A parent and child at the beach.

A parent and child at the beach. Credit: iStock

Political correctness is sometimes dismissed as an overused cliché. But the real thing does exist — and its chilling effects are not limited to college campuses. The latest tale of ideology-driven bullying comes from the world of clinical psychotherapy and science journalism.

Earlier this month, New York magazine science columnist Jesse Singal wrote an extensively researched piece on the destruction of the Child Youth and Family Gender Identity Clinic in Toronto and the “show trial” of its leader, 65-year-old psychologist Kenneth Zucker, who was fired from his job at one of Canada’s largest mental hospitals last December.

Zucker and his clinic had specialized in counseling for children and adolescents with gender dysphoria — the feeling that there is a mismatch between one’s biological sex and one’s gender identity.

In the present cultural climate, these are treacherous waters.

Transgender activists believe all children who express cross-gender identification should be steered toward transitioning. Zucker and other psychologists believe that a child’s identity is often malleable and complicated by such factors as fantasy. They advocate a more cautious approach, including counseling that could help the child adjust to his or her natal gender.

For instance, they say, a boy may feel that he must “really” be a girl because he loves making art and dislikes rough-and-tumble play. The therapist can help him understand that one can be a male with non-stereotypical interests and find him male playmates with a similar play style.

To most transgender activists, any counseling that encourages adjustment rather than transition is comparable to “reparative therapy” to turn gay people straight. Yet Singal makes a convincing case that these are very different issues.

Gay conversion therapy is thoroughly debunked as worthless. On the other hand, studies consistently show most gender-dysphoric children become cisgender adults (i.e. with a gender identity consistent with biological sex). Interestingly, many grow up gay.

Counseling intended to “cure” a child or teen with a transgender identity can be damaging; in one reported case, such forcible, religiously oriented therapy was blamed for the suicide of transgender Ohio teen Leelah Alcorn. But proposals to ban all therapy oriented toward adjustment to natal gender are a rush to judgment that could hurt real people, like those who see Zucker as a lifesaver.

What Singal documents in his column is a witch-hunt: a hasty review by people with little scholarly expertise who credited uncorroborated — and in some cases, later disproved — claims of misconduct against Zucker and his staff.

The closure of the Toronto clinic was roundly celebrated in left-of-center media. One might think Singal’s devastating report — coming from a journalist squarely on the progressive side in the culture wars — would be cause for second thoughts. Instead, it led, predictably, to nasty attacks on Singal.

The website Feministing asserted, without seeking comment from Singal, that he seems “uncomfortable with trans people existing.” When Singal tried to defend himself on Twitter, he was falsely accused of inciting his critics’ harassment. Prominent left-wing blogger Sady Doyle suggested he was “straight-up harassing women.”

In an email exchange, Singal stressed that he does not regard the attacks as harassment or abuse (he received no threats of violence, for example). Nonetheless, it’s the sort of backlash that can discourage journalists from tackling controversial topics.

How to best help kids with gender identity issues is an important, complex question. It calls for respectful debate, not dogma and witch-hunts.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.