As you may have read here, I was at a conference in Baltimore over the weekend. While in the city, I met a woman who identified herself as a reader of this blog. She said, “I know people accuse you of being alarmist all the time, but let me tell you that they aren’t raising teenagers in this culture.”
The woman told me that at her kids’ high school, a shocking number of students are going to their parents asking to be put on hormones and asking for surgery, because they are transgender. This is the cool thing, and the school is falling all over itself to be supportive, and to encourage an “ally” culture.
“What about the parents?” I said.
“They’re going along with it,” she replied.
“Why on earth?!” I said.
“Because they don’t want to lose their kids. Because everything in the culture tells them they should. Because they think that’s how they love their child. And these parents usually become the fiercest LGBT advocates.”
She told me that the high school kids are now sorting themselves by where they are on the gender spectrum. She added that her brother is a liberal Democrat, an atheist, and a biologist. He tells her that he’s extremely worried about this trans thing. The science simply isn’t there to justify these radical interventions, but scientists are terrified to speak out because of the general atmosphere in academia around these issues now. And, considering what happened to Dr. Kenneth Zucker, one of the world’s top experts in gender dysphoria, there’s no wonder. Excerpts from the New York magazine report about Dr. Zucker’s firing from the Gender Identity Clinic (GIC):
The GIC, which operates out of CAMH [Center for Addiction and Mental Health], pronounced “Cam-H,” had been standing firm against a changing tide in the world of psychological treatment for children with gender dysphoria. The “gender-affirmative” approach, which focuses on identifying young transgender children and helping them socially transition — that is, express their gender to others through their everyday clothes, name changes, or other means — has been on the rise in recent years, and has become the favored protocol of many activists and clinicians. GIC clinicians, who saw clients between ages 3 and 18, had a much more cautious stance on social transitioning for their younger clients — they believed that in many cases, it was preferable to first “help children feel comfortable in their own bodies,” as they often put it, since in the GIC’s view gender is quite malleable at a young age and gender dysphoria will likely resolve itself with time.
Many activists see this approach as a rejection of young children’s transgender identities, and Zucker as its regressive standard-bearer. As a result, the GIC had been tarred for years as a “conversion” or “reparative” therapy clinic — terms which conjure images of outfits operated out of backwoods shacks in the Bible Belt. Responding to what felt like a surge in this line of criticism from activists, CAMH had agreed in February of 2015 to commission an External Review that would evaluate the clinic’s operations, and possibly, Zucker and his staffers knew, determine its future.
For transgender activists in North America and around the world, the ouster of one of their biggest enemies in the field of mainstream sex research was a spectacular victory. Sweeter still, they found out later that day that CAMH would be “winding down” the GIC entirely, with an eye toward eventually retooling and reopening it with input from its critics. Years of activism, years of hearing and telling stories about what Zucker’s clinic did to vulnerable, gender-questioning young people, had finally paid off. The activists had won what seemed like a satisfying end to a simple, sad story. “Infamous Reparative Therapy Clinic For Transgender Youth Set To Close” trumpeted ThinkProgress. “Hooray! A Big, Bad Conversion Therapy Clinic For Trans Youth In Canada Is Shutting Down,” went the MTV headline. Good prevailed over evil, in other words. Those innocent children would never suffer again.
Zucker, his colleagues, and their many allies in the world of academic sex research see things differently. To them, the real scandal here is how CAMH responded to a sustained campaign of political pressure: by allowing a vital scientific question — vital not only to gender-dysphoric and transgender young people, but to anyone who is a parent or will one day become one — to be decided by activists on the basis of flimsy, anonymous allegations. They think the activists’ claims about the clinic are unfounded, and argue that the controversy has more to do with adult agendas than with genuine concern for gender-dysphoric children and youth. As Dr. Jack Drescher, a psychiatrist with a research focus on gender-identity issues, explained in an email, this fight resembles many other culture-war battles: “[C]hildren serve as proxies for the competing value systems of adults.” Indeed, some parents of GIC patients feel that as a result of the clinic’s closing, their children have been cut off from a place that was — despite rumors to the contrary — a safe, nurturing environment for young people to explore their emerging gender identities.
The External Review, Zucker’s allies believe, was just a sloppily executed pretense for submitting to political pressure. “There was likely a desire on the part of the [CAMH] administration to close the clinic, and the review was designed to allow them to do just that,” wrote Dr. Susan Bradley, who founded the GIC in 1975 before handing the reins over to Zucker about a decade later, in an email.
And if you look closely at what really happened — if you read the review (which CAMH has now pulled off of its website), speak with the activists who effectively wrote large swaths of it, examine the scientific evidence, and talk to former GIC clinicians and the parents of patients they worked with, it’s hard not to come to an uncomfortable, politically incorrect conclusion: Zucker’s defenders are right. This was a show trial.
Read the whole thing. This is what’s happening now. The current state of scientific research says that most kids’ — 75 percent — gender dysphoria resolves (the kids are likely to end up identifying as gay or bisexual). But that is extremely politically incorrect — so much so that respected scientists lose their jobs over taking that position.
