holding the medical establishment to account


In a post at Women Born Transsexual a few days ago, Suzan reposted an article that appeared in the Minneapolis News on the third of March 2009. In it was this little gem of a quote by Paul McHugh:

“Families and people who encourage young people to take hormones are, in my opinion, hurting that child, and not helping them see the reality of this world,” says Paul McHugh, a physician at Johns Hopkins and an outspoken critic of sexual reassignment surgery. “Your sex is in your cells—every cell in your body has either two X chromosomes or an X and Y chromosome.”

And allowing a child to live as the other gender?

“Well, that’s terrible,” he says. “That’s a form of child abuse.”

I was livid. Dr. McHugh tramples all over the biology of transsexualism, not to mention disregarding the entire spectrum of intersex people with his statements. He enforces the idea that humankind is purely binary and that “hermaphrodism” as intersex used to be called, is a rare and tragic medical anomaly, where people are even aware that it exists.

The reality is that intersex conditions are very common, and incidences are on the rise. Accoding to the Intersex Society of North America, up to as many as one in every 100 births exhibit some sort of intersex condition, and as they points out:

How small does a penis have to be before it counts as intersex? Do you count “sex chromosome” anomalies as intersex if there’s no apparent external sexual ambiguity?

The question becomes even more of a topic for controversy when you add transsexualism, which is a demonstrably neural intersex condition, and the question of whether gender-variant conditions such as being transgender, androgyne or neutrois are biological in origin is still up in the air, simply because there’s been so little research focussing on these individuals.

The only reason that intersex has largely fallen out of public knowledge is because of surgical intervention. This has been accepted practice since the 60’s when Dr. John Money seemingly “proved” the theory that gender is a purely social construct with his work on the case of David Reimer. In brief, he convinced David’s parents to raise him as a girl after young David’s penis was destroyed during a botched circumcision, the belief being that David would develop as a girl through social conditioning. On the basis of that work, thousands of intersex children have since been arbitrarily assigned either male or female with surgery and hormone replacement therapy, a practice that continues to this day.

But Money was wrong. He used David’s case to push his own ideological beliefs, and even after it became clear that he was wrong when David’s male gender identity eventually asserted itself, he misreported his findings or simply didn’t report them at all. He went on to fame and fortune, and for thirty years intersex people were abused. David finally came forward with his story in the late 1990’s, but Money still has his ardent followers and defenders, most of them in positions of power and influence in the medical establishment.

There is a veritable laundry-list of prominent mental-health and medical professionals that cherry-pick from biology and psychology to construct theories consistent with their own beliefs. Individuals like J. Michael Bailey and Kenneth Zucker, organisations such as NARTH and the Clarke Institute all push their ideologies as science, and because they seemingly have the credentials, people listen to them. Most recently, Dr. Joseph Nicolosi of NARTH appeared on Dr. Phil, billed as an “expert”. Dr. Phil is watched regularly by over 4.5 million people in the United States alone, and gets broadcast on over 20 major networks world-wide. Meanwhile, Dr. Kenneth Zucker, who routinely forces gender-variant children into reparative therapy in order to “cure” them has been placed at the head of the committee tasked with authoring the DSM review on Sexuality and Gender.

Of course, one might argue that these people have a right to say and believe what they want to. This is in fact a favourite argument from groups such as these, and I would agree – rights to freedom of speech and of belief are vital, and I would defend theirs as strongly as I’d defend my own. But they cross a line into malpractice and misinformation when they pass those beliefs off as science. Where their theories and statements do not reflect scientific understanding, they have a responsibility to say so.

Medical professionals and academics have positions of perceived knowledge and authority, and all too often they abuse it to push ideology. Because of that perceived “scholarly authority”, they have an enormous impact on how intersex and gender-variant people are perceived by the media, and subsequently the public. We need to start holding them to account for their statements.



9 Responses to “holding the medical establishment to account”

  1. nutty palm Says:

    As a Medical Doctor once made the following statement to me: “Some men regard themselves as gods once they become medical doctors”.

  2. kamododragon Says:

    well, that depends how you define it as freedom of speech and speech that is shoving their beliefs and views down people’s faces.

  3. Mina Magpie Says:

    Freedom of speech applies to personal opinion, interpretation and belief. When you pass those opinions, interpretations and beliefs off as fact though, misrepresenting accepted scientific fact, that is something else entirely, especially when you are in a position of academic authority. Likewise hate speech or incitement to violence exceed the bounds of free speech, both of which rightwing conservatives routinely defend as “freedom of speech”. They need to be held to account for that, because what they say can and does destroy lives.


