Zucker's "Therapy" Mourned Almost Exclusively By Cis People

Updated April 11, 2016 10:50am PDT
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(Editor's note: it's a shame that someone who spent his life telling children how to dress doesn't fare well when left to his own devices.)

Late last year, Dr. Kenneth Zucker, former head of the youth-focused Gender Identity Clinic at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), found himself no longer employed.

The Clinic, long known for encouraging its younger transgender patients away from transitioning and “limiting cross-gender behaviour,” as Zucker put it in an interview last year, was announced to be winding down.  

This was all revealed publically mid-December—not even four months ago. God how long ago that seems.

For those unaware of the subsequent media fallout (and if that’s you, I’m envious): Jake Pyne penned an  op-ed in the Toronto Star praising CAMH’s decision and pointing to a long history of critique of the clinic’s practices. Pyne had been one of many involved in advocating CAMH to change the GIC’s practices—LGBT health organization Rainbow Health Ontario also praised the decision. Pyne had written similar articles in Toronto media—this time Zucker responded by suing him as well as the Star.

Two months later, New York magazine published: “How The Fight Over Transgender Kids Got A Leading Sex Researcher Fired” which, while attempting to voice sympathy for transgender rights as well as examine whether CAMH followed protocol in Zucker’s ousting, was also sympathetic to the doctor and the therapy he practiced.

It was transgender activists the writer, Jesse Singal, seemed particularly wary of: “the politics are racing ahead of the science” he claimed. “It seems as though many parents, clinicians, and others face significant pressure to embrace the gender-affirmative approach these days … According to an influential strain of trans politics...” the article went, “Zucker’s more nuanced, “Why?”-focused method is offensive.”

There’s an “Activists vs. Science,” narrative underpinning found in so much of this current cis-written opinion on the subject. A National Post op-ed called the GIC’s closing “political martyrdom,” upbraiding CAMH  for consulting a “trans advocacy organization” (Rainbow Health Ontario, one assumes) as opposed to mainstream psychiatry organizations who the writer claims have “amassed all the relevant research in the field.”

A Globe and Mail op-ed praised Zucker and lamented that his “approach is now politically taboo”, decrying “transgender activists,” bizarrely claiming they want to “rush [gender-variant children] into irrevocable surgery.” (No one is doing this.)  Psychology Today fobbed off the GIC’s opposition as “clamor from a segment of the transgender community” asking in the subsequent paragraph “What about the science?”

A The Wall Street Journal op-ed defended CAMH as such: “The most current science has been trumped purely because it is at odds with the dominant political view”.

Some like the Financial Times dispensed with attempts at respect at all and just went ahead misgendering and misnaming multiple famous trans people like the glory days of not-that-long-ago. Referring to Zucker’s firing, she concluded her article: “The bitter war over gender identity is claiming casualties.”

Over and over, the “Activists vs. science” narrative emerges. It’s a “segment” of us that is to blame. It’s “an influential strain of trans politics” that finds Zucker’s methods offensive—a clever rhetorical move that suggests there are other competing strains.

The cisgender journalists who pen these articles seem very animated by this idea.

This narrative is currently by far the story that reaches not just Middle Canada/America but also a presumably socially-liberal-with-a-capital-L public who read the Globe and New York magazine.

Plenty of cis scientists, of course, disagree with Dr. Zucker—folks like Dr. Simon Pickstone-Taylor, Dr. Diane Ehrenshaft, Dr. Herbert Schreier (the latter two of whom publically penned an op-ed praising the closure in the San Francisco Gate) are arguably the rational folks with nice degrees whom the Science vs. Activists narrative might wish as impervious to politics.

Hay was made in Canadian media about a group of 500 “experts” of clinicians and researchers protesting CAMH’s decision in an open letter, while a similar letter of over 1,300 professionals expressing their support has received little note.

To suggest activists are declaring war on science is to leave out the innumerable amount of scientists who are on the side of said activists.

Yet for all their purported concern over a bilious activist minority, these articles all do something curious: quote almost no actual transgender people (or at least those who openly identify as such.)

The New York article does quote three, though trans people do not actually speak till over halfway through. Pyne and a couple former patients show up—the latter of whom the writer is, in my view, fairly dismissive of, rationing away the first patient’s concern of gatekeeping and quoting the second patient only to characterize his accusation of Zucker as misremembered and false.

