Dr. Kenneth Zucker’s War on Transgenders

650_child_2Lynn Conway is one of the trans community’s great heroes. An inventor and computer chip researcher, in the late ’60s she was fired from her job at IBM when she began to transition from a man to a woman. She decided to go “stealth” and start her life over again as Lynn. She quickly rose through the ranks and the Department of Defense began using her work on top secret projects. Her textbooks became canonical works on computer chip research, earning her tenure as professor emeritus at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In 1999, researchers linked Lynn’s current work to her earlier work at IBM and she came out as transgender. Since then, her website has been the go-to place for transgenders looking for the latest news about their community.

On Jan. 30th, she received a letter from Peter M. Jacobson, a lawyer for Dr. Kenneth Zucker, who is leading the revisions to the DSM-V, the standard text used by clinicians and psychologists to determine mental disorders. Zucker is accusing her of using libelous language in one of her web posts. The only problem? There’s nothing libelous on the site. Why is Dr. Kenneth Zucker trying to silence Lynn? And more importantly, why is he determined to make sure the psychiatric code book keeps saying that gender identity is a mental disease?

“[Zucker] was last year appointed to the DSM-V working group to help craft its sections on gender identity.”

The head of the child and adolescent gender identity clinic at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Dr. Kenneth Zucker, has made a career promising the parents of intersexed and transgender children that he can make them “normal”. His method, called reparative therapy, in which children are pushed into assigned gender roles and discouraged from behaving or dressing in a way that’s counter to their ‘assigned’ sex, was once standard practice, but in recent years, has been increasingly scrutinized. A 2003 report in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry called his techniques “something disturbingly close to reparative therapy for homosexuals,” and author Phyllis Burke has questioned the idea that transgendered children should be treated as mentally ill, saying, “The diagnosis of GID in children, as supported by Zucker and [his colleague J. Michael Bailey] Bradley, is simply child abuse.”

And yet Zucker is not some fringe lunatic. In fact, he was last year appointed to the DSM-V working group to help craft its sections on gender identity, where he intends to use his position to further the idea that trans children can be shoe-horned into gender identities. The APA, responding to criticisms by LGBT activists, point out that Zucker does not advocate reparative therapy for teens and adults, not for gays and lesbians at any age, but only for the trans community. He is Public Enemy Number One to trangenders, who maintain that Zucker’s views that trans people are mentally ill are not just based on bad science, but harmful.

In January, Conway posted a link to a story on the website of the Organisation Intersex International (OII) which stated that the organization had been told by an individual that Zucker had sexually abused a child and that it had passed along that information to authorities. Days later, Conway received a letter from Zucker’s lawyer:


Zucker’s lawyer told Conway that they had contacted the University of Michigan and requested they shut down her site, but as Conway points out in her response:

“After boldly claiming that the allegations against Zucker are located within Lynn’s news-feed (which they are not), Jacobsen does a quick shuffle of the deck. He now says that the presumed allegations are actually contained in another website that Lynn simply links to – i.e. a page in the website of Organisation Intersex International (OII).

In doing so, Jacobsen claims that cross-website linkage is legally equated with website-inclusion, but Canadian case law says otherwise: Crookes v Wikimedia.

However, even that point is moot, because not even that secondarily-linked webpage in OII’s website makes the allegations against Zucker that Jacobsen alleges. Instead it simply reports the fact that such allegations had been previously received by OII personnel from a third party and had been turned over to Canadian authorities.

As readers struggle to follow Jacobsen’s tangled legal “logic” – and as they click on links from site to site trying to figure out what it all means – they can easily lose focus and simply assume that Jacobsen must know what he’s talking about. This is a well-known effect of “the big lie”: The bigger the lie, the more likely it is to be believed.”

So, Zucker’s threatening to sue not for anything Conway said, but because she linked to a site that said something that was factually accurate. But there’s more to this than a simple case of a lawyer not understanding basic case law. This week, the International Federation for Gender Education is having it’s annual conference in Washington D.C. and Conway is leading a panel today challenging Zucker’s inclusion. The panel will:

“Examine the stigmatizing Gender Identity Disorder (GID) diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the need for the elimination of GID from the DSM-V to oppose the continued pathologization of trans youth and adults; the sexualization of transwomen in the controversial theories set forth in the taxonomic classification known as autogynephilia; and the exploitation, colonization and appropriation that many cisgendered academicians have engaged in when researching and writing about transpeople’s lives.”

In short, the lawsuit isn’t about the website Conway linked to (which incidentally, has been posted on the internet for over eight months), it’s about discrediting a vocal and respected critic of his methods and his position at the DSM-V.

Conway writes:

“And as many news-feed readers may recall, as editor in chief of the Archives of Sexual Behavior (ASB) Zucker previously stooped so low as to exploit his power-position to subvert that journal into a propaganda tool to support his ASB colleagues against widespread complaints and internet blogging by the transgender community. In the process Zucker was exposed as conducting his own personal vendetta against Andrea James and Lynn Conway, two women who’ve been effective in exposing his reparatist treatment of gender variant children (more).

Zucker’s series of actions suggest that he is now motivated to suppress Lynn’s right of free speech (and especially Lynn’s ability to publish on the internet) by any means possible, in order to minimize his exposure as a trans-reparatist and suppress the escalating questioning of his selection to lead the DSM revisions. “

We see a lot of crazy homophobic and transphobic people here at Queerty, but rarely do we come across someone with as much power to do harm as Dr. Kenneth Zucker. His position at the DSM gives him huge influence on how transgendered and intersexed children will be treated by doctors for years to come and in light of his scare tactics, intimidation (never mind the allegations of child abuse), it’s shocking that the APA would allow someone with such dubious ethics and unsubstantiated views to rewrite the DSM.

Less than a generation ago, gays and lesbians were considered to be mentally ill and in need of treatment to cure them of their homosexuality and while there are still doctors treating gays and lesbians with “reparative” witch doctor therapies, the practice is considered immoral and scientifically unsound. The trans community, however, is still stuck in the dark ages, and Dr. Kenneth Zucker would like to keep it that way– and he’ll sue anyone who tries to challenge him.

Why is Zucker still at the DSM? Do you think the APA should remove him? How can the wider LGBT community support Conway and other trans leaders who are struggling to change the institutionally accepted view that they are mentally ill?