Intolerance and Conformity

I always know when I’ve written something controversial when I receive a number of email un-subscriptions for my blog. I haven’t received one in many months, but this morning, in very short order I received five. As site visitor Lauren made clear in her comment to my last post, many people will cut you off if you have an opinion that differs from their own. It’s a minor instance of the current atmosphere in our country where people increasingly affiliate only with other people who share their views.

From my perspective, controversy is good when it promotes discussion. As many of the other comments to that post make clear, however, people largely don’t discuss but resort to ad hominem attacks instead. Or they leave. As a result, we end up in our respective echo chambers, listening to people who think exactly as we do, unwilling even to listen to the “other side.”

I’ve been doing more research and there seems to be a kind of war going on out there, where people who question the trans premise are routinely attacked and vilified. I guess I’m just getting a small taste of what established “authorities” on the subject experience.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Advocacy vs truth seeking, plus that “other side” people have trouble listening to, is often not even a side, but just another aspect of truth, which is always beneficial to get exposed to.

    Isnt it funny, in a culture climate where “gender is a social construction”, that the argument to validate ( why do they need validation and from whom?) trans / gays / lesbians is that they were born that way and cannot help it? (victims of biology / no choice on the matter, not the result of culture )

    Wouldnt I get flames by saying heterosexual men and women are born that way, and that any attempt to change their natural roles is wrong, and that attempting to change men and women from their natural roles equals having them living in the “wrong bodies”?

  2. Well, kudos at least for having the bravery to state your side and withstand the “abandonment” from those in disagreement. I would definitely need to work on my ego strength (x100!) before putting myself out there like that.

    For what it’s worth, I didn’t read anything negative into what you said. I saw that you were very careful to word it with respect to the trans community.

  3. Sad state of affairs. Trolling is everywhere. I love your site even when I disagree and would not unsuscribe because of a difference. Diversity is a good thing!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. I find this post and the previous one, disturbing.

    While in college, a psychology professor of mine once told me, ” There are no absolutes in psychology, for every question answered, another question arises.”

    I think it’s the ‘authoritative’ voice that bothers me most. It feels narcissistic to me, even if this isn’t the intent. There are probably a hundred more voices who would stand in disagreement with your post, who also speak from a place of authority within psychology.

    I personally didn’t see others comments as necessarily ‘attacking’, as they were disagreeing.

    A big red flag for me is when someone speaks from a level of authority about a problem that is contained within psychological parameters, simply because psychology is not an exact science.

    One of the things I really like about my therapist is her willingness to say, “I don’t know” or, “I haven’t researched that” or “that’s just a theory, not an absolute.”

    I would not unsubscribe because I disagree with something you’re writing about. I can simply disagree based on the knowledge that you’re speaking from your own perspective and experiences. Other therapists often have and do, disagree and much of their perspectives are also based upon personal and professional experiences.

    Regarding the transgender issues: I can only speak from personal experience in having known two transgender individuals. They both have surgically altered themselves. One is still in process, the other complete. They are both extraordinary individuals.

    The trans friend of mine who is now complete with her surgery, is at peace, is happy in her life, has gone onto college and is doing what she loves to do. While the process is very painful, few know her to be anything other than a woman and surprisingly, her ‘alteration’ fits her in a very profound way. She is a very beautiful woman, inside and out. I would never label her as mentally ill. She is one of the healthiest people I know.

    The other trans friend is in process, however she struggles more emotionally. Depression, PTSD, and gender identity issues. She has a background of extreme trauma, where the other trans friend does not.

    This is why I can’t buy into the mental illness assumption for every transgender. While I realize you have a solid position on this, unless I’ve misunderstood you, that bothers me. Again, the bottom line is still the same: psychology is not an exact science and speaking from a position of ‘authority’ on the issue, rather than presented as a personal/professional theory, one that many will not share, including other professionals feels narcissistic to me. I can admit that many of the pathological individuals in my life spoke this way to me in the past and were not open to another opinion or perspective, lest they regarded it as an attack against them.

