaking out because I realised that, as the law then was, people could change their legal sex, and I thought that was pretty remarkable. I could see how it was open to abuse, and it seemed that people wanted to take the safeguards away. So I started campaigning.”

DEBBIE wrote and spoke openly about the issue, while continuing diligently to support and represent the members of her teaching union (the NASUWT) in all the normal ways. But feathers were ruffled — and expressed in the most vitriolic terms imaginable. There was one particular incident in 2019 when she was photographed wearing a provocative T-shirt that proved a defining moment. Based on a Stonewall design that originally read: “Trans Women Are Women: Get Over It!”, Debbie’s version read: “Trans Women Are Men: Get Over It!”

She smiles at the memory. “It was a laugh, really. But the Stonewall message was making a claim about trans women that I thought was fundamentally wrong, and giving the message to society that you’ve got to get over this.”

The “Get Over It” in her own message was intended as an inward challenge. “Because I’d gotten over that, and I was just not bothered. People say: ‘We know you’re really a man, Debbie,’ and I say, ‘Sure. what’s the problem?’ So I thought it was liberating, that T-shirt.”

She wore it to an event, made her point, and “was quite chuffed” by the response. But things took an ugly turn when someone else posted a picture of themselves wearing the same T-shirt on social media, and was reported to the police for hate speech. Debbie immediately removed her own picture from social media — “but people always take copies of these things, don’t they?” — and it was soon wheeled out as evidence of her unacceptable views.

A torrent of online abuse poured forth. A disciplinary process followed, the details of which are set out at length in the book. Finally, in 2022, two weeks before she was about to take up the position as president of the NASUWT, to which she had been elected, she resigned.

Debbie is by no means the only person to get into difficulties on this issue. The term TERF (originally “trans-exclusionary radical feminists”) has become a widespread term of abuse for people who question the prevailing position.

Why does she think it’s so inflammatory? “I think we’re discussing issues about what actually determines something so core and central to human society, which is a distinction between men and women,” she says. “People know what they can see. We all know men and women when we see them. But people worry that somehow the law is going to change that.”

Part of the issue is the idea that everyone is a blank slate, she says. “As a Christian, I’d look at verses such as Ephesians 1, where it says we were all ordained before the dawn of time. I think if we get back to that, and understand that we’re not blank slates, I think there’ll be a big sigh of relief. But at the moment, everybody is terrified that somebody else is going to try to control their thoughts.”

She describes the trans activist world as “cult-like” in its insistence on certain dogmas. In the book, she writes: “In the sixteenth century, the same mentality might have pursued me for speaking out against the Church. But in these strange, postmodern times, in some people’s minds it seemed that Stonewall had become the supreme authority that must not be challenged.”

And later: “Transgender people are now at the centre of a quasi-religious belief system with its own doctrines and creeds. It’s self-serving and inward looking — it certainly doesn’t look like progress to me.”

THE book explores in some detail Debbie’s journey towards transition — including an account of the surgery — and sets out how her understanding of what led to it has evolved in the decade since. She now believes that she has autogynephilia, a term first coined by the psychologist Ray Blanchard 30 years ago to describe a psychological condition in which a man, usually heterosexual, derives sexual or romantic pleasure from the fantasy of being female.

“It’s just one explanation for transsexualism — I don’t think there is a single cause,” she says. “This is one of the problems of gender identity: people use gender identity to link together, for example, middle-aged men who transition in mid-life and teenage girls who are struggling with the concept of becoming women.”

She believes it is unhelpful to conflate two such different scenarios. “Even the single diagnosis of gender dysphoria is unhelpful, because we say that middle-aged men have gender dysphoria and teenage girls have gender dysphoria; so it’s the same condition. And it’s not.” It would be better, she argues, if clinicians simply noted an insatiable need to present as the opposite sex and then asked why.

“Then I think we might get somewhere. And one of the possible reasons of why people want to do such a thing is this concept of autogynephilia.” If it is hard to understand the condition, she suggests considering the analogy of a heterosexual male encouraging his partner to dress in a way that he finds attractive.

“In a normal heterosexual relationship, that happens. The man might be saying, ‘How about wearing this or that?’ and the woman might say, ‘Not likely.’ Whereas, with autogynephilia, when the attraction is to yourself, you can do what you like. And there’s nothing in that circuit to say, ‘Hang on, it’s too cold and too uncomfortable. It just has these bizarre results. So, that’s what we’re doing, and that’s why it drives this urge to transition.”

The concept of autogynephilia finally gave Debbie the answers that she was seeking. Transition, she writes, had provided palliative relief, but it had not solved the problem. “It never gave me the freedom I craved. Not only did I need to convince myself that I was a woman, I needed other people to believe it, and — if that was not enough — to persuade myself that they really did believe it. Looking back, it was a fool’s game that left me at the mercy of other people’s words, thoughts, and feelings.”

Self-acceptance as a autogynephiliac took time. Much more painful was having to reveal her new understanding to Stephanie. “Eight years ago, I had told her that I was really a woman; now I declared an unusual sexuality. Which was worse?”