And the others? All those op-eds in the big fancy papers? Zero.

In an issue these cis journalists are setting aflame over their purported concern about transgender children, they almost universally do not quote or cite speaking with any actual transgender people.

Even in a somewhat-more-balanced and incisive investigated piece on the GIC that appeared in the Globe this February, the voice of exactly one trans person exists—a trans girl whose parents received advice from CAMH to “normalize male behaviour and reduce female diversions” and does not feel positively about the experience. She is the lone transgender voice in a long piece, and she too comes in at the end.

So. With all these pieces from cisgender writers who largely talk to other cisgender people, what happens if you attempt to seek out what trans people have publically said about this topic?

Look: I too have been drawn in right here with the majority of people I’ve cited so far in this piece. Even those saying what I agree with are all cis. 

What happens if you tried to leave the cis people out of it?

Biologist and writer of Whipping Girl fame Julia Serano responded in length to Singal himself for his article, at length outlining the critiques of Zucker’s clinic, none of which Singal felt fit to print. Journalist Parker Malloy, in a similar boat, wrote a personally gracious account of her interview with Singal but forcefully marks a claim of a GIC clinician in his article as “ridiculous”. Historian and former Toronto social worker Morgan M Page tweeted: “Every former patient of Zucker I have had as a client to over the years has used the phrase "ruined my life" to describe what he did to them.” Journalist and scholar Journalist and scholar Katherine Cross said of the GIC’s methods “I shudder at the thought of younger-me being subjected to them,” also noting the New York article “does not narrowly focus on the ethics of Zucker's firing, but instead uses that to attack the "larger" issue of trans activism,”   Video game artist Aevee Bee strongly objected to Zucker’s methods and criticized New York for its reporting. Dana Beyer of Gender Rights Maryland lauded the GIC’s closing. Rutgers professor and Topside Press editor Cat Fitzpatrick, in an article co-written with mad pride activist Jijian Voronka, criticized Zucker as well as Singal’s characterization of science and activism. Scientist and veteran Brynn Tannehill pointed out Phyllis Schlafly’s explicitly anti-LGBT conservative publication Eagle Forum approvingly cited Zucker in an article expressing horror at the mere existence of transgender children, also writing an intelligent takedown of Zucker’s methods for the Huffington Post. Instar Books publisher and author Jeanne Thornton similarly noted the notorious Family Research Council (designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center) published a paper with approving Zucker citations, one that passionately argues for trans people to literally not be recognized or exist. Writer Suzi Chase refuted the Journal article in the Washington Blade, expressing relief at the GIC’s closure. Poet and Vetch co-editor Stephen Ira told of a teenage therapist influenced by Zucker. “Hurting children is bad. His ideas filtered down to my doctor and now I have PTSD.” Ira also added to me personally in a message: “[I think] my parents were misinformed about the nature of the therapy … [they] were distressed when they found out.”  All of this in the wake of the GIC’s closure and Zucker’s removal from it, and it’s not an exhaustive list. But! Zucker and the GIC have been around a long time. So what if you look at the state of trans criticism before? Is it different? Let’s see. Fiction writer Imogen Binnie of instant cult-classic and Lambda Literary nominee Nevada fame wrote two incisive critiques years ago about Zucker among reviews of gender books on her old book blog, then later weaved that same critique of him into her novel itself. Long-time activist, writer, and elder Monica Roberts has critiqued his practice too. Economics professor Deidre McCloskey spoke out against the American Psychology Association’s appointment of Zucker to the chairmanship of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder’s “Sexuality and Gender Identity Disorders Work Group” in 2008. Actress and activist Andrea James called Zucker’s methods “reparative therapy”. Scholar Kelley Winters, who was also vocally opposed to Zucker’s appointment on a DSM-V Committee and founded the group GID Reform Advocates, called his methods “chilling”. Graphic designer and blogger Mercedes Allen spoke out against Zucker’s appointment too. In a guest post on her blog in 2011, writer Marti Abernathey from Transadvocate also criticized Zucker, a comment on that post containing an apparently former patient of his from 1983 (!) saying the doctor should be “retired” and referring to him as a “fraud”. Computer scientist Lynn Conway frequently spoke out against Zucker and was threatened with legal action by him. Writer and critic Roz Kaveney expressed solidarity with Conway in her fight. Long-time activist elder Rupert Raj spoke out against Zucker in 2001. Journalist and editor Matt Kailey criticized Zucker as practicing reparative therapy. Scholar Joelle Ruby Ryan in 2009 presented a paper at the International Foundation for Gender Education Conference referring to Zucker’s methods as “unbelievably destructive.” Health professional Rebecca Deveaux’s 2010 master’s thesis which interviewed trans Ontarian young adults portrayed inefficacies and gatekeeping of the GIC’s Adult Clinic—she described her work to me as “vindicated” by the clinic’s closure. Toronto activist Rosalyn Forrester said of the GIC and its patients: “I know the damage it's done and how far it's set them back.” In her landmark 2000 book Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People, scholar Viviane Namaste wrote that the trans folks she interviewed who went there reported “profound dissatisfaction” with the adults program of the GIC, additionally noting the clinic’s mixture of disrespect and apathy toward sex workers. “These perceptions of transsexuals” Namaste noted, “are in stark contrast to how service providers of the GIC understand their administration of health care…”

