Thursday 8 October 2015

Galileo's Middle Finger - Part Two

This is the second of my articles discussing the book Galileo's Middle Finger, by Alice Dreger. If you haven't already, it makes sense to start reading at Part One, which discusses intersex individuals.
Dreger: When people ask me how transgender is different from intersex, I usually start by saying that that intersex and transgender people have historically suffered from the opposite problems for the same reason. Whereas intersex people have historically been subjected to sex "normalizing" hormones and surgeries they have not wanted, transgender people have had a hard time getting the sex-change hormones and surgeries they have wanted. Both problems arise from a single cause: a heterosexist medical establishment determined to retain control over who gets to be what sex.
Manly: legs
Here she is, shortly into chapter 2, Rabbit Holes, and characteristically getting right down to the nub of the issue. (For my own, similar take on intersex vs transgender, I refer you to this post, though you might need to scroll down a bit).
Dreger: In the great majority of cases, medical scans won't detect any intersex feature in a transgendered person's body. Nevertheless, many people believe that transgender must be a special form of intersex involving the brain.
This fits with my comment that some transgender individuals look to the existence of intersex individuals to provide justification for their behaviour.
Dreger: Although there is very little science to support it, this has become the most popular explanation of transgender, probably in part because it is the easiest one for uptight heterosexuals to accept. (...) In practice, this story of transgender can function as a kind of get-out-of-male free card for men who seek to become women anatomically. When that card is played, the comforting narrative of "true selves" is preserved.
And there are scientific papers (such as this one) which seek to demonstrate anatomical differences in the brains of trans people. Though mostly their brains are very similar, some studies purport to demonstrate subtle differences in tiny regions of the brain (for example, some regions in MtF transsexuals are less like men and more like women). Most of these studies have small numbers of non-randomised participants, and even if these findings are robust (and I am nowhere near convinced that they are), correlation is not causation.

Science may indeed unlock some of these puzzles in time, but the only thing I am convinced of is that the science is pretty unconvincing so far.

Controversial: Bailey
It's at this point in the narrative that Dreger introduces Professor J. Michael Bailey, the author of the controversial work The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism, published in 2003. Bailey drew on the work of Ray Blanchard, and is therefore supportive of the autogynephilia model, to which I subscribe, as you probably already know. See here for a fuller discussion of this model. In that link, I also discuss how the autogynephilia model makes me feel uncomfortable about myself, because it insists the root of my crossdressing is in sexual desire.

Dreger points out that the French translation of autogynephilia is amour de soi en femme (love of oneself as a woman) which is a much nicer expression.

But where I feel uncomfortable about the autogynephilia model, a lot of people felt a lot worse.
Dreger: Before Bailey, many trans advocates had spent a long time working to desexualize and depathologize their public representations in an effort to reduce stigma, improve access to care, and establish basic human rights for trans people. (...) This is similar to how gay rights advocates have desexualized homosexuality in the quest for marriage rights, portraying themselves in living rooms and kitchens instead of bedrooms, in order to calm fearful heterosexuals.

Indeed, a few retrograde clinicians, like Paul McHugh, a psychiatrist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, still actively use the idea that male-to-female transgender is really about perverted sexuality and mental illness to argue against access to sex-transitional hormones and surgeries.

For Bailey or anyone else to call someone with amour de soi en femme an autogynephile or even a transgender woman-- rather than simply a woman-- is at some level to interfere with her core sexual desire. Such naming also risks questioning her core self-identity in a way that calling the average gay man homosexual simply can't. One really must understand this if one is going to understand why some trans women came after Bailey so hard for naming and describing autogynephilia. When they felt that Bailey was fundamentally threatening their selves and their social identities as women-- well, it's because he was. That's what talking openly about autogynephilia necessarily does.
Lynn Conway by Charles Rogers
It's worth digressing here to make a couple of remarks. Just because a scientific theory makes you uncomfortable, doesn't make it wrong. And just because you insist upon something, doesn't make it right. If you want to convince me, you need to do a lot better than insist. I respond to evidence, not vehemence. This has occasionally caused me to get into uncomfortable debates with other trans people when I dare to question them about their views and beliefs. Sometimes, when they are unable to explain themselves, they resort to some variant of: "Of course, you couldn't possibly understand. You're only a crossdresser, where I am a woman".

But back to the book. Dreger goes on to describe how a prominent transwoman called Lynn Conway, at the University of Michigan, started "what became a war" against Bailey, assisted by Andrea James and Deirdre McLoskey. Together they began to systematically ruin Bailey's reputation. They campaigned to have the book removed from consideration for the 2004 Lambda Literary Award. They cooked up stories about him practising psychology without a licence, doing research without appropriate ethical oversight, and even having sex with one of his research subjects. And Dreger digs deeply and thoroughly into all of this, interviewing as many of the original people involved as possible.
Dreger: As a result of all this, Bailey came across pretty clearly as an abuser, a trans-basher, and a sexual pervert.

