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"Gender: To Be Determined" is collaborative, interactive blog brought to you by University of Denver students in Lindsey Feitz's "Introduction to Gender and Women's Studies" class.

If you are interested in gender, sexuality, and popular culture, this is the blog for you.

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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Dancing With Chaz Bono (Unit 1)


Dr. Keith Ablow recently advised parents not to “let [their] kids watch Chaz Bono on ‘Dancing with the Stars’” in an article on FOXNEWS.com. Ablow made an appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor” in order to expand on his remarks. In the article and TV segment, Ablow argues that exposure to transsexuality causes children to become transsexual.

First, I should explain some things in case you don’t know what all the hubbub is about. Chaz Bono currently appears on the TV reality show “Dancing with the Stars.” Chaz, a self-identified man, was born Chastity, the daughter of the famous singers Sonny and Cher Bono. (Some of you may remember the debut of Chastity on his parents’ TV program, the “Sonny and Cher Show.”) Later in life, Chastity came out as a lesbian. At age 40, Chaz finally realized that his gender identity did not match his biological sex. As a result, he had a sexual reassignment surgery (more specifically, a mastectomy.)[1]

Perhaps that last sentence made some of you feel uncomfortable. If so, I invite you to ask yourself why. Regardless of your opinion about sex-change operations, let’s clear some things up. Yes, Chaz Bono was born with a vagina. Yes, Chaz Bono identifies (and has always truly identified) as a man. And yes, he had a sex-change operation in order to feel comfortable in his body. No, that doesn’t make him a pervert or a psycho. No, that doesn’t make him a sexual deviant. And no, that doesn’t make him less than a human being.

Now that that’s cleared up, let’s explore some important terms to help understand gender identity. In Women's Voices, Feminist Visions, Susan Shaw and Janet Lee describe gender as the way “society creates, patterns and rewards our understanding of femininity or masculinity.”[2] Sex is defined as “the biological identity based on genitalia.”[3] There are some people who distinguish themselves as transgendered. Transgendered individuals identify with and/or express a gender different from the one that they are associated with at birth (i.e. different from society’s prescribed gender based on their biological sex). Other individuals identify themselves as transsexual, meaning that they desire hormone therapy and sexual reassignment surgery in order for their sex and gender to be congruent.[4] By these definitions, Chaz Bono can be described as transsexual, since he used hormone therapy and sexual-reassignment surgery in order to externally become the man he has always internally identified as.

It is a common misconception to assume that trans-persons are just gay. In fact, trans-persons may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual.[5] Be careful to distinguish the difference between sexuality and gender identity, as they are two separate topics of conversation.

Now that the important definitions and distinctions about transsexuality have been clarified, let’s explore Ablow and his article. According to FOXNEWS.com, Dr. Keith Ablow is a “psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team” (as opposed to the B-Team?).[6] As a M.D. psychiatrist, Ablow is presumably knowledgeable about psychiatric prescription drugs and the human body. His resume is quite impressive: his website lists Brown University and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine as his alma maters. He completed his psychiatric residency at New England Medical Center in Boston and he is an Assistant Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine.[7] Nowhere on his website, however, does he list any formal education or training in the areas of psychology and counseling. The truth is M.D. psychiatrists receive absolutely no formal training in psychology and counseling. Although Ablow may be very knowledgeable about psychiatric drugs, he is no expert in counseling patients. Of course, this does not stop him from portraying himself as an expert counselor. In his article, “Don’t Let Your Kids Watch Chaz Bono On ‘Dancing With the Stars,” Ablow advises parents “not to allow their children to watch the episodes in which Chaz appears.”

His argument is quite simple: “the last thing vulnerable children and adolescents need, as they wrestle with the normal process of establishing their identities, is to watch a captive crowd in a studio audience applaud on cue for someone whose search for an identity culminated with the removal of her breasts […]”[6] Ablow fails to point out that “no evidence exists to suggest that watching a transsexual on television causes children any harm.”[1] Evidence, however, is evidently not important to Ablow’s argument. In addition, he suggests that a transsexual should “try every available medication to impact mood, thought, and perception before going under the knife.”[6] Again, no peer-reviewed articles have ever concluded that such “treatment” is effective.

