03/15/2013 03:04 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Pope Benedict's Abdication -- Is It Good for the Trans Community?

Whenever there is a major domestic or world event, members of the Jewish community often first ask, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, "Is it good for the Jews?" I won't tackle the Pope's abdication from that perspective, because I've been tasked with writing about LGBT issues. So I will amend the question to: "Is it good for the trans community?"

First, a little of my history with the Catholic Church. When I was 12 I was admitted to my local Catholic hospital with kidney failure and sepsis, a severe blood-borne infection with impending circulatory collapse. I had last rites performed (no, my Jewish parents were not pleased), then suffered cardiac arrest and was resuscitated on the operating table (what we today call a "code," but which was far more primitive in those days). Forty years later, after having lived as Dana for six months, I underwent genital reconstruction at Mt. San Rafael Hospital in Trinidad, Colorado. Both times I remember the care of the hospital staff as exemplary, so I'm biased towards the good the American church performs for many.

I learned as an adult, however, that both those experiences were the result of the reforms promulgated by the Vatican of Pope John XXIII. The man was revered even in the Jewish community of my youth, for his efforts to save Jews during the Shoah, or Holocaust, and was known for his liberalizing tendencies, in particular the Second Vatican Council, still followed by so many American Catholics. For instance, a 2011 poll showed 93 percent of Catholics supported gender identity and expression anti-discrimination laws. That's right -- 93 percent!

But since his passing, the Vatican has propelled itself steadily downward to the extreme right, leading now to the abdication of the man, Benedict XVI, who once served in the Hitler Youth and presided, in various offices, over the Church pedophilia scandal and cover-up. As far as the trans community is concerned, his representative in America has been Vatican advisor Paul McHugh,
Emeritus Professor of Johns Hopkins University. Serving from 1975 till 2001, McHugh led the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, having been hired in 1975 to oppose Professor John Money, one of America's leading sexologists, and to shut down its path-breaking gender reassignment program. He accomplished this in 1979, as recounted by Laura Wexler.

Thankfully, due to the "Law of Unintended Consequences," his closure of the nation's leading academic gender identity program (which I had visited in 1972) led to the privatization of gender reassignment, ultimately serving many thousands more here and abroad than could ever have been accommodated in teaching hospitals.

Professor McHugh wasn't finished, however, writing for The American Scholar, the Phi Beta Kappa journal, in 1992, a piece called "Psychiatric Misadventures." I was so appalled that a society to which I belonged would publish such garbage that I wrote to the editors and to Dr. McHugh himself, my first public outing as a trans woman. In 2004 his colleague, Professor William Reiner, America's leading clinician dealing with intersex children, published in The New England Journal of Medicine his proof of the existence of gender identity, or brain sex.

In spite of that evidence, McHugh didn't stop, publishing in the right-wing Catholic journal, First Things, in 2006 (by this time no reputable scholarly or medical journal would publish his biased ranting) his article, "Surgical Sex." Some of his comments in that piece -- adult "males" who undergo surgical reassignment fall into two main groups: (1) "conflicted and guilt-ridden homosexual men" and (2) "heterosexual (and some bisexual) males who found intense sexual arousal in cross-dressing as females." In addition, "they [trans persons] were little changed in their psychological condition. They had much the same problems with relationships, work, and emotions as before. The hope that they would emerge now from their emotional difficulties to flourish psychologically had not been fulfilled."

These canards have been used by the fundamentalist opposition to trans protections now for over a decade, though they have had much less impact since the Hopkins Sexual Behavior Consultation Unit clinical faculty, led by Dr. Chris Kraft, has become fully supportive of trans persons over the past decade. That, combined with the declassification of Gender Identity Disorder as a mental illness in the DSM 5 last year, pretty much exiles Dr. McHugh to the same lonely abode on the margins of respectable society where John Money landed after he was exposed for falsifying data to buttress his theory of the purely social determinism of gender identity. Both men learned that science can be a harsh mistress, and that twisting one's data to fit one's thesis will ultimately backfire.

To show that, when it comes to sexual minorities, he is an equal opportunity anti-LGBT extremist, McHugh made a motion in 2010 in United States District Court, Northern District of California, to file an amicus brief in the case of Perry et al. v. Schwarzenegger et al. that stated in part:

"Amicus seeks to provide information to this Court bearing on its decision of whether to endorse a legal declaration that orientation is a fixed and immutable characteristic similar to race or gender.

In the proposed brief, Amicus points out two highly relevant facts: (1) there is no scientific consensus on what homosexuality is, and the number of people who fit in the class "gay and lesbian" varies widely, depending on which definition of homosexuality is used and (2) there is no scientific consensus that homosexuality is exclusively or primarily genetic in origin."

So to answer the question, "Is the Pope's abdication good for the trans community?" I would say "yes." Of course, things can always get worse, depending on the behavior of his replacement; Pope Francis has a long history of homophobia and transphobia, even though he was a presiding cardinal in Argentina, which has enacted marriage equality as well as the most progressive trans equality laws in the world. The world has changed for the better for the LGBT community so much these past few years; however, that I'm hopeful Pope Francis will do much better than appoint the next Paul McHugh as an adviser to torture our community.