Northwestern University Psychologist J. M. Bailey Debases Social Science In Quest For Celebrity


After receiving news of the publication of J. Michael Bailey's book The Man Who Would Be Queen, I immediately undertook the jaw-dropping exercise of reading it. It is incomprehensibly appalling how such work could be accepted for publication in the year 2003 by a reputable academic organization. It is almost equally appalling that the author could be a professor of any serious repute, let alone be elevated to a department chairmanship in a prestigious institution of higher education.

I suppose this controversy gives our community a reality check on how much work needs to be done in order to communicate the reality of the transgender experience to the overall society. I did not want to devote this much time to criticizing the work of a narrow-minded bigot who happens to occupy a "high place," but I'm afraid it must be done, and I try to see that there could be a silver lining in this controversy--that progressive people in the academy and elsewhere will rise up to laugh this impostor out of his lecture hall. I also hold the hope that the transgender community will unite around this issue, even though there is still an immense amount of fear that governs the lives of many post-transition stealth transsexuals as well as those who are in the beginning stages of expressing gender non-conformity.

It deeply hurts and offends to have oneself and many of one's friends so egregiously distorted and misrepresented by an unsympathetic outsider like J. Michael Bailey. I suppose that we must recognize this is something that many minority groups have had to tolerate and eventually overcome on the way to achieving acceptance in society. The phenomenon of outsiders defining a marginalized group in a negative fashion is hardly novel as is shown by the experience of African-Americans throughout most of our country's history (and still today if we look at contemporary white supremacist literature). Today, we might imagine someone like Bailey undertaking to analyze contemporary African-American culture and generalizing about it based only on interviews with pimps and drug dealers. Nonetheless, the fact that Bailey is an outsider to the transgender community does not mean, per se, that his views are invalid, but this fact can help account for his bias and lack of comprehension.

Bailey's academic expertise comes principally from having conducted numerous studies of homosexual men (particularly on their sexuality) over the past fifteen years. The first part of his book reprises his findings and those of other researchers who've dealt with these issues. Some of his findings might seem reasonable, but often the interpretations he gives to them seem less reasonable and work to reinforce commonly held stereotypes of gay male behavior. I don't know how his work has been received by the gay community in general or by academics (whether gay or not), but Bailey has at least gathered some data and experience to support his assertions. Unfortunately this is not true of his analysis of gender-variant people, who he has failed to study in depth or breadth. Why does he devote so much of his book to variant sexuality as a prologue to an examination of transsexualism? Other than the fact that the study of variant sexuality is where his expertise lies, the main answer is that he believes that the only significant motivation for a person to pursue a transsexual course is for increased sexual gratification.

Part of the way through the book, then, Bailey turns to issues of gender and transsexualism (though he only deals with MtF, i.e. male-to-female persons). He has some obvious political and academic axes to grind (e.g. the "essentialist" vs. the "social constructivist" schools), but suffice it to say that he is a convinced disciple of Ray Blanchard (of the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto), and he gives little or no consideration to any researchers or academics who do not follow Blanchard's philosophy. Blanchard is the person who developed the concept of "autogynephilia" which lumps together all gender-variant MtF people, including crossdressers, who are not sexually attracted to men (i.e. are "non-homosexual" in his parlance). This group Bailey views as heterosexual men who have a disturbed sexuality, and they form one part of his binary classification. Those transsexuals who are attracted to men form the other part of his binary, the "homosexual transsexuals," and Bailey views them as being a subset of gay men. As an example of one of the innumerable offensive and outrageously simplistic statements in the book, Bailey declares that once one is aware of the existence of these two groups of transsexuals, one can tell at a glance which is which.

Bailey pays lip service to the idea that there might be gray areas between the commonly recognized categories of sexual orientation and gender identity, but in the interest of clarity and of making his points, he elects to focus on what he views as typical cases, though many of us would call these extremes. However, in the meantime it becomes rather clear that he really is skeptical about the existence of intermediate states of sexuality or gender. For example, he apparently does not believe that true bisexuality exists. With gender variance, he is more willing to admit that intermediate states might exist but he minimizes their importance. In his view, such people can and do adapt themselves willingly and successfully to the prevailing binary gender role setup, or, in those cases where they pursue a non-traditional transsexual strategy they are assumed to be non-representative (i.e. a small minority of the transsexual population). For Bailey, if bisexuality does not exist or is exceedingly rare, should not intermediate gender identities (including androgyny or any non-surgical form of MtF transition) be equally rare?

