Joan Roughgarden’s letter to the National Academy of Sciences (2003)

In 2003, Stanford University biologist Joan Roughgarden protested the publication of The Man Who Would Be Queen after attending a vulgar lecture by author J. Michael Bailey. Calling it “the most humiliating lecture I’ve ever personally attended,” Roughgarden called for the book’s publisher, the National Academies Press, to recall the book and release it for publication elsewhere.

STANFORD UNIVERSITY
STANFORD, CALIFORNIA 94305-5020

Department of Biological Sciences
Herrin Laboratory, Room 413
(650) 723-3648
joan.roughgarden@stanford.edu

May 5, 2003

Bruce Alberts
President, the National Academy of Sciences
The National Academies
2101 Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20418

Harvey V. Fineberg
President, the Institute of Medicine
The National Academies
2101 Constitution Avenue NW
Washington DC 20418

Dear Dr. Alberts and Dr. Fineberg,

I write at the suggestion of Lynn Conway, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, to offer comment and a recommendation concerning the recent Bailey affair. As you know, the Academy’s press has recently published a book by Michael Bailey that is problematic for gay, lesbian and transgendered people. I begin with discussion pertaining to transgendered people, and then move to gay and lesbian people, because the uproar you’re hearing originated in transgender circles and will soon reach gay and lesbian circles as well.

Bailey starts by disclosing that even though he is “a single, heterosexual man” (p. 141), he is attracted to a transsexual named Kim whom he met at a gay club where he was “cruising” (p. 141) for subjects to study. He feared that upon approaching her, “I might have the unpleasant experience of being rejected by a beautiful woman” (p. 141) “She was stunning… My avowedly heterosexual male research assistant told me he would gladly have had sex with her, even knowing that Kim still possessed a penis” (p. 182) Baileys attraction to various transsexuals is a recurring theme.

Bailey sorts transgendered women into two classes, those he finds attractive and unattractive. The first group, to which Kim is assigned, is called “homosexual transsexuals” who, “succinctly put,” are “extremely feminine gay men” (p. 146). The second group consists of people with a condition he calls ” ‘autogynephilia’ (pronounced Otto-guy-nuh-feel-ee-ya)” (p. 164) an auto-erotic fascination with the female body and/or clothing. Bailey terms this condition a “type of paraphilia,… a set of unusual sexual preferences that include autogynephilia, masochism, sadism, exhibitionism,… frotteurism,… necrophilia, bestiality, and pedophilia… Paraphelias tend to go together… The best established link is between autogynephilia and masochism. There is a dangerous masochistic practice called ‘autoerotic asphyxia,’ in which a man strangles himself, usually by hanging, for sexual reasons… Perhaps about 100 American men per year dies this way. About one-fourth of the time, these men are found wearing some article of women’s clothing, such as panties… Although most autogynephiles are not sexual sadists, they are more likely to be sadists compared with men who are not autogynephilic.” (pp. 171-172)

Bailey is attracted to Kim, but not to autogynephiles. “There is no way to say this as sensitively as I would prefer, so I will just go ahead. Most homosexual transsexuals are much better looking than most autogynephilic transsexuals.” (p 180) Why? “Homosexual transsexuals… want to attract men, and they get constant feedback (in the form of propositions from men…) about how they are doing. This allows them to hone their presentations faster than the autogynephilic transsexual, who has spent most of her femme life looking at a mirror by herself.” (p 181) Thus, Bailey credits the compliments from men like himself for why homosexual transsexuals are attractive. The possibility that a transgendered woman derives her presentational norms from interacting with other women is never remotely considered.

Bailey encounters his subjects by cruising in gay bars that host sex workers. So he concludes that “prostitution is the single most common occupation that homosexual transsexuals in our study admitted to… Juanita is a very attractive postoperative transsexual who has worked as a call girl both before and since her operation… she does not feel degraded and guilty about what she does for a living. I suspect that this reflects an aspect of her psychology that has remained male… her ability to enjoy emotionally meaningless sex appears male-typical. In this sense homosexual transsexuals might be especially suited to prostitution.” (p. 184-185) According to Bailey, “homosexual transsexuals… simply lust after men.” (p. 191) I believe most transgendered women would avoid Bailey like the plague, but a sex worker has to speak to any male like Bailey who approaches her.

