Dr. Keith Ablow is an assistant clinical professor at Tufts University School of Medicine. So am I. Ablow has a problem with transgendered people. I do not. I first learned about Ablow’s well publicized stance Wednesday via an email to the Tufts community, signed by the university’s president, the dean of the medical school and the chair of the psychiatry department.
The university reaffirmed its commitment to the complete inclusion of LGBT people, and made every effort to minimize Ablow’s academic role, while putting off those calling for the school to revoke his appointment with an appeal to academic freedom. I’ll set aside the question of whether the school should recalculate the value-for-title arrangement it has with someone who it insists contributes little but a whopping headache.
In addition to practicing medicine, Ablow is a media commentator. So am I. I’ll leave it to you to weigh the relative exposure his opinion receives as a member of the Fox News “Medical A-Team” versus my spot here on our dear and venerable Atlantic. Suffice it to say, his September 2 FoxNews.com opinion piece calling on parents to keep their children from watching Chaz Bono on Dancing With the Stars has kicked up quite a firestorm in response.
Those outraged by the article range from Tufts students who called for his resignation and painted “Tufts loves trans. Does Ablow?” on a canon (the campus landmark is already well accustomed to serving as a soapbox) to Lewis Black who told the Daily Show‘s audience: “I don’t know if letting your kids watch Chaz Bono will turn them into transsexuals, but I’m pretty sure letting them watch Keith Ablow will turn them into assholes.”
No less than the American Psychiatric Association’s president responded (fittingly, to TMZ) that “There is no evidence that viewing a television game show with a transgender contestant would induce Gender Identity Disorder in young people.”
GLAAD is calling on “responsible medical and mental health professionals to continue to clarify the unscientific misinformation promulgated by Keith Ablow and other anti-transgender activists.”
As a medical professional with a media platform and a penchant for muckrakery I am happy to oblige.
Ablow attempted to stem the onslaught against his views by showing off his bona fides in a follow up Fox News column. He considers himself hot stuff:
Now, as for those journalists who contend that I have no experience from which to opine about gender identity disorder or sexual reassignment surgery or the influence of media on public behavior, please note I graduated the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine where I studied with [Paul McHugh] himself. I also studied with Dr. Fred Berlin, director of the Sexual Behavior Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins.
Paul McHugh is well known for questioning the wisdom of gender reassignment surgery. Little mystery there. But what about Fred Berlin, the other pivotal mentor Ablow cites to further pad his credibility? What does he think of his former protege?
So I asked him. In short, if Ablow was planning on using his connection to the esteemed Fred Berlin to burnish the validity of this particular opinion, he can forget about it already.
If children are aware enough to ask questions about Chaz Bono’s sexuality, then that’s a good opportunity for parents to have the conversation with their children, Berlin says. If anything, Chaz’s presence on Dancing With the Stars offers parents a chance to teach their kids one of life’s great lessons: Just because people are different doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t be treated with respect.
“To not let kids know about the real world, to not take the opportunity to try to instill values that we think are important — it seems to me as to miss an opportunity. I respect Dr. Ablow, but I look at this rather differently than he does,” Berlin tells me. Even parents who might fear seeing their own kids make Chaz’s choice should have plenty to say on the matter: “Certainly I would hope that we could all agree that there ought not to be bullying and intolerance.”
The thrust of Ablow’s argument is that Chaz’s being uplifted on the show will give kids “ideas.” That’s a ludicrous assertion, according to his own mentor. “To me it’s like saying a child is going to become gay because they heard an actor on television mention that he’s gay,” says Berlin. “It just doesn’t work that way.”
Ablow has the medical facts wrong as well, his professor told me. The science shows most adults who undergo gender reassignment surgery are happier people, and Berlin sees this in his clinical practice.
“One should be absolutely certain that less invasive procedures have been considered before doing something that radical. The person who is going to have that procedure should have had counseling and assistance to help them be absolutely certain before they do anything irrevocable, that this isn’t going to be something they’ll regret later,” Berlin says.
Psychiatrists should serve to facilitate the best treatment for a given individual, not denigrate therapeutic choices that are proven to work in carefully self-selected cases. People with gender identity disorder should first try to change their mindset to become comfortable in their own bodies, but if they can’t, “then they’re just going to continue to be miserable. Then maybe the body needs to be changed as the alternative way of bringing them some comfort.”
Comfort. That’s the need “one of America’s leading psychiatrists” threatens to deprive transgendered people from finding by keeping the next generation from learning about them and accepting their choice. He fears seeing their choice normalized. One can only imagine how different Keith Ablow’s world would be had he seen Chaz Bono twirling on his TV set back in his grade school days, and how much better ours would be for it.
Ford Vox is a physician and medical journalist who has written for Reuters, U.S. News & World Report, and Newsweek. This piece originally appeared in The Atlantic, and is reprinted with the author’s permission.
Submit a guest post and be heard on social media’s leading physician voice.