One of the most controversial (and grossly biased) approaches of the book is to posit two individuals Bailey met as being typical of the "homosexual" and "autogynephilic" transsexual populations. I think this was a short cut that inadvertently revealed his preconceptions about transsexuals, and it obviously saved him a lot of time, effort, and money not to have to conduct any rigorous academic surveys. Bailey has slowed down considerably in his middle age. When he was a young researcher studying gay men, he sought informants by placing ads in newspapers of a dozen large cities and then drove many miles to those places where he conducted numerous interviews in private homes, restaurants, and hotels. When he later decided to study transsexuals for the current book, he confined his efforts to interviewing those transsexuals he was able to encounter in a few gay bars within walking distance of his home (evidently there were no lesbian bars in his barrio). Why should he have bothered developing any valid new data on the transsexual population, when he had this handy set of obviously "representative" transsexuals, and could fill in any gaps by referring to the earlier findings of Blanchard and associates from Toronto? Evidently he refused to broaden his sampling techniques even though he was repeatedly offered assistance in such an effort by various transsexuals who were already in contact with many other segments of the gender-variant community. Bailey had all the data he needed--a small number of people whose histories fit and supported his theory, and any other data, any other people, he discarded as either atypical or unreliable (i.e. they would lie about their history).

Bailey's example of the prototypical "homosexual transsexual" is a person who was a very feminine boy from an early age, and who developed a sexual preference exclusively to males as sexual partners. In addition, it's important for Bailey that this person have a feminine body type that would permit an easy post-operative transition. It's certainly debatable whether these two characteristics routinely occur together. As I said before, Bailey's interpretation of the need for such a person to transition and have SRS is limited to sexual motivation; given that a male partner is desired, Bailey acknowledges the logic of transition because of the anti-femme bias of much of contemporary gay culture. In this scenario, Bailey may be exaggerating the utility of the choice to transition by overstating the likelihood that a straight man will not have problems once he learns of the transsexual's history, which he generally does. In any case, for Bailey the gender role of the transsexual is totally immaterial--the only important goal is to have sex with men. But Bailey still views this type of transsexual as a "man," not because he can discern in that person any particular masculine behavioral or physical traits whatsoever, but merely because of the flimsy evidence that the person he's chosen to profile (and by extension all of the transsexuals of this category) hasn't been able to form a lasting sexual relationship with a man after only a few years of post-operative status. This to Bailey indicates a "male sexuality" (typical of either gay or straight men), ergo, our hapless transsexual is in fact a "man." One might want to ask Bailey if he would classify as "men" any genetic women who were unable to form a lasting sexual relationship with a man during a similar time period, whether they remained celibate during that time or had multiple short-term sexual partners.

It gets worse. For his example of the contrasting prototypical "autogynephilic transsexual," Bailey selects another bar denizen who has a childhood background of minimal expressed femininity but who ends up transitioning, with SRS, in middle age. One must know that Blanchard's definition of autogynephilia centers mainly on the idea that such people are erotically gratified by the image or sensation of themselves being women, which often in practice means that a sexual partner is superfluous. The MtF transsexual presented here indeed had a long history of autoeroticism based on feminine self-imaging, a history that was quite bizarre and extreme in its details and intensity. As far as the motivation of such a person to transition, Bailey again focuses mainly on the sexual--the enhancement of autoerotic gratification. And he has an even easier time pigeonholing this person as being fundamentally a "man" because she too has a "male sexuality" (hasn't formed a lasting sexual relationship), and has certain obvious "male behavioral traits." It's also worth noting that her autogynephilic TS example also has physical--not behavioral--characteristics that keep her from fully passing as a genetic woman. In fact, one is tempted to think that Bailey's idea that one can tell a "homosexual" from an "autogynephilic" transsexual at a glance really reduces down to looks and passability, and has very little to do with behavior, sexual orientation or motive for undertaking a gender transition.

