The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism, by J. Michael Bailey, Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 256 pages, $24.95
The primitive idea about gay men, shared by many Christian fundamentalists and other lovers of freedom, is that gays really want to be girls, or girlish. And the primitive idea about men who want to cross over to be girls is that they're really just gay, or just crazy.
Gays are faggots, right? And former men like me who have changed gender, well…they're just extreme faggots, or sex-mad nut cases. Northwestern University psychologist J. Michael Bailey, whose new book has created quite a stir, believes both of these ideas.
"Most gay men are feminine," Bailey declares in The Man Who Would Be Queen, "or at least they are feminine in certain ways." The professor's gaydar can spot those Certain Ways from across the street—on the basis, for example, of the pronunciation a man gives the sound s: closer to the front of the mouth, like a woman's. OK, so it turns out Bailey is talking about most gay men…in America…in the late 20th century…or maybe just the ones he was able to find by asking around in Chicago bars. Fortunately, there are other tell-tale signs of homosexuality, such as a deep interest in clothing and show tunes—or, when it comes right down to it, a sexual interest in other men.
And from a long city block away Bailey can spot a real gender crosser—those are the pretty ones, the ones whom the professor feels are sexually "attractive." They're just an extreme form of gay men. He can distinguish them from former men who are not attractive to him, a type that, contrary to what they will say (they are all liars), experience "sexual arousal at the idea of themselves as women."
It's really quite simple, Bailey says. Weird born men (he doesn't talk about born women in the book) are driven by sex. It's either sex with other men or sex with themselves. Sex, sex, sex. "Identity" has nothing to do with it. You can think of Bailey as an identity politician's worst nightmare.
Bailey is attacking the by-now accepted scientific view that whom you love and who you identify yourself to be are not the same issue. Au contraire, says the professor. It's not that formerly male gender crossers have an identity of womanhood, felt or desired, the way you feel or desire that you want to be a lawyer, say, or a resident of Florida. Nor do the more feminine-looking (because earlier changed), pretty ones have such an identity. No "identity" about it. Both are driven by sex, because that's what men are ultimately interested in. Bailey calls gender crossers "men" throughout his book. Born a man, too bad. Like certain second-wave feminists, such as Mary Daly or Germaine Greer, Bailey is an essentialist. As the guys down at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post have always known, men are men and women are women. Period.
No one is surprised that Bailey's ideas have been seized on by the religious right. John Derbyshire, a homophobe who contributes frequently to National Review, wrote a nice piece about the book, drawing the moral: "Male homosexuality, in particular, seems to possess some quality of being intrinsically subversive when let loose in long-established institutions, especially male dominated ones." (Where is Roy Cohn when we need him?) For God's sake, let's not let the queers loose.
If you hated the 1960s and its "homosexual agenda" (thank you, Justice Scalia), you are going to love Bailey's theory. As the guys down at the VFW hall say, queers are just sissy guys; and a guy who wants to become a woman is either just another homo or just another loony. Bailey, to be fair, doesn't share all the scientific and political ideas of his allies the veterans, the homophobes, and the religious right. He wouldn't attack gays and gender crossers with a lead pipe, and I guess he doesn't think God hates fags. Some of his best buddies, after all, are gay or transgendered. Bailey is a very feeling guy. In fact, he spends a lot of time hanging around the less reputable gay bars in Chicago's Boys' Town. Doing research.
Bailey gets his research ideas from an outfit in Toronto called the Clarke Institute. The institute is one dusty corner of the academic study of gender, and until Bailey came along it wasn't doing very well. In 1985 the head of its clinical sexology program, one Ray Blanchard, a rat psychologist by training, devised a theory of "autogynephilia," a word and notion that ever since then he has been trying to float. According to Blanchard and his few but loyal fans (among them Bailey), unpretty, late-changing, nonhomosexual gender crossers (me, for instance) have internalized a female love object (that is, they are still men wanting to have sex, sex, sex with women) and confused it with themselves. They aren't "really" women. Bailey summarizes it flatly in the book: "Autogynephilia can be considered a disorder."
