Why This Detransitioner Is Suing Her Health Care Providers
"I thought that if I changed how I was perceived socially and how I was treated socially, then that was going to improve everything else in my life."
Michelle Zacchigna is one of a growing number of women who are suing their medical providers for giving them a misdiagnosis of gender dysphoria and then mistreating them. Zacchigna had her uterus and breasts removed, rendering her infertile. She is 35 years old and lives north of Toronto.
Michael Shellenberger: You are the first known detransitioner in Canada to sue their health care providers. Can you describe your lawsuit?
Michelle Zacchigna: I believe there’s a growing trend of recklessness in so-called “gender-affirming care,” and I think my experience with it exemplifies that trend. I have filed my suit against eight healthcare professionals, including doctors, psychologists, and therapists to have that belief tested by the justice system. Distress related to my gender was treated to the exclusion of other serious mental health issues which went undiagnosed for years. Blind affirmation of my stated identity closed the door to alternative treatment options.
What happened to me should never happen again. I was prescribed testosterone hormone therapy in 2010 after three appointments. My doctors did not do a fulsome screening of me for other mental health diagnoses or developmental disabilities. In 2012, with my doctor’s recommendation, I paid to have my breasts removed.
But the drugs and surgeries didn’t address my mental health needs; the parts of my life that I expected to change never did; and I stopped taking testosterone in 2016. I continued to identify as transgender until the end of 2020.
Did you ever get a proper diagnosis?
Seven years after I’d first been prescribed testosterone, I asked to be referred for a psychoeducational assessment. I suspected I had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). After six hours of testing, the psychologist diagnosed me with autism spectrum disorder, borderline personality disorder, clinical depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and post-traumatic stress. It took a few years to really process everything. By late 2020, I began to question whether I had ever been transgender or even met the criteria for gender dysphoria.
Do you think you can win your lawsuit?
I know I face an uphill battle. Doctors win the majority of medical malpractice cases in Canada. Mine is very much a David vs. Goliath effort. But I feel a moral obligation to act, to effect change in healthcare or at least begin the discussion in Canada. Things in Europe are starting to change. There are conversations starting in the US and legislation being introduced at the state level. But there's nothing like that happening in Canada. None of the major political parties are talking about it.
What was your childhood like?
When I was young, I was a tomboy. I didn't like wearing dresses. I didn't want to wear makeup. I was pushy, bossy, loud, and opinionated. I liked to have things my way all the time. People told me I was smart. I would always raise my hand and answer questions in class. But I didn't have the same social skills as the other kids. I cried and got upset very easily. Bullies like it when they get a reaction, and they certainly did with me. After the bullying started, I grew depressed at a very early age, around 8 or 9, and became quiet. I kept to myself because, as long as I wasn't drawing attention to myself, I wouldn’t get bullied.
I became addicted to the internet when I was probably 10 or 11, in the late nineties. I got into things like Neopets and other pet simulation games, where you have digital pets that you take care of, and every day you log on and feed them and play with them. I also did a lot of roleplaying. I would create characters, and then go on message boards where I would write a little part of a story from my character’s perspective, and then someone else would respond with their character, and we would just write back and forth. Those were the types of things that I was into at that time.
When did your feelings of hating your body begin?
It’s common for young women to hate their bodies, and I think there are a lot of women and girls who are now (falsely) interpreting that hatred as a sign that they’re transgender. Personally, I felt so disconnected from my body growing up that I didn’t think very much about it until after I became convinced that I was transgender. I had all of these other reasons that I thought I was transgender which were less body-focused and had more to do with expression and social expectations. For me, the identity came first, and the hating of my body came second. The more I became committed to that identity and became convinced that was the problem, the more I started to hate my body.
Was transition a way to avoid your other problems?
I don’t think I necessarily intended to avoid my problems, but rather that I believed that transition was going to be the solution to them. Ultimately, though, it was a distraction from the help I actually needed. Instead of focusing on building the type of coping skills that I would need to deal with developmental disabilities like ADHD or autism, I was focusing on a sham identity and trying to change how other people perceive me. I thought that if I changed how I was perceived socially and how I was treated socially, then that was going to improve everything else in my life.