Logically, Ablow’s argument disintegrates. The factual evidence for his claims simply does not exist. Instead of acknowledging this, however, Ablow attempts to make his argument by trying to fool the audience into thinking he is a compassionate physician. He claims that he “would have gone to the ends of the earth to help Chaz Bono if she had come to [him] for help.” He says he “would have been relentless […] would have used everything [he] know[s] about medication to help her […]” would [even] have allowed "[her] to undergo gender reassignment surgery.”[6] What Ablow would really do, however, is allow his personal biases to affect the way he would “treat” a patient. Although he appears to be compassionate, he also says he “would wish her well with a life that had veered, seemingly unavoidably, into a very dark place.”[6] By saying this, Ablow admits that even if Chaz is happy after his gender reassignment, Ablow could not accept Chaz’s happiness. Ablow is so egocentric that he cannot even recognize happiness for his own patients if it is incongruent with his prejudicial views.

He ends his article with even more judgments. He judges Chaz for choosing to be who he is and for bringing awareness to transsexual issues. He claims that Chaz’s decision to “promote gender reassignment surgery in the media as a happy triumph” gives Ablow the right to publically chastise Chaz’s transsexuality “because [Ablow] cares about you, too, and your families.”[6] Excuse me while I go barf.

But Ablow has a point, even when he’s not trying to make one. In his article, he diagnoses Chaz with gender dysphoria disorder. The DSM-V (which has not yet been officially released) describes gender dysphoria as “a strong desire to be rid of one’s primary and/or secondary sex characteristics because of a marked incongruence with one’s experienced/expressed gender.”[8] The American Psychiatric Association (APA) publishes the DSM, which stands for Diagnostic and Statistics Manual for Mental Disorders.[9] The DSM is the “Holy Bible” of the American mental health community. If a mental health professional does not know how to properly diagnose a patient, she or he refers to the DSM. Filing medical insurance claims for mental health services requires a DSM diagnosis. In essence, the DSM carries a lot of weight in the business of American mental health, and (unfortunately) it still considers transsexuality to be a mental disorder.

Luckily, the APA has a history of reversing and revising its stances on psychological disorders. For example, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder in the DSM-II, originally published in 1968, until the APA reversed its stance with a revision in 1973.[10] The revision was only made possible because of Dr. John Patrick Spiegel, the president-elect of the APA. Dr. Spiegel was a closeted homosexual who secretly enacted a masterful strategic political plan for the revision by organizing other closeted gay echelons of the APA.[11] (A beautiful and well crafted account of this story can be found on This American Life’s Episode 204: 81 Words by Alix Spiegel, the granddaughter of Dr. Spiegel, who won a Peabody Award, Livingston Award, and Dupont Award for her work).

The point is that the APA has admittedly made mistakes in the DSM before, and is currently making a mistake in its classification of transsexuality as a mental disorder. Many scientists and mental health professionals share this view. In her article, “Unnatural Selection,” Dr. Joan Roughgarden says, “research that eschews those archaic assumptions about gender and sexuality is routinely marginalized, swept under the rug, ignored, avoided, and ridiculed.”[12] In essence, the scientific community will not accept any challenge to the historical pattern of gender discrimination in science. Dr. Norman Fisk agrees with Dr. Roughgarden. He argues, “The differential diagnosis aimed at clearly identifying a subgroup of patients termed transsexual is in many instances a rather non-productive effort.”[13] With no evidence that transsexuality qualifies as a mental disorder, why does the APA insist on defining it as one? The only explanation seems to be an "archaic assumption" about gender identity. That’s not science; it’s discrimination.

Works Cited:

[1] Barbara J., King. "Sex, Gender, And Dancing With Chaz Bono." 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. NPR News, 29 Sept 2011. Web. 2 Oct. 2011.

[2] Shaw, Susan, and Janet Lee. Women's Voices, Feminist Visions. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007. 124. Web.