The word disorder is meant to evoke the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the so-called DSM-IV. (The Roman numerals are for the edition, like the Super Bowl.) Bailey and his conservative friends hope to get "autogynephilia" into the next edition of the DSM (Roman numeral V), in order, I suppose, to prevent free people from doing what they harmlessly please. Great idea.
Until the 1973 edition of the DSM, homosexuality was such a "disorder," justifying electroshock therapy for queer kids in the 1950s and early '60s; it did not entirely recover from its illness until the 1986 edition. We let homosexuals get away with it after 1986, say the conservatives; lest the gender crossers get away with it, too…well, it's a little unclear what Bailey would recommend. He's been running away from his book in the months since its publication in April.
But there's no doubt what Bailey's conservative friends want, and will try to get through the book and its sponsorship by the National Academy of Sciences (on that last point hangs a tale; stay tuned). The conservatives want to return to the 1950s in a 2003 form, with summer camps to butch up the sissy boys and feminize the tomboys, with psychiatrists closing down gender reassignment programs (thus the sad case of Johns Hopkins), with gays back in the closet. Bailey is part of the conservative revolt against the "permissive" society—that is, a society in which you can do what you want if it doesn't harm someone else. Sexual conservatives are not libertarians.
At the time, 20 years ago, that the Clarke Institute up in Toronto really got going on Preventing Them, no one paid much attention, except the unfortunate Canadian gender-variant kids and adults who fell into its clutches and were subjected to "cures" by any "therapy" that came to mind. Bailey has some long, sweet passages warmly praising the institute's "therapists." He notes, without suggesting he would disagree, that many people, including his students (he asked them: it was part of his scientific study), declare "autogynephiles" inappropriate for gender change. Stop 'em.
The Clarke Institute cannot bear the thought of adult gender changers like me succeeding as just…women: Episcopalian church ladies and female college profs. So if you come to the institute old, they get you to believe you are an "autogynephile," and can't really hope to be anything else. The institute makes you go out full-time in drag with no hormones or facial surgery to make it possible to pass for an entire year. This would be suicidal in many American towns; I guess Canada is less violent. If you show up with nail polish or, worse, evidence of having started hormones on your own, you are punished, and your clock is turned back to zero, Bailey reports. The result is "men" (Bailey's term, remember) who can stand to run around as guys in gowns forever, thus assuring that Blanchard's theory will hold, at least for this "sample." Men are men; it's hopeless, guys; you will never be women.
The evidence for the institute's notion of "autogynephilia" backing up this psychological violence against its patients is pretty feeble. It's hard anyway to get a reasonable sample of gender crossers. Lynn Conway, a world-famous professor of electrical engineering and computer science emerita at the University of Michigan and member of the National Academy of Engineering, who transitioned in 1968 (she was fired by IBM for it but remade her life and became eminent in her field as a woman without revealing her past; it came out a few years ago) reckons on her Web site (lynnconway.com) that about one in every 400 born males will want to change gender. About one in 2,000—40,000 women—already have transitioned. Conway shows that the official numbers—one in 30,000, according to the DSM; one in 20,000, according to Bailey's book, although he's rapidly backing away from that estimate—imply absurdly low figures for completed gender crossers: in the U.S. about 800, which is a factor of 40 or so below the actual number. Where are they? You probably know one. Many just disappear into their target gender. Many others are fearful, not without reason, of being studied by "scientists" like Blanchard or Bailey.
Blanchard's hypothesis suffered the fate of science that can't be replicated, and that's based on narrow data tilted to make things come out right for the scientist proposing it. There's no shame in that. Most scientists are tendentious arguers for their pet theories, the check and balance being that other scientists resist. Almost everyone in the scientific study of sex and gender has checked and balanced and resisted the Clarke Institute's theory. It has proven to be wrong and has been laid aside by the mainstream of gender researchers. But contrary to the high school version of scientific method, old scientific theories never die; they just fade away.
