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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 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.

5 Responses

  1. Agreed.

    I have serious reservations about Zucker, but I don’t see his removal from this committee happening anytime soon. And frankly, it would be a horrible move on the APA’s part if they succumbed to pressure from the internet community and did so. That being the case, I hope Dr. Russel’s portrait of a more moderate Zucker is the real one, since we’re pretty much stuck with him.

  2. Well, what is clear is that the comments of Stephen T. Russell, Ph.D. and the recent Zucker/Bradley program on NPR directly contradict each other. One of the two is lying about what Dr. Zucker does to children.

  3. Being forcably raised as male by fundentalist Christian, I under stand the pain that Dr. Zucker’s approach inflicts upon transgender children. Dr. Zucker’s claim of 90% success rate means hell on earth for, most of their young lives, for the 10% failures that go on to be transsexuals, effeminine gay men, or butch lesbians. From my point of view, Dr Zucker’s medical license should be revoked, for such mistreatment of transsexual and gender varient homosexual children.

  4. […] Mercedes Allen reflects on the responses to her original Uh-oh post, including several that have been reported here and elsewhere. I and others have been accused of scaremongering in the ongoing debate(s) […]

  5. It’s interesting to note that Zucker’s follow-ups don’t measure mental health and Zuker considers coercive therapy, with the help of parents, to be totally acceptable.

    Forcing a child to be *afraid* of pink, because parents will disapprove, the doctor will disapprove, and you’ll be punished…not because you have a very real scare of the color pink previous to it, or because you hate all things deemed girly – but because you’re afraid of retribution.

    Even the so-called 90% sucess may be borderline insane from trying NOT to get attention on their cross-gender interests, even in adulthood.

    I myself was scared out of my whits of anyone finding out my secret, to the point of actively avoiding anything at all that could be construed as girly, in case someone figured my secret out. And I didn’t even have therapy for that to happen…only lots and lots of bullying.

    Coercive therapy would surely be akin to bullying. The difference being it’s sanctioned and you actually pay a professional to tell you how to bully your own child…

    His approach on adolescents is better, if not perfect. Few want to deal with anyone short of 17-18 when it comes to hormones.

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