Being Transgender is Not a Mental Disorder

by Tommi Avicolli-Mecca on May 21, 2009

In 1971, the Gay Liberation Front at Temple University in Philadelphia learned that the college’s counseling program was routinely referring gay men to the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute for aversion therapy treatments to “cure” them of their homosexuality.

A gay man who had been subjected to the technique (electric shock administered to genitals) broke the news to those of us gathered in the room that afternoon. We decided to launch a campaign to get the University to stop funding the program. We were eventually successful.

A short while later, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of mental health in America, after gay liberationists stormed its meetings in protest.

Now, 36 years later, transgender activists are calling on the APA to drop from the DSM its designation of “gender identity disorder,” (GID) which shrinks use to label and stigmatize a person who is unhappy with his or her biological sex. The so-called disorder is listed in the DSM as a “sexual dysfunction” along with pedophilia.

Transgender activists took to the streets Monday night (May 18) outside the APA’s conference here in San Francisco where a discussion on GID was taking place. Dr. Kelley Winters, an organizer of the protest, summed up their feelings (and mine): “Difference is not a disease, nonconformity is not a pathology, and uniqueness is not an illness.”

Activists, who want GID dropped from the DSM, were upset because the task force on GID is chaired by Kenneth Zucker, PhD, a professor at the University of Toronto who believes that young children should be forced to adjust to the gender they don’t identify with.

Inside the conference, Rebecca Allison, MD, a transsexual and cardiologist from Phoenix, who also chairs the American Medical Association’s committee on LGBT issues, said that the ideal solution would be to remove GID from the DSM, but retain it in the International Classification of Diseases as a “gender variance.”

The reason? So that insurance companies continue to pay for expensive medical procedures, such as hormones and surgeries. “In a perfect world,” Allison said, “psychiatrists would treat patients with gender variance, but not for gender variance.”

Diane Ehrensaft, PhD, from the Wright Institute in Berkeley spoke on how psychiatrists should help children accept their gender identity; parents, too, should be encouraged to be supportive.

Ehrensaft minced no words when she later spoke to Psychiatric Times about the issue of GID: “The mental health profession has been consistently doing harm to children who are not ‘gender normal,’ and they need to retrain.”

“We got homosexuality out of the DSM because of protests at the APA,” Ehrensaft said. “Now it’s time to do the same with GID.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Italians Sailing Beyond Columbus, and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, which will be published in June by City Lights Books. His website:

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