And the social/cultural structure that forms around trans kids makes it hard for them to back out of the gender identity they’ve chosen for themselves:
When kids socially transition, she explained, their parents not only become their champions to teachers and other parents, but also often start engaging in trans advocacy that comes to define them in important ways. If the child starts to sense that their dysphoria is desisting, they’re faced with either sticking with a gender identity that no longer feels like it fits or telling their parents, as the clinician put it, “This whole life that you’ve created for yourself as an advocate, I don’t want to be part of that anymore.” There’s also, of course, the fact that schools and family members are part of the process too, so de-transitioning requires notifying them as well. In this view, a too-early transition really might limit a child’s future options because of the social or familial costs of transitioning back. And eventually, as a kid gets older, the prospect of nontrivial medical procedures to help them physically transition enters the picture.
This reminds me of a great 2013 article that Margaret Talbot wrote in the New Yorker, about teenagers who seek sex changes. Excerpts:
It is common today to speak of the plasticity of the adolescent brain. A recent Health and Human Services Department memo cited research suggesting that in adolescents the brain is still evolving “in its ability to organize, regulate impulses, and weigh risks and rewards.” Because brain circuitry is still falling into place, it can be difficult for adolescents “to think critically before making choices,” and they’re more driven by impulse. In the legal realm, this research has provided a scientific anchor for the idea that juvenile criminals should be treated with leniency; in the domestic realm, it has contributed to parental hovering and an acceptance of delayed adulthood. Trans politics, however, is moving in the opposite direction, toward allowing adolescents to make profound, unalterable decisions earlier.
The World Professional Association for Transgender Health, in its latest guidelines, still recommends that Americans wait until eighteen for genital surgery, but says that chest surgery may be done earlier. There is some scientific grounding for this position: researchers have found that, if a young child’s gender dysphoria persists past the onset of puberty, as Skylar’s did, he or she is likely to retain those feelings into adulthood.
Nevertheless, some surgeons who do gender reassignment are skeptical of early surgery. Charles Garramone, a plastic surgeon in the Fort Lauderdale area, will not perform sex-reassignment operations on minors, because, he says, “patients need to have a mature outlook in terms of being able to really understand the irreversibility of this surgery.” In addition, Garramone thinks that the skeletal structure underlying the chest of a sixteen-year-old may change enough over time so that a second surgery will be required. Kathy Rumer, a plastic surgeon outside of Philadelphia who has a large transgender practice, also declines to perform reassignment surgery on minors. “I have had parents plead with me,” she says. “And I can feel for them. But I don’t want someone coming back to me when they are twenty-five saying, ‘I didn’t really want this. It was my parents.’ Adolescents are really in flux. I wouldn’t want to make a permanent change based on that stage of life, which can be difficult, no matter what you’re going through.”
Some advocates, meanwhile, want to broaden the range of sex-reassignment surgeries available to young patients. A psychologist who sees many trans clients in Northern California told me that he wants the World Professional Association to consider loosening its guidelines for youth even further. “Here’s an example,” the psychologist, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “I see a child, a trans girl, who came out at three and is now seven. She’s clearly a female. There’s no ambiguity or inconsistency. She goes to school and presents as a girl. Absolutely the only reason to hinder it would be that you need to wait for her body to get bigger, so there is enough flesh to make a new vagina.” The psychologist used to focus on adult patients, but now he sees little kids and teen-agers as well. A strong advocate of puberty blockers, he said that cross-gender hormones should be administered to kids before they’re sixteen, adding, “I’m assuming that, down the road, we’ll be looking at ways to get surgery earlier, too.”
So, it turns out the woman who told me this is onto something.
This is where we are: a culture driven by the politics of transgender activists. Look at the “model transgender policy” for schools suggested by GLSEN, the gay advocacy group that focuses on schools. This is exactly what you see local school districts adopting. Activists are writing the policies. Activists are driving the media and academic culture. Look at this thoughtful, balanced short piece
Ten, twenty years from now, there are going to be a lot of maimed, broken people staggering around. This episode in history will be looked back on with horror. We will wonder how we gave in to such madness, and harmed so many people, or allowed them to harm themselves. Doctors, activists, celebrities, the media, and politicians will bear so much guilt, but probably little blame. It will all go down the memory hole. Progressives in the future will say of the transgender madness, “How were we to know?”
If they say anything at all.
UPDATE: A reader comments:
I’m a Liberal person, with a deep appreciation for material reality. Also a therapist who worked with trans kids. I am critical of the current trans movement and don’t see Rod as being an alarmist regarding such. I’m surprised it took him this long to start reporting on the phenomenon.
Here’s a link to an article I wrote about my time as a therapist with adolescents.
I want to just send out peace to all those who read this blog. Honestly, it’s been kind of nightmarish for me to be so alone in my thinking, as a liberal, in a liberal city. I thank you for caring to pay attention and sharing your thoughts here for others to read and consider. I hunger for the uncensored thoughts and expression of all kinds. I never thought I would need to seek such comfort from people who in my past were considered the close minded. Tables do turn. The most measured folks I meet these days tend to be conservative, sure, they are outraged, but they seem to have retained contact with their ability to think and consider.