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Letter to Paul McHugh (1994)

Letter to Paul McHugh (1994)

©1994, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (1994, 20 May). Letter to Paul McHugh.

I wrote the following in response to an article published in The American Scholar in 1983 by psychiatrist Paul McHugh. In the article, he railed at (among others) transsexuals, and said the reason he accepted a position at Johns Hopkins University in the 1960s was to close down the university’s gender identity clinic. He implicates himself in the scheme which did in fact close down the Hopkins gender clinic.

Not surprisingly, McHugh didn’t respond to my letter.

McHugh has gone on to write things like this:

The post-surgical subjects struck me as caricatures of women. They wore high heels, copious makeup, and flamboyant clothing; they spoke about how they found themselves able to give vent to their natural inclinations for peace, domesticity, and gentleness—but their large hands, prominent Adam’s apples, and thick facial features were incongruous (and would become more so as they aged)….

—2004, Surgical Sex

Those interested in the history of this scheme can look up these sources:

McHugh, P.R. (1992). Psychiatric misadventures. American Scholar, 61(4), 497-510.

McHugh, P.R. (2004, November). Surgical sex. First Things,–35. Also available online at Catholic Education Resource Center, (Links checked on 1 November, 2011).

Meyer, J.K., & Reter, D. (1979). Sex reassignment: Follow-up. Archives of General Psychiatry, 36(9), 1010-1015.

 Ogas, O. (1994, 9 March). Spare parts: New information reignites a controversy surrounding the Hopkins gender identity clinic. City Paper (Baltimore), 18(10), cover, 10-15.

Roberts, M. (2010, 22 September). Why the trans community hates Dr. Paul McHugh. Transgriot, (Link checked on 1 November, 2011).

My Letter to Paul McHugh

20 May, 1994

Dr. Paul R. McHugh

Dept. of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

600 N. Wolfe St./Meyer 4-113


Dear Dr. McHugh:

Dr. Wayne Beyer was kind enough to send me a photocopy of your April 29th response to his letter. Just before you closed, you expressed surprise that a postoperative MTF transsexual person could have a sexual attraction to a female. In fact, you thought Dr. Beyer was pulling your leg.

One of the problems with the literature of gender dysphoria is that those who are the loudest in their opposition to hormonal and surgical sex reassignment have had the least actual hands-on experience with persons with the condition. I believe Richard Green pointed that out long ago. Sex reassignment makes a good target for those with political agendas, but it is unscholarly to write authoritatively about a condition about which one knows very little. In your case, it puzzles me why a man who has taken the Hippocratic oath would argue so vehemently against procedures which have quite clearly been shown to be palliative when he has nothing else to offer but rhetoric. Your American Scholar article shows you to harbor a great deal of ill-will towards transsexual people, and your reply to Dr. Beyer shows without a doubt that you have no clue about what transsexual people are like.

By my estimate and that of others, at least one-third of postoperative male-to-female people prefer females as sexual partners. This would not be surprising to you if you realized that transsexualism is not a sexual issue, but a gender issue, or if you had spent any appreciable amount of time with transsexual people.

You write of the desire to change sex as an overvalued idea. Certainly, the desire to be a member of the other sex is a persistent wish in transsexualism—but overvalued? To call the wish to be a woman an overvalued idea is a put-down of more than half the human race. Sexist notions of male physicians have colored the treatment of transsexual people, as they have colored all of medicine—as Foucault has pointed out. Perhaps many of the truly overvalued ideas are taught in medical school.

The idea that male-to-female genital surgery is mutilating is a clear example of the type of paternalistic thinking that females have been railing about for decades. Inherent in the notion of this “mutilation” is the idea that one would have to be crazy to trade in that marvelous wonder of creation, the penis, for a vagina. I wonder how many neovaginas you’ve actually interacted with? The fact is that the surgery is aesthetically pleasing; when performed by a skilled surgeon, the appearance of the neovagina and labia are within the normal range for female genitalia. The new genitalia are functional, in that they permit the full range of masturbatory, heterosexual, and lesbian sexual acts, and orgasm which is equal to or more pleasurable than pre-surgical is reported in many cases.

In your American Scholar article, you wrote that transsexual people make other people—presumably, people like yourself—nervous. Well, black people have historically made white people nervous, and homosexuals have made fundamentalists nervous, and people with physical abnormalities have made those without abnormalities nervous. The point of the matter is that the line between “us” and “them” can be drawn anywhere and is quite capable of movement, and you are quite clearly and entirely unnecessarily putting yourself and transsexual people on opposite sides of that line. The truth is that transsexual people are little different from the rest of the population, differing from nontranssexuals primarily in their wish to change their bodies and social roles. Transsexual people write books (best sellers, some of them), are commercial pilots, program computers, manage large companies, and design products that are used by millions of people. They also cook your food in restaurants, drive semi trucks, and cut hair. They are no less human and certainly no more weird than a grumpy academic who feels a need to write “scholarly” polemics about subjects about which he knows next to nothing. And they are certainly not obliged to keep out of the view of yourself and people like you.

I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know that despite the immediate effect of causing other clinics to close, the closing of the gender clinic at Johns Hopkins caused the rise of a consumer-centered movement which has made hormonal and surgical treatment available to any American who desires it. There is now a vast network of support groups and private practitioners which provide the transsexual individual with information and support. You actually did transsexual people a favor by moving to Hopkins and working to close the clinic there.

Forty years after the storm of publicity which accompanied the return of Christine Jorgensen to the United States following her sex reassignment, there is time and distance enough to begin to sort out the literature of gender dysphoria. I’ve been doing just that for the past several years, and one thing which is communicated quite clearly by articles like yours is an unreasoning hatred for and misunderstanding of what Harry Benjamin called the transsexual phenomenon. It’s clear from reading your article that you have functioned and continue to function as an academic bully. Just as Stephen Jay Gould, in his book The Mismeasure of Man, was able to show the bias, conscious and otherwise, in the works of once-influential mental measurers like Goddard and Burt, your American Scholar article has already earned you an unenviable spot in future analyses of the literature of transsexualism. You should do yourself a favor and avoid compounding the matter by stifling any urge to write further about a subject about which you know so little.


Dallas Denny, M.A.

Licensed Psychological Examiner

pc Dr. Wayne Beyer

Dr. John Money