Sexology's war on transgender children
Anti-transgender reparative therapy, deemed unethical by experts and banned by politicians, is based on unconfirmed evidence. Could it be the latest high-profile sexology scam?
Last week Ontario banned anti-transgender reparative therapy, practiced for decades from an ideological home base at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). The ban was one of many enacted in response to transgender teen Leelah Alcorn’s suicide after being subjected to anti-transgender reparative therapy. Now the academic holdouts who support the practice are making their last stand in the court of public opinion, placing letters and op-eds in the Toronto Star, Los Angeles Times, and Wired. They always avoid mentioning their notorious published case report, the curing of eight-year-old Danny Ryan’s “childhood gender identity disorder.” Danny’s alleged cure has never been independently confirmed, and the whole case may be completely fabricated.
To understand the unethical history of anti-transgender reparative therapy, follow the money. The Archives of Sexual Behavior was founded by sexologist Richard Green in 1971, and he made his clinical and editorial goal clear in his first issue: “the prevention of transsexualism.” Green’s team at UCLA was rewarded with funding for this goal. As described in Green’s book The ‘Sissy Boy Syndrome,’ his faction of sexologists basically believes gay people are born that way, but being transgender is a lifestyle choice that can be cured by subjecting young children to anti-transgender reparative therapy. Green’s hand-picked editorial successor Kenneth Zucker has subjected hundreds of children to government-subsidized “therapeutic intervention,” and he uses the Archives to promulgate his views.
Though most gender non-conforming children do not make a gender transition later in life, clinics like Zucker’s at CAMH make money from anxious parents by diagnosing Gender Identity Disorder in children, a disease Zucker and friends created in 1980. To cure it, Zucker developed a version of Green’s clinical protocols: parents must shame or punish feminine boys who play with dolls, make art using pink or purple colors, draw pictures of girls, or seek out girls as playmates.
Danny Ryan’s infamous cure narrative was published in 2003 by The National Academies Press following a secret peer review overseen by editor Stephen Mautner. Danny’s case frames J. Michael Bailey’s book The Man Who Would Be Queen, a series of vivid anecdotes about the sexual escapades of some adult trans women. In making the case for anti-transgender reparative therapy, Bailey portrays Zucker as a “rabbinical” man with “a Talmudic knowledge of the literature concerning childhood GID.” Bailey observes that Danny’s transgender proclivities are cured in the book’s epilogue, implying Danny was spared a “bad outcome.”
Unfortunately for Bailey, trans women portrayed pseudonymously in his book came forward and filed complaints with his employer Northwestern University, which opened a formal investigation. One history book described the transgender protests against sexology’s academic exploitation as “one of the most organized and unified examples of transsexual activism to date.”
Most troubling was a report from one of Bailey’s book subjects that he fabricated the outcome of the Danny Ryan case report. When questioned later, Bailey said, “Not only does Danny exist, but I am … I have several informants who keep me apprised of his development, and now he’s a happy out gay man, as I predicted in the book.”
A 2008 academic panel discussed Bailey's book and the Danny Ryan case report. No journalist has ever investigated Bailey's claims that Ryan was cured of childhood gender identity disorder.
In 2008, Zucker devoted an issue of Archives to defending Bailey and attacking his transgender critics, anchored by a target article by Bailey’s friend and Northwestern colleague Alice Dreger. Dreger interviewed Bailey’s defenders on the Archives editorial board, but she talked to none of Bailey’s prominent critics, including me.
After Northwestern refused to divulge whether they investigated the Danny Ryan allegations, Dreger mounted a successful trial by media for Bailey, concluding in the Archives, “I can find no evidence that Bailey fabricated anything meaningful in Danny’s story.” Archives founder Green made a rare appearance since handing over the journal to Zucker, writing a piece mocking Bailey’s transgender critics like me, titled “Lighten Up, Ladies.”
Dreger has mastered a form of self-promotion that journalist Lindsay Beyerstein described as “dishonest health reporting.” Dreger panders to a credulous blogosphere addicted to outrage by creating the appearance of objectivity and scholarly consensus. It’s easy to make such attacks on a marginalized group like trans women, but after Dreger pulled the same stunt on a prominent pediatrician, she was the subject of an entire issue of the American Journal of Bioethics, which presented her modus operandi as “a case study in unethical transgressive bioethics.”
In March, Dreger repackaged her Bailey defense as the centerpiece of her new book Galileo’s Middle Finger. Despite her attempts to no-platform any dissent, she presents herself as an academic folk hero standing up for academic freedom against threats to science, like Bailey’s transgender critics. The Chronicle Review arm of the trade publication Chronicle of Higher Education even made Dreger their cover girl and wrote a glowing profile that suggested it’s “liberal dogma” to demand evidence for her published claims.
Invoking Galileo in scientific disputes is so trite a cliché that anthropologist Thomas Lessl extensively researched the phenomenon, which he describes as “scientific folklore.” Every discipline has folklore, where historical facts get pared away, even fabricated outright, in favor of a memorable anecdote. Dreger first compared Bailey to Galileo in Zucker’s Archives, lauding him as “spreading, supporting, and fiercely defending a truth too often denied and suppressed because of self-serving identity politics.”
