Academic transphobia and The Media: The persistence of the “activists vs science” false dichotomy

Content Notice: Transphobia

Introduction to the False Dichotomy of Scientist or Activist

The rise of visibility of transgender people correlates with an increase in the sheer and committed dishonesty of many media outlets any time they cover trans issues. There are the usual suspects: budding radfem academics penning unsubstantiated diatribes riddled with fallacies; established academics angrily penning burning letters to the editor any time their pet pseudoscience is called out for being pseudoscience; religious fundamentalists who can’t decide if they’re sticking to noninformation or disinformation; and the many ignorant journalists caught in between this shitstorm. Many of these trans-antagonistic figures are represented by said ignorant journalists as “martyrs for an inconvenient truth,” where trans-affirmative opponents to these figures are engaging in “pointless witch hunts” that result in these brave champions being “suddenly and unceremoniously fired” while repudiating Real Science™.

Jesse Singal is at the centre of this “activist versus Real Science™” narrative by implying both that activists were the ones that had Galileo’s Middle Finger pulled from Lambda and that said activists are uninterested in “truth, accuracy, or fairness in argument,” having shared on Twitter:

“Lambda Literary has withdrawn Alice Dreger’s book from consideration for its nonfiction literary award. The (very strongly) implied message here is that you can’t be an advocate for social justice and care about the principles of truth, accuracy, and fairness in argument.”

He also penned an article about Dr. Zucker, a notorious conversion “therapy” advocate who was finally discredited and shut down in Ontario after decades of abusing gender nonconforming kids. In this piece, Singal pushes the narrative that anti-science activists are at fault for the clinic’s closure: (emphasis mine)

For transgender activists in North America and around the world, the ouster of one of their biggest enemies in the field of mainstream sex research was a spectacular victory. Sweeter still, they found out later that day that CAMH would be “winding down” the GIC entirely, with an eye toward eventually retooling and reopening it with input from its critics. Years of activism, years of hearing and telling stories about what Zucker’s clinic did to vulnerable, gender-questioning young people, had finally paid off. The activists had won what seemed like a satisfying end to a simple, sad story. “Infamous Reparative Therapy Clinic For Transgender Youth Set To Close” trumpeted ThinkProgress. “Hooray! A Big, Bad Conversion Therapy Clinic For Trans Youth In Canada Is Shutting Down,” went the MTVheadline. Good prevailed over evil, in other words. Those innocent children would never suffer again.

Zucker, his colleagues, and their many allies in the world of academic sex research see things differently. To them, the real scandal here is how CAMHresponded to a sustained campaign of political pressure: by allowing a vital scientific question — vital not only to gender-dysphoric and transgender young people, but to anyone who is a parent or will one day become one — to be decided by activists on the basis of flimsy, anonymous allegations. They think the activists’ claims about the clinic are unfounded, and argue that the controversy has more to do with adult agendas than with genuine concern for gender-dysphoric children and youth. As Dr. Jack Drescher, a psychiatrist with a research focus on gender-identity issues, explained in an email, this fight resembles many other culture-war battles: “[C]hildren serve as proxies for the competing value systems of adults.” Indeed, some parents of GIC patients feel that as a result of the clinic’s closing, their children have been cut off from a place that was — despite rumors to the contrary — a safe, nurturing environment for young people to explore their emerging gender identities.

Pay attention to the wording–this theme is pervasive throughout Singal’s publishing career on trans issues. The opponents of Zucker’s conversion methods aren’t scientists, they’re “activists.” There’s no research to discredit Zucker’s methodology, just “anonymous allegations.” Zucker hasn’t been pushing nonsense garbage, he’s asking “vital scientific questions.” There exists no controversy between researchers of gender diversity on the basis of empirical testing, it’s just “adult agendas.”

In other words, there’s no attempt to investigate the reasons behind the controversy–opponents are simply dismissed out of hand as being unscientific under the assumption that activists don’t know the science.

This representation of gender diversity and Dr. Zucker’s situation is patently dishonest for a number of reasons:

One; There is nothing that precludes academics from also being activists. While academic literature is subject to highly restrictive stylized writing designed to render the arguer invisible to the argument by using dry, factual writing, learning how to write for academia does not magically render one incapable of contributing articles in the style of advocacy outside of academic journals.

Two; Not all of the critics of Dr. Zucker’s methodology are non-academic activists. Sure, there is a ~500 signature petition that decries the firing of Dr. Zucker and calls for not only his reinstatement, but the reopening of his atrocious gender gatekeeping clinic. The petition was started and is largely populated by academics. Conveniently ignored by the proponents of the “activists against science” narrative is the ~1400 signature petition, also started by academics and largely filled with signatures from academics, which calls out Dr. Zucker’s work as bad science and that affirmative trans healthcare models have produced far superior results. So, Jesse Singal, are those 1400 signatories fake doctors or fake activists?

