About that New York Magazine article on Kenneth Zucker

Parker Molloy
Feb 11, 2016 · 7 min read

A few weeks back, Jesse Singal at New York Magazine and I chatted on the phone for around a half hour. The topic? A Canadian doctor named Kenneth Zucker, notorious for his work with trans kids.

I had some trepidation going into our chat, as Jesse has appeared to offer his endorsement to some pretty blatantly transphobic articles, propped up authors who’ve dismissed treatment for trans kids (and sometimes adults), seems to believe J. Michael Bailey (who wrote a book that suggested trans women [he didn’t even acknowledge that trans men exist] are either just trans because they’re really gay men but want to date straight men or that we just want to have sex with a woman version of ourselves — this is all nonsense) had his career harmed (he still works at Northwestern University; I recently spoke to one of his students, actually) via a “witch hunt,” and pushed back against the idea that language should be inclusive of trans men and non-binary individuals who were assigned female at birth. Understandably, I felt very cautious.

Anyway, so I chatted with him. In the end, he wrote a piece that I and many others didn’t agree with (it lacked a single interview with a trans person who had actually seen this doctor, just parents… all of whom were happy with the outcome… because obviously). Many voiced this publicly. I voiced it privately to Jesse via DMs.

Here’s Jesse’s article. It’s well-written. It’s long. It’s flawed — but then again, what isn’t?

I’m always happy to help out journalists when it comes to getting background (or quotes) for articles. Generally speaking, if I trust the journalist not to take things out of context, I’ll give the all clear to quote me. Otherwise, I’m happy to serve as a behind-the-scenes source of info. Anyway, in my conversation with Jesse, my role would be the latter (I did tell him he could quote me if he let me know the exact context and quote being used).

And I know he spoke to many others on the issue, including the phenomenally talented Julia Serano. It appears, however, that neither my words or Serano’s had much influence on the piece. I highly recommend checking out her blog post about this whole mess.

And while I feel like the article came from a very flawed point of view, and to me felt as though it was influenced by those prior stances listed above, there was one section in particular that bothered me. It was about detransition, or what happens if a trans person comes to understand that they’re actually the gender they were assigned at birth (or whatever).

GIC (Gender Identity Clinic) clinicians were wary of too-early transitions in part because they might necessitate later de-transition back to a child’s natal gender. This marks another point of significant disagreement with many gender-affirmers. Ehrensaft and Olson-Kennedy both reject the idea that there’s much downside to this. ‘Everybody seems very anxious’ about de-transitioning, said Ehrensaft, but there’s no irreversible medical intervention that early on, anyway — it’s just nail polish, clothes, and stuff like that. ‘We don’t have any data to indicate that that would necessarily be problematic,’ she said. ‘What we do have data to indicate is, what makes it difficult if kids change their mind is the social reaction to that.’”

So, the point being made here is that one of the most contentious issues is over whether it’s better for a child who says they’re one gender to be affirmed in that gender (even if they revert back to a different gender) or to not affirm the gender in the first place (assuming they’ll revert back to the original gender). Some — like me — believe that it’s much better to let children explore their gender (and yes, if that means they want to wear certain clothes or be called a certain name, that’s all part of the exploration) rather than try to reinforce the gender they were assigned at birth because hey, that’s probably* what they are anyway.

Singal looks at the other side of that.

“That’s a distinction GIC clinicians don’t recognize. ‘I totally disagree with that,’ said the anonymous former clinician of the idea that de-transitioning isn’t a big deal. When kids socially transition, she explained, their parents not only become their champions to teachers and other parents, but also often start engaging in trans advocacy that comes to define them in important ways. If the child starts to sense that their dysphoria is desisting, they’re faced with either sticking with a gender identity that no longer feels like it fits or telling their parents, as the clinician put it, ‘This whole life that you’ve created for yourself as an advocate, I don’t want to be part of that anymore.’”

So, what this anonymous clinician is saying is that because parents may become involved in some form of trans advocacy, and because that advocacy may come to define them (the parents) in some way, that the child might be afraid to let their parents know if their gender identity does revert.

That is ridiculous. I’m just going to say it.

When I was a kid, I played baseball and soccer. While I played soccer into my high school years, the same can’t be said for baseball, which I stopped playing maybe somewhere around 10 or 11 years old. My dad was my biggest fan (even though I was never really all that good), he was my coach, and he was my advocate.

He and the other parents bonded over their kids’ love of baseball, they’d hang out, they’d spend time together, they’d sign us up for camps and workshops. They were, as far as my 11-year-old self could tell, the only friends my parents seemed to have (when you’re a kid, you don’t really notice who your parents hang out with).

Then came a day where I decided that I no longer wanted to play baseball. I was so worried. I thought my dad was going to get so pissed off at me, or that it’d break his heart for his only sports-playing child (my sister was a toddler and my brother wasn’t interested in sports) no longer wanted to play. I was, in the words of the anonymous clinician above, “This whole life that you’ve created for yourself as an advocate, I don’t want to be part of that anymore.”

He was fine. Why? Because a parent’s job is to make sure their kids are happy, healthy, and able to thrive.

Could you imagine if we applied the same level of caution being pushed by the clinician to something like baseball? Given that most Little League baseball players won’t go on to play for the Chicago Cubs, it’s best if you don’t play at all for fear of your parents having to deal with the stress of your quitting.

That. Would. Be. Ridiculous. And so is the idea of preventing a kid from going by a name they like, dressing how they want, playing with toys, or whatever the case may be.

“There’s also, of course, the fact that schools and family members are part of the process too, so de-transitioning requires notifying them as well. In this view, a too-early transition really might limit a child’s future options because of the social or familial costs of transitioning back. And eventually, as a kid gets older, the prospect of nontrivial medical procedures to help them physically transition enters the picture.”

This section puzzles me. “Schools and family members are part of the process.” Okay, sure, I mean, if the process is “Calling you by your name, respecting who you say you are,” sure. “De-transitioning requires notifying them as well.” Well, sure, but it’s the same as any other situation where someone changes their name; you simply say, “Oh, I go by ______ now.” End of story.

Here’s where it really starts to irk me.

“A too-early transition really might limit a child’s future options because of the social or familial costs of transitioning back.” Whoa, whoa, whoa. So, you’re telling me that because society is awful, we should all just be like, “WELP. NOTHING WE CAN DO.”? And also, keep in mind that this is only in the case that a child does detransition. And then it goes on to caution letting kids transition because “the prospect of nontrivial medical procedures” will eventually “enter the picture.”

This clinician is coming really close to just saying trans people shouldn’t be given the ability to physically and socially transition (perhaps why they chose to remain anonymous).

The whole thing just gives me a headache, and while I feel like there are many problems with the piece (working under the assumption that the clinic’s treatment is in any way effective even though there aren’t studies to demonstrate this, framing anybody who opposes Zucker’s methods as an “activist,” not including any patients in the reporting, not including the voices that were interviewed in the reporting, and so on), I wanted to focus on how logic completely fails in that one segment.

Jesse Singal seems like a very nice person. I like Jesse. He’s fun to chat with. I hope to have fun discussions with him about anything except this. I don’t believe, as I saw one blog post say, he wants trans people to simply not exist. I do believe that he doesn’t truly understand trans people, and maybe took on a topic just a bit too far outside his areas of expertise.

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