One of the few modern aspects of the book is that Bailey has a strong tendency to believe that gender variance (as well as homosexuality) arises primarily as the result of genetic influences mediated through prenatal hormonal effects on the developing brain. He does not, however, appear to have a particularly sophisticated understanding of human physiological development, or he would have recognized some of the potential mechanisms for, and the existence of a great range of gender-variant states. The only lesson Bailey takes from observations of intersex conditions (he only looks in detail at one of these, cloacal exstrophy) is the likely innateness of gender identity and sexual orientation. By neglecting to consider intersex conditions such as Klinefelter's syndrome or partial androgen insensitivity syndrome, he ignores evidence of ambiguity in sexual orientation and especially gender identity. In any event, given early genetic influences, Bailey does not believe that there is much that can be done to help or "cure" transsexuals and he makes a show of expressing sympathy (perhaps "pity" would be the better word) for them. In terms of "treatment," he brings a Dr. Ken Zucker, a colleague of Blanchard, into the discussion. Bailey positions Zucker as the person with the middle-ground or "reasonable" clinical viewpoint, in contrast to people he places on the "right" (e.g. fundamentalist Christian psychologists) and to the "left" (just about everyone else) of the debate, and implicitly agrees with Zucker's approach. In what was one of the saddest parts of the book for me, Zucker spoke about the problems faced by feminine-acting boys and commented that society can indeed be brutal to them, but "who can change society?" Therefore, it's obviously better to conform! After all, in Bailey's world, one can conform to gender norms and still opt later for an alternative sexuality, whether the choice is homosexuality or autoeroticism. But if a person finds it really really impossible to conform in this way, then and only then, after clearing all the various roadblocks, should any kind of transition be recommended. I don't find this to be a middle-ground clinical approach at all, but rather a fundamentally conservative and retrograde one. It obviously ignores that fact that not very long ago the option of an alternative sexuality was not socially acceptable. I would answer Zucker's question, "Who can change society?" by saying "with respect to homosexuality, it mainly was homosexuals who did." In considering Zucker's opinion, I also thought to myself that it hasn't been so long either since some have been able to say, "Well, at least they're giving me a drinking fountain, even if it's not the same one that white people can use."

One other observation about the Zucker/Bailey clinical position: I believe that they are vastly and perhaps deliberately underestimating the capacity of individuals--especially children--to conform to gender roles, regardless of how pronounced someone's gender-variant genetic inheritance might be. A corollary to this is that they vastly underestimate the power of society to effect this conformity. I believe that there are many gender-variant people who in fact have done what Bailey advises--they have gone along with the prevailing culture and have been unable to escape from an artificial societally-imposed gender identity until later in life, if ever. I might even argue that such people comprise the majority of the gender-variants (or have done so until fairly recently), just as this has been the history of the homosexual communities over the past forty years. Bailey even touches on this in connection with his studies of gay men, and his references to the well-known study by Green (a few decades ago) of feminine boys. Green's findings were that a large majority (75%) of boys identified early in childhood as being feminine went on to become homosexual men. Bailey doesn't deny that many adult homosexual men were not identified as being feminine as children, but he spends a lot of effort arguing that this latter group was in fact feminine in childhood but suppressed it (or lied to investigators about it) and in adulthood limits its expression to permissible occasions, i.e. to specific places and times in today's adult gay culture. Although Bailey can accept that many gay men are compelled by both straight and gay society to act less feminine than they inherently are (both as adults and as children), he can't accept that the same would be true of gender-variant people. It seems to me that concealing one's cross-gender nature would be even more mandatory for the latter group, which is far less accepted in society today than homosexuals are.

I don't know how important this deeply flawed book, which verges on lurid sensationalism, is going to prove to be in the long run, but it does have serious implications for the eventual social acceptance of the entire gender-variant community, not just those people identifying as transsexual. A key question concerns the way in which Bailey's inferior scholarship received the imprimatur of the National Academies, which is discouraging because it confers a presumption of academic legitimacy. What may be less discouraging, perhaps, is that Bailey seems to have adopted the public face of the buffoon for his book publicity tour (the "Jerry Springer approach," as one reviewer commented). Another type of "cheap shot" Bailey often indulges in is allowing other people to express outrageous and unanswered opinions which Bailey himself would not admit to sharing, such as one by a student who commented, with respect to public funding of SRS for an "autogynephilic" transsexual, "they're not in the wrong body, they're just mentally ill!" All of this gives me hope that Bailey's opinions will not ever, or will not for long be taken seriously. For now, Bailey serves mainly as a sort of entertainer with academic credentials, little different from others who have exploited the frustration of certain groups in society that have felt cowed about expressing long-held prejudices.