If Dr. Zucker’s aversion methodology is so profound, why is it that literally none, absolutely zero of his patients have come out in support of it? Surely if you consider yourself an empiricist, that evidence is instrumental to the formation of your opinions, you would find this observation to be hugely damning to the idea that Dr. Zucker’s method does anything remotely helpful for trans people. Yet the only people who mourned the closure of Dr. Zucker’s clinic were the parents that were subjecting their gender nonconforming kids to it. Where are these scores of “successful” patients?

Social workers in Ontario seem to have a few hints. They don’t exist:

The closest thing to support I can find among Zucker’s former patients is Kay Brown–who, ironically, is an activist. She is characterized by an exhausting and tedious tendency to twist herself into pretzels to justify gatekeeping gender healthcare models despite considering herself to be abused by such a system. Yet even she manages to condemn Zucker’s clinic (even if she argues elsewhere for similar ideas).

Yeah. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for Zucker’s Real Science.™ You’ll excuse me while I search for the world’s tiniest violin with which to mourn Zucker’s career.

If the strongest support you can find from those subject to a treatment is an internally inconsistent activist, and you champion this treatment as being scientifically objective while arguing that activists are unreliable, then you are a hypocrite. If you don’t think the responses of those actually subject to a treatment are important in assessing its effectiveness, then you do not understand how scientific medicine actually fucking works. Jesse Singal appears to be in over his head.

To reiterate, the evidence we have from patients in support of Zucker’s aversion methodology is a single conflicted testimony from exactly one patient.

So why the theatrics over the clinic’s closure? The clinic’s been operating for decades with little evidence to suggest it works, and all we hear is the panicked braying of proponents over a backdrop of doom and thunder.


Further Discrediting the False Dichotomy of Scientist or Activist

You would be hard pressed to find a trans-antagonistic researcher who hasn’t received scathing (for academia) criticism from academics who are not transgender. J Michael Bailey was subject to an ethics hearing after it was alleged he had published private disclosures from at least two (initially four) trans women without their consent, and engaged in sexual exploitation of one of his subjects. Gender diversity researchers characterized his work as “reductionist,” “derogatory,” “a setback,” and “uncivil.” Ray Blanchard, father of the two-type typology of transsexuals as either self-hating homosexual men or heterosexual men with an overblown fantasy, had his work described as “lacking clear definition,” “against common sense and reason,” “archaic,” “lacking supporting data and fails to account for all scenarios.” These criticisms lack the fireband element but are no less damning in their assessment of Blanchard’s research–and by extension, everyone who champions his work–yet they are seldom if ever mentioned when the false dichotomy is invoked by journalists like Jesse Singal.

As proponents of this dichotomy often characterize critics as trans activists and not scientists, it is worth noting that these criticisms are, to the best of my knowledge, written by scientists who are neither transgender, nor activist. Why, then, are they not taken into account any time critics of trans-antagonistic researchers are represented in the media? Recall the 1,400 signature petition condemning Zucker’s clinic and supporting trans-affirmation. Where’s the fuss for that petition?

Another strategy attempted by trans-antagonistic researchers is to characterize scientists critical of Blanchard, who happen to be trans, as activists–once again buying into the assumption that these two states are somehow mutually exclusive and that activists are unreliable. This is the entire raison d’etre of the latter half of Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger. In this nauseating section of scattered nonsense, Dreger characterizes Blanchard and Bailey’s critics as “bullies” set out to “shutting up” proponents of autogynephilia.

Curious that Julia Serano, a biochemist who happens to be trans, used the same passionless academic voice to characterize Blanchard’s work as “illogical, unfalsifiable, untestable, unscientific.” Curious that Jamie Veale recreated Blanchard’s experiment with an actual control group and found “little support for [Blanchard’s] typology.” (Veale’s findings have also been separately corroborated). Zinnia Jones describes Blanchard’s work–and Dreger’s uncritical support of it–as “insufficient, neglecting relevant concerns, farfetched.”

“Little support”? “Illogical”? “Unfalsifiable”? “Farfetched”? Curious that these criticisms are not the ones represented in Dreger’s mess. Perhaps they were too reasonable to be useful in Dreger’s quest to paint Bailey’s (and Blanchard’s) critics as shrill harpies.

These are not the same people issuing anonymous death and rape threats. These are activist academics, publishing carefully reasoned criticisms of shitty science that refuses to die because it supports common prejudices against trans women. To insist that the torrent of inappropriate abuse that has flooded trans-antagonistic researchers is no different than the criticisms presented here is to engage in a feat of tremendous dishonesty. Yet it is only these visceral anonymous attacks that are represented as the pro-trans opinion when the media “questions” Blanchard (et al)’s work.

