On the Science of Changing Sex

Flipping the Bird

Posted in Book Reviews by Kay Brown on March 22, 2015

 

Book Review:  Galileo’s Middle Finger – Heretics, Activists, And The Search For Justice In Science, by Alice Dreger

Dr. Dreger’s latest book could be described as a coming of age story as it chronicles her journey from naive graduate student to a world class activist historian, seeker of Truth, Justice, and the American Way.  She truly is a super-hero, if any real, live human being can be.  Hers is a journey into social justice activism, only to find that many of the self-styled activists were searching for anything but social justice.

Dreger’s introduction to activism was the result of meeting modern examples of the very injustice that she had previously documented had occurred to people in the 19th Century when their bodies didn’t conform to the expected norms for males and females, the so called “Hermaphrodites”, which today we called “intersexed” or “people with Disorders of Sexual Development” (DSD).  Writing about her academic work on 19th Century treatment of intersexed people,

“…It ended up pushing me into two unfamiliar and intense worlds: contemporary sex politics and contemporary medical activism.  That’s because, thanks to the Internet, by the time I came to this topic, in the mid-1990s, something was going on that the Victorian doctors would never have imagined: People who had been born with various sex anomoalies had started to find each other, and they had started to organize as an identity movement.  Labeling themselves intersex, many gather under the leadership of Bo Laurent, the founder of the Intersex Society of North America, and after reading my Victorian Studies article, some of these intersex activists, including Bo, contacted me.  A couple wrote me simply to complain that they found some of my language offensive, apparently not realizing I was relaying Victorian rhetoric in my article.  By contrast, Bo got my work.  And she asked for my help in changing the way children born intersex were treated in modern medicine. … I hastened to tell Bo, “I’m a historian; I study dead people.”  However, once I understood what was really going on at pediatric hospitals all over the nation – once I understood that Bo’s clitoris had been amputated in the name of sex “normalcy” and that this practice was still going on – I felt I had to assist in her efforts.”

Dreger rose to that challenge, taking on a leadership role in the fight to end medically unnecessary surgeries on children with ambigous genitalia.  This entailed taking on the medical establishment, confronting them, insisting that they re-examine their protocols in the light of real damage to real people.  It took a while, years, but the work of these activists with whom Dreger worked, began to seriously effect the desired change.  While the work is not truly complete, it is well on the way.  In her book, she details the long hours, the difficulties encountered, but most importantly, the need for such evidence based activism, that the work of these activists was based on demonstrating the real outcomes of these surgeries, which diverged greatly from the view previously held, that these surgeries helped.  If the book went no further, it would be worth buying it.

But Dreger’s work, and her life, as she took a new position at Northwestern University would take another turn,

“It was shortly after this time that I took on a new scholarly project, one that without warning forced me to question my politics and my political loyalties … This was a project that suddenly changed me from an activist going after establishment scientists into an aide-de-camp to scientists who found themselves the target of activists like me.  Indeed, this project soon put me in a position I would never have imagined for myself; vilified by gender activists at the National Women’s Studies Association meeting and then celebrated at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society by the enemies of my childhood hero, Stephen Jay Gould.”

In 2003, J. Michael Bailey had published his book on femininity in males, The Man Who Would Be Queen.   This had set off a firestorm among a group of autogyenphilic transwomen who took exception to Bailey’s effort to popularize Ray Blanchard’s research which had shown that there were two etiologies leading to gender dysphoria, that there were two (and only two) types of transwomen, as different as night and day, one that was gynephilic, autogynephilic, and gender typical until they announced their intention to transition –  and the other that was exclusively androphilic and gender atypical since birth.  This led to a number of serious accusations of wrongdoing by Bailey, to which Dreger was asked by her friend Paul Vasey to investigate.  As Dreger expresses her initial reluctance,

“Still, I thought I knew from my background in science studies and a decade of intersex work how to navigate an identity politics minefield, so I wasn’t that worried when in 2006 I set out to investigate the history of what had really happened with Bailey and his critics.  My investigation ballooned into a year of intensive research and a fifty-thousand word peer-reviewed scholarly account of the controversy.  And the results shocked me.  Letting the data lead me, I uncovered a story that upended the simple narrative of power and oppression to which we leftist science studies scholars had become accustomed. – I found that, in the Bailey case, a small group had tried to bury a politically challenging scientific theory by killing the messenger.  In the process of doing so, these critics, rather than restrict themselves to argument over the ideas, had charged Bailey with a whole host of serious crimes, including abusing the rights of subjects, having sex with a transsexual research subject, and making up data.  The individuals making these charges – a trio of powerful transgender women, two of them situated in the safe house of liberal academia – had nearly ruined Bailey’s reputation and his life.  To do so, they had used some of the tactics we had used in the intersex rights movement. … but there was one crucial difference: What they claimed about Bailey simply wasn’t true.”

Here, I have to break from the usual traditional book review to share my own experiences in this story.  I personally know most of the players.  I was an active participant in Bo Laurent’s work, meeting with her on several occasions, donating money, and helping her in a minor way to raise funds from the transsexual community.  One of those transwomen who donated was at the time, also a friendly acquaintance of mine, Lynn Conway, one of the “trio of powerful transsexual women”.  The other two were Andrea James, who I had never heard of before, and Deirdre McCloskey, who my good friend (and college roommate) Dr. Joy Shaffer, had spoken of highly.  It was reading Dreger’s lengthy paper on the Bailey affair that upended MY life, led me to become friends with Kiira Trea and eventually to write this blog at her encouragement.  This blog is the direct result of Dreger’s history of the Bailey affair.  I can think of no greater testament to the power of a scholar’s work, than that it should inspire others to action.