Defending himself from the tsunami of criticism the book has generated, Bailey writes on his Web site (psych.nwu.edu/psych/people/faculty/bailey/controversy.htm): "At one time, gender patients with clear signs of autogynephilia were deemed inappropriate for [surgery]. They were denigrated as 'not true transsexuals.' These practices were harmful, hurtful, and wrong. Autogynephilic transsexuals are true transsexuals, suffering every bit as much from gender dysphoria [which means 'gender discomfort'; Real Scientists Do Greek] as homosexual transsexuals [the second of the two possible types in Bailey's universe] do. Autogynephilic transsexuals tend to be about as happy as homosexual male-to-female transsexuals with sex reassignment surgery. And both groups are much happier, on average, after transitioning."
Bailey doesn't say anything like this in the book. That omission is quite important for understanding why the book has frightened so many queers and delighted so many conservatives. Bailey does not say in the book that it's OK for people in a free society to express their gender identity—butch lesbian, say, or cowboy straight or womanly gender crosser. Instead he sidles up to the programs on the religious and psychiatric right that try (unsuccessfully, as he admits) to "cure" gender crossers and homosexuals.
Contrary to Bailey and his friends, the real science says that formerly heterosexual gender crossers are not sex-crazed lovers of self. Formerly homosexual gender crossers are not "just" homosexual men (with the emphasis on just and on sex: Bailey never refers to gay people as loving; love, it seems, is something he's a little weak on; in Bailey's mind it's all about sex, sex, sex). And regular, four-square, iron-pumping Ulysses-King David-Socrates-Rock Hudson-type homosexuals are not, as Bailey wants us to believe, "just" feminine guys. Real gender science, to repeat, says that who you are—being "feminine" or wanting to be—is not the same thing as whom you love. That's not too hard to understand. I love my dog. But that doesn't mean I want to become a dog.
Nonetheless, against most of the evidence and all the common sense, Bailey continues to maintain the rejected theory that one's identity and one's affectional preference line up the way the VFW guys think they should. Again, no special shame attaches. In the end, after all, much of science will turn out to be wrong, from Aristotle and Newton down to the single-strand hypothesis for DNA. If this weren't so, science would have advanced at lightning speed, and we'd already know everything.
Bailey writes charmingly and has the knack of suggesting that he's reporting from the front lines of Science, inserting a lot of personal "guesses" and "hunches" into the prose as though he were an actual Scientist with a lifetime of serious consideration of alternative hypotheses and tons of data behind him. You can imagine Bailey with a pipe and a lab coat advertising laxatives on TV. But in his case we have what the physicist Richard Feynman used to call "cargo-cult science": The book has the style of an informal talk with a Serious Scientist who is getting down and personal with you about his science. The stuff looks a little like science, the way the "airports" the highlanders of New Guinea constructed out of coconuts and palm fronds to get the American cargo planes to come back after the war looked a little like airports. It's even in the title of his book, that Science. But sadly, it's scientific nonsense.
Harsh words? Judge for yourself. Throughout the book, Bailey makes a big deal of his academic position. (His bosses at Northwestern seem to agree: they recently promoted this alleged violator of their own human-subjects procedures to chairman of the Psychology Department.) All the way through the book he calls his findings "science." His main evidence for the femininity of gay men (aside from that study of how queers say the two s sounds in science) is a Scientific study of personal ads in some gay newspapers. His other piece of "research"—and the only research this Researcher did on gender crossers—consisted of, first, long talks with one gender crosser in Chicago (named "Cher" in the book; I know her well; she's one of the people who have filed legal complaints against Bailey) and, second, short talks with a half dozen young Hispanic gender-crossing prostitutes whom Cher brought to Bailey under the impression he wanted to help them. It's a sample of convenience of, say, size seven. (One was Cher herself, the only case of alleged "autogynephilia" Bailey has studied; the rest were the other type, of the two types allowed.)