    If someone has unsubscribed to your blog (as has happened to me too), they are within their right to do so without an assumption made as to why. I know the trans gender issue is a very sensitive one for many. I think the trouble here is not that you’re sharing your perspective or professional experiences with transgender individuals, but that it’s done with authority and no wiggle room in that perhaps not all transgender individuals are suffering from a mental illness. There are just too many variables per individual to be considered, as we are all unique in biological and psychological make up.

    If your OPINION were put into context as such deriving from the above, perhaps the responses would be much different, perhaps not, but I think this quote really says it all in how you feel about others disagreement with you and the subject from which you speak from a position of ‘authority’:

    “I guess I’m just getting a small taste of what established “authorities” on the subject experience.”~ you.

    And that right there, may well be the problem.

      1. I haven’t read the original post referenced yet – I will do! – but, Dr Burgo, what in the above is an attack on you? The whole comment seems very measured, reasonable and not containing personal criticism. Have I misunderstood something?

        1. Anna,
          I read his original post before commenting (how could you not?) and he says it’s his personal view and he says that he’s no expert in this area. I disagree with him whole heartedly (not about the Justin B. case, but in generalizing about GID). But your comment made me want to respond to you.

  5. I agree it’s a problem for society that people are unwilling to listen to things that make them comfortable. The truth requires no defence. Especially in America (obviously) polarised discussions don’t facilitate understanding and compassion for others. I hope you haven’t received any hate-mail or vindictive comments on the issue, that would be unfortunate.

    In my opinion, your wrong about the transgender issue, but (if that’s true) it doesn’t mean anything about you and you still possess many positive traits (intelligence, empathy, work ethic, experience).

  6. “What I said was that believing one is born in the “wrong” body is an illness, not that these people should be persecuted.”

    I’ve read your post now and I can see why people are unsubscribing. Who are you to judge that believing one is born in the “wrong” body is an illness?

    People can believe they were born into the wrong religion as they grow up, they change their religion (yes, perhaps shame being put upon them is a factor, but their choice to change religion is valid and not a sign of “illness”). What makes transgenderism any different?

    If everything boils down to shame, what then is “the cure”? Or do we accept its incurable? Assuming a transgender individual (e.g. who comes to you as a client) does have “shame” issues, how can you be so sure that, for that individual, wanting a different gender and expressing that is not part of what’s making them better! Have you heard of the famous transvestite Grayson Perry, well worth looking up, he is married to a psychotherapist.

    Happy to discuss.

  7. Hi, two posts in two days.
    I really don’t know what all the freak out is about.
    Though I guess, it’s the belief by people who are homosexual or transgender, that these orientations are biologically determined.
    Then a classification of ” natural”, can be implied.
    Who really knows? We can only have an opinion on these issues, really.
    Seeing you’ve been brave Joe. I’ll find mine( and yes, one has to be careful not to
    Upset the politically correct line).
    I believe these orientations are the result of social mis programming. The yrs of infancy, are long. The moments leading to the dev of ones sexual orientation and/ or comfort in ones sexual orientation, are many. Many many moments where the behaviour of the adult care givers, are affecting the infants entire development .
    In my opinion, the word nature, in relation to sexual identity, refers to a heterosexual persespective. Cause in nature, this is the only orientation that produces offspring.
    This same, would refer to those changing their sex.
    Seems really simple to me. Nature has no moral compass. It just gave us sex to have babies.
    But of course, many many varieties do occur, because nurture is also needed to completes natures intention. Many many varieties. Are they all mental illnesses. Or forms of mal adaption to what nature intended.
    Maybe. What of women who shave their pubic hair off, the hair under their armpits/ legs( and men too who seem to change nature)… More , albeit minor, changes to what
    ” nature”, intended.
    I am neither gay nor a transgender. So I don’t know how I’d feel .
    Would I need to believe these orientations were of nature, so I could live with myself. Accept myself. I don’t know. I do know what a struggle gays have seemed to go thru over the last 40 yrs. from the explosion of gay expression, aids, wanting legal marriage status, just acceptance to be.