No one listed here has been abusive towards Blanchard or his numerous fanboys/fangirls. They, like me, continue to be upset because this abysmal embarrassment of academic thought persists as a stubborn meme, exploited by religious fundamentalists and radical feminists alike to create policies that legislate trans women out of existence and legitimize violence against us. They, like me, continue to be upset because research that routinely dismisses its own subjects as liars, research that has been refuted in multiple reproductions of the experiment–is not good research. We continue to be upset because the authors of this shitty research continue to support their own egos over the very real damage their shitty research inspires.

We continue to be upset because no matter how level-headed our criticism, no matter how rooted in the academic research we are, no matter if we are published in academic journals or not–we are demonized as activists to the exclusion of scientific findings, rather than understood as activists because of scientific findings.

We continue to be upset because Blanchard, Bailey, Dreger, Zucker, and many other trans-antagonists all continue to wave the banner of scientific inquiry and empirical experimentation while sticking their heads into the sand any time someone challenges their work by their own rules.

The media continues to uncritically push this “activists versus science” narrative, most egregiously made apparent by Jesse Singal’s choice to exclude his interviews with both Serano and Parker Molloy from his coverage of the Dr. Zucker controversy. The fact that both Serano and Molloy are equipped with many of the same statistics and papers I’ve quoted here demonstrates that Singal has no intentions of representing a balanced debate. No, it was only the parents so afraid of gender nonconformity that they subjected their children to Zucker’s nonsense that were published–opinions that supported Zucker’s clinic. Yet uncritical readers understand this to be fair and even-handed coverage of the happenings around trans-antagonistic researchers.

It’s not, and I hope if you’ve made it this far, you understand why.

In summary, the “activists versus scientist” narrative is unrepresentative of reality because:

  1. Critics of Blanchard’s typology and Zucker’s clinic can be found both in and outside academia–many critics are also scientists;
  2. Trans critics of Blanchard’s typology and Zucker’s clinic can likewise be scientists–and many of them are;
  3. There is nothing precluding a scientist from engaging in activism or activists from engaging in science;

Before I leave, I’ll point out that Blanchard’s typology violates several key principles of the Scientific Method–it cannot be falsified, it lacks predictive power, and it’s only accurate when you ignore half your data. If it looks, smells, feels, tastes, and sounds like unscientific bullshit… well, draw your own conclusions at the risk of being labelled an activist uninterested in “truth, accuracy, and fairness in argument.”


Edit August 8: Fixed a broken hyperlink, fixed a mangled sentence.



  1. says

    Liar, Liar, Pants one Fire….

    Once again, someone completely misrepresents my positions, which are not “pretzels” but straight forward science based. I have NEVER supported childhood conversion therapies… and though you correctly point out that I was subject to them as a child and teen, you mistakenly support the notion that I support “gate-keeping”… a proposition which any examination of my work will very quickly dispel:

  2. Siobhan says

    Liar, Liar, Pants one Fire….

    Ah, yes, how could I have confused your 30,000 word diatribe describing queer trans girls as “autogynephilic boys” with the other 30,000 word diatribe you wrote decrying “autogynephiles” as “dangerous perverts.”

    Like I said. Exhausting. I am not going to sift through your bullshit a second time, Kay Brown. I don’t think I ever recovered from the migraine I got the first time I encountered your nonsense.

  3. says

    It speaks volumes that TERFs and transphobes actively seek out, search for and stalk critics rather than avoiding and ignoring them. It’s a level of paranoia one expects from an MRA. Not even creationists and anti-vaxxers do this.

    A strong argument is the one that can answer questions, while a weak argument tries to prevent questions from being asked. Brown’s desire to silence those who disagree with her (rather than refuting statements with facts) shows how weak her views are, and that she knows it.

  4. =8)-DX says

    Ah, thanks for this it gives much needed context to the Dreger piece and confirmation of all I’ve read surrounding Zucker’s clinic.

    Remembering many articles this portrayal of trans or trans-affirming activists as *just* activists is pretty obvious and it’s also why I was partially giving Dreger the benefit of the doubt: if the science says one thing, of course the wishful thinking of some optimistic ideologues can be dismissed! But yeah: please engage more with the science, and don’t dismiss activists, people.

  5. says

    It is, in its essence, another version of the Straw.Vulcan: You’Re passionate, you’re directly affected, therefore you cannot be objective, unlike the cis/ white/ het /dudebro who’s trying to shut you down.*

    *Interestingly a certain section on Cis White Feminists will see that tactic for what it is and call it out for what it is when at the receiving end and then turn around and use it themselves