A socio-economic bias in the sampling is evident, “about 60 percent of the homosexual transsexuals and drag queens we studied were Latina or Black.” (p. 183) (No sample size given.) Bailey noticed “the large number of Latina transsexuals” (p. 183) and offered a conjecture from one of his subjects “that Hispanic people might have more transsexual genes than other ethnic groups do.” (p. 183-184) Bailey’s own theory is “that homosexual transsexuals are used to living on the margins of society,… have had… to cope with rejection and disapproval since childhood, because of their extreme femininity… [and have] not had the advantages that tend to instill respect in the social order. The early chaotic backgrounds of so many homosexual transsexuals might help explain why they do not defeminize the way most very feminine boys do… Defeminization might also require more ambition and family support than some homosexual transsexuals possess.” (p. 184) This account seems racist to me.

Meanwhile, what of the women unavailable to Bailey in bars, that is, the more economically upscale transgendered women who join vocal transgender support groups, groups he calls “organizations trying to influence the public”? (p. 174) Well, “public statements by those who call themselves ‘transgendered’… are almost all [from] autogynephiles rather than homosexual transsexuals.” (p. 174) So much for them.

Where does this two-type classification come from? Not from Bailey. He offers no data whatsoever of his own, just a few second-hand vignettes of sex workers he’s met. No, the idea is nearly 20 years old, and was proposed by another psychologist, Ray Blanchard, at the Clarke Institute in Toronto. Blanchard is introduced into the book in heroic terms, as “irreverent, cynical, and politically incorrect,” (p 158) someone who “regularly engages in wickedly entertaining whispered commentary about the deceased.” (p. 158) As Bailey notes, students of human sexuality have observed about the same spectrums of gender-expression and sexuality for over 100 years. Bailey records that in the early 1980’s the consensus was to divide gender-variant people across five categories: homosexual transsexual, heterosexual transsexual, asexual transsexual, homosexual cross-dresser (drag queen), and heterosexual cross-dresser (transvestite). On its face, these categories imply that gender presentation and sexual orientation are distinct axes of description, and that gender identification cannot be reduced to sexuality. But according to Bailey, Blanchard’s “contribution” (p. 162) in 1985 was to “lump” (p. 162) the last four of these categories into one, the autogynephiles, as though all these people share a common experiential narrative. So, now there are two, not five categories. But what does collapsing four categories achieve? Does the variation that led initially to a rich taxonomy simply disappear? No, all the variation remains, of course. So what’s to do?

Well, nothing. In nearly 20 years, Blanchard’s two-subtype classification has not been widely adopted. It is descriptively inaccurate. Whether say, 25 men hang themselves each year wearing panties is irrelevant to how tens of thousands of transgendered people live their lives. Evidence of shared experiential narratives among people from the now-lumped categories is limited to a handful of anecdotes. Within the realm of psychology moreover, the distinction into homosexual and autogynephilic transsexuals is clinically useless. Even Bailey writes, “we simply have no idea how to make gender dysphoria [identifying with the opposite sex] go away. I suspect that both autogynephilic and homosexual gender dysphoria result from early and irreversible developmental processes in the brain… By now, hundreds of transsexuals have been followed after changing sex… successful outcomes are much more common than unsuccessful outcomes… 80 percent are judged successful… 10 percent unsuccessful and… 10 percent uncertain” (p. 207) No significant distinction in success was detected between women classified as homosexual and autogynephilic. Thus, no reason exists for bothering to shoe-horn a person into one of these two categories. Could the inaccuracy and uselessness of the distinction between subtypes of transsexuals mean that the distinction lacks validity? Bailey won’t begin to question his premises. And anyone who does is in for some abuse.

First up for abuse are Bailey’s colleagues who have failed to adopt Blanchard’s ideas in nearly 20 years. Bailey writes, “Blanchard’s ideas have not yet received the widespread attention they deserve, in large part because sex researchers are not as scholarly as they should be.” (p. 176) So much for peer respect. And how about the legions of transgendered people who directly dispute the Blanchard/Bailey template? Many transgendered people report that their primary interest truly is gender identity, not sexual arousal, and that regardless of sexual orientation and occupation, they actually do identify as the gender they’re presenting. Oh well, Bailey never trusts transsexuals. “Most gender patients lie.” (p. 172) Anyone who disagrees with Bailey may be called a liar. Bailey finds lying useful throughout the book. Gay males who don’t report a feminine childhood are lying too (p. 58) because they suffer from “internalized femiphobia.” (p. 80). The reader is invited to believe that only Bailey is honest.

I think the unwillingness of human-sex researchers to adopt the homosexual/autogynephilic subtyping of transsexuals shows the distinction is bogus. When I’m asked about Blanchard’s ideas I describe them as obsolete, which I feel is charitable.

