gender identity

A False Accusation Helped Bring Down Kenneth Zucker, a Controversial Sex Researcher

Kenneth Zucker. Photo: Courtesy of Kenneth Zucker

Update: Two days after this article was published, The Globe and Mail reported that CAMH had acknowledged the “hairy little vermin” accusation was false, and had taken down the External Review from its website. What was the link to the Review now points to a PDF of a “summary” of that review instead.

Back on December 15, the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the largest addiction and mental-health-research hospital in Canada, announced it would be “winding down” its 40-year-old Child, Youth and Family Gender Identity Clinic, with the goal of reopening it with community input later on. The clinic, GIC for short, served children and adolescents with gender dysphoria, as well as their parents, and was headed by Dr. Kenneth Zucker, a leading psychological researcher in the field of gender-identity development and dysphoria. For years, transgender activists had accused Zucker and his clinic of practicing what they claimed was “reparative” or “conversion” therapy — they said that one of the clinic’s primary goals was, in effect, to “fix” young trans people by turning them cisgender, and that the GIC clinicians’ effort to do so inflicted shame and trauma on the clinic’s young clients. Zucker and his colleagues at the GIC, as well as his supporters in the broader academic sex-research community, have consistently denied these charges, saying that they stem from a misunderstanding of what the clinic does and what its goals are.

The immediate pretext for the wind-down was the publication of an external review that the hospital had commissioned back in February of 2015, which was posted on the hospital’s website the same day the announcement was made (Zucker was also fired that morning). While the document leveled an array of serious, mostly un-sourced allegations against the clinic pertaining to its general practices, the most incendiary charge concerned Zucker himself: that he had asked an adolescent trans man to take off his shirt, laughed at him, and then called him “a hairy little vermin,” causing the client great distress. The authors of the report, Dr. Suzanne Zinck and Dr. Antonio Pignatiello, relayed this accusation in the “written submissions” section of the document, attributing it to a former client.

Science of Us can report that this claim appears to be false. During a conversation with “Adam,” the accuser, he provided the full names of two staffers he said he interacted with at Zucker’s clinic, and also said that the clinic asked him for so-called “proof of real-life experience” that he had been living as a man as a prerequisite for a sex-reassignment surgery referral. But follow-up reporting revealed that the staffers he named never worked at Zucker’s clinic, and that the clinic never would have asked for proof of real-life experience anyway, since it worked with a child and adolescent population that it never referred directly for surgery. When Science of Us brought all of this to Adam’s attention, he said he believed it wasn’t Zucker but actually another clinician at another clinic who made the offensive comment.

We have a longer, in-depth feature in the works about the closing of the GIC and the explosive political and scientific controversy that led to it that will provide further details, but at the moment the key fact is that Adam is now on the record saying Zucker wasn’t the perpetrator (he also confirmed via email that he plans to send CAMH a note saying that he was mistaken). As will be explained in the longer article, there’s fairly solid evidence that neither CAMH nor the authors of the review made any effort to verify that Adam was actually a patient before posting his claim on the hospital website, leading to its widespread dissemination in news accounts of the closing. (Neither CAMH administrators nor the review authors responded to questions about the fact-checking process I sent late last week.)

We have many more details to share about this controversy. And while I’ve already spoken with a sizable handful of former GIC clinicians, CAMH employees unaffiliated with the GIC, former parents of patients, and one former patient (down from the two I thought I had spoken to at first), I’d love to speak with more. Please get in touch.

A False Charge Helped Bring Down Kenneth Zucker