One Woman's Adventures in Gender Crossing and Civil Disobedience

Sex, Shrinks, and the State


I've been a woman since age 53, starting on Thanksgiving Day 1995.

The concept of gender transition has burrowed into our culture—recently in a surprisingly cheerful way, as in Transparent, the funny, award-winning TV series in which the only sane person is the man becoming a woman, or Transamerica, the sweet 2005 movie for which Felicity Huffman playing male-to-female got a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

But things weren't always so happy-go-lucky.

In northern Europe and its offshoots, starting with the birth of psychiatry in the late 19th century, governments came to have a deep interest in pushing people around in order to punish unconventional expressions of gender and unapproved sexual orientations. While you're binge-watching those modern uplifting trans tales, don't miss 2014's The Imitation Game. It's about the governmental ruination of Alan Turing, the gay man who saved Britain from German submarines and received chemical castration as a thank you.

The unrelenting terror of the 1950s ruined the queer and unprotected. Turing. State Department homosexuals. A dear friend of my family who taught at Harvard. But not Sen. Joe McCarthy's pal Roy Cohn and his boyfriends, of course.

I didn't get pushed around nearly as much as I might have. I got lucky, beginning my transition as a well-to-do tenured professor of economics in the United States just when that reign of gender-and-sexuality terror was beginning to relent.

But the state remained inappropriately, and sometimes violently, involved in the question of my gender. In 1995, standing in court in gentle Iowa to get my name changed from Donald, the judge had seen such requests before and saw no state interest in preventing it. When a month later I needed female documentation to travel without embarrassment to the Netherlands to teach for a year, I wept over the phone to a sympathetic official in the New Hampshire passport office, and she relented.

And in the fall of that same crazy year, I had $8,000 ready to throw at defense lawyers when my younger sister, along with a University of Chicago colleague, tried three times to have me committed for psychiatric observation. They succeeded twice, first in Iowa City and then in Chicago.

Let me be clear: If being trans is a psychiatric disorder, I've got it.

The libertarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, who chronicled my adventures in one of the last books he wrote before his death, fought to stop such "mental health" persecutions all his career, without much effect. In most states even now, if two people who don't know you from Adam (or Eve, for that matter) are willing to claim falsely, and without penalty, that they heard you threaten to kill yourself—or in my case, threaten to have a nose job—sheriff's deputies will escort you in handcuffs to the local locked ward for three to five days of observation.

What's worse, they might keep you there indefinitely, particularly if you let them drug you on admission. No kidding. If you are accused of murder you at least have a chance of getting free sometime, especially if you are innocent. If you are accused of being crazy, the government can put you away forever on the say-so of one psychiatrist.

Bonus tip: If this does happen to you, do not tell a joke. The psychiatrist won't laugh. He'll write it down, alongside the notation "Shows little insight."

How, you might ask, did shrinks wind up in the business of helping busybodies and their government henchmen police gender expression?

The church inquisitors handed Joan of Arc to the English occupying army to burn at the stake, which the army for its own reasons was very willing to do. The charges were heresy ("Shows little insight") and especially her unwillingness to dress in women's clothing.

Psychiatrists took up the role of inquisitors with an unseemly enthusiasm. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has grown notably thicker with every edition since its first in 1952, with more and more items added to the list of disorders. Homosexuality was removed from the DSM-II in 1974; gender identity disorder was added in the DSM-III in 1980. I suggest in the next edition that the psychiatrists add a diagnosis of "Unhealthy Obsession with Other People's Gender Expression."

Nowadays, the psychological establishment, and the even more authoritarian psychiatric establishment, frown on counseling people against transitioning. The unwieldy DSM-5 says that only gender dysphoria is a disorder these days—it's a problem if your gender identity causes you discontent, but not if it misaligns with your chromosomes. That's good, because like the butching-up camps for gay boys that were so popular in the mid-20th century, bullying people into standard gender expression doesn't work. If your little girl keeps saying she wants to be a boy, maybe in freedom you ought to let her. After all, contrary to the myth on the lips of transphobes, it's reversible. If the new boy decides later to go back to girlhood, he can.

But psychiatrists remain the ever-vigilant guards at the gates of trans freedom. The mores of the profession are friendlier, but people like me remain at the mercy of the highly credentialed owners of fainting couches for favors like certificates of mental health, signatures on paperwork for medical procedures, and testimony before judges who approve gender changes on official documents.

And the state remains always alert against predatory locker room bogeymen (bogeywomen?), seeing sex wherever gender is mentioned, as the Texas Bathroom Bill of 2017 shows. I reckon the solons of the Lone Star State, who claim fiercely to admire free societies, are contemplating putting a genetic scientist equipped with an electron microscope and police powers outside every public bathroom.

A lot of people who think they love freedom balk at gender crossing. Conservatives who read my writing on the glories of free enterprise are often on board—even enthusiastic about reading such sentiments from a woman—right up until the moment that they learn my backstory.

My middle-aged son, who says he's a libertarian, has not spoken to me for 20 years because of my transition. I have three grandchildren I've never been allowed to meet. A neighbor of mine down the hall, a friend of my son and a well-known libertarian, won't break bread with me and won't talk with me about our common intellectual interests, or anything else. Otherwise he's pleasant. Lord save us from illiberal libertarians.

Still, if my son and my neighbor ever relent, I'll give them both a big hug and then we could settle in for a discussion on safe territory, like regulations on publishing or the inefficiencies of the coffee trade. I love my son. Oddly, I even love the grandchildren I will likely never know. We libertarians are pretty good at leaving strangers, even strange strangers, alone—even in a world where busybodies continue to call on agents of the state to meddle. But we might do well to take the law of love more seriously.

In the dedication of the book I wrote about my experiences in 1999, Crossing: A Memoir, I listed all the women who had offered cheerful support over the fraught years of transition, starting with my beloved wife of three decades. The women performed small and great acts of grace, from a sweet note or luncheon to protecting me from violent psychiatrists. Two hundred and forty names.

It's been decades now, and mostly the news is good. When things get better, it's mainly through ethical change in the conversation of the society, the same way we got economic freedom two centuries ago. The kids pioneer the shift. Grandchildren of people my age are often comfortable with having gay friends or being genderqueer in, of all things, middle school. Sometimes even the football team and the cheerleading squad are cool with it.

I go to my lovely women's group at church. We laugh, and we gently help in each other's lives. I'm now quite close with that same younger sister who tried to have me committed long ago. We smilingly discuss whether I constitute my mother's youngest daughter or her oldest.

In truth, I don't recommend gender crossing unless you have a sense of humor and are lucky enough be surrounded by similarly genial people.

In 1995, as I stood in his outer office, my dean at the University of Iowa wondered aloud why macho Donald McCloskey was sporting faux-diamond studs in both ears. "You want to know?" I asked. He brought me into his inner office, and I told him. When he put his jaw back into his head, he launched into a standup routine. As a dean, he said, "Oh, that's great for our affirmative action program! Up one, down another!" As an economist, "I pay you a lot. Now I can cut your salary to 70 cents on the dollar!" As a libertarian, "Good gracious! I was afraid you were going to confess to converting to socialism!"

Never socialism. That would be crazy.