One of the most recent Big Stinks in the MTF world has been a dispute over the book The Man Who Would Be Queen, by J. Michael Bailey. In this book, Bailey— with a disturbing level of cluelessness and an inconsiderate tone that sounds like something out of 1960’s sex research— explains, develops and expands upon Ray Blanchard’s theory of autogynephilia.
Bailey is a psychologist at Northwestern University who works with transsexual patients. He has written a book called The Man Who Would Be Queen in which he presents and develops a theory originally postulated by Ray Blanchard, a sexologist who heads the gender identity program at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, formerly known as the Clarke Institute.
Blanchard has worked with transsexuals for years and, in the psychiatric community, is a well respected authority on the subject of transsexuality. Through Blanchard’s experience he has developed a theory for the “cause” of transsexuality that he calls autogynephilia. Autogynephilia explains that some trans women are sexually aroused by the thought of being women or of having or acquiring the anatomical characteristics of non-trans women. It’s an interesting theory, and one that is supported with a reasonable amount of qualitative research involving interviews with trans women. (The ethics of disclosure would dictate that I tell you about my own issues with Blanchard, but this article isn’t about him, so if you’d like to hear my rant then feel free to email me about him.)
I’m not here to critique autogynephilia as a theory. I’ve already said my piece about it in other articles. What I am going to talk about is Bailey’s presentation of the theories that evolve from a similar place as the theory of autogynephilia; the implications of his work; and the reactions that the theory has created in trans communities around North America and worldwide.
To Homo or Not To Homo? That is the question.
I first heard about Bailey’s book on a Canadian trans email list. The angry outcry about the book was the worst I have seen since the theory of autogynephilia was put forth in the 1990’s. Many people were reacting to what they thought had been said without actually reading the book, so in order to make up my own mind I thought that I should pick it up and make an honest attempt to read it first.
To be honest, based on the attitude taken by many people opposed to the book, I was expecting a vitriolic and hateful treatise along the lines of Janice Raymond’s 1979 work The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. I got no such feeling while I was reading it; rather, I felt like the book was written by a hobbyist and an outsider. His writing style leaves a bit to be desired, but with that said it was very easy to follow, and I read the whole thing in just a few hours. The most glaring and repetitive offense committed by Bailey is one of language: he usually uses the dated psychiatric convention of using biological sex and anatomy as the point of reference for talking about gender and sexuality. More and more modern therapists are realizing that to call a transsexual woman “he” or “male” is an insult to our dignity and an infraction of our right to self-define. Plus, let’s be honest, it’s just plain insensitive.
One of the theories related to autogynephilia is that which, using this language, divides transsexual woman into two categories: homosexual and non-homosexual (nee “autogynephilic”) transsexuals. No, that doesn’t mean what you think it means. I am a homosexual transsexual. I am a girl. I like other girls. Ergo, I am a homo, a big ol’ dyke, a flaming urban lesbian with fabulous shoes. However, when the psychiatric community uses the term “homosexual transsexual,” what they mean is a transsexual woman who is attracted to men. I know that it seems stupid, but they’re basing their statement on biology; since many of us were born chromosomally XY, if we are attracted to other XY persons then we are homosexuals.
In Bailey’s world, “homosexual transsexuals” (sic) are really gay men. (That’s what you get for using the theories of a sexologist who sees everything through the lens of sexuality.) They develop feelings of transsexuality at younger ages. They transition younger. They like boys. They are more feminine and pass better than the other kind of transsexual. The less desirable kind. You know, the *cough* autogynephilic, non-homosexual transsexual.
What do we know about autogynephilic transsexuals? Well, we know that they usually develop the desire to transition later in life. We know that they are often married to another woman, that they have kids, that they might have stereotypically “masculine” jobs, and that they are more masculine and don’t pass as well as “homosexual transsexuals.” Which, of course, is bad, because it’s all about passing, isn’t it?
It’s nice to have just two categories. It’s straightforward, tidy, and most importantly means that you only have to put two checkboxes on any given form. You see, the corrolary to this theory is that anybody who doesn’t fit these descriptions is lying.