[3] Feitz, Lindsey. "Key Terms: Definitions and Examples." Intro to GWST 1112-2. University of Denver. Denver. 14 Sept 2011. In Person.

[4] Shaw, Susan, and Janet Lee. Women's Voices, Feminist Visions. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007. 129, 131. Web.

[5] Shaw, Susan, and Janet Lee. Women's Voices, Feminist Visions. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007. 130. Web.

[6] Ablow, Keith. "Don't Let Your Kids Watch Chaz Bono On Dancing With The Stars."FOXNEWS.com. News Corp., 02 Sept 2011. Web. 1 Oct 2011.

[7] "America's Psychiatrist." Dr. Keith Ablow. SystemArchitecture.net, 2010. Web. 1 Oct 2011. .

[8] "P 01 Gender Dysphoria in Adolescents and Adults." APA DSM-5. American Psychiatric Association, 04 May 2011. Web. 2 Oct 2011.

[9] "Frequently Asked Questions." APA DSM-5. American Psychiatric Association, 2010. Web. 1 Oct 2011.

[10] Spitzer, Robert L. "Homosexuality and Sexual Orientation Disturbance: Proposed Change in DSM-II, 6th Printing, Page 44." PsychiatryOnline.com. APA Assembly, 07 June 1973. Web. 1 Oct 2011. .

[11] "Episode 204: 81 Words." This American Life. WBEZ Alliance: Chicago, 18 Jan 2002. Radio. 1 Oct 2011. .

[12] Savoie, Keely. "Unnatural Selection." University of Denver: Blackboard. Bitch Magazine, Spring 2004. Web. 1 Oct 2011.

[13] Fisk, Norman. "Gender Dysphoria Syndrome: The Conceptualization That Liberalizes Indications for Total Gender Reorientation." West J Med. 120. (1974): 386. Print.

17 comments:

  1. Shortly after this Chaz Bono debacle had happened I was informed about it via a friend's post on facebook, and I wanted to check out your blog and see what you had to say on the subject.
    I think you have done an incredible job derailing Ablow's argument (which, I'll admit is a brilliant argument - when you are bankrolled by FOX, that is). And you did so in a well organized manner using plenty of credible sources as evidence and providing plenty of analysis to support your point. I was certainly impressed with this.
    I personally agree with your stance and believe Lewis Black, in his appearance on 'The Daily Show' concludes it best using Ablow's exact logic, stating, “I don’t know if letting your kids watch Chaz Bono will turn them into transsexuals, but I’m pretty sure letting them watch Keith Ablow will turn them into assholes.”
    [Source: http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2011/09/23/327756/lewis-black-takes-on-fox-news-keith-ablow-over-chaz-bono/]

    My only concern with your blog is this:
    If this was to be a rebuttal against Ablow himself, I think you'd certainly have won, with the amount of objectivity - hard facts and analysis - that was incorporated into your blog. However I would of liked to hear maybe more subjectivity out of your blog, perhaps a bit more of personal experience/thoughts on the subject. Otherwise fantastic!

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  2. Thank you very much for the positive feedback and your suggestion that I include more personal thoughts. I really like the Lewis Black quote. He definitely has a way with words.

    As I know you gathered from my post, I obviously think Ablow is nuts (although that's a term he'd probably give to Chaz).

    On a more personal level, I have one friend who is transgendered but she did not publicly identify as such when we were closer. She's now living her life the way it is meant to be lived and is quite active in the trans-rights community. She has more confidence, strength, and courage than anyone I know.

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  3. I really enjoyed this blog, you were very informative and added a lot of good facts I was unaware of. I had no idea you could be a psychiatrist without going through a single psychology class. It's funny that Ablow would try to even come off as a person who can understand the human mind. If more people knew about Ablow's credentials, they would most definitely think differently about his statement. It's absolutely ridiculous for one man to get so much publicity to almost flat out lie. Transsexuals and transgenders are no different from you or me (except for the fact that they may have had one or two more surgeries than we have had.) and should not be judged by their personal choices.

    It baffles me that people could possibly believe Ablow's remarks, but clearly he is not the only one who feels this way. There should be a way to get the message out about the transsexual world, and hopefully it will come soon.

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  4. Before this was mentioned in class, I had no idea who Chaz was, nor that there was such a big response to him appearing on TV. I think people freaking out about this is insane, although it does not surprise me. Looking on the bright side, this could be a step in the right direction for the trans community. If people are bashing it publicly, there are bound to be people supporting it publicly. It's awful that Chaz is receiving all of negative attention and has now become somewhat of a symbol. However, the fact that people are at least talking about this can't be all bad. My personal hope is that more people will become exposed to the trans community through this and understand that transgendered and transsexual individuals are still people, not sexual deviants. I found myself actually laughing at Ablow's argument--I can't believe the stupid things people say sometimes.

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  5. First, I just want to say KUDOS to Chaz! I love the fact that he hasn't let people's hurtful comments drive him off the show! I think that everyone in this world just needs to learn to stop worrying about what is going on with everyone else and worry about themselves. I think everyone could benefit from this! I loved this article and the insights it had into the transgendered world! Great job!

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  6. First of all, THANK YOU, for starting out with explaining what this Chaz Bono story is, because I didn’t know what this whole deal was that everyone was talking about.
    The one thing that struck me as extremely appalling is that Ablow, and all physiatrists for that matter, receive NO formal psychology or counseling training. Now, you did not cite a source, so I don’t know how credible this statement is. Yet, if it is true, this makes me very skeptical of all these professional opinions I see in the media from physiatrists. If true, how is it even legal for someone to prescribe medicine for mental illnesses if they don’t even have enough training to recognize a mental illness, or even attempt treating it without medicine first?
    While I think some of your claims were pretty bold, I actually am with you! Even if there were to be some crazy study done on how watching a transsexual, or any other class of gender, on television causes children some sort of harm, I still wouldn’t believe the study. I will always strongly believe that when it comes gender (and also sexuality) that you are, for the most part, born a certain way. This is also why I agree with you in disagreeing with Ablow for wanting to have had the chance to “help her.” HE didn’t need help, Ablow. All HE needed was a surgery to be able to live HIS life the way it was intended to be lived.
    The part that really angered me the most about Ablow’s claims is that he believes transsexuals should “try every available medication to impact a mood, thought, and perception before going under the knife.” This angered me so much because I take a holistic approach when it comes to medicine. I don’t really believe in getting things such as flu shots, antidepressants, or antibiotics without at least trying a natural approach first. In this case, especially, there was no medicine needed to “change Chaz’ mood.” I strong dislike how the medical world these days believes medicine will solve every single issue there is, or lack of a real issue, in this case…
    Overall, this blog was fantastic! Love your writing style... and go Chaz! Love his attitude through all this negative media attention. I’m glad he can be such a positive example of transsexuals. One question for you, Nathan. Not that I don’t believe you, but where did you find the information about the formal training obtained by physiatrists? I’m just curious ☺

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  7. Natalie: You’re right- I should have cited my source for that claim. I actually wanted to be a psychiatrist until about six months ago. I originally knew this information from my mother, who is a physician. I guess I take for granted that my point-that psychiatrists are not experts in psychology and counseling- is not common knowledge, since I wanted to be a psychiatrist for so many years.

    First, it is important to make the distinction between psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors. Psychiatrists are physicians who go through the same 4-year medical school that all doctors do, be they pediatricians, surgeons, or gynecologists. They then go on to a four-year residency program in psychiatry (similar to a four year internship), in order to gain the necessary skills that are required of psychiatrists. Psychologists have either a Ph.D. or a Psych.D. in psychology, meaning they have extensively studied psychology through research or clinical therapy. Counselors, on the other hand, usually receive a master’s degree in counseling, social work, or psychology. (http://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/content/therapy_professionals.html)

    The field of psychiatry has drastically changed (and in my opinion, not for the better) over the past century. Freud, the father of psychotherapy (what we know today as “therapy”), was actually a psychiatrist, meaning his formal training was in medicine. Until recently, psychiatrists were THE talk therapists (and therefore expert counselors). They would typically see patients for 45-minute sessions, where they would primarily practice talk therapy and prescribe medicine as needed. However, since the 1970s, the primary practice of psychiatry has swung from a field of primarily talk therapy to a field of primarily prescribing psychiatric medicine. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest one is money; talk therapy simply is not as profitable as it used to be. As a result, modern psychiatrists typically see patients for 10 to 15 minute appointments where only medicine is prescribed (a practice that is frequently referred to as “med check” in the psychiatric community). In addition, counselors/clinical social workers/therapists have replaced psychiatrists as the primary practitioners of talk therapy. But that is not to say that no psychiatrists still practice talk therapy, although it is rare. One of my mom’s very good friends is a psychiatrist who still practices it (although very scarcely. He limits his talk therapy patients to two sessions a day). A really well written piece on this shift in psychiatry is the “New York Times” article, “Talk Therapy Doesn’t Pay, So Psychiatry Turns Instead to Drug Therapy” by Gardiner Harris. Harris explains the changes in psychiatry by interviewing and observing Dr. Donald Levin, a psychiatrist in Pennsylvania, whose practice has shifted from talk therapy to drug therapy. In the beginning of the article, one patient tells Dr. Levin during an appointment that his life is falling apart. Dr. Levin responds by saying, “Hold it, I’m not your therapist.” He sends the man away “with a referral to a less costly therapist and a personal crisis unexplored and unresolved” ((http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/health/policy/06doctors.html?pagewanted=all).

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  8. Now back to your question about my claim that “M.D. psychiatrists receive absolutely no formal training in psychology or counseling.” Perhaps this is an unfair assessment, as psychiatrists do receive training on how to identify psychological disorders (but for the sole purpose of prescribing medicine.) They do not, however, receive extensive training on how to treat psychological disorders through methods other than prescribing medicine, such as psychology or counseling.

    As you can see from this link (http://www8.utsouthwestern.edu/utsw/cda/dept137886/files/139341.html), medical students at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas take courses such as anatomy, biochemistry, and genetics. During their third year, they do take a six-week rotation in psychiatry (similar to an internship). They primarily study “inpatient psychiatry, consultation/liason psychiatry/ community health care and emergency psychiatry.” Notice that this course catalog does not mention any training in psychology or counseling.

    After completing medical school (officially becoming physicians), psychiatrists go on to specialize in psychiatry by completing a four-year residency program in psychiatry. UT Southwestern also has a residency program in psychiatry. As you can see from their website (http://www8.utsouthwestern.edu/utsw/cda/dept137886/files/138919.html), the focus of the training is in psychiatric medicine, meaning that they primarily learn how to properly prescribe medicine. (Again, they receive no extensive training in psychology or counseling).

    In contrast, graduate students in the masters of counseling program at DU “develop the skills to understand and/or conduct research that contributes to the knowledge and practice of counseling psychology.” The program’s course offerings list courses in peer counseling, counseling theory, basic counseling techniques, career counseling, and group counseling theory, among many others. In addition, counseling graduate students spend hours of training in counseling sessions (http://www.du.edu/education/programs/cnp/index.html).

    So although it may be true that psychiatrists know how to identify psychiatric disorders in order to prescribe medicine, they definitely are not experts in psychology or counseling methods. Just contrasting the course catalogues for psychiatrists and master’s degree counselors shows that counselors receive far more training in counseling and are the “true” psychology and counseling experts. Psychiatrists are experts in prescribing psychiatric medicine; counselors are experts in counseling.

    Therefore, I believe Ablow’s opinion that “the last thing vulnerable children and adolescents need, as they wrestle with the normal process of establishing their identities, is to watch a captive crowd in a studio audience applaud on cue for someone whose search for an identity culminated with the removal of her breasts […]” is not the professional opinion of a counseling expert; it is the expert opinion of a professional bigot.

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  9. It is outrageous how bigoted Ablow's comments are. Sadly, it seems like a big part of FOX's strategy seems to be masquerading as an authoritative voice in news, or in this case science, and then giving a perspective based purely in emotion without any evidence to back it up. I know you say that you wanted to be a psychiatrist for many years, but dare I say that you a little bit of bias against them yourself. I can't blame you though. Everyone that I know who has ever been involved with therapy has been fairly jaded towards psychiatrists. It seems that they operate under the assumption that there is a right way for the mind to operate and a wrong way. When talking about gender, sex, and sexuality, it seems like this simplistic viewpoint is completely inadequate to examine the issues at hand. Thank you for the article! I'm glad to have gotten an aspiring therapists counterargument to Ablow's view.

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  10. It is outrageous how bigoted Ablow's comments are. Sadly, it seems like a big part of FOX's strategy seems to be masquerading as an authoritative voice in news, or in this case science, and then giving a perspective based purely in emotion without any evidence to back it up. I know you say that you wanted to be a psychiatrist for many years, but dare I say that you a little bit of bias against them yourself. I can't blame you though. Everyone that I know who has ever been involved with therapy has been fairly jaded towards psychiatrists. It seems that they operate under the assumption that there is a right way for the mind to operate and a wrong way. When talking about gender, sex, and sexuality, it seems like this simplistic viewpoint is completely inadequate to examine the issues at hand. Thank you for the article! I'm glad to have gotten an aspiring therapists counterargument to Ablow's view.

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  11. It is outrageous how bigoted Ablow's comments are. Sadly, it seems like a big part of FOX's strategy seems to be masquerading as an authoritative voice in news, or in this case science, and then giving a perspective based purely in emotion without any evidence to back it up. I know you say that you wanted to be a psychiatrist for many years, but dare I say that you a little bit of bias against them yourself. I can't blame you though. Everyone that I know who has ever been involved with therapy has been fairly jaded towards psychiatrists. It seems that they operate under the assumption that there is a right way for the mind to operate and a wrong way. When talking about gender, sex, and sexuality, it seems like this simplistic viewpoint is completely inadequate to examine the issues at hand. Thank you for the article! I'm glad to have gotten an aspiring therapists counterargument to Ablow's view.

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  12. I loved your bolg! It is so informative and I liked that you did include a TON of cited information that were facts and you didn't JUST include all of your own thoughts and opinions. But I didn't know that Chaz was a transexual and I feel like why do people need to be a in his buisness becuase he seems like a happy person who is okay with himself, and isn't that what people want in their life you know. I just personaly hate it when people have to judge others who are different in any way. I do agree with you when you said the DSM has made mistakes before and that they are making a mistake to have transexuality as a mental disorder. It might be a hard argument to convey to critics who don't understand why a person would want to be transgendered, but it is something that needs to be argued for! I would be very supportive of the argument! : )

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  13. WOW i ment to say blog!

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  14. I really liked your blog. I'm glad you tied in Chaz Bono because his decision about his lifestyle has been very controversial lately. As has his decision to perform on Dancing with the Stars. I do think you focus a lot on Ablow but then you bring it back around to Chaz which was good. I think that what Ablow says about how children watching Chaz Bono on the show will become transexual is crazy. In the end we need to educate people. Not only do the kids need to be educated but also their parents about transexuals. Great Job!

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  15. I can't believe that still to this day people make it their life goal to stand in the way of personal happiness. I think that what Chaz is doing is very courageous. It shocked me to hear Ablow say that children shouldn't watch DWTS when Chaz is on because exposure to trans sexuality will make them become a trans sexual. I personally feel that children should be exposed to this because it will help them gain another perspective about life and will lead them to be more accepting individuals. I can't believe how some people can be so cruel. Who cares if Chaz is a trans sexual it doesn't hurt anyone else that he wants to be happy. I really enjoyed this blog post because it brought up an important issue that is often times swept under the rug!

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  16. thriftyastronaut: yes, I will admit: I definitely have a negative opinion towards psychiatry in general. However, I do strongly believe that we as a society need intelligent, capable physicians. I also believe that we need to revolution the American health care system because it's clearly not working for so many Americans.

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