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Zucker: Is he a DSM-Villain or not?

If you’ve been reading any transgender blogs or journals lately, you’ve doubtless seen concern about the appointments to DSM-V working groups on gender identity disorder. (If you haven’t, here’s an example from TRANScend GENDER.)

The following isn’t written by me, but I received it in email via the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance mailing list, where it was forwarded by someone who knows the author. Dr. Stephen Russell originally sent this reply to the University of Arizona LGBT Faculty/Staff/Graduate Student Organization mailing list.

Friends and colleagues:

I have been receiving and reading the emails about Ken Zucker for the past several days, and feel that I must respond. The emails and blogs mischaracterize his work – I know Dr. Zucker, and while we do not fully agree on issues about sexual and gender orientation / identity and its development, I know Dr. Zucker to be a person who is concerned about the welfare of children and youth. My experience is that this concern is what motivates his (controversial) work.

I have been in communication with Dr. Zucker about this, because I wanted to hear from him directly, as the reports did not match with my reading of his published work and my personal experience with him. First, he has never used “aversion therapy” (which involves mild electroshock or nausea-inducing stimuli). Related – reparative/conversion therapy is a method that has been used to attempt to change adult same-sex sexual attractions to opposite-sex sexual attractions – he has not practiced or endorsed this form of therapy.

Here is what he writes about his therapeutic work:

The “gender-positive” therapeutic approach that I use with young, pre-pubertal children who have gender identity conflict is to try and help them feel comfortable with their bodies so that when they are adolescents or adults they do not feel so uncomfortable in their own skin that they need to seek out hormonal and surgical sex-reassignment. We know already from several follow-up studies of young children that the majority “lose” their desire to change sex, with or without therapy, and many develop a comfortable sexual identity as gay, lesbian, or bisexual and are comfortable in their own skin. As an important aside, when we see adolescents in our clinic who are severely gender dysphoric, we are very supportive, after a careful evaluation, in helping them transition to the opposite gender, including the use of hormonal blockers and/or cross-sex hormonal treatment.

I realize that this explanation may still be objectionable for some – but it is a far cry from the descriptions of Dr. Zucker’s work that are being circulated.

Dr. Zucker’s understanding / conceptualization of gender dysphoria in children is well-represented not only in science, but in the queer community. He is grappling with very complex questions – questions about which “we” in the queer community don’t have full consensus. We have to acknowledge that there is no solution to the DSM that will unify science — or our communities.

Finally, keep in mind that he began this work years ago, before there existed the scientific or community debate and discourse about these issues that we have now … if you read his published work, it has evolved in the last 10 years.

I worry that we undermine good research – and well-informed advocacy – in a world driven by polemic blogs.

With some hesitation, and respect,

Stephen

Stephen T. Russell, Ph.D.
Professor, Fitch Nesbitt Endowed Chair in Family & Consumer Sciences
Director, Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth & Families

Of Dr. Russell, the person forwarding the email to the SAGA list writes: Stephen’s field of study is GLBT youth, particularly the risks youth face when coming out, and he is well respected (and a very nice person). He’s also a gay man. So he has both personal and professional interest in the issue of Zucker’s appointment.

I don’t have a strong take on what’s right or wrong here, but I feel it’s important to provide this perspective in addition to the others that are circulating currently.

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