If you’re a critical thinker then you’re probably getting all uptight now because of the glaring problems with how this is shaping up. Quite simply, common sense, observation and experience tell you that it doesn’t seem to be true.
Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much, let me sum up. Emotional, mental and personality variation amongst human populations is enormously broad. To reduce a subject as complex as gender to an equation with only two possible solutions is ludicrous. There is very little room for nuance in the theories that Bailey presents, presumably because he is a psychologist and sees things with narrow and simplistic psychological vision. In the real world human beings are all about nuance, even when it comes to the most fundamental decisions. We’re talking about gender here, and let me assure you, there are more than two kinds of people in this world. Taken separately, or even together, the categories of “homosexual” and “non-homosexual” transsexuals are wholly inadequate to describe an actual, real life group of women.
When women try to explain this to researchers or proponents of the theory, they are informed that they just don’t understand themselves, or that they are lying. Telling women who don’t fit your theory that they are lying is professionally and methodologically foolish, not to mention intellectually dishonest. As I like to say: if your model does not adequately explain me, it is a problem with your model, not with me.
A Community Divided
One of the most disturbing things to happen because of Bailey’s book is the division of many transsexual woman— particularly activists— into two major camps. In one tent you have those who like the theory of autogynephiia, who feel that it explains their experiences better than any theory to date, and who feel that Bailey and Blanchard have done a great service to the trans community. In the other tent you have the vocal critics of the theory, many of whom feel like the book is going to turn out to be an excuse to further marginalize transsexual women. After all, if it’s just about sex, couldn’t we just masturbate more frequently, or become gay men?
These two diametrically opposed groups have been arguing for several months on the issue, occasionally vituperatively, but rarely with any attempt at reconciliation or compromise. Me, I fall distinctly outside of either camp, because I think that the theory of autogynephilia is a good one but that trying to cram the entirety of transsexual women into either that box or the other one is ultimately a waste of time. And really, what does the theory matter to our day to day lives? Very little by itself, though its implications are far reaching.
What Bailey Hath Wrought
For years, some transsexual activists have been trying to get transsexuality removed from the DSM, which is psychiatry’s guide to diagnosing disorders. They don’t see transsexuality as a disorder, and feel that treating it as such makes us unnecessarily dependent upon the medical community, who want to tell us who we are and how to act. They have met with limited success in the primary world of psychiatry and psychology, but more and more therapists are coming along and acknowledging that transsexuals are people too; that we understand our own needs and desires, that we are capable of vocalizing these needs and desires; and that many of us are otherwise well-adjusted, healthy people who just want to be who we are.
Understandably, these activists are upset by the potential implications of Bailey’s theory. In an annoyingly puritanical North America— and, to varying degrees, in other parts of the world— diversity in sexuality is usually considered to be perversity, a pathological disorder that should be treated and eliminated. It makes complete sense that any theory that explained transsexuality in terms of sexual desire would be used by social conservatives to justify anti-transsexual policies. It reminds us of a time— not so long ago— when we had to hide ourselves in shame, to refuse to be out about our identities and our histories. This is the reality of fighting a legislative battle in which the terms are defined by the religious right and their allies. It would be nice to say that the theory accounts for at least one more kind of transsexual woman, but in reality they probably won’t care, and anyway that other type is described as “homosexual,” which in their is yet another perversion anyway.
The book has had another unfortunate side effect: it’s divided some trans communities at a point when, more than ever, we need to stick together. The immature sniping and ad hominem attacks are accomplishing nothing, and storming off in a tizzy because people don’t agree with you is not conducive to developing understanding and finding common ground upon which to develop our actions. Opponents of the theory are referring to trans women who support the theory as “men.” Supporters are telling opponents that they are lying to themselves and others. Both groups are wrong, and both groups are being insensitive and just plain hurtful. Grow up.
We are beginning to become a visible and vocal community, and people are starting to recognize that the diversity we represent is a good thing. To move forward, we need to stick together. So, whatever you believe, please remember that those who disagree with you are people, too, and are just as deserving of respect as you are.
In unity (and air conditioning),