Calgary Physician Calls Transgender People “Demented, Distorted”

[This work originally appeared on Freethought Blogs.]

Below is the result of an investigation that was originally commissioned by a Canadian news publication. The piece was killed two days ago. I believe the findings to be important enough that it is in the public’s interest to be reported regardless. I discuss further after the piece.


A Calgary pediatric surgeon employed by Alberta Health Services has taken to social media to call transgender people and their supporters “soft headed” and “dangerous,” among numerous other inflammatory remarks.

Between November 18, 2018 and December 21, 2018, Dr. Jacob Edward Les wrote several articles at length on his website, during which he described being transgender as “identifying as a cucumber” and compared them to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, an anecdote by neurologist Oliver Sacks on a patient with visual agnosia. In another post, he wrote that teaching children about the existence of transgender people amounted to “indoctrination,” and that androgyny occurs “as a civilisation is starting to unravel.” Responding to a January 9, 2019 article from the Daily Mail about a transgender man giving birth, Les described support for the man as “blithering idiocy” and said that the child would be born into “distorted transgender reality.”

Shortly after I attempted to authenticate the social media profiles, Les deleted his Twitter and several blog posts. His Twitter was restored on Jan. 28, 2019, along with a new blog post stating “How dare you impugn my integrity and professionalism?” after characterizing the Canadian Medical Association’s findings on gender dysphoric youth as “conjecture.” He also included several remarks directed at me after I wrote that I was looking into medical ethics governing bodies in Alberta that can receive complaints. “[Trans activists] seem unable or unwilling to make their points without hurling F-bombs or insulting their interlocutors in the most vile manner possible,” wrote Les.

In December, Les tweeted that Dr. Rachel McKinnon, a transgender woman and philosophy professor, was a “demented homewrecker” in response to a video she posted to Youtube in support of LGBTQ+ youth dealing with troubled relationships with their parents on Mother’s Day.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, of which Les is a member, could not be reached in time for comment. However, the College’s Code of Conduct includes online behaviour where members can be identified as physicians. The Code states that a physician’s conduct can affect “patient health and safety” and “[erode] relationships with staff, patients, learners, and families.”

A statement provided to me by Alberta Health Services reads as follows:

“Alberta’s healthcare system aims to provide inclusive and responsive health services to all sexually and gender diverse people and their families, including the province’s LGBTQ2S+ community and those experiencing gender dysphoria.
“The personal opinion of this physician does not reflect the values of Alberta Health Services, Alberta Children’s Hospital, or the Department of Pediatrics when providing care to youth experiencing gender dysphoria.
“AHS continually explores best practices to determine the most appropriate approach to providing services to youth experiencing gender dysphoria. Care to youth is determined on an individual basis, and is provided through multidisciplinary teams that work with each patient, their families, and the entire care team to determine the best care plan for each individual.
“We will work with our site physicians to ensure awareness of the effective care options offered at Alberta Children’s Hospital, and within the province, for youth experiencing gender dysphoria.”

Discussion

There are several things occuring at the same time that made this article an intensely frustrating experience.

The first is the apparent contradiction in Les’ words. On the one hand, he claims to extol the value of a calm and rational debate. On the other, he compares civil rights activists to convicted pedophiles. He lambasts what he describes as “vicious attacks,” then describes the work of researchers at the CMA as “conjecture” (hanging a lampshade on the fact that the CMA paper has 58 citations). He wants a conversation about policy, but only after he’s accused trans people of “cracking up the foundation of society.” He wants better research, but propagates revisionist history about Kenneth Zucker’s clinic. “Trans activists” should be condemned for “insulting their interlocutors in the most vile manner possible,” but also, they’re “demented homewreckers” and can’t tell their wives apart from a hat.

In other words, he wants to be understood as an authority on trans issues, despite rejecting the scientific consensus, using a widely criticized journalist as his starting point, and making an argument that “the other side” shouldn’t be listened to because we’re “lunatics” destroying the moral fabric of society. This isn’t bigotry, Les argues, because it’s supposedly motivated by love.

Simply put, this is not persuasive.

The second frustration is that these actions should speak for themselves, and yet the transparent disingenuousness will be unrecognised by far too many people. Or, that has been my experience when dealing with these types before. If Les wants a debate on what the research says, I’d start by asking him if he understands the distinction between the DSM-IV Gender Identity Disorder entry and the DSM-V Gender Dysphoria entry, and ask him to justify why research on the former is being used on arguments about the latter:

Thus, the methodology that you can force “trans kids” to “adopt to their anatomical sex” was born. It wasn’t that 80% of transgender children “desisted”, it was that 80% of children entered into this kind of system never would have needed to transition.

But I won’t ask him that, because I’ve been doing this for nine years, if we include the early periods that weren’t in writing, and I am loathe to repeat myself these days. I know every argument he has made and is likely to make, because I do not have the privilege of removing myself from cissexism. To live as a trans person is to be immersed in it. Les’ fellow travellers seldom return the courtesy. They argue with phantoms and boogeymen and “convicted pedophiles” instead. I am not angry or upset with Les; I am tired of him, and we only just met.

The resources to better inform yourselves on these issues now exist, in part because of my work on this blog that you read, and now the impetus is on you to access them if you want to claim authority on this topic. I will not be entertaining complaints of any skepticism with which you are regarded if you refuse to do the work.

The third frustration is the inevitable consequences of the types of speech Les insists he has a duty to make. When nearly everything he has produced under his tag “gender wars” is about depicting trans people as fundamentally unreliable decision makers, he is perpetuating epistemic injustice, working to categorically exclude trans people from conversations about trans people. As is common with the people who use these tropes, he is happy to remind his readers that trans people (you know, “the real ones,” who are super rare and definitely not your kid) suffer tremendously. But the moment we point out that we are equipped to be having this conversation ourselves, that we are consultants and collaborators, not lab rats, we’re characterized as “gender mystics [extinguishing] the light of reason.” The underlying message being: Be a good corpse and stop talking, the men in the room are having a conversation.

The final frustration has less to do with Les, specifically, and more to do with my industry. After the editor pulled the rug out from under my feet on the first publication, I tried to reach every possible connection I have. Editors have to make decisions on which work to platform based on thousands of factors: public interest, veracity of the accusations, whether the article is likely to be shared, whether the writing is even any good to begin with, just to name a few. I swallowed my pride and even pitched partisan outlets. I can’t mindread. I can’t tell you why a finished investigation landed in the time-sensitive inboxes of a dozen editors and languished, because none of them replied.

“That’s showbusiness,” as they say. Someone laundering abusive polemics against civil rights organizers and promoting revisionist history under the guise of his medical credentials ought to be worth a few inches on your paper, in my opinion, so it is hard not to ask questions as to why it’s on the cutting room floor. But I’d rather not be uncharitable in assuming, so please tell me. I desperately hope it’s as simple as missing the email or voicemail.

I’d like to thank the many journalists reading this, in particular Elizabeth King, because you were enormously supportive throughout this ordeal. It is the institutional apathy I question today. I also apologise to the communications staff at Alberta Health for throwing this curveball in your inbox on a Friday afternoon only for the work to end up stalling. Thank you for your timely and hard work. I’m deeply sorry.

To paraphrase Rebecca West, I myself have never been able to find out precisely what trans activism is: I only know that people call me a trans activist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.

Sincerely,

-Shiv

(just to cut off any ludicrous complaints from the aforementioned fellow travelers, that’s the first syllable of ‘Siobhan,’ do try not to read further into it than that)

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