The sample was collected by what looks like a violation of federal law. Northwestern's Office for Human Research is investigating. No one was offered a human subjects form to sign, no one was told she was under study, and no one was told her story would appear in a book. The subjects were enticed by the offer of a document crucial for their gender change. (Gender surgeons require a letter from a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist saying that the patient is in her right mind, if not his right body.) Their lives were used in the book with brutal disregard for their feelings to titillate readers. Bailey even "studies" one of their weddings, to which he was invited as a guest.
That's the legal problem Bailey and his university now face, but the scientific problem they face is worse. The entire sample, representing the world's hundreds of thousands of gender crossers, just happens to live in Chicago. Six-sevenths of the sample are first-generation Hispanic Americans, most working as prostitutes and professional drag queens. (Bailey dropped from his sample women who were not in sex trades.) That's not a very good sample. If most of Bailey's data come from young Hispanic sex workers in Chicago, then he has not put his theory (namely, that gender crossing is about sex, sex, sex, because gender crossers are men, men, men) in much jeopardy.
Randi Ettner, a clinical psychologist who has written the best book on gender problems, Gender Loving Care, and who has seen hundreds of every conceivable kind, has an office in Evanston, a few blocks from Bailey's. Not interested, says Bailey in effect: Leave me alone with my two-category VFW theory and my half-dozen pretty girls off the streets of Boys' Town. He didn't want to talk with gender crossers like, say, me—exhibiting no "autogynephilia," working not as a prostitute but as a professor of economics (now, now: no jokes).
On his Web site (after the book was published) Bailey defends himself by saying that he wasn't really doing original research himself; he was relying on Blanchard. But you know what the scientific community thinks of Blanchard. So that doesn't quite work. And the book keeps emphasizing its Highly Scientific character. Bailey writes, for example, of "recruiting [in gay bars] research subjects for our study of drag queens and transsexuals" and about his own "recent research"; and so on throughout (emphasis added). Those who glory in doing Scientific Research had better have something to back it up. Bailey doesn't. At a July meeting in Bloomington, Indiana, of the International Academy of Sex Research, John Bancroft, director of the Kinsey Institute and one of the most respected sexologists in the world, stood up after Bailey's abbreviated talk and said sternly, "Michael, I would caution you against calling this book 'science' because I have read it, and I can tell you it is not science." Then he sat down, to stunned silence: The sexologists had finally gotten up the courage to resist Bailey, Blanchard, and the Clarke Institute.
Northwestern University seems to have a problem of this sort every 10 years or so. A member of their engineering school mightily embarrassed the place by becoming famous as a Holocaust denier. Now Northwestern has a homophobic, transphobic chair of its psychology department who allegedly violates human-subject review procedures to get dirt on the communities he wants to repathologize. Go Wildcats.
The book has outraged gays, lipstick lesbians, butch dykes, heterosexual cross-dressers. And formerly heterosexual crossers of gender like me: normal boyhood, repressed desires at age 11 in the repressed 1950s, 30 years happily married, two grown children (not talking to me yet: thank you, Professor Bailey and your pathologizing friends), successful, regular guy who decided to change at age 53, did so, and is now even more happy. In particular the book has annoyed academic gender crossers, of whom there are a surprisingly large number.
To name four: Joan Roughgarden, a famous professor of population biology at Stanford, who transitioned five years ago at age 52; Barbara Nash, a famous professor of geology at the University of Utah, who transitioned in 2001 at age 57; that famous Lynn Conway; and yours truly. The academics don't like Bailey's use of the mantle of Science to push a conservative, unscientific agenda worthy of National Review, or of The National Enquirer. They are up in arms; or at least up on the Web (at lynnconway.com). In July, Conway and I filed a formal complaint with Northwestern's vice president of research regarding Bailey's research conduct. That too is posted on the Web.