After nearly a year of research, I could come to only one conclusion: the whole thing was a sham. Bailey's sworn enemies had used every clever trick in the book-- juxtaposing events in misleading ways, ignoring contrary evidence, working the rhetoric, and using anonymity whenever convenient, to make it look as though virtually every trans woman represented in Bailey's book had felt abused by him and had filed a charge.
But why did Conway, James and McLoskey feel they had to do all those things?
Dreger: "Narcissistic injury," the physician-researcher Anne Lawrence said to me, by way of explanation. "Followed by narcissistic rage." That, she told me, was the only real way to explain what happened to Bailey. The whole thing had been an attempt to kill the messenger bringing a message that Lawrence guessed wounded the accusers' sense of self.
Captivating: the book
By this point, we are barely a third of the way through the book. Several things stand out. First, the book is extremely readable, and the narrative is told in a personal, conversational style. Second, Dreger's scholarship is impeccable: many hundreds of hours of interviews and research have gone into this book (you should see the references), and Dreger seems uncompromising in her search for the truth. Third, it's clear that a great deal of her personal energy has been invested, not just in writing the book, but in sympathising with the people in it, befriending them and becoming part of their lives. Fourth, writing this book has taken considerable courage, and Dreger has herself come under fire, risking her own career and reputation (drawing parallels with Galileo, of course).

Overall, the book is a phenomenal read; gripping as a thriller, scholarly, yet incredibly human. There are so many points in the book where I thought: I can't believe I am actually reading this! I can't recommend it highly enough.

We part company with the book at this point, partly because this blog post is already way too long, and partly because the book leaves the subjects of gender and sex as Dreger finds other (compelling) subjects to sink her hungry scholastic teeth into.

I think the world of gender is changing more rapidly than it ever has before. The emergence of transgender celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner has caused mainstream society to become much more aware (and thankfully, accepting) of trans people and trans issues. Nonetheless, I am very uncomfortable about what happened to Bailey: vilified for his views, not because they were wrong, but because they made people uncomfortable. Dreger points out (and I don't know why I didn't think of this before) that as a result of Conway's attack on Bailey, "no one in sex research will touch male-to-female transsexualism with a ten foot pole any more. Which must have been just what Conway meant to do". That explains why there isn't good science: because scientists fear personal retribution if they publish results which are unpopular.

The way to enlightenment is not to silence people, even the ones who disagree with us, but to engage in open, civil, respectful debate; to seek out the best evidence, and incorporate it into the picture, recognising that the picture isn't complete and may yet change as new discoveries come to light.

Dreger's book has inspired me to be a little more upright, a little more outspoken in defence of the truth, a little more questioning of the "facts", than I was previously. And perhaps, therefore, a little more willing to extend my middle finger, just like Galileo.


  1. Vivienne,
    Thanks so much for posting this. It sounds like Alice Dreger's book is going to the top of my "to read" list. I love the fact that she is not in line with a particular trans manifesto and I look forward to reading her ideas myself.
    I bought Bailey's book when it was first released (before the firestorm created by Conway). It struck a chord with me and I have always held Bailey's findings in interest and find them at least as plausible as other trans theories. I for one, love healthy debate, and despise attempts to silence opposite views.

    1. Hi Sally. Lovely of you to drop by. Believe it or not I have never read Bailey's book. It's one of those books I keep meaning to get around to reading, but haven't had the chance.

      Alice Dreger is also critical of some aspects of Bailey's book. That's one of the other things I enjoyed, that she is able to be nuanced in her approach, rather than just seeing black vs white.

      Like you, I love healthy debate.


  2. Hm, I am very surprised to see you present Dreger's book in this uncritical manner.

    To give one example:

    /// "Narcissistic injury," the physician-researcher Anne Lawrence said to me, by way of explanation. "Followed by narcissistic rage."///

    This reminds me of the way the old bearded patriarch's of the 19th century dismissed feminists. "Hysteria," they said, "You know women: they are all irrational and emotional beings, not to be taken seriously."

    With the word "narcissistic" Lawrence and Dreger show their true faces. They try to undermine the arguments of the transgender activists not by making serious arguments themselves, but by using the autogynephilia theory as a basis for intellectual invalidation: "Autogynephiliacs" are narcissists according to the theory, and therefore their rage is not to be taken seriously.

    And this is said by people who have reduced the identity of transgender women to one of two options: (1) a sexually perverted male or (2) an perverted effeminate gay male.

    And now they tell me they are the victims, and not the transgender people who are invalidated, marginalized,harassed, killed and driven into suicide? Really? Really!!!???

    I have been studying the autogynephilia theory, writing about it and discussing it for the last seven years, and can say with great certainty: The explanation it provides for cross-gender arousal and transgender identities has no foundation in facts.

