It has been just under two months since The New Atlantis, a conservative bioethics magazine, published its “special report” on LGBT issues. In that time, the report has already been cited in at least one Alliance Defending Freedom lawsuit challenging LGBT nondiscrimination protections. The report, written by Johns Hopkins University professors Lawrence Mayer and Paul McHugh, cherry-picked studies to challenge the notion that sexual orientation and gender identity are biological and ingrained aspects of identity while also questioning the importance of affirming LGBT people for who they are.
That, at least, is how both proponents and opponents of LGBT equality read it, but weeks later, the magazine is still engaging in an odd damage control campaign. The editors of The New Atlantis continue to issue fact-checks and corrections that, though intended to defend the publication, actually seem to further undermine both the legitimacy and overall value of the “special report.”
A timeline of quibbles and clarifications
The “Sexuality and Gender” report was first published on August 22, launched with fanfare — a special profile and fancy video — on the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal. Following the Daily Signal’s example, other conservative publications highlighted the report as debunking the “born that way” understanding of human sexuality and gender identity, while LGBT advocates dissected the report’s flawed reasoning.
Among those who critiqued the report was veteran geneticist Dean Hamer, whose analysis at The Advocate included many of the same arguments made here at ThinkProgress. On September 2nd, Adam Keiper, editor of The New Atlantis, published an email that he sent to Hamer disagreeing with many of his critiques. Keiper challenged the notion that the authors cherry-picked studies and clarified that none of the conclusions were absolute. For example, Keiper wrote, “While Drs. Mayer and McHugh dispute the notion that people are simply ‘born gay,’ they do not argue that there is no genetic contribution to sexual behaviors, attractions, and identity.”
A few days later, on September 6th, the magazine’s editors published a Frequently Asked Questions document that addressed many of the the conclusions readers on both ends of the political spectrum had drawn from the report. “Does the report prove that the ‘born that way’ hypothesis is false?” it asks. “No,” it answers. “The report shows that the ‘born that way’ hypothesis is not supported by scientific evidence.”
That document seemed to be the publication’s last quibble, but this week, it issued yet another round of retorts aimed at the Human Rights Campaign, which has criticized the report and joined hundreds members of the Johns Hopkins community in calling for the school to disavow the report. Like the Hamer response and FAQ, the latest response highlights claims HRC made about the report, then simply insists they are false.
— The New Atlantis (@tnajournal) October 10, 2016
These responses don’t really shed much new light on the actual information presented in the report, which needs not be rehashed point by point. But they do contextualize its publication, in some ways further undermining its legitimacy and raising new questions about the political role it has yet to play.
A report that says a whole lot of nothing
What’s remarkable about all three of these documents is how dedicated The New Atlantis editors are to clarifying what the report does not say. In a sense, their argument is that its 143 pages don’t say anything concrete at all. But that appears to be the whole point: As ThinkProgress explains, the report is full of dogwhistles, not conclusions.
Using the above FAQ question as an example, there is actually is evidence that there are biological factors in both sexual orientation and gender identity; it’s just not simple or fully understood. Thus, there is merit to the notion that LGBT people are “born that way” — at least in a colloquial sense of having innate identities that cannot be manipulated — but the editors can imply that it’s false by simply saying that it’s not (fully) supported by scientific evidence.
Although there are a lot of studies missing from the report, many of the studies that Mayer and McHugh do include actually point in the direction of affirming LGBT people for who they are. But the authors then rely on the fact that the research is not yet conclusive enough by their standards in order to actually imply the opposite — that there’s not enough science to support the value of LGBT affirmation and equality.
— The New Atlantis (@tnajournal) September 15, 2016
By continuing to retaliate against critics by insisting that the report doesn’t actually draw any solid conclusions, the editors are simply confirming the apparent strategy behind the report: Mayer and McHugh looked at affirming conclusions about the LGBT community, picked studies with results that don’t fully support those conclusions, put enough of them together to make it look comprehensive, then presented it in a way such that people already predisposed to be skeptical of LGBT identities could have those biases confirmed and vindicated.
And that’s exactly how the report has played out. It’s not a coincidence that the Alliance Defending Freedom is already using the report to attack transgender kids in court cases; that’s exactly the purpose the report was designed to serve. The fact that all of The New Atlantis’ responses have targeted LGBT advocates, instead of LGBT opponents who drew the same conclusions, further reinforces the anti-LGBT bias both of the report and of the magazine itself, which is affiliated with anti-LGBT organizations like the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
A chance to examine some dubious reputations
The two months since the report’s publication have also allowed more light to shine on the motivations of its authors.
Paul McHugh’s reputation preceded him. The FAQ document attempted to address this, asking, “Doesn’t Paul McHugh have a record of anti-LGBT work?” Though it’s true that he does have such a record and that his conclusions, such as his outright rejection of transgender people and the authenticity of their identities, stand apart from all mainstream medical groups, the editors countered, “Dr. McHugh has on many occasions been attacked personally by activists who are unable to discredit his work but see it as a threat to their own agendas.”
How should physicians treat children with gender-identity problems? A look at what the science says—and doesn't. https://t.co/CrHX00CnhH
— The New Atlantis (@tnajournal) August 22, 2016
Lawrence Mayer, however, was more of an unknown in terms of LGBT discourse. That has changed since the report came out.
