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Joan Roughgarden and transgender people

Joan Roughgarden is an American ecologist, evolutionary biologist, and author. Roughgarden is also one of the most notable transgender scientists in American history.

Some of Roughgarden’s work has included scientific criticism of scholarship that affects sex and gender minorities. Roughgarden is known for criticism of Charles Darwin’s concept of sexual selection, arguing for the alternative “social selection.” Roughgarden has also criticized Richard Dawkins’ concept of the “selfish gene,” proposing instead the “genial gene.”

Roughgarden is also a proponent of theistic evolution, described in the 2006 book Evolution and Christian Faith.

This page documents Roughgarden’s important role in the community response to the anti-transgender book The Man Who Would Be Queen, published in 2003 by J. Michael Bailey.


Joan Elizabeth Roughgarden was born March 13, 1946.

Roughgarden earned bachelor’s degrees in biology and philosophy from University of Rochester in 1968 and a doctorate in biology from Harvard University in 1971.

Roughgarden joined Stanford University in 1972, soon founding and directing the Earth Systems Program. Roughgarden was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1993. Roughgarden made a gender transition in 1998.

After being named a Fellow at Stanford in 1978, Roughgarden became professor emerita at Stanford in 2011. Roughgarden then moved to Hawai’i to continue research and is affiliated with the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology.

The Man Who Would Be Queen (2003)

Roughgarden was a prominent critic of author J. Michael Bailey’s 2003 book The Man Who Would Be Queen. Roughgarden’s first-hand report of Bailey’s vulgar misuse of gender diverse children while on book tour at Stanford was a galvanizing moment for trans people worldwide. Calling it “the most humiliating lecture I’ve ever personally attended,” Roughgarden called for the National Academies (NASEM) to recall the book and release it for publication elsewhere.

Lecture report (2003)

Letter to National Academies (2003)

Times Higher Education (2004)

  • In a 2004 review in Times Higher Education, Roughgarden found the book, racist, homophobic, and misogynist:

Bailey’s writing seems to me hate speech, detached from reality, and yet advertised as science and published by the US National Academies.

Bailey has manipulated even the few narratives he has. He admits to an “ongoing argument” with one of his subjects who will not agree to say what he wants. When his subjects disagree with him he implies they are liars. “Most gender patients lie”, according to an “ace gender clinician” Bailey quotes. Also, gay males who do not report a feminine childhood are lying too because they suffer from “internalised femiphobia”. Therefore, Bailey corrupts what data he has by putting words in the mouths of his interviewees.

As of August 2003, his six transgendered subjects have each filed formal complaints at Northwestern charging that Bailey did not notify them that their narratives were to be used as “research material” in his book (“Transsexuals file 2 more claims against Bailey”, Daily Northwestern , August 2 2003).

After reading accounts supposedly about them, the women reported being inaccurately transcribed. In December 2003, one of the women formally charged Bailey with having sex with her at her apartment (“Northwestern U. psychologist is accused of having sex with research subject”, Chronicle of Higher Education, December 12 2003.) Bailey has declined to comment. He also did not disclose that he was writing letters for these women to authorise sex-reassignment surgeries in return for their interviews, placing the women and him in conflict of interest. And in April this year, a formal complaint was filed by three prominent transgender activists with the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation and with Northwestern charging that Bailey was functioning as a clinical psychologist without a licence. At the time of writing this review, none of these complaints has been resolved.

Last, but not least, the major narrative that frames the section in the book on transgendered women (the “Danny” narrative) is acknowledged to be fabricated. Thus, all of Bailey’s narrative data are irretrievably compromised and the practices with which the information was obtained are allegedly scandalous.

All in all, Bailey’s book is not only politically incorrect, it is scientifically incorrect.

Bailey’s response

In 2003, J. Michael Bailey published this on a Northwestern University faculty page:

Joan Roughgarden, who is a transsexual biology professor at Stanford University, attempted to get me uninvited from giving a talk to the Stanford Psychology Department. (So much for open scientific debate.) When that attempt failed, she attended my talk and wrote an insulting and scathing review for the Stanford paper. The talk was not about transsexualism, per se, but about sexual orientation and gender nonconformity. To say that I disagree with Roughgarden’s take on the lecture is an understatement, but I only want to address two points.

First, regarding the tone of the lecture, and my attitude toward gender nonconforming homosexual people: I invite anyone who is concerned to read my book, The Man Who Would Be Queen, particularly the first two sections, which are most relevant. Any reasonable person will conclude that I am very sympathetic to the plight of gender nonconforming boys, and that my research is intended to illuminate gender nonconformity as a truly fascinating phenomenon. When some in the Stanford audience giggled at some of the demonstrations in my talk (e.g., my playing the voices of gay and straight people), this was all in good humor. A gay psychologist and sex researcher, James Cantor, wrote in response to Roughgarden’s screed:

“I have seen Bailey give this lecture before (at least, an earlier version of it). Again, this was the one with several openly lesbian women and gay men in the audience, including me. None of us felt at all offended. What Roughgarden describes as laughter was actually an affectionate recognition of the truth. Effeminate speech is much more common among gay men than straight men, and telling the two extremes apart is like night and day.”