  8. I’m sorry if some of my words may seem uncaring re the deep emotional struggle that many people may go through in relation to their sexual orientation/ gender acceptance.
    It is a very broad, wide topic for discussion. Already, with comments made from the last two posts, many have been allowed to share. That can only be a good thing.

  9. Dr. Burgo,
    I didn’t read all of the comments because controversy triggers me :), but I wanted to say that my respect for you went up by witnessing your willingness to tackle the topic, insights, and handling of the backlash. One can be a kind and open minded person without having to buy everyone’s theory about themselves, and I think that is what you have been showing yourself to be in your handling of the issue.

    1. Exactly. The controversy itself is a little bit of of trigger – some of us readers used to get violently abused or shamed in our homes of origin, growing up, when controversy like this erupted.

      Like I said earlier, kudos to Dr. Burgo for having the ego strength to put himself out there like that, but in all honestly I didn’t see anything controversial at first about the initial post. I thought it was worded carefully, and most people practicing in his profession have respect for almost all humans.

      Hopefully those who are angered by a differing opinion can examine themselves for why, exactly, they have such anger…and instead of hurling outbursts, examine why they want to react that way. Perhaps they were shamed that very same way at home too.

  10. Many people have difficulty separating the argument from the person, thus the ad hominem attacks. In their minds, if they discredit the person, they prove the argument wrong.
    Also, one of the easiest ways to make friends with someone is if you agree with their opinions. Many friendships are based on similar opinions. To change your opinion in many cases means to loose friends and in some cases to become shunned by your “tribe”. This is why many are resistant to accepting a different position.
    It all boils down to our difficulty in separating argument from person.

  11. Yes, it’s difficult.

    It partly comes from trying to engage with people who won’t address an argument and so just giving up trying to engage I think. So it is easier to just talk to those you agree with.

  12. I find it disturbing that people “have to” leave just because somebody else had a different opinion. It’s like they are pointing fingers at you, saying “it’s your fault that you think differently. I have no choice but alienate you.” But in fact, it was their choice and their inflexibility that were at play…
    The problem with intolerance and conformity as you have described in these two posts and comments has always been there ever since human society existed I think. Maybe it’s just that the channels of communications and the freedom of expressing oneself are more acceedible than ever, it made it even easier for us to divide ourselves on the minutest difference of opinions… or maybe all the advances in terms of “democracy” and personal expression have given us the illusion that we have also become more tolerant and flexible and accepting at the same time?

  13. Dear Joseph , I found what you wrote refreshingly honest and courageous. In a way it reminds me about the symbolism of the Harry Potter stories where the “Dark Lord” cannot be named, for fear of repercussion, both latent and in the here and now! To my mind you have written with clarity, voicing and echoing my thoughts on the subject too.

  14. Making research from authorities before posting WAS required. It’s the first time you write something in a way that is disappointing. Although, you had the good intention of doing analogies, your writing was not strong enough to support the theories.

    To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll carry on subscribing either.

    1. Kat, if you are still here- a lot of these comments on Dr Burgos post, yours included- seem to me- and I apologise if my words are confronting- seem like some sort of brainwashing is going on. .
      ” making research from authorities “.. ” your Writing was not strong enough to support The theories “. People are cutting into their bodies, taking hormones-
      What authority does one go to, that says this behaviour isn’t problematic?
      Like there is collective hypnosis,
      ” it is ok for people to take artificial hormones. It is ok to cut off bits of your body. Or to add bits”.. The body we got at birth, can be rearranged. We have a similar attitude to our earth..
      I am in no way discounting the felt experience of people. And there may very well be, biological causes to this felt experience. In some cases.
      The body is not like a piece of wood, shave a bit off here, glue a bit on there.
      What are the long term effects on the whole body, of this surgical and hormonal interference?

