On the Science of Changing Sex

Pose: A Look at Transgender Realities

Posted in Autobiographical, Film Review by Kay Brown on June 30, 2018

Kay BrownMy husband and I have been watching a great new drama show on FX, POSE.  I don’t normally watch shows with a transgender theme.  They usually either misrepresent us, make fun of us, or we are the designated tragic losers.  But Pose is different.  As Janet Mock, one of the writers for the show and an important voice in how the show was developed and what issues it covers, said, the show “centers transwomen of color”.  Yes, it does that, and a whole lot more.  It also, by the simple statistical reality that transwomen of color in the US are far more likely to be exclusively androphilic early transitioners, the show centers “homosexual transsexuals” (HSTS).  I love the mix of black, puerto rican, and white transwomen in the show.  This being set in New York, that fits the local demographics.  (Here on the west coast, our mix also includes meso-american hispanic, Filipino, and chinese.)

I haven’t seen a single “late transitioner” being portrayed.  Even better, they don’t make the oft mistake of conflating the two types.  No, we see only one type, as they really are.

This essay is less a review than an educational exposition.  Because the show focuses on HSTS in a realistic way, in a way that I have never seen a TV show actually do before, it offers me an opportunity to connect the science, sociology, psychology, history, to a show that you can watch and connect the dots.

Not all of those dots are flattering.  In the very first episode we see Electra Abundance, a house mother of a collection of trans & gay youth, lead her crew on a caper to steal 18th Century court dress from a museum just so that they could outshine their competition at a Ball.  At least one of the crew, Angel, is a sex worker on the street.  In a later episode, we see a bisexual young man, one of House of Evangelista is a street drug dealer.  Yes, it was like real life, but it still hurts to see stereotypes of street kids, gay and trans alike, as petty criminals.  Electra and Angel have sugar daddies that help get them off the street.  On the other hand, we see Blanca, the mother of the House of Evangelista working a real job at a nail salon.  This too is very realistic.  Very few transwomen who end up on the margins of society when young ever climb very far on their own.

Speaking of throwaways, the show opens with heart wrenching scene of a gay teen being thrown out of his family by homophobic parents.  Blanca and Angel both relate ugly stories of being rejected by their families as kids.  (Been there, done that!)  The show gives us a glimpse of how transwomen form houses and in essence are the social workers that provide group homes for throw away queer kids.  They have been doing this for a very long time.

As the show is set in the late ’80s, there is an ever-present pall hanging over the characters, “the plague”, HIV/AIDS.  At the time, being HIV+ was literally a death sentence.  There is a powerful reminder that though thousands of people were dying, then President Reagan couldn’t even bring himself to mention it.  Homophobes literally saw it as ‘God’s Punishment’ on queer folk.  In the opening scene of the first episode, we meet Blanca as she learns that she is HIV+.  She is a strong woman and decides that knowing that she may get sick and die soon, she is determined to make the world a better place by creating her own house built on love and encouragement for her charges.  She hides that she is HIV+, but works to educate others on safer sex practices.  In another episode, we see AIDS patients in the hospital being treated as pariahs; in one case hospital staff refused to enter the room to deliver their meal.  In another vignette an older gay man cajoles three younger men to get tested at a clinic.  We see three of them joyful that they tested negative, but the older man is first devastated, then puts on a brave face to lie about his own HIV+ status.

Allow me to switch to a few personal anecdotes.  I’m 61 years old now… I lived through all of this.  We first began to suspect something was wrong with the first hints were a rash of young men getting a rare cancer.  I vividly reading a cartoon in the gay press, must have been 1980 (?) that read, “I’m glad I’m middle-aged… too young to get old man’s Karposi’s carcinoma and too old to get young man’s Karposi’s.”  I remember standing in line to see a movie at the Castro Theatre and recognizing Karposi’s lesions on a man’s face.  Then, gay men and HSTS transwomen started dying of lots of illnesses that shouldn’t have been killing them.  I remember talking to one of my childhood friends trying to explain all of this, including the various theories, some of them incredibly homophobic such as the notion that gay men were dying because of too much partying, drugs, and of course, sex.  But then it became more obvious that this was an infectious agent that was sexually transmitted.  The fear was palpable.

My own sex life took a very steep nose-dive.  I was then recently post-op, but I had been having unprotected sex with men as an exclusive bottom for years before that.  I had never even seen a condom.  Why should I?  It wasn’t like I was going to get pregnant, more’s the pity.  Sure, there were STDs… but antibiotics could take care if it.  I learned about and how to use a condom at a safer sex house party hosted by members of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance at Stanford.  Like the men in the show, I was too afraid to learn my HIV status when testing became available; but my good friend and sister transactivist, Joy Shaffer, M.D. then a medical resident working with HIV/AIDS patients in the hospital when many others refused, insisted.  Joy and her girlfriend Patricia went with me to the clinic.  They were obviously not in a high risk group, but got tested alongside me to offer encouragement.  I was negative.  I felt relief… but the fear was still there.  My sex life remained much more restrained for a good many years later, until I got married.

