How anti-LGBTQ activists are leveraging junk science to advance their agenda.
For years, Paul McHugh has used his platform as a psychiatrist affiliated with Johns Hopkins University to peddle myths about transgender people—not just in his writings, but in courtrooms and state legislatures across the country. While he has no expertise in gender or sexuality, McHugh has publicly called transgender people ‘caricatures' and described them as ‘confused' and ‘mad.' In August 2016, he teamed up with Lawrence Mayer—a biostatistician who was recently paid $400 per hour to defend North Carolina's infamous anti-LGBTQ HB2 law in court—on a report mischaracterizing research on gender and sexual orientation. McHugh later admitted that the "special report" published in the New Atlantis, a right-wing think tank journal, was merely an "opinion piece." But that didn't stop anti-equality extremists from presenting it as real science—or from using it to defend discrimination in courtrooms and legislatures across the United States.
McHugh's effort to give a veneer of academic integrity to transphobic junk science is part of a broader disturbing trend: the use of misleading, badly designed or completely unscientific "research" to attack LGBTQ people and their families. In reality, McHugh’s personal views run contrary to the overwhelming medical consensus and the established standards of care endorsed by every major medical association calling for affirming and embracing LGBTQ identities.
In 2012, the research community—led by UCLA Williams Institute scholar Gary J. Gates—debunked a faulty paper by sociologist Mark Regnerus, used by anti- marriage equality activists to claim that children fare worse when raised by same-sex couples. Activists' claims about the study were so flawed that the state of Utah, defending its own marriage equality ban in court, filed a letter distancing itself from the work. And in recent years, one of the foremost voices opposing affirming care for transgender children and youth has been the American College of Pediatricians, a recognized hate group that attempts to impersonate the legitimate American Academy of Pediatrics.
Paul McHugh’s junk science misrepresents and mischaracterizes existing medical and scientific research. His work is being used to target and discriminate against LGBTQ people across the country. The harm is real, but his science is not. And it's time to call it out.
LGBTQ health expert Dr. Tonia Poteat joins HRC Foundation National Press Secretary Sarah McBride to debunk many of the dangerous myths peddled by McHugh and explain an essential part of the scientific review process he circumvents.
For more on why sexual orientation and gender identity experts reject the New Atlantis report's approach and conclusions, view their March 2017 expert statement.
Paul McHugh Exposed: A Timeline of the Damage
September 2010: McHugh submitted an amicus brief defending California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage. Among other scientifically unfounded arguments, the brief suggests that lesbian, gay or bisexual orientation is a choice.
March 2016: Texas representative Matt Shaheen, author of an anti-trans "bathroom bill" being considered in the state legislature, tweeted a medically inaccurate and inflammatory statement about transgender children by the so-called American College of Pediatricians, the anti-LGBTQ group that impersonates the American Academy of Pediatrics. McHugh, though not a pediatrician, was one of the statement's three signatories.
June 2016: McHugh's ideas had reached the halls of Congress. Describing McHugh as "the best expert in the world on the issue of transgender," U.S. Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX) read sections of a McHugh anti-trans op-ed on the House floor. In a particularly concerning move, Gohmert even claimed that "Johns Hopkins says [that gender-affirming surgeries] do more harm than good"—treating McHugh's opinion as though it were the official position of Johns Hopkins University. (Although Hopkins has not responded to calls to refute misstatements like this one, it has publicly expressed "strong and unambiguous support" for LGBTQ people, and is preparing to open a program focused on offering high-quality gender-affirming surgical care.)
August 2016: Testifying as a $400-per-hour expert witness for the state of North Carolina, Mayer offered scientifically shaky testimony defending the state's discriminatory HB2 "bathroom bill" from a Justice Department lawsuit. Much of his testimony was repeated in the New Atlantis report, published the same month.
September 2016: The New Atlantis report has even been employed at the local level. In a Tippecanoe County, Indiana hearing, a resident cited it to oppose discrimination protections for her transgender neighbors.
March 2017: Republican state representative J.R. Hoell cited McHugh in his opposition to H.B. 478, state legislation to protect New Hampshire residents from gender identity discrimination.
March 2017: McHugh joined with collaborator Lawrence Mayer and diabetes researcher Paul Hruz in an amicus brief opposing transgender student Gavin Grimm's right to use gender-appropriate restrooms at his public high school.
Experts and Allies Speak Out
After the New Atlantis report was published, nearly 700 Johns Hopkins community members signed a petition calling on Johns Hopkins to clarify that McHugh and Mayer's opinions do not reflect the university or hospital's views and practices. The signatories included 632 Johns Hopkins faculty, staff, alumni, students and interns, along with 38 parents whose children are transgender.
In a Baltimore Sun op-ed published in September 2016, several of McHugh's Johns Hopkins colleagues disavowed the New Atlantis report, saying it "mischaracterizes the current state of science on sexual orientation and gender." The authors pointed out that many of the myths in the New Atlantis article have historically limited LGBTQ communities' access to quality, stigma-free healthcare. They also affirmed that "being gay or transgender is perfectly consistent with being healthy and well."
Writing in The Advocate, eminent scholar Dean Hamer—who conducted much of the genetics research cited in the New Atlantis article—called McHugh and Mayer's claims "pure balderdash." Hamer pointed out that McHugh and Mayer's article not only cherry-picked studies but actually misrepresented other scientists' work.
The Expert Statement
In March, Vanderbilt University researchers organized a statement signed by nearly 600 LGBTQ-experienced scholars and clinicians disavowing McHugh's assertions. The statement emphasized that McHugh and Mayer's New Atlantis article did not undergo scientific peer review, was not published in a research journal, and contains misleading statements about the state of science on gender identity and sexual orientation.
Johns Hopkins Hospital
Despite entreaties from McHugh's colleagues and formal requests from the Human Rights Campaign, Johns Hopkins Hospital has declined to clarify whether McHugh's opinions reflect how patients at Hopkins are treated. As a result, the hospital's 2017 Healthcare Equality Index score reflects a 25-point "Responsible Citizenship" deduction, applied to institutions whose public practices undermine LGBTQ equality or patient care.
Read More from HRC Foundation
Hate Group Masquerades as Pediatrics Organization to Attack Trans Kids: Explains how the American College of Pediatricians, an anti-LGBTQ hate group, impersonates the American Academy of Pediatrics in an attempt to keep transgender children from receiving affirming care. Though not a pediatrician, McHugh signed ACPeds’ medically inaccurate statement opposing affirming care for transgender and gender-expansive children.
Anti-Trans All-Stars Publish Biased Review of Gender and Sexual Orientation Research: Outlines the junk science of the New Atlantis report and explains why McHugh and Mayer are unqualified to speak on the topic.
Johns Hopkins Community Calls for Disavowal of Misleading Anti-LGBTQ “Report”: Covers the petition in which Johns Hopkins faculty, staff, students and alumni called on the university and hospital to distance themselves from McHugh and Mayer’s opinions.
Scholars, Clinicians Release Statement Rejecting Misleading Anti-LGBTQ “Report”: Reports on a sign-on letter by nearly 600 clinicians and researchers who are LGBTQ health experts, explaining that the New Atlantis report does not reflect scientific consensus and should not be used for policymaking.