Brynn Tannehill

Meet the Last 'Respectable' Reparative Therapist

Filed By Brynn Tannehill | January 02, 2015 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: ex-gay myth, ex-gay therapy, ex-trans therapy, junk science, Kenneth Zucker, reparative therapy, SOCE

At this stage in the debate, you would think that reparative therapy would be dead as a kipper on a cracker.

It has been denounced by all the major psychological, psychiatric, and medical organizations in the U.S. California, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. have passed laws forbidding its use on minors, and they have held up in court. Exodus international has folded, and the "ex-gay" movement is a pathetic and little-noticed side show.

kenneth-zucker.jpgHowever, there's one Ph.D.-level psychologist out there pushing a brand of reparative therapy that skirts the ethical guidelines of all the professional organizations that have come out against it. He is still cited as an "expert" in the media, and especially by those with an anti-LGBT ideology.

It would be easy to dismiss this person if he were some crackpot that no one listened to or was poorly regarded by his peers. Unfortunately, he isn't. In fact, he's one of the most influential psychologists in the field.

Meet Dr. Kenneth Zucker. He's a professor at the University of Toronto; editor-in-chief of Archives of Sexual Behavior for the last 12 years; a member of the American Psychological Association Task Force on Gender Identity, Gender Variance, and Intersex Conditions; and chairman of the American Psychiatric Association working group on "Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders" for the 2013 edition of the DSM-5.

He's also one of the leading proponents of a school of thought which describes the vast majority children who exhibit gender non-conforming behaviors as just juvenile gay men and lesbians who need to be prevented from growing up to be transgender. He even hints to their parents his methods might prevent them from being gay, too.

The treatment these children receive should be familiar; it is nearly indistinguishable from the methods used by George "Rent Boy" Rekers in the 1970's.

NPR described Dr. Zucker's methodology:

"So, to treat Bradley, Zucker explained to Carol that she and her husband would have to radically change their parenting. Bradley would no longer be allowed to spend time with girls. He would no longer be allowed to play with girlish toys or pretend that he was a female character. Zucker said that all of these activities were dangerous to a kid with gender identity disorder. He explained that unless Carol and her husband helped the child to change his behavior, as Bradley grew older, he likely would be rejected by both peer groups. Boys would find his feminine interests unappealing. Girls would want more boyish boys. Bradley would be an outcast.

It does seem to be the case that, at least in the short term, Carol's son Bradley is struggling in some ways with Zucker's therapy. Carol says it was particularly hard at the beginning.

"He was much more emotional. ... He could be very clingy. He didn't want to go to school anymore," she says. "Just the smallest thing could, you know, send him into a major crying fit. And ... he seemed to feel really heavy and really emotional."

Bradley has been in therapy now for eight months, and Carol says still, on the rare occasions when she cannot avoid having him exposed to girl toys, like when they visit family, it doesn't go well.

"It's really hard for him. He'll disappear and close a door, and we'll find him playing with dolls and Polly Pockets and ... the stuff that he's drawn to," she says.

"He's still a bit defensive if we ask him, 'Do you want to be a girl?' He's like 'No, NO! I'm happy being a boy. ...' He gives us that sort of stock answer. ... I still think we're at the stage where he feels he's leading a double life," she says. "... I'm still quite certain that he is with the girls all the time at school, and so he knows to behave one way at school, and then when he comes home, there's a different set of expectations."

When compared with Dr. George Rekers's infamous (and ultimately fatal) methods with his patient "Kirk", differences appear cosmetic.

"'There was a one-way mirror or one-way window -- and some days they would let him choose which table he would go to,' said Maris, who has read about the experiments.

At one table Kirk could choose between what were considered masculine toys like plastic guns and handcuffs, and what were meant to be feminine toys like dolls and a play crib. At the other table, Kirk could choose between boys' clothing and a toy electric razor or items like dress-up jewelry and a wig.

According to the case study, Kaytee Murphy was told to ignore her son when he played with feminine toys and compliment him when he played with masculine toys.

'They pretty much told him he wasn't right the way that he was, but they never really explained it to him what the issue was. They did it through play,' Maris said.

Rekers wrote that Kirk would cry out for attention, even throwing tantrums, but Kaytee Murphy was told to keep going."

How Is This Not 'Reparative Therapy'?

Someone might wonder how Dr. Zucker escapes the label of sexual orientation change effort (SOCE) with his "Drop the doll!" methodologies, when his techniques and goals seem so similar. There is one semantic difference: Zucker does not claim to be trying to make gender non-conforming kids straight, he just claims to make them straight-acting. Somehow this nuance has mostly inured him from mainstream criticism.

blue-pink-baby-shoes.jpgIt hasn't gone completely unnoticed, though: a 2003 report in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry called his techniques "something disturbingly close to reparative therapy for homosexuals."

Dr. Zucker attributes gender non-conformance (what he calls "pre-homosexuality") to the same things "ex-gay" activists say cause homosexuality:

"[Zucker] urges parents to steer their children toward gender-typical toys, clothes and playmates and advises them to prohibit behaviors associated with the other sex. Zucker's academic articles assert that while biology may predispose some children to gender nonconformity, other factors -- like trauma and emotional disorders -- often play a role. Other contributing causes he cites include overprotective mothers, emotionally absent fathers or mothers who are hostile toward men." [Emphasis mine.]