Public Service Advertisement:

Practice Safer Sex!  Keep and use condoms.  EVERY TIME!!  Learn about and take PrEP medications to reduce your chances of becoming HIV+.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled show.

Because this show has writers that are themselves early transitioners, we see some intimate details that aren’t usually portrayed.  For instance, we see in one episode that not only are HSTS obligate bottoms, but that they are also “avoidant”.  That is, that they would prefer not to have their pre-op genitalia touched during sex.  Just to make sure the audience understands that this is universal, both Electra and Angel have discussions with their sugar daddy boyfriends about it.  As Electra’s boyfriend puts it, “What?! You didn’t think I noticed you grimace when I touch you there?”  This detail, of course, is almost never discussed or portrayed elsewhere because most of those shows wish to portray young transwomen as sex toys for “chasers”.  In this same show, we learn that Electra’s and Angel’s boyfriends are both chasers, gynandromorphophilic.  That is, they both prefer pre-op transwomen and want to touch their lover’s pre-op genitalia.  Electra is faced with the prospect of losing her man if she has SRS, but decides to go ahead, for her own sake.  Angel, upon learning that her man is a chaser, is repulsed and loudly orders him to leave.

The writers seem to know their history.  In one of the episodes, we see Blanca angered by the blatant transphobia from the ‘straight looking – straight acting’ gay male crowd at a local bar.  She attempts to use civil rights style counter sit-in tactics to force the bar to accept her presence and to serve her.  But that bar uses bouncers and even the police to enforce their ‘no queens’ policy, deliberately insulting and misgendering her.  The gay men at the bar cheer as Blanca is arrested for no real reason.  I see this as a metaphor for the way that much of the larger gay and lesbian community mistreated the transcommunity from the early ’70s through the late ’90s.

The show is singularly refreshing and I look forward to viewing the rest of the season.

Further Reading:

Essay on correlation between non-white ethnicity and HSTS

Essay on HSTS being ‘avoidant’

Essay on gynandromorphophilia

Essay on historic transphobia in the gay and lesbian communities

External Further Reading

‘We’re More Than Capable’: Pose Stars Push Back on Cis Actors Playing Trans Roles by Maiysha Kai

Pose Writer Janet Mock on Making History with Trans Story Telling by Janet Mock

“When Are Trans Actors Allowed to Act?” by Hannah Giorgis in the Atlantic
The FX drama Pose is the rare example of a show that actually gives trans actors top billing—an effort made all the more urgent by a recent controversy that saw Scarlett Johansson cast as a transgender man.

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Video Interview with Alice Dreger

Posted in Film Review by Kay Brown on December 26, 2017

Alice Dreger is a science historian turned intersex activist and staunch supporter/ally of the transcommunity.  Unfortunately for her, she also has a strong moral center and stands up for truth above tribal loyalty.  Even though she had been and remained an ally, she was falsely vilified by some in the transcommunity when she investigated and then wrote a history of the way that J. Michael Bailey was treated after he wrote his book, The Man Who Would Be Queen.  Dr. Dreger later wrote about how this incident led her to investigate other instances where scientists had been falsely pilloried by those who disliked the conclusions that resulted from their work in her wonderful book, Galileo’s Middle Finger.

On an entirely personal note, I’m proud to call Alice my friend and hope that she will once again grace our house with her presence.

 

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Video of Ray Blanchard

Posted in Film Review by Kay Brown on December 21, 2017

For some late transitioning transwomen Ray Blanchard is either the living embodiment of Satan or he is the genius who put a name to what they had been feeling confused about their own sexuality.  To me, he is simply a good scientist doing his job.  I wish we had more like him.

Although he did NOT discover the phenomena, he did coin the term autogynephilia and dug just a bit deeper than those before… as every scientist does in their turn.  But for some reason he gets both the credit and the blame for bringing attention to the Two Type Taxonomy of transgender people, especially for Male-To-Female transsexuals.  He wasn’t the first to notice the continuum of transvestite/cross-dreamer/cross-dresser/late-transitioning transsexual.  Nor was he the first to notice they were quite different than the exclusively androphilic “young transitioners”.  But he did pursue the phenomena along with several co-investigators with enough depth to pull the material from past researchers together under a coherent theory that fully explained and made predictions about the two types – predictions that are currently being shown to be correct.

So, let’s hear from the man himself,

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J. Michael Bailey Video Interview

Posted in Film Review, Science Criticism by Kay Brown on November 19, 2017

Kay Brown 2010Excepting Blanchard himself, no one has been more misunderstood nor falsely vilified than J. Michael Bailey, Ph.D.  The conservatives have lambasted him for researching sexual orientation.  Bisexuals have lambasted him for showing that true bisexuality in men is actually quite rare.  Gay people have maligned him for his philosophical stance that if it is “OK” for parents to use genetic screening or manipulation to effect a non-critical trait such as eye or hair color, then it is equality “OK” to select for the equally non-critical trait of sexual orientation  (meaning that Bailey sees gay or straight as equally valuable and acceptable outcomes in children), falsely accusing Bailey of supporting anti-gay genocide (ummmm… no… he equally supported chosing FOR being gay… as they were morally the same).  But it is his authorship of a book that only incidentally covered Blanchard’s research on the Two Type MTF transsexual taxonomy that got his name on the uninformed LGBT communities black list.

