Debra Soh was a gender dysphoric child. She liked trucks, not dolls. She hated being a girl. In the 1980s, the idea that a kid might transition to another sex was completely unknown. "My parents allowed me to wear boys' clothing and shave my head, to live as a girl who otherwise looked and behaved like a boy," she wrote in The Wall Street Journal. By her late teens, she outgrew her dysphoria. Her parents' support, she says, "helped me work things out."
Today, a child like Debra might be treated at a gender clinic (where the waiting lists are very long). Canada was renowned for having one of the best in the world – the child and youth clinic at CAMH, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. The clinic's former head, Ken Zucker, is world-renowned for his path-breaking research. Hundreds of parents – and former clients – testify to the care and guidance they received there.
But last month, the clinic was abruptly shut down, and Dr. Zucker was dismissed. CAMH, after releasing an external review of the clinic by a pair of independent psychiatrists, issued a bafflegab statement saying that not all the clinic's practices were "in step with the latest thinking."
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In fact, Dr. Zucker was the latest victim of the raging battles in gender-identity politics. Critics say CAMH's decision has sacrificed science to ideology, and put children on the front line. They think it's a disaster for science, and for kids.
Dr. Zucker's approach was to encourage children to explore different ways of gender expression. He believes that a child's gender identity isn't necessarily fixed in stone, and that helping him feel comfortable in his birth sex is a reasonable approach. He has never tried to steer the ultimate outcome. The research shows that most kids with gender dysphoria will grow up to become bisexual, gay, lesbian or straight adults. For some, transitioning is best, and when that's the case, he helps them.
But that approach is now politically taboo. The activists argue that children with doubts about their gender should be automatically "affirmed" in their new gender by adults. In a society that's squeamish about chemicals in foods, the activists want to give them drugs that will postpone puberty, start them on a lifetime of hormones and rush them into irrevocable surgery.
Transgender activists have been hounding Dr. Zucker for years, accusing him of practising "conversion therapy" – a term for the now discredited technique of trying to turn gay people straight. After their major victory at CAMH, they'll turn their sights on other gender clinics that are not "in step with the latest thinking." Child psychiatrists and psychologists will be even more hesitant to speak up, for fear of being pilloried as transphobic. And more and more kids will be rushed down a path they may bitterly regret.
The external review of Dr. Zucker's clinic was both pro and con. It acknowledged outstanding research and happy clients, contained a lot of picky criticisms, and quoted a couple of highly inflammatory and unsubstantiated claims by former patients. It did not say the clinic did so-called conversion therapy. It didn't recommend the closure of the clinic.
Alice Dreger, a former professor at Northwestern University, is an expert on transgender issues, and also on how science is politicized by ideology. She is a long-time defender of Dr. Zucker, and decidedly not transphobic. "The activists didn't like Zucker because he never did subscribe to the 'true transgender' model of identity, wherein you simply accept what any child (no matter how young) says about his or her gender," she wrote on her blog.
Debra Soh agrees. Today she is a specialist in sexual neuroscience at York University in Toronto and writes widely on gender issues. She points out that far from being a rogue doctor, Dr. Zucker was following the most up-to-date standards of care published by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health – a document he co-wrote. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research recently awarded him a grant worth close to $1-million to conduct a study on the effects of medical transitioning on adolescents' neurodevelopment. Too bad. These days, gender politics are more important than kids' health.
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The public humiliation of Dr. Zucker is a shock to many. More than 400 people – including leading clinicians from around the world – have signed an open letter to the CAMH board of trustees to protest the decision and the manner in which it was announced. They rightly point out that his reputation has been smeared. News coverage and subsequent media commentary (much of it by activists) left the distinct impression that he must have been guilty of substandard clinical practice or professional misconduct, or both.
As for CAMH, it has merely done what all too many institutions do these days when they feel the heat from the political agitators du jour. It caved. Too bad for us all.