By Adv Nadene Badenhorst, FOR SA Legal Counsel
Transgender activists have lodged complaints with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) and University of Cape Town (UCT), to investigate and sanction Dr Sybrand de Vaal, a medical doctor, for allegedly “promoting harmful psychiatric practices with respect to Trans (including non-binary) children.” In addition, a Petition to “Protect Trans Kids: Bar Dr Sybrand De Vaal from Psychiatric Practice” is being circulated on social media with the aim of pressurising the HPCSA and UCT into acting against Dr de Vaal.
The complaints follow Dr de Vaal’s recent participation – on invitation of Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) – in a meeting with the Western Cape Education Department (WCED). The WCED convened this meeting and invited input on their Draft Guidelines for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in public schools. Other participants included psychiatrist Simon Pickstone-Taylor, clinical social worker and sexologist Ron Adinnall, Triangle Project (representing also Legal Resource Center, Women’s Legal Centre, Lawyers for Human Rights), Equal Education Law Centre, as well as parents of transgender children.
Dr de Vaal’s contribution was part of the democratic process initiated by the WCED, the purpose of which was to provide it with a wide variety of viewpoints to assist it in its formulation of the Guidelines. FOR SA invited Dr de Vaal to present the WCED with a medical viewpoint, based on his reading of various international academic and medical research studies on the medical response to gender dysphoria generally, and in children specifically.
At the meeting, Dr de Vaal presented factual data (which is supported by published, peer-reviewed scientific studies), questioning the efficacy of gender affirming therapies. For this ‘heinous crime’, he is being named and shamed and “cancelled” by the so-called liberals who will not tolerate any viewpoint other than their own. This can potentially lead to devastating consequences for his career as a medical professional – and is intended to send a chilling warning to any other medical professional who might dare to speak out on this controversial issue!
FOR SA’s CONCERN WITH THE GUIDELINES
FOR SA agrees that no learner should be bullied, harassed or unfairly discriminated against on grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, we believe that schools should be inclusive and safe spaces for all learners and that the WCED has a constitutional obligation to respect, protect and promote the rights of all leaners as well as their parents, educators and members of staff. Our concern with the WCED Guidelines is that they are based and built upon the controversial ideology of transgenderism. This ideology, which is fiercely disputed amongst experts in the field, holds that gender does not necessarily correspond with anatomy, and that a person can subjectively choose and change their gender.
From a religious freedom point of view, the promotion of a specific (and highly controversial) ideology in public schools is deeply problematic. Our courts have already found that public schools are (and should be) ideologically neutral places where, by implication, all learners, educators and members of staff (including those who do not believe gender to be fluid) feel free, and safe, to both share and live out their innermost convictions. Far from contributing to this ideal of inclusivity however, the promotion of this specific ideological viewpoint will result in schools being places of exclusion for all those who dare to believe differently on this issue.
Furthermore, FOR SA believes that parents have the primary right to decide what is in the best interests of their own child/ren, and that any decision regarding any form of medical or psychological treatment for their child/ren must be their decision. School education on gender issues should be balanced, and it is vitally important to include valid, expert evidence that challenges the prevalent ideology. This will help both parents and their children to make their own informed decisions.
FALSE ACCUSATIONS AGAINST FOR SA AND DR. DE VAAL
The Petition against Dr de Vaal alleges, amongst other things, that FOR SA and/or Dr de Vaal mispresented his qualifications and expertise during the meeting. The truth of the matter, however, is that the Petition deliberately twists the facts and mispresents what was actually said at the meeting.
At no point did FOR SA or Dr de Vaal say that he had “expertise in psychiatry and gender”, as falsely alleged. FOR SA introduced Dr de Vaal as “a registered family physician who worked in private practice and addiction care, before recently completing 4 years of psychiatry training through UCT. He will soon write his final exams and then register as a psychiatrist. He currently works in intellectual disability, and has a special interest in sexuality and gender from a Christian worldview. He is a husband and father of 4 children.”
In so far as Dr de Vaal was introduced as an “independent medical expert”, the fact is that Dr de Vaal is not employed or affiliated with FOR SA and is therefore independent. In the legal sense of the word, Dr de Vaal is also not a lay person but does indeed have expertise or professionalism in medicine. As such, there is absolutely nothing untrue, or untoward, about this matter-of-fact statement.
From the above, it is clear that both FOR SA and Dr de Vaal were completely transparent with regard to his qualifications and expertise, and the capacity in which he was speaking at the meeting. Dr de Vaal’s contribution was part of the democratic process initiated by the WCED to provide it with a wide variety of viewpoints to assist it in its formulation of the Guidelines, and he was therefore fully within his constitutional rights to speak at this meeting.
THE REAL ISSUE
The Petition includes various other false accusations regarding what Dr de Vaal allegedly said during the meeting. These include that he was “suggesting harmful therapeutic processes” (including conversion therapy) and that he has indeed “adopted practices that would be a danger to clients”. Other than to point out that this is not what Dr de Vaal in fact said during the meeting, FOR SA cannot and does not speak on behalf of Dr de Vaal, who is legally represented by his own attorneys in this matter. However, it is clearly evident that the real issue here is that Dr de Vaal dared present an alternative medical viewpoint (based on published, peer-reviewed scientific studies) on gender affirming therapy. For this, he must be shunned and ostracised.
Both from a democratic process, and academic freedom, point of view, this should be deeply concerning to everyone. While it is true that there are various studies that support gender affirming therapy, it is deeply disingenuous to present only one side of the argument – especially when the issue directly affects vulnerable children with a permanent impact on the rest of their lives. FOR SA thus fully supports Dr de Vaal’s right to express his views and to present the results and findings of international studies as part of the democratic process initiated by the WCED, as we do indeed any other person who holds a contrary view.
It is regrettable, if not reprehensible, that a concerted attack has been orchestrated against Dr de Vaal, with the clearly stated objective of restricting his opportunity to practice in his chosen field or profession simply because others do not agree with the viewpoints he presented. This is an example of “cancel culture”, the aim of which is to silence any voice or opinion that does not comply with the culturally prevailing view. It is the antithesis of a democratic society, where differing views should be allowed free expression without fear of sanction or intimidation. When freedom of expression (particularly freedom of academic expression) goes, with it goes the quest for truth and the robust discussion which lies at the bedrock of any democratic society.
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