Framing the "Autogynephilic" debate

Editor's note: This is the first draft of my introduction to this issue, written in mid-April 2003 and moved off the top page on 14 May 2003.

The publication of J. Michael Bailey’s The Man Who Would Be Queen is a watershed event for our community, and I believe it has the potential of becoming a political and philosophical rallying point not seen since the murder of Brandon Teena. It is the most defamatory academic book on transsexualism to come out since 1979, and an extension of the biological essentialism many unsophisticated physicians and psychologists hold as a bedrock belief of their worldview.

Luckily, much has changed since 1979, when Janice Raymond's The Transsexual Empire came out. Our community is better prepared to deal with controversial issues that pose serious threats to our personal and political validity and our acceptance as human beings.

To raise awareness and explore issues stemming from this book and the theories that inform it, I have created this special section devoted to matters surrounding the work of Ray Blanchard, J. Michael Bailey, and Anne Lawrence.

This book and the theories that inform it are the latest in a long series of attempts to categorize and pathologize transsexual women by the medical and psychological communities. As with all previous attempts, this newest iteration has a small but devoted group of evangelists. Unlike earlier attempts, this latest taxonomy is even more essentialist: it divides anyone seeking feminization into two types: "homosexual" and "autogynephilic."

As I have said many times, I do not bristle at the concept of autogynephilia, and I agree it is not only an important descriptor, but a perfectly valid reason for seeking feminization. In fact, I have frequently counseled people who appeared to be autogynephilic to write to Anne Lawrence, who ascribes one of her own motivations for transition to autogynephilia.There are several important political issues connected with the suppositions behind this term, though. I will be writing a longer piece on all this in the near future, but know that I accept and honor anyone who self-identifies as such, and I do not find this threatening.

The problem comes when someone projects his or her own motivations and belief system onto everyone else. Anne Lawrence may have found her salvation in autogynephilia and sexology. She may believe that "we must honor our sexual desire as that which moves us most, as that which makes us feel most truly alive," but I do not share this view. In fact, the fundamental difference in our belief systems is so deep-seated that I doubt she can ever possibly accept what I have to say. To do so would require letting go of some concepts that form the very foundation of her existence.

Warning! Abstract concepts ahead!

One of the most important challenges in refuting the myriad presumptions behind this book involve the subject positions of the researchers and how they structure the world. That's going to require thinking about some pretty complicated issues in ways you (and I) may not have considered before.

A reader wrote to ask what I meant by "biological essentialism." Short definition: everything can be reduced to biology. The long definition is more nuanced, so use that as a starting place, and not as a definitive statement. This is all extremely complicated, and it is going to require considering every field of inquiry from our perspective.

In fact, that's only one of about a kajillion terms I need to explain in the context of this issue, so bear with me. Here's a short list of some of the things I'll be discussing in upcoming months and years (thanks to Kath for the list!):

acculturation, analogies, appropriation, assimilation, biological essentialism, biopower, borders, borderlands, boundaries, class, collectivity, collusion, colonialism, color-blindness, commodification, communalism, community, complicity, constructivism, cultural citizenship, cultural essentialism, cultural relativism, culture(s), cyborgs, diaspora, difference, disciplinary technologies, diversity, domination, femininities, globalization, groups, hegemony, humanism, hybridity, identity politics, imperialism, imperialist nostalgia, individualism, intellectual property rights, intersections, marked/unmarked, masculinities, nationalism, norms, normativity, power, profiling, race, reification, renditions, representation, rights discourse, roles, salience, sex/gender, sexuality, social constructivism, social location, solidarity, sovereignty, spacetime, tradition/living traditions, transculturation, transnationalism, utopia/dystopia

See what I mean? Lots of work to do!

Another special challenge in this case is that this book and the assumptions that inform it are presented by "helping professionals" who sincerely see themselves as both "helping" and "professional." They see themselves as "friends of the community," while being unable or unwilling to acknowledge the larger issues that form their worldview. They see themselves as helping because they have empirical evidence that they are indeed helping some people to a greater or lesser degree with their actions, but they fail to see how that help may only be occurring within a fundamentally flawed framework. They see themselves as authoritarian because of the value they place on "professionalism." They believe in a heirarchy in which they are ascendant, and that they possess the power to dismiss evidence as unreliable, or the power to reject opposing views as worthless because they have elevated "professional" status.

I'll be writing more on this soon, but suffice it to say that their philosophical position is fundamentally conservative at its core.

Much of what I am going to discuss will revolve around use of language, and how Bailey and friends use language like chimps with loaded guns.

We're going to wade into these uncharted waters slowly, but eventually it's going to get to where you and I can't touch bottom. This is all brainiac-type stuff, and I need to think for a bit on the best way to present it for those of us who don't contemplate concepts of this sort as part of our daily work. I also need to think about the best way to engage people like Bailey, who should be thinking this stuff through before writing books. Most importantly, I need to show how all this abstract junk has a very real connection to our daily lives, and why I consider this book to be so defamatory and dehumanizing.

All that's going to take time, so consider this a work in progress and bear with me as I make modifications and corrections.

In fact, you have an important role to play in all this, and I need your help. If you come across something you don't understand or don't agree with, let me know. You may not be the only one. I do not see differing views as a threat to my perceived authority, and will not treat constructive comments as something to be attacked. Destructive comments like those made by Bailey throughout his book will be countered by every means I have at my disposal, however.

If you have something you wish to share, please contact me, and I will consider it for inclusion here. As you will see below, I am interested in sharing a variety of viewpoints.

I recommend reading the items in the introduction in the order presented (they get progressively more abstract). If there are pieces you've already read, you can skip or skim those.

Welcome Northwestern University faculty, staff, students, and alumni! The northwestern.edu domain has catapulted to the top of the .edu domains visiting this site.

We are collecting the experiences of people who had direct dealings with Bailey in preparation of The Man Who Would Be Queen, and we are interested in the experiences of students and peers who have heard Bailey lecture on transsexualism. If you or someone you know would like to share your experience, please contact me. We will be happy to consider giving your information a permanent and anonymous home.