    This is a rehash of 19th century inversion theory combined with a new variation of the transvestic fetish model. These theories have always been aimed at pathologizing femininity in male assigned persons, because that has been the ultimate taboo in our societies.

    The traditionalists cannot go after the gay men and the lesbians anymore, so now they go after us.

    The transgender activists have seen this, and so have most of the researchers and health care workers in this field. Right now the only substantial support Blanchard and Bailey gets is from extremist right wingers, fundamentalist Christians and transphobic radical feminists. That alone tells us all we need to know about this theory and its supporters.

    It so happens that I have recently written a blog post that discuss the transphobic nature of the autogynephilia theory, called What Dr. Zhana Vrangalova Taught Me About Transphobia in Science.

    I think it provides enough evidence to say that the Blanchard Party is not kind of tribe any person of good will and a good heart would want to belong to.

    For a recent and very entertaining discussion of the scientific qualities of Blanchard and Bailey's pseudoscience, see Felix Conrad's essay on autogynephilia.

    1. Hi Jack. Thanks for dropping by.

      My first question to you is: have you read the book?

      My second point. Dreger's thesis, in the part of the book dealing with the Bailey controversy, is that the trio of Conway, McLoskey and James attacked Bailey personally, and set out to ruin him, and she presents considerable evidence to this effect. Instead of trying to argue against him using civilised debate and discussion, they tried to get rid of him (and by so doing, discouraged others from publishing material they thought might be considered unpalatable).

      This, to me (and for the purposes of this part of the discussion) is the point: not whether the autogynephilia hypothesis is right or wrong, but the way in which the issue is debated. Sure, the hypothesis might be pseudoscience. But if it were, surely it would be an easy theory to demolish with some common sense backed up by sound scientific results? Why attack Bailey's reputation, rather than to simply prove him wrong?

      My third point. You criticise Dreger, not by quoting her words, but by quoting those of Anne Lawrence. Surely you can find something that Dreger herself wrote to criticise?

      Four. Dreger's book presents a very sympathetic view of transgender (as well as intersex and homosexual) people. If you are looking for a "traditionalist who cannot go after the gay men and lesbians any more" you will not find it here.

      In short, the main thrust of your comment is how wrong autogynephilia is, and therefore how bad Dreger's book must be if it expresses some sympathy with the theory. The premises of your argument simply do not hold, and your vehemence, as I said above in my article, isn't a substitute for evidence. You can point me to other people's writings all you like, but all I see there is "the theory is wrong because I don't like it".


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    1. When one assesses the likelihood of an individual exercising solid powers of reasoning, one looks at the types of ideas he or she subscribes to. If one of those ideas is belief in an entity for which there is no evidence... one's faith in their ability to evaluate evidence is challenged.

  5. //My first question to you is: have you read the book?//

    Yes, I have, and I have also read the paper the Blanchard/Bailey chapter is based on, as well the comments made to that paper over at Archives of Sexual Behaviour.

    You should definitely read the comments made by representatives from the other side before you make up your mind about this. (See, for instance, Robin M. Mathy’s response for proof that the reaction against Bailey cannot be reduced to the organized effort of a few vindictive trans activists, found in the PDF linked to below).

    // Instead of trying to argue against him using civilised debate and discussion, they tried to get rid of him//

    LGBT people have for ages tried to argue in an open and civil manner with those that are out to invalidate them and stigmatize them. And in some cases this has worked well.

    Researchers like Magnus Hirschfeld, Harry Benjamin, Alfred Kinsey and others listened attentively to transgender and gender variant people, and used that input in the development of their theories. WPATH, the main international organisation for transgender researches, is acutely aware of transgender interests, competences and ethics.

    Unfortunately, others are not equally open minded. Indeed, James Cantor, Blanchard-ally and friend, told me directly on Twitter that the input of transgender people were irrelevant. He, as well as Blanchard and Bailey, are hiding behind “Science”, with capital S, which apparently allows you to do anything, without any consequences.

    This is a view of science most serious scientist have abandoned long ago. I recommend Allen Frances book on the DSM for a good discussion of this. The social sciences and the history of science provides us with good examples of how science has been used to oppress marginalized groups.

    Furthermore, if LGBT history has taught us anything, that would be that any scholarly discussion will have to be followed up by political action. I am sure some would say that the Stonewall riots was an unfair attack of the sexology of the time (which argued that homosexual men were perverted child molesters).

    There are also those that argue that the way gay activists forced the APA to remove homosexuality from the DSM in 1973 was in violation of proper scientific discourse. It probably was, but it was necessary, and in hindsight it is clear it was the right move. With the exception of people like Blanchard, very few sexologists today will argue that homosexuality is a mental disease.