Perhaps the single most damaging aspect of Bailey's book--for Bailey himself-- in terms of it ever being taken seriously, was the selection of the person named Cher Mondavi as the prototypical "autogynephilic transsexual." I think that any person of average intelligence may get a chuckle or a shock from reading about her personal history but is not likely to believe that hers could be a representative story. And this will be all the more true if our community can present viewpoints and examples of transsexual lives to counter Bailey's. A principal antidote to Bailey's position will result from the continued emergence of transgender people of all types into the light. We already have seen a significant amount of biography and autobiography of transgender people, and we need to see more.

There seem to be some similarities between what's happening with the Bailey book and the controversy which arose twenty or so years ago in connection with the work of the biologist Edward O. Wilson, who, if I recall correctly, alleged among other things that people of some racial groups were innately less intelligent than those of others. Wilson had academic credentials at least the equivalent of Bailey's, but did not take nearly as much of a sensationalistic approach to his work, even though his findings were iconoclastic. Instead, he maintained a far more rigorous intellectual stance, marshaled surveys, statistics, theory, etc. in support of his arguments, and therefore seemed to be taken much more seriously by academics. The focus for those who challenged Wilson's views then came to center primarily on scientific methodology and the proper interpretation of data, which is as it should have been. Bailey's work by comparison seems so grossly substandard that it's unlikely his opinions will have much long-term impact once they are subjected to an objective critical analysis that is fundamental to the "Darwinian" progress of scientific inquiry.

Bailey's book is much more a commentary on human sexuality than it is on gender identity. I would scarcely deny that human sexuality is an important motivation that drives some human behavior, but Bailey seems to think it is the only motivation that drives a person's decision to change gender. Let's look a bit more closely at this concept by hypothesizing the existence of a utopian gay male culture in which the so-called feminine and masculine traits are equally valued. Would any boy who grew up expressing predominantly feminine traits, and who later developed a sexual orientation to men, ever need to choose a transsexual course if he knew he would be able to easily fit in and find a suitable sexual partner in such a utopia? Bailey would presumably answer "no," whereas we would answer "yes." What is the crux of this divergence of opinion? I would say that it comes down to two important differences. One is sexual--whether the individual in question had a clear preference for interacting sexually with a man as a man or as a woman. It's astounding that Bailey, a supposed "sexologist," cannot understand this significant difference, but he has embarrassingly admitted as much, being quoted that he is unable to comprehend female sexuality. It doesn't seem reasonable that Bailey can claim to understand homosexuality without being one; he'd presumably say that his understanding came from reading about and studying homosexuals. Wouldn't a comparable investigation of female sexuality have been an indispensible prerequisite for a balanced consideration of transsexualism? The second difference is behavioral (or sociological)--that the individual in question has a clear preference for playing the feminine role in the overall culture (not just within the gay culture). Why can't Bailey understand these differences? These two differences--the sexual (meaning here the physical body rather than sexual preference) and the behavioral roles--are the two most fundamental elements of gender identity. May I suggest that Bailey's inability to comprehend the desire of the "homosexual transsexual" to be a woman derives not only from a lack of empathy but possibly even more from a profound sexism? In other words, what "sane man" would want to occupy the inferior sexual and social position of a woman?