You might also ask how this isn't trying to change someone's gender identity though. To Dr. Zucker's mind, it is because there is no such thing as gender identity. To him, gender is learned, and it is plastic and malleable (no matter how badly John Money's experiments went).

There are no transgender children, just "confused" gender non-conforming (almost always gay) children who need behavior modification therapy.

Twenty years ago, though, Zucker was pushing hard for reparative therapy of potentially gay children who were too effeminate, in order to prevent them from growing up to be gay. In Zucker and Bradley's 1990 article on gender non-conforming youth and the motivations of reparative therapy he wrote,

"Two short term goals have been discussed in the literature: the reduction or elimination of social ostracism and conflict, and the alleviation of underlying or associated psychopathology. Longer term goals have focused on the prevention of transsexualism and/or homosexuality." [Emphasis mine.]

Ken Zucker, Concern Troll?

For over 20 years, Zucker has seemingly been concern-trolling the LGBT community. Everything he does is for the sake of the children, because he believed in the '80s and '90s that society would never accept gay people. Now, he uses the same argument for why gender non-conforming children should be prevented from being transgender.

Dr. Zucker is dismissive of efforts to create a more tolerant society, where gender non-conformance and/or homosexuality are accepted. In his 1995 book with Bradley, they wrote, "a homosexual lifestyle in a basically unaccepting culture simply creates unnecessary social difficulties."

In other words, there's no point in trying to make society more open and tolerant -- the only option is to learn to act (or be) straight unless you want to be mistreated.

On top of all of this, Zucker was the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior when Dr. Robert Spitzer's infamous article supporting reparative therapy efforts was published in 2001. The article itself was not subjected to the usual peer review process, and ultimately Dr. Zucker refused to retract it.

Zucker himself plays coy on whether or not he believes orientation can be changed, and he supports the rights of parents to subject their children to SOCE. In his 2004 book, he quotes his mentor Dr. Richard Green:

"The rights of parents to oversee the development of children is a long-established principle. Who is to dictate that parents may not try to raise their children in a manner that maximizes the possibility of a heterosexual outcome? If that prerogative is denied, should parents also be denied the right to raise their children as atheists? Or as priests?"

This is the same Dr. Richard Green that George Rekers worked with at UCLA in the 1970s -- the same Richard Green who wrote in 1987 that reparative therapy on "sissy boys" reduced the odds of them growing up to be homosexual.

Dr. Robert Spitzer always regarded homosexuality as a "suboptimal" outcome, and given Zucker's close association with Spitzer, it is not hard to believe that Zucker still sees being gay as sub-optimal to being straight. Other things he has said and written support this supposition. Zucker also quietly nudges the parents of gender non-conforming youth to put them in reparative therapy, by broadly hinting via correlation that changing their behavior might also change their orientation.

"Dr. Zucker says that clinicians have an ethical obligation to inform parents of the relationship between GID (Gender Identity Disorder) and homosexuality. Clinical experience suggests that psychosexual treatments are effective in reducing gender dysphoria and that individual counseling and parental counseling are both effective methods of treating GID."

And Zucker promotes his methods' efficacy in fixing the problem (gender non-conformance) that he implies causes the other (homosexuality):

"It has been our experience that a sizable number of children and their families achieve a great deal of change. In these cases, the GID resolves fully, and nothing in the children's behavior or fantasy suggest that gender-identity issues remain problematic... All things considered, we take the position that in such cases a clinician should be optimistic, not nihilistic, about the possibility of helping the children to become more secure in their gender identity."

When asked directly about the efficacy of SOCE, Zucker again waffles:

"At this point, I cannot make any statement about how therapy affects later sexual orientation," Zucker says, clearly choosing his words carefully. "But certainly many parents bring their children to me because they would prefer that they not grow up to be gay."

He also claimed that all the evidence isn't in yet:

"Zucker says that the ethical issues in providing treatment "are moot until we can know whether treatment can alter the natural history of a child's sexual orientation."


Based on all of this, Dr. Kenneth Zucker is the darling of many anti-LGBT and pro-SOCE organizations. These include Focus on the Family, NARTH, Courage, Alliance Defending Freedom, Life Site News, American Family Association, Liberty Counsel, Americans for Truth About Homosexuality (AFTAH), Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX), and others. His work has been cited repeatedly (here and here, for instance) in amicus briefs filed by right wing groups opposed to LGBT rights.

If Dr. Zucker is opposed to his research being used this way, he has been quiet about it.

One has to wonder where Dr. Zucker's desire to make children fit in, fade away, and escape the attention of bullies and religious zealots by acting straight comes from. One key passage about his past seems to provide a crucial insight:

His "intellectual, left--winger" Jewish parents were victims of McCarthy-era witch hunting--his dad lost several jobs, Zucker says, because he refused to "rat on his Commie friends." In Zucker's telling, they ultimately decided that "for the sake of their children, they needed to become conformist," and they moved to the suburbs to "disappear from the scene--trapped in middle-class consumer subculture for the good of the cause."

No one can say for certain what Dr. Zucker's motivations are. It could be a misplaced desire to help, it could be animus, it could be concern trolling. In any event, with laws prohibiting reparative therapy on minors being introduced across the U.S., his theories appear to be going the way of the dodo.


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