  4. kamododragon Says:

    See in America Hate speech is even protected as well under the US Constitution because the Courts have upheld the right for people to say what they want, even if it’s hate speech, but it’s still protected unless it incites someone to commit violence. Such as it’s even okay for white supremacist groups to let them say what they want as long as they don’t incite violence or tell others to commit violence.

    This is why people don’t understand that Americans have a right under the US Constitution to say what they want, no matter if it’s hate or not. It’s protected under the 1st amendment rights. Even for those who say they don’t like transgender people and say they hate them. What they say maybe wrong, but under the US Laws and the US Constitution that we have here, they can say that as long as it doesn’t incite violence and tells others to commit violent acts. What they say is a protected speech under the 1st amendment rights.

  5. Mina Magpie Says:

    Yeah, it’s sort-of a tough call, and I’m not saying that the system in the US is wrong, just different from ours. (I’m South African. We have strong laws against hate-speech and incitement. You can say you disagree with something, or that you disapprove of something, but if you start attacking groups directly, people can take you to task on it.)

    @ The incitement to violence provision in they US: I’d argue that there’s a much bigger argument for incitement than many people would consider. I mean, when the pope made his “gay and transgender people are worse than climate change” speech last year, assaults on trans people went up, especially in South America, which is very deeply Catholic. In the same way, when a right-wing radio-show host starts spouting about how a murdered trans-woman had it coming … well, people have influence in what they say.

    I just feel that freedom’s price is responsibility, or you end up with chaos as opposed to democracy. You protect the equal rights of others exactly because you value your own. You might disagree with their choices, who they are are what they do, but a society is only as strong as its most disenfranchised.


  6. kamododragon Says:

    Well, that may be for South Africa, and other countries, but the gold standard is in America. Where people have the right to say what they want, not matter if it’s hate speech or not. It’s protected speech under the US Constitution and the 1st amendment rights. Though some people may not like the idea that hate speech is protected in America, but it’s still speech and it’s still protected.

    For example the transgender issue, i know their are people who espouse hate for the transgender and in America it’s perfectly okay, as long as they don’t cross the line into Violence. Then their hate speech isn’t protected by the US Constitution. In America, you can say that you hate, transgender people, blacks,who ever or even say you don’t like your government and it’s protected as along as you don’t cross the line into violence.

    I think this is why some people including transgender people who have a hard time understanding that the world is not their to like them and you weren’t put on this earth to be liked in the first place. They have a hard time with the fact that people can be allowed to hate anyone, their speech, no matter how bad it is or hot hateful it is, it is protected under law as long as they don’t cross the line into violence.

  7. Mina Magpie Says:

    Hardly a gold standard. The US is just one of many countries, and while such a definition (arguably) works for you guys, that does not mean it’s necessarily the only nor necessarily the best approach. In my personal estimation, freedom without responsibility becomes nothing but chaos, and not protecting the rights of minorities right along with those of majorities, nothing but tyranny, even if only on an individual basis. But then, that’s just my opinion on the matter. 🙂

    As to violence, it takes many forms, not only physical.

    We’re probably going to have to agree to disagree on the matter though. 🙂


  8. Jennifer Says:

    McHugh’s been a pain in our collective bottoms for a long time, partly due to Money’s perverse influence. McHugh came in to “clean up Hopkins’ reputation” and that was pretty much the end of finding any decent transsupport from that institution. (If you want, I can tell you about my horrid experience there, when I was young and naive, back in December 2007.)

    I give anyone a fair shake, but it was pretty clear when I’ve read any essays/statements by McHugh on the trans issue that he’s got a personal vendetta / predetermined belief against the notion that physical transition has positive benefits to the patient… not based on any sense of rationality or evidence, just based on his own internal convictions. It is unfortunate the religious segments support their ideology by using people like him… but as I mentioned elsewhere, he (and his supporters) are getting old, times are a-changing, and give it another 20-30 years and we’ll see some remarkable shifts completed in US culture.

  9. Mina Magpie Says:

    LOL. Seems we’re always having to wait for the old-guard to die off. I once read somewhere that most scientists typically make their great discoveries and contributions to science before they turn 30, because as they get older they gradually become more and more set in their thinking. Here’s hoping that that’s not some universal, biological truth though – I still want to contribute to science damn it!!! :P.


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