Second, it would not surprise me if some gay or lesbian people in the audience were uncomfortable with the talk. I have written about the discomfort that some gay men, particularly, feel about linking male homosexuality and femininity (and this link is a major idea in my book). I discuss gay men’s discomfort with the idea of gay femininity in my book. The fact is, however, that this link is empirically well established and scientifically interesting. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with feminine gay men. It is the discomfort that some gay men feel with this association that is the problem, not my ideas. And I would like everyone to become more comfortable with male femininity.

A presentation and book signing at A Different Light bookstore in Los Angeles was cancelled “at the request of many in the local transgendered community.” I am certain that more incidents such as this will occur, and that more criticism like Roughgarden’s and Conway’s will be offered. So be it.

The controversy has already consumed substantial time that I could be spending on new research, teaching, and administration, and I cannot afford more time to respond to each new charge made by Conway, Roughgarden, et al. Please feel free to send an email to me, however. I am most likely to respond to comments that suggest a serious effort to understand my arguments (especially by reading my book).

KQED (2007)

  • Roughgarden appeared on KQED for a 2007 Forum episode with host Michael Krasny called Transgender Theories. That episode included Mara Keisling, Bailey, and Alice Dreger, who had just gotten the New York Times’ Benedict Carey to promote Dreger’s cover-up of Bailey’s academic misconduct. Stanford neurobiologist Ben Barres calls in during the episode.

Evolution’s Rainbow (2004)

  • Roughgarden laid out the latest research on sex and gender diversity in the 2004 book Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People.

Criticism of biased language in biology

From Evolution’s Rainbow. Roughgarden commented on “scientific” descriptions of reptile behavior that were not value-neutral. Roughgarden showed how bias about transgender people crept into descriptions of garter snakes and singled out use of the term “she-male” as an especially biased example.

These studies are disturbing because they attempt to sensationalize at the expense of transgendered people. An article in the scientific journal Animal Behaviour begins, “Female mimicry, whereby a male takes on a female’s appearance, is a rare but widely publicized trait in human societies. Remarkably, parallels can be seen in other animal species.” Feminine males and masculine females are not rare among humans. Nor are transgendered people comparable to snakes. All male garter snakes wear female perfume and participate in same-sex copulation every year. No human society has ever enjoyed such a rite of spring! An article in another scientific journal. the Canadian Journal of Zoology, refers to female mimicry as “bizarre.” The problem with female mimicry is not that it is bizarre; the problem is that female mimicry is a myth.

Both articles refer to feminine males in text and figure captions as “she-males.” This language, derived from pronography, is derogatory. A she-male is a woman with a penis. The transgender community has better words to describe transgendered bodies. In the biological literature expressions like “gynomorphic male” and “andromorphic female” are preferred when describing a feminine male or masculine female.

The articles derogate not only transgendered people but also their partners. The title of one article includes the phrase “transvestite serpent,” and another claims to be about the “behavioural tactics of ‘shemales’ and the males who court them.” This writing not only stigmatizes transgendered people with certain body types, but also transfers the stigma to their friends. I hope future work on these animals is carried out with more professionalism, and that future publications on this subject receive better editorial oversight.

Selected publications

Roughgarden J (2009). The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness. University of California Press ISBN 978-0-520-25826-6

Roughgarden J (2006). Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist. Island Press ISBN 1-59726-098-3

Roughgarden J (2004). Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People. University of California Press ISBN 0-520-24073-1

Roughgarden J (1997). Primer of Ecological Theory. Prentice Hall

Roughgarden J (1995). Anolis Lizards of the Caribbean: Ecology, Evolution and Plate Tectonics. Oxford University Press

Roughgarden J, May RM, Levin SA, Eds. (1995). Perspectives in Ecological Theory. Oxford Univ. Press

Ehrlich PR, Roughgarden J (1987). Science of Ecology. Prentice Hall

Roughgarden J (1979). Theory of Population Genetics and Evolutionary Ecology: an Introduction. Prentice Hall


Flam, Faye (2008). The Score. Avery. ASIN B001BUECB6

Biologist Joan Roughgarden doesn’t like the term “shemale,” which she says is degrading and has been borrowed from the porn industry where it refers to pre-op transsexuals or other transgender women sporting large penises (naughty scientists!).

  • published with two subtitles:
  • How the Quest for Sex has Shaped the Modern Man
  • The Science of the Male Sex Drive

Surkan KJ (2007). Transsexuals Protest Academic Exploitation.

MIT Press (February 11, 2019). Q&A with Joan Roughgarden on the Problems with the Theory of Sexual Selection.

Roughgarden J (2007). Challenging Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. Daedalus Volume 136 | Issue 2 | Spring 2007 p.23-36

Roughgarden J (May 28, 2004). Lots of sex but a lack of science: The Man Who Would Be Queen, Times Higher Education.

Bailey JM (2003). Book Controversy Question & Answer.


Stanford University (

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