When ThinkProgress first published its critique of the report, Mayer reached out directly to discuss it through a lengthy email exchange. Right off the bat, he insisted, “I am not a conservative Christian or a Catholic. I am a strong supporter of LGBTQ rights. I have put my career on lime [sic] defending Gays and Lesbians in court as an expert.”
But Mayer’s service to the court has since undermined his claims. One of HRC’s critiques of the report’s proclaimed objectivity is the fact that Mayer testified in the case between the federal government and North Carolina over HB2, the state’s anti-LGBT law, on behalf of North Carolina. In The New Atlantis’ response to this critique, the editors simply tried to downplay the fact that he was paid $400 an hour for his “expertise,” casually ignoring what he actually said.
Indeed, his testimony relied on the same anti-transgender dogwhistles as the report. He stated that the concept of gender is “not well defined,” the causes of transgender identities “remain poorly understood,” research into the biological traits of transgender people “has so far been inconclusive,” and gender identity is a “subjective attribute.” Much of what he wrote seems to be quoted verbatim from the report.
“Scientifically speaking,” he asserted to the court, “transgender men are not biological men and transgender women are not biological women. The claims to the contrary are not supported by a scintilla of scientific evidence.”
— The New Atlantis (@tnajournal) September 23, 2016
He regurgitated much of the same analysis from the report, engaging, for example, in concern-trolling that transgender children should not be affirmed in their gender identities. He also reiterated a hackneyed claim that transgender people who undergo surgery are more likely to commit suicide — a claim that has been debunked by the very researcher who conducted the 2011 study from which it’s derived.
The scientific evidence suggests we take a skeptical view toward the claim that sex-reassignment procedures provide the hoped-for benefits or resolve the underlying issues that contribute to elevated mental health risks among the transgender population. While we work to stop maltreatment and misunderstanding, we should also work to study and understand whatever factors may contribute to the high rates of suicide and other psychological and behavioral health problems among the transgender population, and to think more clearly about the treatment options that are available.
There has not yet been a ruling determining the fate of HB2, so it remains to be seen if his testimony defending a law that rejects transgender identities had any impact.
“I do not believe all transgenders [sic] should be condemned or are mentally ill,” Mayer said in his emails to ThinkProgress. “Many transgenders [sic], including my friends, live fulfilled lives.”
A campaign against an institution with a bad reputation
HRC’s response to the report has been to draw more attention to Johns Hopkins University, home to both Mayer and McHugh. In particular, a petition is calling on the university’s School of Medicine to publicly disavow the report as a “misguided, misinformed attack on LGBT communities.” HRC has also threatened to lower the ranking of the school’s hospitals and medical affiliates on its Healthcare Equality Index.
The New Atlantis counters that this pressure is a threat to academic freedom, but this ignores JHU’s reputation when it comes to transgender care. Indeed, the report, which was not peer-reviewed, was, if anything, a last straw. As HRC’s Tari Hanneman told the Washington Blade, the organization’s demand is that the university clarify “that McHugh and Mayer’s opinions do not represent it, and that its healthcare services reflect the scientific consensus on LGBTQ health and well-being.” For some time, its services have not reflected that consensus, and specifically because of McHugh’s biases.
In a widely shared 2014 commentary in the Wall Street Journal, which the newspaper even republished in 2016, McHugh boasted that based on his interpretation of a particular study in the 1970s and under his leadership as psychiatrist in chief, JHU “stopped doing sex-reassignment surgery.” He added that it was a “wise” decision, relying on that same 2011 study that does not actually show that transition surgery increases rates of suicide.
"Mortality from suicide was strikingly high among sex-reassigned persons" https://t.co/CrHX00CnhH
— The New Atlantis (@tnajournal) September 19, 2016
This anti-trans reputation at JHU has persisted to this day, and McHugh is far from the only doctor there who has reportedly mistreated transgender patients. A 2014 article in the News-Letter, the university’s student newspaper, confirmed that the school still does not perform those surgeries, but does provide consultations and referrals.
It is very much true that McHugh’s history at the otherwise distinguished medical school has helped inflate the credibility of his anti-trans assertions. This report is no different. Indeed, even the editor’s note introducing the authors describes McHugh as “arguably the most important American psychiatrist of the last half-century.” The interview with Mayer in the accompanying video likewise appears to have been filmed on the university’s campus.
The editors at The New Atlantis attempted to downplay this connection, insisting that neither they nor the authors “have done anything to suggest that the report is a publication of Johns Hopkins.” While that may be true, the university’s silence perpetuates its decades-old notoriety as the institution that helps justify the rejection of transgender identities.
A fate not yet decided
In its FAQ, The New Atlantis concedes that “the report is not a study; it is a scientific review of the literature.” But in a telling admission, it also suggests that the report “clears away many false claims about what is allegedly known.”
That, certainly, is its intent. The fact that the magazine continues to go to bat for this report suggests a desire to counter every possible attempt to scrutinize its legitimacy so that its dogwhistles might sound for months or years to come. Mayer’s testimony and ADF’s court citation suggests it might do just that.
What makes it so dangerous is that, as the editors point out, it doesn’t have to say anything conclusive at all about LGBT people — and it doesn’t. It only has to confirm the doubts of those biased against LGBT people — which it clearly does.