  15. I think the problem here is actually not that you are taking too much authority, but that you do not realize the kind of special, probably unhealthy, authority status that some of your readers endow you with. It seems that you are being placed on a pedestal and idealized as someone who should always say the perfect thing, a parent surrogate who will never make his readers feel bad. For this reason, your readers are likely to resort to ad hominum attacks (and compliments, for that matter), as they are unable to have the maturity to see you as a human with thoughts and opinions instead of the absolute authority and need satisfier. I guess transference can function as strongly over the Internet.

    Question for you: are you as skeptical of ad hominum compliments as you are of attacks?

    1. Yes, I often feel idealized by readers and it makes me uncomfortable, largely because I know what is on “the flip side” of idealization — i.e, the kind of hostility these posts have provoked.

  16. I am a mostly gay (so I guess “bi” is what I should call myself) woman. I find opinions like Dolma’s that suggest that unless you’re straight you’ve been misprogrammed to be so small minded and dangerous. I could argue that nature probably wouldn’t care who we love. Of course we need the act of male/female sex to progenate but why should that be the only measure of what then must be right and intended?

    To me it’s not so much about who you love that’s a measure of your mental health or an indicator of your programming/misprogramming, it’s how well you can love. Can you love purely? Can you care deeply about someone else’s needs and dreams? Can you grow into more than you are by exploring the most vulnerable parts of yourself?

    Fortunately for me, a psychiatrist I saw for many years just happened to also be gay. He gave me the space to put aside the question “what is wrong with me?” and just enjoy my pull towards women. I love women. They’re deep, emotional and engaging. Some men are like that too, of course. But I find it more prevalent in woman.

    I could be with a man. I could marry and have children if I had to. But it wouldn’t rock my soul to do so. Being with a woman rocks my soul. If that’s a sign of misprogramming then I have to be honest: I am thrilled to be misprogrammed!

    1. simone, the post wasn’t on sexual orientation but on gender identity. I think that’s the problem, that people can take gender or sexual preference or race on as their identity, just like other details of the body they inhabit and their social status or lack thereof. Personally, I see the spirit as the identity, not the flesh you live in.

      I thought it was an interesting theory and I could see how some people could mistake their gender because of old psychologically traumatic baggage. Plenty of folks get the change and hate the new gender. So now what? The signals they thought they were getting were clearly inaccurate. Your theory could be on the money. If not for all then certainly for some.

      I’m still getting over the client calling her vagina “that smelly black festering wound in her body”. Yo, lady, if it’s festering that’s a whole ‘nother problem. Jus’ sayin’. 😀

  17. Dr. B,
    This is a tough one. I’ve followed your blog for some time, read your books, occasionally comment. I admit I’m tempted to “unsubscribe”. I work in the media and I am all for supporting open, healthy debate. But I don’t follow your site for this purpose. I follow it because I respect your analytical mind and find some posts apply to me in therapeutic ways. Believing your opinions to be so misinformed and hurtful makes it hard to go to you for psychological expertise. I have a therapy group that I get a lot out of, but the therapist facilitator often gives misinformation, speaks dangerously in absolutes, and other blunders that are requiring me to leave the group. It’s not safe there, unfortunately. I know you’re giving “therapy” here, but it feels similar. It’s not safe.

    1. “I work in the media and I am all for supporting open, healthy debate. But I don’t follow your site for this purpose. I follow it because I respect your analytical mind and find some posts apply to me in therapeutic ways.”

      I have to wonder why you mention that you work for the media. Bias and especially, political bias, is clearly evident in print as well as broadcast media. For that reason few people, especially the circles that I associate with, would equate your working in the media as an indication that you are supportive of open, healthy debate. If anything mentioning media makes it sound like you are attempting to somehow qualify your statements. Likewise for many people it would make you suspect depending on who you work for and the media outlet. Working in the media doesn’t equate at all to being supportive of open, healthy debates, but more that people who are in the media use it as an outlet for trying to influence public opinion with your particular BIAS or that of the company you work for.