Dreger’s new book is best understood as an anthology of emergent academic folklore, attempts to create lively master narratives chronicling brave academic heroes pursuing The Truth™ regardless of consequences, idealized academic essence narratives. Lessl hypothesized that this kind of folklore develops in service of institutional demarcation, or “us versus them” boundary work of the sort one might find in identity politics. They’re the kinds of stories academics share in faculty lounges and at cocktail parties: Grimm Brothers and Aesop for the intelligentsia, replete with dangerous monsters like fanatical trans women and heroic seekers of The Truth™ like Zucker, Dreger, and Bailey. What’s really at its heart is the pro-am turf war over the production of knowledge, where people like Dreger now must compete with thinkers outside academia.
Dreger republished her defense of Bailey, most of it verbatim. What changed? Dreger quietly removed all her conclusions about the alleged Danny Ryan fabrication, without explanation. A fundamental aspect of any kind of research is to confirm facts about all the people involved and speak with all of them directly. Just ask Sabrina Rubin Erdeley. Since Dreger hypocritically pontificates in her book about the need for “evidence-based activism,” let’s examine the evidence for Danny Ryan.
Everything we know about Danny Ryan comes from just one source: J. Michael Bailey. Dreger has never spoken with Danny, or Danny’s parents and sister, or Danny’s gay uncle, or the Northwestern student who introduced Bailey to Danny’s family. We are supposed to take Dreger at her word that we must take Bailey at his word. Danny was cured and is an out and happy gay man. If he exists, Danny is in his mid-20s. Wouldn’t it be ethical to confirm the existence of the Ryan family, whose members perfectly encapsulate Bailey’s beliefs about gay and transgender people?
Danny Ryan has remarkable parallels to David Reimer, the infamous case report by Bailey’s ideological nemesis John Money. Reimer’s successful case report turned out to be a fabrication, and Reimer ultimately committed suicide. It also has troubling parallels to Kirk Murphy, the infamous case report of a child cured via anti-gay reparative therapy. Murphy’s successful case report turned out to be a fabrication, and Murphy ultimately committed suicide.
The most troubling parallel is between Danny Ryan and Leelah Alcorn, the transgender teen subjected to anti-transgender reparative therapy. Alcorn committed suicide in late 2014, leaving behind two notes. Her hard copy note was thrown in the trash by her parents, but she scheduled the other to post online after she killed herself. In it, Alcorn said she wanted her suicide to mean something, begging all of us to “fix society.” That post was quickly deleted at her parents’ request, but not before it was saved and shared, quickly generating an international response.
Dreger has compared children like Leelah Alcorn to a child she knew who wanted to be a train, all the time insisting she is an ally to transgender people. Bailey has been investigated twice, and his signature sexology course was taken away after he arranged a live “fucksaw” demonstration for students. In the wake of Alcorn’s death, the Obama Administration came out against anti-transgender reparative therapy. In early 2015, Zucker’s employer announced they were bringing in an external expert to review Zucker’s clinical practices. Zucker’s medical director Kwame McKenzie announced they have stopped accepting new patients to its Gender Identity Services clinic for youth because of outcry from the public and the newly-enacted ban.
Can an entire academic journal be corrupt and unethical? Dreger claims that professional bioethicists ran an unethical journal, so is it possible that her like-minded friends at the Archives are unethical, too? Zucker has a self-evident conflict of interest in defending Bailey. Academics have noted that Dreger had a self-evident conflict of interest in defending Bailey. As evidence of their sociopathic trolling of their trans critics, someone mailed key Bailey critic Lynn Conway a copy of Dreger’s book that omits Dreger's role in vetting the Danny Ryan case report. The note and mailing address say they're from J. Michael Bailey.
Academics continue to claim transgender activists are persecuting them, but who has the power here? Gender-variant children, or academics like Zucker, Bailey, and Dreger? Academics don’t get assaulted and murdered so frequently that journalists rarely cover the crimes. Children who say they wish to teach college someday aren’t subjected to shaming, aversion therapy, and parental punishment supervised by clinicians. David Reimer is dead by his own hand. Kirk Murphy is dead by his own hand. Leelah Alcorn is dead by her own hand. Can Danny Ryan and the children like him be saved?
Dreger sells what credulous academics want to believe and what lazy journalists and editors want to report. They’re uncritically giving these academics platforms while transgender children are committing suicide. I’m not going to name and shame yet, but those same journalists have been unwilling to give equal time to those of us who question the legitimacy of Zucker, Bailey, and Dreger’s evidence.
I’m issuing a clarion call for evidence-based activism, because history has shown that some academics can’t be trusted to tell the truth. I’ll believe Zucker, Bailey, and Dreger when I see independently confirmed evidence that the hundreds of Danny Ryans subjected to anti-transgender reparative therapy did not end up like Leelah Alcorn.
Cover image: Goran Zec
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