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New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy
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GayToday
Thursday, June 19, 2003

The Man Who Would Be Queen

Book Review by Pauline Park, Ph.D.

The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism by J. Michael Bailey, Joseph Henry Press, $24.95


 What is the most horrifying outcome one can imagine from the story of a feminine boy who loves everything girlish?

That he should grow up to identify as a transgendered woman?

Clearly, this is the fear that animates J. Michael Bailey in his latest book, The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism.

Bailey, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University with a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, has been published widely in academic journals and is most famous for his studies of sexual orientation in twins. His new book, released in mid-March, has already created a stir, which may be exactly what Bailey intended.

A primary aim of Bailey's book is to challenge the distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity and expression that has become commonplace in the LGBT community.

"The standard lecture is that sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender role behavior are separate, independent psychological traits; a feminine man is as likely to be straight as gay," Bailey writes. "But the standard lecture is wrong. It was written with good, but mistaken, intentions: to save gay men from the stigma of femininity. The problem is that most gay men are feminine, or at least they are feminine in certain ways."

Bailey goes so far as to assert that "the causes of homosexual transsexualism are largely the causes of homosexuality."

But Bailey's challenge is to explain why some male-to-female transsexuals are attracted to women--heterosexual pre-op and lesbian-identified post-op; in the end, he simply discounts them as pathologically narcissistic, deriding them as having "a very unusual sexual orientation (towards oneself as a woman)."

(In this book at least, Bailey ignores masculine women and female-to-male transsexuals altogether.)

Bailey's notion that sexual orientation and gender identity are rooted in the same "cause" is closely related to his view of the "nature vs. nurture" debate about homosexuality. He weighs in decisively in favor of essentialism-the contention that there is a phenomenon that we call homosexuality that is cross-culturally consistent in its fundamental characteristics and probably rooted in biology-and against social constructionism-the view that notions of sexuality and gender are relatively arbitrary and culturally specific and defined.

"I call the idea that men and women (and gay and straight men) have cross-culturally consistent (and probably innate) differences in interests the 'psychological' hypothesis," Bailey writes. "This is because it suggests that the sexes, and the sexual orientations, are really psychologically different. The competing idea, that these differences are largely arbitrary, is known as the 'sociological' hypothesis. This hypothesis implies that men and women, or gay and straight men, are the same psychologically, and that behavioral differences between them reflect sociological factors such as group identity."

In short, there is, in Bailey's view, a consistent psychological difference between gay men and straight men, and, unfortunately, it's just a short leap from there to the conclusion that pathology lies on one side of that divide.

Bailey not only seems to lack command of the most basic tenets of social constructionism--he claims, for example, that its proponents argue that all men are innately bisexual, when of course constructionism rejects the very notion of culturally transcendent identities based on innate characteristics--but, more importantly, he fails to acknowledge some of its most important insights. Social constructionists point to the cultural imposition of a rigid sex/gender binary as the source of homophobia and transgenderphobia in society, but Bailey cannot fathom how such pressure--not to mention the resulting internalized homophobia and transphobia--can create ambivalence in a boy about his femininity or in a girl about her masculinity.

Bailey opens and closes the book with the story of Danny Ryan, a boy who just can't help trying on his mother's clothes, and the author clearly sees this gender non-conforming behavior as pathological.

"It is difficult to see a boy like Danny Ryan without wondering why he exists," Bailey muses. "He is so unusual, and there is no obvious explanation."

Passages like this, sprinkled throughout the book, make clear that Bailey views masculinity in men as being unambiguously good and femininity in men as bad, or at least profoundly problematic. The title of the book--The Man Who Would Be Queen--suggests that Bailey views males who cross-dress or who express their femininity as faintly ridiculous or even pathetic figures.

Despite a sympathetic tone, Bailey never questions the assumption that femininity in boys is a form of "deviance" to be explained. This bias is clearest in his defense of the diagnosis of "gender identity disorder" (GID), still listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association.

GID is perhaps the single most controversial issue within the transgender community, with some passionately defending its use and others calling for its "reform" or even removal from the DSM. Some transsexuals believe that gender dysphoria is a real mental illness for which hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and sex reassignment surgery (SRS) are the appropriate treatment. Others justify retaining GID on the pragmatic grounds that it offers access to HRT and SRS, especially given that SRS is still considered "experimental" by the medical establishment. But as the number of transsexuals able to get private health insurance to pay for SRS dwindles, consensus in the transgender community is moving toward some sort of "reform" that would recast gender dysphoria as a medical condition rather than a psychopathology.

Bailey does not seem to recognize the extent to which GID pathologizes not only transsexuals but all gender-variant people as mentally ill. In fact, some proponents of GID, such as George Rekers-a fundamentalist Christian psychiatrist at the University of South Carolina medical school-explicitly advocate the use of GID as a tool to "prevent" homosexuality in "genderqueer" youth. Few LGBT people realize that a GID diagnosis can be-and is-used by homophobic parents to institutionalize gender-different youth in order to "cure" them. Most youth who face such treatment grow up identifying not as transgendered, but rather lesbian, gay, or bisexual. It is not just transsexuals whose lives are affected by a diagnosis of GID.

Bailey rejects Rekers' approach to GID as "unscientific" and "punitive," based on overtly religious "arguments for the superiority of heterosexuality," but he dismisses the challenge to GID as "ideological grandstanding at the expense of feminine boys" by those he calls "left-wing" critics whose real agenda is social change. By creating a left/right binary, Bailey is able to insert himself in the debate as a "moderate" concerned for the welfare of feminine boys. For Bailey, the task of the psychiatrist is not to question rigid notions of gender but rather to attempt to "treat" gender "dysphoria" in those unwilling to conform. The end game is avoiding what Bailey considers the ultimate disaster-the male who seeks sex reassignment surgery.

But Bailey never questions the real source of the "unhappiness" of feminine boys-the abuse and violence directed against them by a homophobic and transphobic society. In response to critics of GID, Bailey asks rhetorically, "Who can really hope to change society?" He seems unaware of the extent to which the transgender movement has begun to bring about just that kind of social change. Last year, 14 jurisdictions adopted transgender rights laws, including New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Dallas. And public opinion surveys have shown increasing acceptance of transgendered people as they have of gays and lesbians.

Despite the book's subtitle-The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism--what is most striking about this book is how little it is informed by empirical research. Bailey presents no original research of his own in this book, and rests his conclusions largely on a superficial reading of a number of studies, including one conducted nearly 20 years ago by Richard Green of UCLA and published in 1987 in The Sissy Boy Syndrome and the Development of Homosexuality. Green's sample size was simply too small to provide the basis for firm conclusions about anything, his methodology was questionable at best, and his work is now woefully out-of-date. Instead of original research, Bailey offers a series of personal stories of boys who became gay men or transsexual women.

One has the impression of Bailey reaching to his bookshelf for some second-hand research and hastily throwing together a book in order to cash in on the vogue for anything about transgender. Bailey himself recently referred to the book as "scandalous," suggesting that its sensationalism is part of a conscious attempt to provoke controversy. Some controversies are productive; others just sell books.


Pauline Park (mudang@ix.netcom.com) is co-chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy and has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois. This article is a joint project of Gay City News and the Pride Senior Network, in whose newsletter, The Networker, it also appears.

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