The former head of a child and youth gender identity clinic who was accused of practising conversion therapy at Canada’s largest mental health centre, said the clinic’s approach “to reduce a child’s gender dysphoria” included encouraging patients to be comfortable with their biological sex and assigned gender at birth. Dr. Kenneth Zucker is seen in an October 8, 2018, handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Kenneth Zucker, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Former CAMH psychologist defends his work at youth gender identity clinic

Dr. Kenneth Zucker defended himself against criticisms of the clinic at the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

The former head of a youth gender identity clinic at Canada’s largest mental health centre is defending the work he performed at the now-shuttered facility, including encouraging patients to be comfortable with their biological sex and assigned gender at birth.

Dr. Kenneth Zucker defended himself against criticisms of the clinic at the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, which was the subject of an external review that led to his dismissal in 2015.

The review was sparked by assertions that the clinic, which Zucker led for some 35 years, was practising a form of conversion therapy on transgender youth. The controversial practice, which has been banned in a handful of Canadian provinces, essentially works to forcibly change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

RELATED: Vancouver’s ‘conversion therapy’ ban more than symbolic: experts

Zucker said the clinic actively tried to encourage young patients to accept their biological sex in a bid to “reduce a child’s gender dysphoria,” but rejected the notion that this approach amounted to conversion therapy.

“The term has been inappropriately expropriated from the way the term was used to critique clinicians who were treating mainly adult homosexual men who didn’t want to be gay — and it was also used coercively in some instances,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“So I object strenuously to using that term when we’re talking about young children who have gender dysphoria.”

The independent reviewers said in their report that they were unable to ascertain whether the clinic was in fact practising conversion therapy.

Reviewers did find, however, that the clinic focused on intensive assessment and treatment in lieu of more modern approaches. It said today’s best practices favour watchful waiting, as well as educating and supporting parents to accept a child’s gender expression.

After the review was published, CAMH announced it was “winding down” the clinic’s services. Zucker said he was “fired” about an hour before the review was made public.

Years later, the Centre acknowledged errors in its handling of the review.

In a settlement announced last week, CAMH apologized to Zucker and agreed to pay him more than half a million dollars. The centre acknowledged that the external review erroneously described his interactions with patients and noted that the report was made public without his review or comment.

Conversion therapy, sometimes called reparative therapy, has been used by some practitioners to encourage heterosexuality and to discourage those who identify as transgender from embracing the gender they identify with.

Zucker said the method he practised at the clinic attempted to make a child feel comfortable with their sex and gender identity assigned at birth. It included urging the child to form “stronger friendships with same-sex peers” and “play therapy, where one can understand better a child’s internal world and why they might feel that it’s better to be of the other gender,” he said.

RELATED: Battle over sex education in B.C. sparks #SOGIis4Me campaign

Zucker contested the idea that there is a “best practice” approach to treating kids with gender dysphoria, asserting there is limited data and research on the topic — specifically on whether the dysphoria will persist into adolescence and adulthood.

Several major international medical and human rights bodies, including an arm of the World Health Organization, have said there is considerable evidence to support the notion that conversion therapy is harmful.

Organizations that roundly denounce the practice, such as the Canadian Psychological Association, have decried conversion therapy as an unethical approach that can inflict long-term damage on those who go through it.

“Scientific research does not support the efficacy of conversion or reparative therapy,” the association said in its 2015 policy statement on the issue. “(It) can result in negative outcomes such as distress, anxiety, depression, negative self-image, a feeling of personal failure, difficulty sustaining relationships, and sexual dysfunction. There is no evidence that the negative effects of conversion or reparative therapy counterbalance any distress caused by the social stigma and prejudice these individuals may experience.”

Canada’s approach to conversion therapy has been piecemeal, with laws and regulations varying widely by jurisdiction.

Ontario’s 2015 law, for instance, slapped an outright ban on doctors performing such treatments on those under 18 and struck it from the list of insurable services covered for adults.

Nova Scotia’s recently tabled bill, meanwhile, allows a provision for “mature minors” between 16 and 18 to consent to conversion therapy. Manitoba is the only other province to have explicit legislation dealing with the issue.

Zucker said that while he tried to encourage children to accept their birth sex, he supports people making the transition to the gender they identify with if they continue to experience gender dysphoria into adolescence.

He said he believes it’s best for a patient to start medical treatments, such as hormonal treatments and sex-reassignment surgery, if gender dysphoria continues past childhood.

“I’m supportive, when they’re older, of gender-confirming surgery,” he said.

Zucker said the clinic also used other approaches with young patients — aged two to 12 years old — experiencing gender dysphoria, including watchful waiting and a “social transition” where children changed their names and pronouns.

“There wasn’t a one-size-fits-all policy,” said Zucker. “I’ve always accepted where parents are at and what’s in the best interest of their child.”

Alanna Rizza and Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Hundreds of wax figures find new life in Saanich man’s home

Former director of Victoria’s Royal London Wax Museum still hopes to revive wax figure tourism

UPDATED: Hit and run results in damaged fire hydrant, flooding on Richmond Road

Registered owner issued $360 ticket, responsible for repair costs

Peninsula Eagles will host Midget T2 provincial championships

Provincial championships will take place at Panorama Recreation March 15 to 19

Saanich’s senior race car driver not slowing down

Bill Okell kicks off 2020 season at Buttonwillow Raceway Park in California on Feb. 21

UVIC to host brain health presentation at IdeaFest 2020

Integrative Lifespan Lab will teach residents brain health for free at IdeaFest 2020

HIGHLIGHTS: Day one and two at the 2020 BC Winter Games

Athletes had sunny – but cold – weather to work with in Fort St. John

Zamboni driver, 42, earns NHL win over Maple Leafs

Emergency goalie called into action for Carolina Hurricanes

Governor general says multiple solutions needed for ‘complicated’ overdose issue

Julie Payette met at a fire hall with firefighters and police officers as well as politicians and health experts

Landlord ordered to pay $11K after harassing B.C. mom to move days after giving birth

Germaine Valdez was pressured to move just a few days after giving birth by C-section to her child

Heart attacks strike B.C. husband and wife just over one year apart

Courtenay couple share personal stories to bring awareness to heart month

‘Nothing surprises us anymore:’ U.S. border officials find brain in package

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents found the brain packed in a glass mason jar in a Canada Post shipment

B.C., Ottawa sign sweeping 30-year deal for northern caribou habitat

West Moberly, Saulteau co-manage new protection on two million acres

Loans or gifts? Judge rules woman must pay Victoria man back $7K

B.C. judge rules that woman must pay back more than $7,000 in advanced funds to man

Eyes on police after Trudeau orders blockades torn down, injunctions enforced

The RCMP in B.C. have sent a letter to the traditional leaders of the Wet’suwet’en Nation

Most Read