To analyze Bailey's assertion that his other category of transsexuals, the "autogynephiles," desire to transition for autoerotic sexual motives, let's speculate along some different lines. Let's say that a male-bodied non-homosexual gender-variant person's sexual drive significantly diminishes, which in fact does often happen with advancing age. Does this mean that as people age Bailey would expect them to be much less likely to undertake a transsexual transition? I don't think this supposition is borne out by the evidence we have seen. Alternatively, let's assume that this kind of person's sexual drive significantly diminishes as the result of taking anti-androgenic drugs in the earlier stages of transition, which is in fact what happens in most cases, and that the resulting lowered sexual drive also is going to approximate what can be expected post-operatively. If autoerotic gratification is the sole motivation for such a person's change of sex, wouldn't Bailey have to conclude that many prospective "autogynephilic" transsexuals would abort their transitions after experiencing the effects of anti-androgens? Yet this is not something that seems to happen as far as I know. A similar argument could be made with respect to the potential loss of sexual responsiveness which many times accompanies SRS, a risk of which transsexuals are well aware. Once again, those consumed solely by the quest for sexual gratification would not be likely to take such a risk. For us, it is obvious that there has to be a stronger motivation, and that motivation can be none other than expressing the non-sexual components of one's gender identity. Again, Bailey's inability to understand this may very well come down simply to a lack of empathy and to a profound sexism.

It is possible that the intent of Bailey's book is more political than intellectual or financial. If we look at history we can see that overemphasizing the sexual, fomenting alarm about "deviant sexuality," has been a commonly employed technique to raise the fears of the majority society about many outsider groups that have sought acceptance, even though we mustn't forget that this technique is also a time-honored method of boosting book sales. It was often alleged, for example, that African-Americans desired full civil rights not so much to have voting rights, opportunity in employment or housing, human dignity, etc., but mainly in order to have sex with white people. Something similar was often alleged about homosexuals who sought protection from discrimination--that what they really mainly wanted was the ability to have sex with and proselytize among young heterosexuals.

One aspect of Bailey's book that must be emphasized is its considerable misogyny. Bailey's unquestioning acceptance of the marginalization of feminine men in many sectors of gay (and of course straight!) culture is part of this. His acceptance of occupational stereotyping that dismisses the appropriateness of female-gendered persons in engineering, information science, etc. is another part of it. His locker-room attitudes toward women, and his imputing of such attitudes toward all "normal men" is still another. One of the telling parts of the book for me was reading his anecdote about Ray Blanchard, who was allegedly asking an academic colleague what his reaction would be if a woman he were dating revealed that she were transsexual. Blanchard began by asking the colleague, "Let's say you had found the perfect woman--someone who's attractive and sexy and interested in you." Objectification, anyone?

An important question in this brouhaha, which is as much political as it is intellectual, is how the GLB part of the GLBT (especially gay men) is going to react to Bailey's book. I did not read the first part of the book with quite the critical attention that I read the sections dealing with transsexualism, and not ever having been a gay man I possibly did not react as strongly to Bailey's stereotyping assertions about gay behavior. Certain people have pointed out that in some ways Bailey's work reflects a common gay male view of transgenderism dating from the mid-1990's, and though there are doubtlessly some in the gay community who still adhere to such views, I think that the GLBT alliance will endure despite this controversy and will in fact emerge the stronger for it. At present, I am waiting eagerly to see what the national organizations are going to have to say about Bailey's book, and I am especially curious about what the reaction of Tim Bergling (author of Sissyphobia) might be.

I think it's important to mention Tim Bergling's work because it sheds light on one of the appeals of Bailey's book. It's been a while since I read Sissyphobia, but I would characterize it as having exposed to general view some complex love-hate attitudes with respect to femininity that exist in much of gay culture. Bailey draws on some of Bergling's concepts (though he steadfastly avoids interpreting contemporary gay attitudes as reflective in any way of a pervasive misogyny in the overall culture) and styles himself as one who reveals "the unflattering inside truth" about contemporary gay culture. This resonates strongly with the general public because much of the public is misogynistic (not to mention homophobic and averse to any candid discussion of sexuality), and because the public already senses that there is some truth to the idea that many gay men are somewhat feminine while still scorning femininity. From there, the public may be willing to consider that Bailey is equally capable of "telling the unflattering inside truth" about transsexuals and other gender- variant people. While Bailey's views are egregious distortions, this does not absolve our community from the need for periodic re-examination of our own attitudes, including the antipathy or discomfort of various segments of the gender-variant community for various other segments. In addition, we must not ignore the fact that there are people in the transgender community who have bizarre sexual proclivities, just as such people exist in any so-called normal population; the legitimate questions, regarding any such people, are how harmful their behavior is, how they came to be that way and how representative they are.

Sonia John

The author is a transgender woman and artist living in Denver, Colorado