      One more thing, I do not believe that Dr. Burgo’s article was “speaking in absolutes” nor do I feel that his opinions to be “so misinformed and hurtful” like the example you gave above of the other therapist. It is very unfortunate that some people feel hurt that he expressed an opinion that is different from theirs. Feeling hurt is their REACTION and that is much different from being accused of spreading misinformation because one has a different opinion than the current opinion surrounding the science behind sexual orientation.

      It’s possible to demonstrate support and caring while having a different opinion. One doesn’t necessarily have to adopt a position of solidarity to care about others and their right to not be mistreated.

      I also agree with Dr. Burgo’s comment that the best course of action may be to consider all sides and then think for yourself.

  18. This trio of posts, and subsequent comments, serves as an excellent reminder at the importance of an analysis of how power & institutionalized discrimination, needs to be thoroughly examined by every therapist. It’s ironic to read someone who suggests they are not an expert later invoke an aura of expertise about treating “transgenders.”

    People aren’t labels. They are people. To reduce people to labels such as this (also: borderlines & narcissists) totally eradicates an individual and describes them as diagnostic categories (whether as described by the DSM, or described by the therapist’s own heuristic).

    The use of the word itself is indicative of a total failure of empathy for people who identify as trans, and a theoretical stance best described as “doctor knows best.” What right do any of us have, especially those who have not throughly examined and learned about the experiences of trans people, to suggest that we “know” or “understand” what is going on?

  19. Hey Simone, Small minded and dangerous? Ouch.
    But of course, I knew my words would not be without negative response. Guess that’s why I’ve been careful over the yrs, to keep such a view to myself.
    Of course having the ability to love well is what really matters.
    I was just pointing out what I believe, and yes, just my opinion..
    Is that ” nature”, Orients towards heterosexuality. Because “nature” s only concern is how to Create life.
    Simple . That homosexuals and transgender people, need to see their orientation as. ” natural”, To me, seems to waste a lot of emotional energy .
    Or in the case of some transgender people, to see being born in the wrong body, as a birth defect.. Or that there is a gene for homosexuality.
    Women are beautiful. I agree there with you. Sometimes over my life, I wish I was a lesbian- cause I have strong emotional connections to women. That’s not the issue. For me. Some of my sexual fantasies, involve women. I have no problem with that part of sexual expression.
    My point , is about the desperate need to see it as ” nature”, determined.

  20. Your last post raised you in my estimation. Not because I might agree, but because it was clearly articulated and honest. In these times this is a great thing to read.

  21. My Gay life began at age 19, in a curiously more free 20th Century environment, where we had to create our gay lives, on our own, as individuals. Of this we were aware early on. There was less emphasis on monogamy, but it was there to some extent. We weren’t out to copy our parents–that was a world we left behind. Today, it’s we have the “right” to be like everyone else, if we choose. A tsunami of “accept us or else” has washed over the country. This youthful push has all but ignored anyone left out of the master plan. This is where you find the strident opinions.

    Gay is a sexuality. Accept all, or be labeled a “bigot. Some equate AIDS with the last century, but it still exists. Would any of my friends, who died, have been so strident for marriage? I’m so glad to have experienced being gay in the 20th Century. Gayness was more of an adventure. A specialness in viewing the world from the outside–a unique perspective. Looking at today’s evolution, there is more a hint of sadness in what gays have become. I know that the real opposition has not yet been met. We baby boomer gays blazed the trail–ironically without babies.

  22. It is easier to move a mountain than to consciously change a belief. In this world of perception it is only beliefs that are our currency of communication. So what, if people do not wish to listen to your beliefs? Who cares? No one belief can ever be true so why not have fun with our perceptions but never being foolish enough to believe what we think!

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