A controversial Toronto psychologist said he feels “vindicated” and “liberated” after receiving an apology from the country’s largest mental-health centre for erroneously representing his behaviour and work in a public review three years ago.
Kenneth Zucker headed up CAMH’s Family Gender Identity Clinic for more than 30 years before he was ousted in December, 2015. Sparked by criticisms that the clinic had been practising conversion therapy on young people who identify as transgender, CAMH had launched an external review earlier that year.
The review found that the clinic focused on intensive assessment and treatment, despite current practice favouring “watchful waiting,” and the education and support of parents in accepting their child’s gender expression.
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In this 2006 file photo, Dr. Ken Zucker stands in front of children's drawings at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.
Although the report also looked specifically at Dr. Zucker’s interactions with patients – including a reference to him insulting a patient – he was not consulted. He was fired the same day it came out. The clinic for children and youth was ultimately shut down as well.
Dr. Zucker’s departure was polarizing. Rainbow Health Ontario, an organization that works to improve access to health and social services for the LGBTQ community, applauded CAMH for commissioning the external review − and for its response to the review’s findings and recommendations.
But while his removal was celebrated by many activists in the transgender community, many of his colleagues were outraged – and more than 500 clinicians and researchers signed a petition in his defence.
In Dr. Zucker’s view, it sparked a fear that the field of gender dysphoria – where he says there remains many urgent and unanswered clinical and theoretical questions – has been “poisoned by politics.”
“I think that conflation with politics has made it very difficult for many people in the field to say what they really think,” he said. “And I think that’s really sad, that in a field where there are so many important issues to discuss and work on, that really bright people feel intimidated.”
Today, the 68-year-old is still working between six and seven days a week, running a private practice in Toronto. And he remains editor of the academic journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour.
He disputes the idea that he was practising conversion therapy by not immediately pushing for transition for a child expressing gender dysphoria.
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“I think the term conversion therapy is incredibly inflammatory,” he said. “I think it’s been inappropriately expropriated from the original use of the term, where it was directed at very conservative, religiously motivated clinicians or pastoral counsellors who were seeing, primarily, homosexual men who didn’t want to be gay. There were lots of problems in trying to offer treatment to change an adult’s sexual orientation − we know that’s a very dubious proposition. But to apply [the term] to [treating] a three-year-old child with gender dysphoria, in my opinion, is an absurd comparison.”
He stressed that he assessed each patient on a case-by-case basis, and noted that in 1999 his clinic was one of the first in North America to start using hormonal suppression for adolescents to help them transition.
As part of the settlement with CAMH – which was finalized last week, and is not confidential – he will also receive more than half-a-million dollars in damages, legal fees and interest. The centre also agreed to pass on his contact information to anyone seeking it.
CAMH has also posted an apology on its website, noting that the review was intended to identify best practices and how to best serve children and adolescents with gender dysphoria – not to examine the behaviour and practices of Dr. Zucker.
The apology notes that the report wrongly stated that he referred to a patient as “hairy little vermin” among other errors.
“That allegation is untrue,” the statement notes.
CAMH declined an interview request Sunday – but said that it stands by its decision to close down the clinic.
“We believe our modernized approach to delivering services to youth better supports diverse patients through best practice and timely care,” spokesperson Sean O’Malley said in an e-mail statement on behalf of the centre.