TMWWBQ CoverBailey’s book, The Man Who Would Be Queen is primarily about male androphilia and its deep connection to gender atypicality, to male femininity.  But, in order to explain that connection, he needed to show that autogynephilic transwomen were NOT in that taxon.  Cue that autogynephilic transwomen’s backlash !

So, let’s hear Bailey in his own words:

 

Further Reading:

Book Review: The Man Who Would Be Queen

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James Cantor, Ph.D. Videos

Posted in Film Review by Kay Brown on November 19, 2017

Kay Brown 2010Sexologists are a fascinating group of scientists.  When reading their papers, we occassional get glimpses of their personality, maybe their sense of humor.  But listening to their actual words in a video is much, much more satisfying in this regards.  In this post, I link to videos of Dr. James Cantor, who has been very much at the forefront of research on various issues that interest me, being interviewed by Dr. Amatay.  I hope you enjoy them… or at least learn from them.

 

Remember, if you disagree with something a scientist says, bring data… evidence, not vehemence.

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Who Knows Best?

Posted in Film Review, Transgender Youth by Kay Brown on January 14, 2017

Video Review:  Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?

I just finished viewing BBC Two’s documentary on the contraversy about whether the “affirming” model is best for gender dysphoric, potential transkids.  It is well worth viewing.  It covers the full ground while (mostly) being sensitive to the transcommunity.

But sadly, it fails in several key respects.  One, it completely fails to mention that transkids are nothing like adult transitioners.  At times we catch B roll scenes of adult transsexuals, which one instantly recognizes as autogynephiles.  So this failure to distingish the two may lead naive viewers to mistakenly equate the two.

Also unhelpful, the documentary interviews one person who frankly had no idea what she was talking about regarding sexual dimorphism of the human brain. While correctly saying that one couldn’t simply look at a brain and say whether it came from a man or a woman, she fails to mention that we can see statistical trends.  But worse, she flat out states that brains only become ‘gendered’ by living in a gendered society, completely ignoring research that shows the correlation with sexual dimorphism of the brain and sexual orientation.

The areas that the documentary does cover well is the well known phenomena of desisting of gender dysphoria in most gender atypical young children by the time that they are twelve or so.  They interview a girl who had been extremely dysphoric as a younger child who desisted at puberty.  As I’ve discussed in a previous essay, 80% of such dysphoric children do desist.  The video also mentioned that most of the desisting boys will grow up to be conventional gay men and not transgender.  However, the video introduces a straw man, lumping all “transgender activists” together as saying that we all wish to sweep this inconvenient fact under the rug.  Fortunately, though it was not well show-cased, this was (partially) shown to be untrue as they interviewed an FtM transman / activist / gender therapist who acknowledged this in passing, though he also contradicted himself and made an outright lie in stating “If someone says that they are transgendered, than chances are that they are transgendered”.  We know that this is simply untrue for pre-pubescent children.

The documentary interviews both Ray Blanchard and Kenneth Zucker.  I felt Dr. Blanchard was well spoken and articulate.  But frankly, and this truly surprised me, I came away feeling far less sympathy for Dr. Zucker than before.  Perhaps the editors are partly responsible, in that they used some odd frame editing at times, perhaps they chose the quotes where Zucker was the least sympathetic?  But Dr. Zucker seemed to lack all empathy for these kids and never once affirmed that transition was a viable option that should be considered for persistors.  Further, one got the opinion that Dr. Zucker was taking credit for his treatment having lead to desisting outcomes, that from his attitude while speaking, he would consider a better one than persisting.  (As a persister myself, having been “treated” with just the type of play therapy and later direct talk therapy that he outlines, I find that attitude offensive.  For the record, I firmly hold that neither outcome is better than the other.)  He even insinuated that parents who are ‘affirming’, who helped their children transition, are homophobic, refering to a remark, that may likely be apochraphal, supposedly a quote from a parent, “Well… at least they’re not gay.”  (Most parents who are homophobic are even more virulently transphobic; like my father who begged me not transition, promissing that he would look the other way when I had boyfriends over – just like he did with his gay brother.)  What really was disturbing was his strong attempts to pathologize all gender atypical and dysphoric children as suffering from a wide range of mental illnesses, which was echoed by one of his former colleagues, specifically arguing against the oft noted concerns regarding reaction to stigma (that is, Zucker and his former colleage questioned the conventional wisdom that transkids are depressed and anxious because they are teased, bullied, and considered a dissappointment and embarrassment to family and peers).  Frankly, I was dismayed.

The real heros of the documentary are the transkids who were interviewed.  One’s heartstrings were tugged, as one would expect, but these kids also told their stories with brutal effect.

All in all… a must see.

If you are in the UK, you may watch the video here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b088kxbw

Further Reading:

Essay on Desisting and Persisting Gender Dysphoria in Gender Atypical Children

Advice to Parents of Transkids

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