Sinéad Watson didn’t mean to become an activist for vulnerable women. At the age of 20, she began to identify as a man, binding her breasts and using the name Sean. But at 27, after four-and-a-half years on testosterone, she returned to living as a woman, realising that she had been incorrectly diagnosed as trans. Now 31, Watson has consulted lawyers about taking action against the Sandyford Clinic in Glasgow, which sanctioned her transition. “For me, the damage is done,” she tells me. “But I want to stop this happening to other girls and young women.”
As a result of being repeatedly sexually assaulted in her teens, Watson began to feel hatred towards her female body. She was spending a lot of time on the internet, and began following a number of young trans men who were speaking positively, “if not euphorically”, about their transition. “I feel like I was groomed online,” says Watson. “According to Tumblr and YouTube, becoming a trans man would be the answer to all my problems.”
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Watson’s testimony echoes the experiences of many. The controversy surrounding the Gender Identity Development Service at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust in London, which is to be closed following a review by Dr Hilary Cass OBE, has led to a number of young women speaking out about their deep regret at medical transition.
Watson self-referred to the Sandyford in 2014, having spent time in a psychiatric unit following a severe mental breakdown. “I burned my house down while trying to kill myself,” she says, “and made out to the doctor it was because I was really a trans man and needed to transition. That was bullshit.” Watson was suffering from depression, dependent on alcohol, and struggling to accept that she was a lesbian.
Almost a year later, she was finally given an appointment at the Sandyford. “I walked up to reception and said my name is Sean Watson and I’m here to see a gender therapist.” She explains how the clinician put her at ease, immediately confirming her trans status and using “he/him” pronouns for her, all of which put Watson “on a high” of validation. “I thought: ‘These are professionals, if I wasn’t trans they would tell me, so the fact that they are affirming me means that I am trans.’”
“They must have looked at my GP records which showed a very long history of mental illness and trauma,” says Watson. “They didn’t once say to me, ‘We can see that there’s been some sexual abuse in your past, I wonder if that might have impacted on how uncomfortable you feel being a woman’.”
Understandably angry about everything she was put through, Watson now asks: “Why didn’t they ask why I wanted to live as a man, and talk these things through with me before starting me on a path of irreversible treatment?”
After that first appointment, the Sandyford gave Watson a pamphlet that listed the side effects of testosterone, and asked her what changes to her body she was hoping for. “I said a deeper voice, a beard, fat redistribution and muscle mass. They were like, ‘Oh, OK, you know you might lose your head hair, get acne, and gain a lot of weight as well? How would you feel about those changes?’ I said I didn’t care. So basically, they were warning me I might be a bald, fat, spotty man.”
When patients attend a gender identity clinic, they are not supposed to transition until they have enough “lived experience” as the opposite sex. So, when the Sandyford asked how long Watson had been living as a man, she said, “two years”. That was all the evidence they needed. Within five months of her first appointment, Watson was given her first dose of testosterone. “The nurse told me to inject it every three weeks and said that I had to increase the dose steadily. I was given full vials and warned not to inject the lot. But of course I did.”
Watson soon experienced chronic abdominal and pelvic pain; clitoral irritation and discomfort due to enlargement; vaginal dryness and discomfort; and bladder problems such as a very regular urge to urinate, difficulty holding in urine, and wetting the bed. There was also the possibility that, although she still had female genitalia and reproductive organs, she was now infertile due to the testosterone.
After two years on testosterone, the Sandyford prescribed a double mastectomy, which was carried out in 2017. “The clinician told me the waiting list had increased from one year to two, because there was a huge increase in demand, as more young women were identifying as transgender,” says Watson.
“The nurse said ‘We need to make sure your breasts are healthy enough to remove’, before examining me, which sounded surreal,” Watson tells me, stunned that only healthy tissue could be surgically removed. “She then warned me that there was a possibility I would lose complete sensation in my chest and that my nipples may die and fall off.”
After the surgery, once the pain eventually subsided, Watson found that her chest area was completely numb. “I expected to feel elated, but it was the strangest feeling, having no breasts, and I began to wonder what on earth I had done.” Feeling has never returned to this part of her body. “Following the medical transition, I have been left with an overwhelming sense of loss, and intense despair over the irreversible changes I underwent as a vulnerable young woman.”
On returning to the hospital to have her stitches removed, Watson was asked if she would give permission for a photograph of her chest to be in a catalogue, to show subsequent patients the various stages of healing. “I was like, ‘I don’t care. I got my surgery’. And I often wonder, now that I bitterly regret the whole thing: is my surgery, is my photo in that book being used to show other young women going under the knife right now? And the thought fucking sickens me.”
Having decided not to attend the Sandyford for regular blood tests — a requirement for those injecting testosterone — because she no longer trusted them, Watson stopped all contact with the clinic. They never followed up to see how she was. The only medical support she had was from her sympathetic GP, who admitted that gender identity was outside his field of knowledge but tried to support her as best he could. After confiding in him that she had stopped taking testosterone and now deeply regretted transitioning, Watson finally heard from Sandyford again. But by this time, two years had passed since her surgery.
“I got a letter from them saying ‘We’re more than happy to speak to you. If you ever do want to come in, call us and make an appointment’. But that was the last place I wanted to be,” she tells me. “I needed therapy but ended up being referred to one who had clearly swallowed the whole trans ideology and when I said I regretted my transition, said ‘perhaps you are non-binary’!”
In despair, Watson bluntly explained to the counsellor: “I can’t be a man. You can’t change sex. Pumping me full of cross-sex hormones and cutting off body parts is not going to make me a man.” Astonishingly, the counsellor then turned to a trainee who had been sitting in on the session and said: “Although Ms Watson thinks you can’t change sex, that’s her view, not mine.”
Feeling suicidal yet again, Watson decided that she could not bear to carry on living in limbo, or to put her family and loved ones through any more pain and worry. She began to research “transgender regret” and “detransition” online and found “a surprisingly large number of them. And then they told me their stories. I basically went from being horrifically depressed and suicidal to so fucking angry.”
I contacted Sandyford for comment and received the following response: “Patients attending Sandyford’s Gender Identity Service undergo a full assessment by a multi-disciplinary team of psychiatrists, sexual health doctors, psychology and occupational therapists. The evaluation takes multiple engagements over an extended period of time to ensure patients fully understand the process, are aware of all implications and are enabled to make fully informed choices.” But, as Watson explains, she only ever saw one clinician, at most half a dozen times.
Watson is calling for the Sandyford Gender Identity Service to be shut down. “I never thought I was a man, I just didn’t want to be a woman. They should never have affirmed me. It was their job to scrutinise the problems I was having that led me to that place.”
These days, Watson refers to herself as bisexual and is in a happy relationship with a man, which was something she would not have considered pre-transition. “Until I was 27, I had never been attracted to men, but my sexuality changed with testosterone. This has also happened to loads of other women I have spoken to.”
Having spent four-and-a-half years on testosterone, she still has facial stubble and a deep voice. As part of her healing process, Watson is paying for laser treatment for her beard, as well as counselling. “For the therapy, I cannot believe the difference. To sit and speak to a clinically-neutral professional who seems genuinely interested in listening to me and offering solutions that will actually help me felt so cathartic.”
Watson says she’s not the only one who is glad she is back to being herself: “Sean was an arsehole. Very argumentative, rude, constantly trying to appear like a tough guy. My sister hated him. She said I seemed really angry and bitter when I was Sean.”
Meanwhile, the recommendation of Dr Hilary Cass’s report on the Tavistock gender clinic — that it be shut down and replaced with a more “holistic approach” — gave Watson hope. Finally, she is optimistic that the transing of swathes of gender non-conforming and traumatised females will be recognised for what it is: the biggest medical scandal since Thalidomide.