An “almost qualified” psychiatrist has been reported to the Health Professions Council of SA (HPCSA) over his controversial comments around “curing” transgender children.
The Sexual & Reproductive Justice Coalition has asked the HPCSA to investigate Dr Sybrand de Vaal over comments he allegedly made at a meeting convened by the Western Cape education department on October 16 to seek comment on its draft guidelines on gender identity and sexual orientation.
De Vaal, who works at Lentegeur Hospital in Mitchells Plain, was invited to the meeting by the Christian lobby group Freedom of Religion SA, which believes “gender is a gift from God, rather than something to be chosen and changed at will”.
In a letter of complaint, dated October 19, the coalition asked the HPCSA to “affirm that he should not be consulted on issues of gender identity or sexual orientation and not [be allowed to] offer ‘conversion therapy’ ”.
It sent the same complaint to the psychiatry department at the University of Cape Town, where De Vaal completed his four years of specialist training.
De Vaal’s lawyer, Ryan Smit, said comments attributed to his client were not true. De Vaal was preparing a statement to clarify his position, “based on what can be concluded from academic and medical research studies on the clinical disorder, gender dysphoria, and the best clinical care response”.
He confirmed that De Vaal had conveyed medical research facts and conclusions “during a closed and confidential process”.
Smit said De Vaalwas not a qualified psychiatrist and did not consider himself an expert on transgender issues. “He has completed four years of psychiatry training, and can qualify as a specialist psychiatrist after completing the relevant admissions exams.”
He said De Vaal has no knowledge of whether change therapy could be viewed as illegal in SA, “but he himself would never want to engage in any illegal practices”.
In a 2018 blog on transgender ideology, Freedom of Religion SA lawyers Nadene Badenhorst and Daniela Ellerbeck wrote: “The Bible tells us that God did not create gender-neutral human beings, but ‘male and female He created them’. Thus, gender is a gift from God, rather than something to be chosen and changed at will.”
Sexual & Reproductive Justice Coalition director Marion Stevens told the HPCSA and UCT in her complaint that what was deeply concerning was De Vaal’s advocating for a framing of a version of “conversion therapy”.
“While he argued this was not conversion therapy, this is essentially semantics as he was suggesting that gender diversity is a choice and can be addressed therapeutically to cure it.
“These practices are well-known to be harmful to children and have been banned in many parts of the world,” she said.
According to Stevens, De Vaal said gender-affirmative hormonal therapy for transgender teenagers was not based on scientific evidence but “on ideology”.
She said the World Professional Association for Transgender Health supports the therapy and that its guidelines are based on evidence-based research.
“It’s disturbing that a doctor, who allows himself to be referred to as an independent expert, can publicly deny this.”
Stevens told the Sunday Times that De Vaal told the meeting in a roundabout way that transgender children and adolescents can be “talked out of it and turned around”.
“He went on to qualify that this wasn’t conversion therapy, but it was exactly that.”
Dr Simon Pickstone-Taylor, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with more than 20 years of experience of working with transgender youth, said research has shown that “it is not possible to change a young person’s sexual orientation or gender identity”.
“Therapies that attempt to do this are now seen as inappropriate and abusive towards children and are banned in many parts of the world,” he said.
Pickstone-Taylor, who also attended the meeting, added: “It is crucial no doctor gives parents, desperate to ‘cure’ their child of being transgender or homosexual, the false hope there are treatments that can do this.”
Estian Smit of the Triangle Project said De Vaal’s “highly disturbing transphobic approach” undermines the wellbeing and gender expression of transgender, nonbinary and gender-diverse children.
“Attempts by mental health professionals and others to change a child’s gender identity are extremely traumatic and harmful.”
Ellerbeck said the Western Cape education department guidelines are “premised on the ideology that a person’s gender is not necessarily linked to their anatomy and that they can choose [or change] their own gender at will, an ideology that is fiercely contested even amongst experts in the field”.
Bronagh Hammond of the Western Cape education department said it “will attempt to strike the balance between these highly competing interests”.
UCT spokesperson Nombuso Shabalala said the university took the complaint against De Vaal seriously and will respond directly to Stevens “as soon as we have concluded our internal process”.
HPCSA spokesperson Priscilla Sekhonyana said it had contacted De Vaal and any possible charge will be determined by the outcome of its investigation.