So is this statement by Ben Barres, a female-to-male gender crosser and professor of neurobiology and developmental biology at Stanford (yeah: the more eminent the university, the more relaxed it is about gender change: Roughgarden and Barres are not the only two at Stanford; and guess which provost helped them? Hint: she's not provost any more, and her first name is Condoleezza): "Bailey truly doesn't get the gender identity dissonance that transsexuals experience—it really is hard for people to understand what they haven't experienced themselves. I have talked with many MtFs [male-to-female gender crossers] who have contacted me, and have listened to the feelings they have gone through their whole lives, and it is always an exact mirror of what I have experienced as an FtM. These MtFs have no reason to lie to me, as
I have no power over what treatment they receive. For Bailey to say that most MtFs are primarily doing the gender change because of a fetish [that is, sex, sex, sex] rather than a true gender-identity issue just doesn't ring true to me, or to many other people that have worked in clinics taking care of many MtFs."
Bailey revives the long-dead notion—as scientifically dead as the psychoanalysis that spawned it—that gender crossers are repressed homosexuals. The revival is dumb on two counts. First, it's scientifically unpersuasive. Psychoanalysis ends up calling nearly everyone a repressed homosexual. Second, it's politically irresponsible. You might as well revive the long-dead notion that Jews are genetically programmed for making money.
Bailey adopts throughout an air of smirking knowingness, especially about gays. On the first page of the book he announces that his gaydar is infallible, that he can Spot 'Em: "Knowing [a man's] occupation and observing him briefly and superficially [is] sufficient, together, for me to guess confidently" that he was a sissy as a boy, is now gay-identified, and may well soon get gender reassignment surgery. He predicts of Danny, an actual 8-year-old living in a northern suburb of Chicago, that when he's grown up "on any October Sundays, he is more likely to be singing show tunes somewhere than to be cheering for the Chicago Bears."
Hey, that's really great, Professor, that you are able to "scientifically predict" little Danny's future, and in such an amusing way!
But consider. What exactly would be the point of "knowing" that Danny will become gay? Bailey never says. True, if one could know that Child X would otherwise become an ax murderer, or Saddam Hussein, intervention might be in order. But gay? Or, for that matter, a gender crosser? What exactly is the problem here? Isn't the "disorder" located in the society that worries about such nonissues rather than in the free person exercising her rights?
It would be like "knowing" that some 8-year-old Janey will grow up to be optimistic, or "knowing" that some 8-year-old Johnny will grow up to be interested in sports. Wonderful: What great Science. You are s-o-o-o smart.
Now: Why would you want to know such a thing? To prevent little Janey from being unreasonably optimistic, through therapy? To throttle back little Johnny's excessive interest in sports, through operant conditioning? Now answer the question when you do not have an intervention that works, like for being gay or being a gender crosser.
Let's assume Bailey got everything right about his informants. (Cher tells me he got much of it wrong, but he wouldn't listen when she told him so.) Suppose even (again contrary to fact, but let's be easy) that the Clarke Institute's failed theory is correct, 100 percent.
So? Why shouldn't a free person be able to express her notions of gender? (Gender expression—your right as a woman to wear pants, say—is the next frontier of this evolving revolution: see www.gpac.org, the Web site for GenderPAC, devoted to freedom whatever your chromosomes or genitals.) And if changing one's genitals is considered a violation of God's law, why aren't nose jobs or cancer cures also abominations?
Ask the libertarian question: Why not? No fair just declaring without sensible argument that it's contrary to natural law. Or saying peevishly, "I can't understand such a desire." Neither can I understand why some people let themselves pay first-year depreciation on automobiles or why other people write books in which they exploit for gain little boys interested in dolls and Hispanic women off the street desperate for a letter to allow gender surgery. But I'm not proposing to put these two disorders into the next DSM to prevent people from engaging in such behavior.
Bailey paints himself in the book and defends himself on his Web site as a helper of gender-varying people. Just what the doctor ordered. Get them help, for Lord's sake, through compulsory psychiatry backed up by the new DSM-V. It's like the old joke about the three most unbelievable sentences: "The check is in the mail"; "Of course I'll respect you in the morning"; and "I'm Mike Bailey, a follower of the Clarke Institute, and I'm here to help you."