But Dreger’s story is only just beginning,

“You can probably guess what happens when you expose the unseemly deeds of the people who fight dirty … Certainly I should have known what was coming – after all, I had literally written what amounted to a book on what this small group of activists had done to Bailey.  But it was still pretty uncomfortable when I became the new target of their precise and unrelenting attacks.  The online story soon morphed into “Alice Dreger versus the rights of sexual minorities,”  and no matter how hard I tried to point people back to documentation of the truth, facts just didn’t seem to matter.”

I must share, that I too was vilified by these same transwomen, when I openly supported Dreger, Bailey, Blanchard, and Lawrence.

Because of her experiences, Dreger set out on a new scholarly journey,

“Troubled and confused by this ordeal, in 2008 I purposefully set out on a journey – or rather a series of journeys – that ended up lasting six years.  During this time, I moved back and forth between camps of activists and camps of scientists, to try to understand what happens – and to figure out what should happen – when activists and scholars find themselves in conflict over critical matters of human identity.”

The result of those journeys is her new book.  It explores intersex, transgender, indigenous peoples of the South American rainforest, back to intersexed people again.  Its quite a journey, of which I can only barely touch upon in this review.  While I read the entire book with great pleasure, here I chose to focus on the section dealing with transgender and Bailey’s book and its aftermath.

In delving further into the book, one finds gems like this,

“When people ask me how transgender is different from intersex, I usually start by saying that intersex and transgender people have historically suffered from 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-changing 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.”

She even has a very insightful explanation of why the “trio”, and many others in the autogynephilic transwomen’s community, went to war against Bailey,

“To understand the vehemence of the backlash against Bailey’s book, you have to understand one more thing.  There’s a critical difference between autogynephilia and most other sexual orientations; Most other orientations aren’t erotically disrupted simply by being labeled.  When you call a typical gay man homosexual, you’re not disturbing his sexual hopes and desires.  By contrast, autogynephilia is perhaps best understood as a love that would really rather we didn’t speak its name.  The ultimate eroticism of autogynephilia lies in the idea of really becoming or being a woman, not in being a natal male who desires to be a woman. … The erotic fantasy is to really be a woman.  Indeed, according to a vision of transsexualism common among those transitioning from lives as privileged straight men to trans women, sex reassignment procedures are restorative rather than transformative… For Bailey or anyone else to call someone with armour 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 … 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.”

There’s a wonderful bon mot moment in the movie, Desert Hearts, when a lesbian scholar vows that she will have her revenge on a homophobe when she writes her memoirs.  In this book, one could say that Dreger takes her revenge on McCloskey, Conway, and especially James by revealing evidence that they are not only autogynephilic, but knowingly so, as Dreger reprints text from an email from Andrea James to Anne Lawrence in 1998,

“A definition is inherently inclusive or exclusive, and there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t feel they belong in or out of a definition.  I got body slammed by the usual suspects in 1996 for recommending a Blanchard book.  Sure, he’s pretty much the Antichrist to the surgery-on-demand folks, and I’ve heard some horror stories about the institute he runs that justify the nickname “Jurassic Clarke.”  However, I found many of his observations to be quite valid, even brilliant, especially in distinguishing early and late-transitioning TS patterns of thought and behavior.  I’ve noticed in most TSs, and in “surgery addicts” especially, a certain sort of self-loathing, a drive to efface every shred of masculinity.  While I readily admit to my own autogynephilia, I would contend that my drives towards feminization seem to have a component pushing me from the opposite direction as well.”

Dreger goes on,

“OK, THIS WAS FASCINATING.  A prior admission to autogynephilia from James and what seemed to amount to the same from McCloskey – plus something very much like an ongoing tacit admission from Conway? – lying behind the attempts to bury Bailey.  All that spoke to motivation on the part of Conway et al.”

Personally, I find this damning, as James has made a special point of defaming a number of individuals in the transcommunity for supporting Anne Lawrence, Bailey, or Blanchard.  She writes scurrilous material on her website against Dreger, Bailey, Blanchard, Lawrence, and many other notable transwomen, including myself; all for writing about a phenomena of which she admits she experiences.

Dreger recounts her year of research on the Bailey affair, detailing the ways in which Conway and James attack Bailey and how she was able to discover the truth of the matter, setting the record straight.  She also recounts how these two transwomen then turned on her, attempting to blacken her name with the same tar filled brush.  In the end, it becomes clear, that though the experience was unpleasant, it lead her to connect with a number of other scholars who have wrongfully been attacked and vilified by other groups, in other fields.

At the end of the book, Dreger lays out recommendations for society and especially for social justice advocates, to follow an evidence based approach.  I would like to think that I would qualify as an exemplar of her recommendations, in my conduct of this affair and of my previous, and definitely of my future, activism.

Further Reading:

Book review by Jessie Singal

I highly recommend purchasing and carefully reading this book:

http://www.amazon.com/Galileos-Middle-Finger-Heretics-Activists/dp/1594206082

Advertisements

Comments Off on Flipping the Bird

%d bloggers like this: