LGBTQ

How the Christian Right Is Using Junk Science to Attack Transgender Rights

“McHugh has publicly called transgender people ‘caricatures' and described them as ‘confused' and ‘mad.'”

Same-sex marriage supporters hold a rally in front of the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals, May 13, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

While North Carolina’s anti-LGBTQ HB2 law – its so-called bathroom bill -- Target stores’ policy of allowing transgender team members and guests to use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity, and public schools across the nation are working to accommodate transgender children, the religious right has placed transgender rights in its crosshairs. Dr. Paul McHugh, a former director of Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Psychiatry and University Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has over the years become the go-to guy for the Religious Right’s anti-trans attacks.

2016 was the deadliest year on record for murders of transgender people in the US. In an era of the public shaming of transgender students at public universities by alt-right representatives, and a predilection for fake news and pseudo science, McHugh has been stoking gender-identity hate, and has been blazing a path of misinformation and disinformation. 

According to the Human Rights Campaign, “McHugh has publicly called transgender people ‘caricatures' and described them as ‘confused' and ‘mad.'” He not only writes about these issues, but he’s also provided anti-trans testimony in courtrooms, and before state legislatures across the country.

According to a Political Research Associates profile, Dr. Paul McHugh "has actively worked against the medical treatment of trans people since the 1970s, [and] ….In an essay published in The American Scholar, McHugh indicates that part of his incentive for taking over Johns Hopkins’ psychiatry department was to shut down the institution’s Gender Identity Clinic, which had been at the forefront of transgender medicine since 1966." He succeeded in shutting it down in 1979. 

In addition to his prestigious position at Johns Hopkins University, McHugh has carved out “a platform” for his transphobia as a “member of the American College of Pediatricians (ACP), a small right-wing breakaway group that split from the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2002 and was later called a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2012.”  The American College of Pediatricians should not be confused with the more legitimate American Academy of Pediatrics.

In a January 2017 statement – signed onto by McHugh -- published at the American College of Pediatricians website titled “Gender Ideology Harms Children,” the organization “urges healthcare professionals, educators and legislators to reject all policies that condition children to accept as normal a life of chemical and surgical impersonation of the opposite sex.”

According to the Massachusetts-based Political Research Associates (PRA), McHugh has become one of the go-to academicians for the religious right’s attack on transgender rights. And while his work is often “cited as fact by the Christian Right, his own sources are questionable.”

PRA pointed out that “The Human Rights Campaign recently drilled down on this failure to engage in rigorous peer review as part of a new website called “McHugh Exposed” launched just ahead of the Earth Day “March for Science” in April 2017. This comes on the heels of McHugh jointly filing an amicus brief to the Supreme Court opposing Virginia trans student Gavin Grimm in his case regarding access to the restroom appropriate to his gender identity. In March 2017, the Supreme Court reversed its decision to hear the case, and vacated a lower court’s ruling in favor of Grimm. How Title IX protections extend to trans students remain open to interpretation.”

The “McHugh Exposed” website recently published a pieced titled “How anti-LGBTQ activists are leveraging junk science to advance their agenda.” The website points out that “In August 2016, [McHugh] teamed up with Lawrence Mayer—a biostatistician who was recently paid $400 per hour to defend North Carolina's infamous anti-LGBTQ HB2 law in court—on a report mischaracterizing research on gender and sexual orientation.” McHugh later admitted that the so-called [a 116-page] “special report,” which was “published in the New Atlantis [magazine], a right-wing think tank journal, was merely an ‘opinion piece.’"

The HRC website noted that “McHugh's effort to give a veneer of academic integrity to transphobic junk science is part of a broader disturbing trend: the use of misleading, badly designed or completely unscientific ‘research’ to attack LGBTQ people and their families. In reality, McHugh’s personal views run contrary to the overwhelming medical consensus and the established standards of care endorsed by every major medical association calling for affirming and embracing LGBTQ identities.”

In October 2016, many members of Johns Hopkins community, including faculty, staff, students and alumni “called on the university and hospital to distance themselves from McHugh … opinions.” And in March of this year, “nearly 600 clinicians and researchers who are LGBTQ health experts, explaining that the New Atlantis report does not reflect scientific consensus and should not be used for policymaking,” HRC reported.

While McHugh is definitely in the do-as-much-harm-to-transgender-people-as-possible camp, and is a darling of the religious right, his work is also raising questions about how trans people will be treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital. As The Daily Beast’s Samantha Allen recently pointed out, Johns Hopkins was “Once the first medical institution in the U.S. to offer sex reassignment surgery in the 1960s, it has taken nearly forty years for Johns Hopkins Medicine to return to the field of transgender health care after the original clinic was shut down in 1979 at the urging of Dr. Paul McHugh, then chair of the psychiatry department.”

What will happen at the newly opened Johns Hopkins Center for Transgender Health, now under the direction of Paula Neira, a transgender woman, remains to be seen. “We’re aware that there’s going to be skepticism in some quarters because of the history, because of McHugh’s writings,” Neira told The Daily Beast. “But his writings don’t reflect the institution’s values and where we’re going.”

 

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement.

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