Debbie continues: “If I had known in 2012 what I know now, would I have transitioned? In short, the answer is no. I turned my life, and my family’s lives, upside down because I thought I was some kind of woman. My mental health had deteriorated alarmingly, and I saw transition as the only possible escape from increasing psychological dysfunction. I knew about autogynephilia — it was discussed, denied, and dismissed among trans people — but did not accept it.

“Had I done so, then the pressing need for transition might have abated. Life would probably have carried on much as it had done for the previous four decades.”

None the less, she thinks that she couldn’t have reached this understanding of herself had she not transitioned. “I think this is probably something which I had to learn the hard way,” she says. Nor does she have plans to de-transition.

HOW does Stephanie feel, all these years later? Stephanie refers once again to Romans 15.7, and the need for acceptance. “What happens is what happens, and we try to live with what happens with grace and faith,” she says. “So, for Debbie to say that now — I suppose, actually, I dealt with that ten years ago.”

That said, there was a time in the past decade when “God felt quite absent, probably because I was just exhausted,” she says. “At the risk of sounding trite, I don’t always understand what God’s doing. But I recognise that Debbie has a voice now that she wouldn’t have if she hadn’t transitioned, and I do think that God is using that.”

There has, of course, been a cost to the whole family. Their children, now in their twenties, took a while to take in the news. But, as Stephanie says, British teenagers are, by and large, “very open to LGBT issues”. There was an important milestone when each told a friend about their father’s decision; and the friends were, without exception, supportive. They still call him “Dad”, and freely interchange their use of pronouns.

Debbie refuses to name her preferred pronouns, on principle. (“Offering pronouns may seem to be kind, but it can so quickly become an expectation and an imposition,” she writes. “Others can use whatever pronouns they like for me.”) Stephanie usually refers to Debbie as her “spouse”, sometimes “partner”; Debbie tends to call Stephanie her “wife”.

Stephanie is a Reader; she is adviser for lay ministry and Warden of Readers in the diocese of Bristol. In her epilogue to Debbie’s book, she describes the response of members of their church family, in Birmingham, where they lived at the time, to Debbie’s transition. (They now attend their local parish church in Bristol.)

“One informed me that God would not speak to me again until I was divorced. Another shared her happiness that Debbie felt able to transition. Both were equally unhelpful,” she writes. Most were “confused, but wanted to be kind and supportive”.

Taking part in the LLF video was a big step. “Friends, strangers, and enemies could all hear part of my journey. I felt very vulnerable, but also that somehow this, too, was part of my calling. Who I am is rooted in my experiences, choices, imperfections, and faith, which tells me that God calls us to be truthful, to care, to love others as well as ourselves, and to trust him for the future.”

That trust was tested when there was a call to remove Debbie and Stephanie’s story from the course, on the grounds of Debbie’s supposedly transphobic views, but the film stayed in. They agree that, overall, the decision to take part had been a positive one.

Stephanie tells a worrying story of her own from the trans community. In 2019, she attended a course where another participant, a trans man, told her that trans people did not die natural deaths because they were “usually” murdered. A quick online check disproved this: trans people are proportionately less likely to be murdered than women in the UK. “The trans man did not believe me and repeated the assertion to the group. Everyone nodded politely, but I wondered what effect this lie was having on the mental health of individual trans people.”

WHAT, I wondered, did the Church need to hear on this? “In reality, regarding trans people, the Church is holding two contradictory lines. I don’t even know if they realise that in terms of the institutional and legal mechanisms,” Stephanie says.

“They’re making quite a big fuss about gay marriage, and yet, they’re quite willing for someone to transition and then be in what looks like a heterosexual marriage that actually is same-sex. Equally, they are happy for someone to have been ordained as a man and then transition — and although now that wouldn’t matter, if they were ordained before women could be ordained, that actually does become a bit of a legal issue.”

Sexuality has become a defining issue in the Church, Debbie says. “But there’s a gospel to preach and a world to win. And you just think, why on earth has this polarising issue taken over? Where’s this being driven from?”

Debbie, meanwhile, reiterates her concern for children — there is a chapter on this in the book — and what they are currently being taught about sex and gender. “Children only grow up once,” she says, and they too easily find themselves making hasty life-changing decisions. “Some have been changed in such a way that they will not have children. Even those that haven’t [undergone surgery] have gone through childhood and adolescence living a situation with those around them affirming something that’s not true. And their psychological development has been hampered. That, I think, is my biggest concern, because we can’t put that right later.”

There is a poignancy to this couple’s story. “Even now, I sometimes miss my husband,” Stephanie writes. “Few of us predict how our lives will go, but this is far outside any imagined prediction. By staying together, we are friends and support one another — and I have learned more than I ever expected about human sexuality and LGBT issues.

“In return, I have helped Debbie stay rooted in the real world rather than the mantras of the online trans community. In the real world, most people want to be kind and do not care whether someone is male or female; gay, trans or straight; old or young. Most people need to eat and sleep, and to have friends and a sense of purpose. Most people want (and many have) some self-acceptance. These are found in relationships, in communities of diverse people, and in truth.”

Life, she concludes, has been unexpected and challenging. “But life also offers goodness. We have come a long way together.”

Transsexual Apostate: My journey back to reality by Debbie Hayton is published by Forum at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.29); 978-1-80075-309-9.

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