    I love science. The scientific method provides us with tools that can be used to ensure and open and critical discourse. But the reason such tools were developed were precisely the fact that scientists are human beings too, with all the prejudices and inherited biases that entails.

    1. Hi Jack.

      I don't need to read anyone else's comments to form my opinion: Alice Dreger's book is readable, scholarly, compassionate and moving. It's a great book.

      Second, the behaviour of Conway, McLoskey and James in trying to deliberately ruin the reputation of Bailey was wrong, end of. As someone who claims to love science, you must surely realise the damage which can be done if people are not free to express their ideas.

      The problem with science, which you don't acknowledge, is that sometimes someone has an idea which changes the entire picture. New ideas are seldom welcomed: Darwinism is the most obvious example. Darwin's ideas were unpopular at the time, and continue to be so unpopular that some people still reject his Theory of Evolution, despite the fact that no reputable scientist opposes its basic tenets.

      People can reject Darwinism all they like; it doesn't make the theory wrong. And people can insist on alternative theories, like Creationism or Intelligent Design, all they like; it doesn't make them right.

      I love science too; in fact I've made something of a career out of it. The problem is that what I see here (regarding gender and sex and so on) is almost a science-free zone. And you can partly thank Conway et al for helping to bring that about.


  6. //This, to me (and for the purposes of this part of the discussion) is the point: not whether the autogynephilia hypothesis is right or wrong, but the way in which the issue is debated. //

    No. Really! No! If there is no real factual basis for a theory that clearly invalidates and stigmatizes a marginalised group, history tells us that the facts matter. This applied to the racist science of eugenics, the sexist invalidations of the abilities of women, as well as the sexualization of homosexuals. Facts matter.

    //But if it were, surely it would be an easy theory to demolish with some common sense backed up by sound scientific results?//

    First of all, there is a lot of research proving that Blanchard is wrong, even if you argue within the scientific paradigm of his strand of sexology (see, for instance, Jaimie Veale’s research on gender variance and cross-gender arousal).

    But you could also argue that the sexist and transphobic nature of Blanchard’s and Bailey’s research springs out of their scientific paradigm. B&B has based their research on some kind pseudo-Darwinian kind of evolutionary psychology, which takes culturally defined gender stereotypes for granted.

    You can argue till you are blue in the face, and it won’t matter, because Blanchard and Bailey are intellectually locked into a classic inversion theory, that reduces everything sexual to a binary model of sexual orientation.It is not that they are not willing to listen to alternatives. It seems they are mentally unable to do so.

    Joan Rougharden’s book on evolution, sex and gender, proves in a very good way that there are alternative ways of looking at this. (And yes, that book can be seen as a proper scientific response to Blanchard and similar researchers).

    //My third point. You criticise Dreger, not by quoting her words, but by quoting those of Anne Lawrence. Surely you can find something that Dreger herself wrote to criticise?//

    Come on! I copy pasted that text right our of your blog post. You have read the book. It is clear that the only reason Dreger refers to Lawrence’s “narcissistic rage” hypothesis, is because she wants the reader to think of her own opponents in those terms. So much for an open, unbiased, discussion.

    //Four. Dreger's book presents a very sympathetic view of transgender (as well as intersex and homosexual) people. //

    Oh sure, in the way I can find Catholic priests who respect and love gay men. They won’t be lying either, but their world view makes a mockery out of all their heart felt sympathy.

    What Dreger does here, is a paradox. She has written extensively about how sexology was used to invalidate the gender identities of intersex people. When doing so, she has been using historical and cultural arguments.

    When you read her Galileo book, you can see that she has all the facts needed to see that Blanchard and Bailey are doing the exact same thing towards transgender women, as John Money and others did to intersex people. But she refuses to connect the dots. I find it hard to understand why. Maybe it is for personal reasons.

    //The premises of your argument simply do not hold, and your vehemence, as I said above in my article, isn't a substitute for evidence.//

    You are the one who wants to reduce this debate to a debate about the debate, and not about evidence, and now you suddenly attack me for not providing evidence? Make up your mind!

    I have written extensively about the scientific value of the autogynephilia theory over at my blog, which also has a good list of relevant literature.

    1. Hi Jack.

      You asked me to make up my mind, and here it is. I am entitled to read the literature and form my own opinion of it, and I have. I am entitled to write my blog in any way I choose, and I do. I am entitled to listen to other people's views, respectfully, and disagree with them as it suits me, and I do.

      This particular blog post is about Alice Dreger's book. It's a good book. It contains some sympathetic comments about the autogynephilia theory. It's a good theory. It also contains nuanced, balanced, subtle observations about many of the characters in this drama, which you brush aside in your attempts to cast Dreger as one more villain in your black-and-white morality play. She isn't, and nor am I.

      I've indulged you by publishing your comments here. However, please confine your further comments to the book, not the autogynephilia theory. I have little stomach for dragging this discussion into arguments over minutiae.