It was disappointing but not surprising that the Wall Street Journal last week ran an anti-transgender op-ed by an American physician notorious for his outdated, anti-LGBTQ views.
Dr. Paul McHugh, former chief psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, wrote that “policy makers and the media are doing no favors either to the public or the transgendered by treating their confusions as a right in need of defending rather than as a mental disorder that deserves understanding, treatment and prevention.” To McHugh, “the idea of sex misalignment is simply mistaken,” because trans identity “does not correspond with physical reality.” To which one can only respond: Right—isn’t this exactly what it means to be transgender?
McHugh, an eightysomething self-described “orthodox” Catholic, who shut down Johns Hopkins’ pioneering Gender Identity Clinic in the 1970s after a single study suggested that some trans people continued to suffer from adjustment challenges after surgery, has a storied history of using his credentialed respectability to peddle the worst, most discredited, myths about gay and transgender people. He has called homosexuality an “erroneous desire,” filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in opposition to marriage equality, casts transgender women as “caricatures” of real women, and has argued that the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal is the result not of covering up pedophiles but of insufficiently rooting out gay people. In short, he is a dinosaur from an era when psychiatrists relied on narrow, clinical assessments to assert broad generalizations about a whole class of people based on studying the small number who came to them because they already had mental health problems.
Some LGBTQ advocates have suggested that the McHugh op-ed should never have been published, arguing that the Journal is “promoting someone who has dedicated most of his career [to] opposing the findings of medical associations” on LGBTQ issues. Of course, running an op-ed is not the same as “promoting” its author, although even op-eds are (or used to be) fact-checked, and standards ought to disqualify pieces that rely on erroneous information or intellectually dishonest assertions. The McHugh piece probably qualifies as intellectually dishonest, because, whether or not his intent was malicious, his selective reading of the research on transgender experience and mental health presents a hugely lopsided picture of reality—a clear exercise in nudging the data to fit a preconceived bias.
Still, it’s more effective to debunk his claims than to censor the op-ed. Genetics researcher Mari Brighe has done a great job of this over at TransAdvocate, so I’ll simply summarize her capable take-down: The single study McHugh cites for opposing gender-confirming surgery is nearly 40 years old, and he misreads its conclusions, failing to note that its authors explicitly state that “no inferences can be drawn as to the effectiveness of sex reassignment” in improving the lives of transgender people; McHugh ignores a growing (though still small) body of evidence suggesting that medical transition has a positive impact on the wellbeing of transgender people; and he ignores the most obvious reality that would explain why post-operative transgender folks might still struggle with mental health challenges: the ongoing prejudice, stigma, discrimination, economic instability, and violence they face as transgender people. None of this is helped by McHugh’s careless and groundless generalizations.
More research is needed. But anyone interested in the truth about transgender experiences should read Brighe’s response, along with other transgender voices like this one in the New York Times, and not rely on the biased assertions of someone clearly incapable of even-handedly processing new information.
The Journal probably shouldn’t have published McHugh’s piece. But a bigger shame came days later in a front-page news story that casts LGBTQ people in eerily similar terms to the ways Jews were scapegoated in 1930s Europe. The piece, “The Battle for Gay Asylum,” whose online subtitle is “Why Sexual Minorities Have an Inside Track to a U.S. Green Card,” practically bristles with thinly veiled resentment that LGBTQ Hondurans appear to gain asylum in the United States with greater ease than other Hondurans. The article opens by saying that, despite reports of anti-LGBTQ mob violence and atrocities committed against LGBTQ Central Americans—or even because of them—“there has never been a better time to be gay in Honduras.” No, this is not because the rights, safety, and respectability of sexual minorities in this Central American country have now been safeguarded more than at any other time; to the contrary, it’s because the situation is so grave for LGBTQ people there that U.S. officials, reflecting growing domestic support for LGBTQ human rights, have stepped up efforts to provide a refuge for this persecuted minority.
The reasoning of the Journal piece—that having your livelihood and life dangerously threatened is somehow a great thing—seems to be that there’s no greater privilege than to uproot yourself from everything you know and love and move to the United States of America; and if the reason that becomes your fate is that you are a despised minority who cannot remain safely in your homeland, that’s just fine, because who wants to live in those countries anyway, especially when liberal sympathy—and organized lobbies—mean you can jump to the front of the line to live in America?
The Journal piece draws on the language and assumptions of the worst kind of historical scapegoating, which casts besieged minorities as enjoying unfair and undeserved privilege, benefiting from the sympathy of powerful but misguided do-gooders, and being responsible for the suffering of everyone else. The effect is to create a divide-and-conquer mentality that can only fan the flames of anti-LGBTQ resentment, both here and abroad.
Dripping with suspicion, the piece contrasts the claims of LGBTQ Central American persecution with “average citizens” whose efforts to escape “generalized violence” are routinely denied. LGBTQ people enjoy “membership in a class the U.S. State Department recognizes as under attack,” but apparently not the Wall Street Journal, which ran this highly skeptical “news” piece about what it casts as the special privileges of a certain class of questionably deserving people. Despite widespread reports of anti-LGBTQ violence and murders in Honduras recently, the piece says it’s impossible “to know if the murders had anything to do with the victim’s sexual orientation” and goes so far as to inquire with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services about “asylum-related fraud” and the possibility that applicants are “faking being gay to gain asylum.”
The piece is chock full of complaints that echo how Jews (among other groups, including gays) were discussed and dehumanized in Nazi Germany: about “the power of a dedicated lobby” giving them undue influence, about the practice of a minority-loving U.S. State Department whose liberal sympathies lead it to carve out “exceptions” to the regular procedure for seeking asylum, and about the “big influence” of the U.S. Embassy abroad—all due to a “growing willingness by Americans to embrace alternative lifestyles.” This last phrase is not only offensive, since it’s used as a dog whistle to signal that LGBTQ people are both superficial and abnormal; it’s also journalistically inaccurate in an era when married gay couples with kids make the very idea that “gay = alternative” laughably outdated.
What the piece also misses is that, though Central America is indeed suffering from unacceptable levels of violence and instability, in a dangerous, violent land, it is even more dangerous and violent if you are a sexual minority (particularly one that is continuously scapegoated). One of the reasons our country has historically (if belatedly) recognized racial terrorism like lynching as a special kind of evil to be beaten back wherever possible is that it serves to remove basic freedoms and rights through psychological warfare. This applies to any class of people that an oppressing power defines as unworthy outsiders; they are put on guard that they, more than the rest of their compatriots, are always at greater risk of violence and persecution simply because of who they are or how they’re identified.
(This is also one reason that LGBTQ Americans need workplace protections, whether or not the actual incidence of workplace discrimination is high: because the quite legitimate fear of discrimination limits what gay and transgender people can say and do in ways that don’t constrain their straight peers. And this just in: President Barack Obama has announced plans to sign an executive order barring workplace discrimination by federal contractors, an important step in the absence of federal legislation giving LGBTQ workers protection against losing their jobs.)
For what it’s worth, an online video accompanying the Journal piece takes a more nuanced and even empathetic tone, suggesting that the editors and the writer, Joel Millman, may not have intended to create an anti-LGBTQ storyline that ends up breeding resentment instead of understanding. That ignorance rather than malice can be at play here is all the more alarming given the damage that both this story and the anti-trans op-ed can cause. It’s a reminder of what can happen when conservative editors and writers (and liberal ones, too, for that matter) spend too much time chatting and listening only to people who think like they do.