Phew.

Okay, so  what kind of trans statements can you find in support of Zucker and the GIC?

Anne Lawrence is the central figure, a sexologist who has often worked with Zucker and written papers with him. Then there’s Kay Brown, who runs a blog where she has praised Zucker’s work. Mark Angelo Cummings, who, in going back on previous activism, defended Zucker as being unfairly misaligned in a blog post.

And—

That’s it.

Like that’s it. This is what I could find.

Presumably there are other trans people out there who share Lawrence’s viewpoints and might defend Zucker. A lot of this stuff is on blogs, some on old corners of the Internet. Knowing Conway has been involved in this topic for well over a decade, I asked her about Zucker’s trans defenders in a Skype interview. She said “It never amounted to more, as far as we could tell, of something more than a few score of people that they kept going back to,” The “they” in this case being the GIC’s allies who either wished to use them for ersatz representations of us all, or at mildest portray us as a community divided. And though I disagree with those folks, hotly, that isn’t the point.

The point is this: it is impossible to call those who oppose Zucker and CAMH “a segment” of the trans community—(really, how often is there any subject this many of us agree on?)

Some acknowledgements about the above collections of statements: yes, not every trans person in the world knows Dr. Zucker or the GIC, or has an opinion on the kind of therapy in question. Yes, it’s impossible to say what every trans person thinks or feels.

Maybe I missed some folks I shouldn’t have, in either category. And those I’ve cited above, while coming from various walks of life, are definitely not themselves a complete representation of trans folks at-large (most people who’ve gone on record here appear to be white, most notably). And, finally, I can only guess a fair amount of fellow trans people do not give a rip about this either way.

If there really was a misaligned unheard silent majority of transsexuals clamoring to sing Dr. Zucker’s praises, though, one might wonder why the klaxon calls from the Globe and the National Post and New York magazine and The Wall Street Journal and Psychology Today are not enough to bring them out of the woodwork. If Zucker was really a helpful doctor, wouldn’t those despairing his departure might include some former patients? If you want to imply this trans silent majority exists, at the very least, it is clear the burden of proof does not rest with the GIC’s opponents.

The facts are that of the trans people who are aware of this issue and have opted to speak in public, the tilt of the argument is very, very clear. And while I believe CAMH did follow protocol, and they were in their bounds to close the GIC—these questions, while fair enough to go up for journalistic investigation (as Katherine Cross alluded to) have been conflated with a larger question of whether the therapy practiced by the GIC and Dr. Zucker was beneficial and helpful to young people.

And the answer to that is unambiguous: If you listen to us, the answer is no.

There is resounding concordance across decades from transsexual and transgender people that these practices were harmful to children and should not have continued. You can’t convince a trans child not to be trans without hurting them. And in 2016, it is unacceptable for anybody writing about this to suggest this is “controversial” or there is a “debate”—it is cis people having this debate and it is cis people considering it controversial.

If there’s a sentence in the articles I’ve mentioned at the top of this page I find most emblematic in its obliviousness, it’s the pronunciation of the op-ed writer the Financial Times that “the bitter war over gender identity is claiming casualties.” It comes at the end of her article, intended as a rhetorically ominous statement. But that war has been claiming casualties for a long, long time. 

On our side.

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Casey Plett wrote the short story collection A Safe Girl To Love and is co-editor of a forthcoming anthology of speculative fiction by transgender writers from Topside Press.