For months, activists have criticized the University for failing to condemn a paper published by two Hopkins affiliates in The New Atlantis last August. The paper suggests that biology does not play a role in determining sexuality and gender identity and argues that children who identify as a different gender will likely grow out of it.
In response to the report’s publication, this March the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) deducted 25 points from Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Healthcare Equality Index (HEI). The HEI evaluates healthcare facilities’ practices related to their treatment of LGBT+ communities.
The report was co-authored by Lawrence Mayer, a scholar in residence at the School of Medicine, and Paul McHugh, a professor of psychiatry there.
While the University has not released an official statement, Hopkins faculty and community members have opposed the paper. Over 600 people signed a petition demanding that the University publicly disavow the report.
Last September three professors at the Bloomberg School of Public Health published an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun criticizing the paper’s claims. They argued that the paper lacks scientific credibility, and they cited several studies in the peer-reviewed literature that Mayer and McHugh overlooked.
The University’s Office of LGBTQ Life has released a public statement in support of transgender and gender non-conforming people.
As one of the largest queer advocacy groups in the nation, the HRC believes that the University is putting the health and safety of LGBT+ patients at risk by not releasing an official statement.
The News-Letter interviewed Mayer and McHugh to discuss their thoughts on the paper and the HRC’s actions.
Mayer argued that the paper supports the transgender community. He explained that he is not against gender-affirming treatment itself but rather its use on young children.
“My concern is taking children as young as two and suggesting that they already have identification with the opposite gender so strong that they ought to be put in a gender-affirming environment,” Mayer said.
He argued that the science suggests that biological sex defines one’s gender identity.
“There are no little boys born in little girls’ bodies or little girls born in little boys’ bodies,” he said. “You can’t change the biology of a human being, and in my opinion, the attempt to do so is merely a fad.”
The paper suggests that LGBT+ people are more likely to experience mental disorders, suicidal thoughts and childhood abuse. It also argues that few children who identify with a different gender continue to do so into adulthood.
Mayer argued that critics of the paper did not dispute their scientific evidence.
“[It has] been challenged because number one, it wasn’t in a peer reviewed journal, number two, it didn’t review all the literature… and number three, people don’t like the conclusions,” he said.
McHugh criticized the HRC for trying to push its own agenda on the University. He believes that the HRC is disregarding his right to academic freedom by trying to intimidate the University into repudiating the paper.
“I believe these people are saying to Johns Hopkins… ‘You’re not doing human rights unless you do what we tell you,’” he said. “They want to silence me.”
He praised the University for refusing to take a stance against the paper and supporting his right to publish on controversial topics. He does not think that the point deduction will hurt the University’s reputation and said that academic freedom and the search for truth are more important than the criticisms from the HRC.
Like Mayer, McHugh dismissed arguments that the paper was prejudiced against transgender people due to its opposition to gender-affirming care for children.
“I want to have somebody point out a clear example of what I’ve done that anyone could say was a prejudice or a bias,” he said. “I’m saying this treatment isn’t good for these transgendered patients.”
Chris Beyrer, professor of public health and human rights at Bloomberg, disagreed with the paper’s arguments that gender identity is not a biological trait and that gender dysphoria can be treated with therapy.
“[The paper] purports to put forward basically an alternative view from the current scientific consensus,” he said. “And the current scientific consensus is that sexual orientation and gender identity are really innate aspects of the self. So the idea, for example, that there’s some kind of therapy… has been really disproven.”
Beyrer also emphasized that the paper was not peer-reviewed or published in a credible scientific journal and that Mayer and McHugh would not have been able to publish in peer-reviewed literature because their findings are not scientifically valid.
He stressed that although a publication like The New Atlantis may appear credible to average readers, it has little traction in the scientific field.
“If you don’t know really what you’re doing, you could misunderstand and think that this [paper] in some way has had some validity, as opposed to being someone’s opinion,” he said. “That’s really all that they have, [an] opinion.”
Despite criticizing the paper, Beyrer does not believe that it will have any effect on the quality of care for LGBT+ patients at the University.
He added that the University issued a statement affirming its commitment to inclusive care. He opposes the HRC’s request for Hopkins to take an official stance against the paper.
“What HRC… wanted was for the University to formally repudiate the report,” he said. “And the University did not do that principally because of the principle of academic freedom. That it is not the University’s role, to police people’s right to free thinking and free speech.”
However, he stated that there is a difference between academic freedom and presenting outdated scientific views as valid.
“This is not an issue of academic freedom,” he said. “This is an issue of junk science…It is true that people have a right to their opinion. It’s also true that…the argument that sexual orientation is a choice is junk science. It’s abundantly clear that it’s not a choice.”
Director of LGBTQ Life Demere Woolway believes that the paper does not reflect the University’s views on LGBT+ issues.
“I think it is pretty clear that Hopkins leadership has consistently shown support for LGBTQ individuals,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “Policy and practice decisions support and affirm the LGBTQ community.”
She acknowledged that there is room for improvement in terms of inclusion but noted that the University has made progress, pointing to the introduction of gender-inclusive housing and training to create safe zones for LGBT+ people.
Woolway also noted that for the most part, students were not particularly concerned that the paper would affect the LGBT+ community at Hopkins.
“Most of the students I have talked to about this issue seem cognizant that academic freedom provides McHugh and Mayer the protection to say controversial things,” she wrote. “Students are far more concerned about individuals that they interact with regularly, especially faculty at Homewood and fellow students.”
Paula Neira, director of the Center for Transgender Health at Hopkins, stressed that the paper does not change the Center’s goal to provide quality healthcare to transgender patients.
“There’s going to be skepticism in some quarters… but what’s more important is what we’re actually doing,” Neira said. “We’re committed to doing transgender healthcare right.”
She added that those who receive transgender healthcare are well-informed enough to make their own choices.
“The care we provide, our interactions with them — that’s what’s going to drive their impression of [us],” she said.