I wish the taxonomy of transsexuals could have remained an obscure academic entertainment. Alas, the plot thickens because of the publicity the book has been given, and Bailey’s public performance. Bailey’s contribution, so to speak, is to attract public attention to Blanchard’s theory by sensationalizing and demeaning the lives of transgendered people in the popular press. Transgendered people have responded to the deliberate provocations with alarm and anger, even horror and fear. People all too close to the murders of Gwen Araujo, of Brandon Teena, of Calpernia Addam’s boy friend (Pvt. Barry Winchell), of our sisters and brothers living on the street, together with our families and loved ones, are vulnerable to the slander that Bailey is promoting.

I first became aware of Bailey’s interest in transgender issues because of the advertising at the recent AAAS conference in Denver where I organized a symposium on evolutionary aspects of gender and sexuality. Bailey’s book title, The Man Who Would Be Queen, is inflammatory in itself. Moreover, the official handout from the Academy distributed at the AAAS conference begins with the phrase “Gay, Straight, or Lying? Science Has the Answer” and ends with the claim that Bailey’s conclusions “may not always be politically correct, but they are scientifically accurate, thoroughly researched and occasionally startling.” From this advertisement, it was clear that a tempest was looming on the horizon.

I learned in March that the psychology department at Stanford had invited Bailey to give a regularly scheduled departmental seminar. I alerted the chair of psychology to the considerable risk attending such a speaker, because Bailey’s findings were of dubious quality, and likely to hurt and offend people. He said that the seminar series could accommodate a marginal speaker every now and then, and invited me to attend. My caution went unnoticed however, and Bailey was introduced as “controversial,” someone whose work has “important implications for law, medicine and social policy” and as a “successful teacher whose courses feature transsexuals stripping after class.”

What ensued was the most humiliating lecture I’ve ever personally attended. Although transsexuals were mentioned briefly in a jocular manner, the focus was on training the audience to stereotype gays and lesbians. The audience willingly participated in the exercise to sharpen their “gaydar” (his word). Bailey played tape recordings of four male speakers, claimed that two were gay and two were straight, and challenged the audience to guess which was which. Those who guessed correctly grinned and clapped, while their neighbors slapped them on the back. Bailey also showed animated cartoons of a male with effeminate gestures and another with macho manners to typify, he said, a gay and straight man. During the seminar, Bailey mostly avoided the transgender issues that were already drawing criticism, although he offered to speak about them privately after the seminar. No faculty interceded to bring about a professional decorum, nor did any criticize the research program and its utter lack of any scientific content.0

I then wrote an op-ed to the Stanford student newspaper criticizing the psychology department’s conduct in the affair, the first time I have ever done any such thing in over thirty years at Stanford. A few days later, some graduate students in the psychology department replied in the student newspaper that they agreed Bailey’s “data were poor, and his conclusions based on those data were severely lacking in merit and validity. No one we spoke with following the talk found his conclusions to be persuasive or scientifically valid.” OK so far. Concerning the audience’s conduct, the students wrote “Roughgarden made the inaccurate assumption that the audience was laughing because it was reveling in some communal homophobic expression. The audience’s laughter was partially a reaction to the absurdity of some of Bailey’s claims, a reflection of embarrassed discomfort with the glib comments made by Bailey and unease about being asked to participate in Bailey’s guess-who’s-gay experiments.” Maybe. Clearly something happened at the talk that those present need to come to terms with.

The talk revealed that Bailey has an overall homophobic strategy, and that the attack on transgender people in his book is simply the opening salvo directed against the most vulnerable target within the LGBT community. Claiming that transgendered people are a form of gays, and then discrediting them by sensationalizing their lives, by calling them temptresses, fetishists, and liars, opens a wound through which to infect discrimination against the entire gay population.

The most far-reaching component of Bailey’s project is its homophobia, not its easily dismissed misrepresentation of transgendered people. Bailey defines gay males with biological essentialism by writing “the brains of homosexual people may be mosaics of male and female parts… this mixture explains much of what is unique in gay men’s culture and lives.” (p. 60) Bailey takes pains to describe gay male speech and movement, “I cannot imitate the gay accent… but chances are you know what I’m talking about.” (p. 70) “I often don’t have to hear a man talk… to have a strong suspicion he’s gay. Sometimes it’s enough just to see him move.” (p. 73) Thus, Bailey tries to transform a gay male stereotype into a diagnostic tool that points to a mosaic brain state.

Bailey goes on to claim that “gay men have tended to have more of certain psychological problems than straight men” (p. 81) Thus, begins the line that being gay is a disease. Yet, the disease of being gay is shared by women, lending a misogynist overtone. “Gay men’s pattern of susceptibility to certain (but not all) mental problems reflects their femininity. The problems that gay men are most susceptible to – eating disorders, depression, and anxiety disorders – are the same problems that women also suffer from disproportionately” (p. 82) He continues, “Learning why gay men are more easily depressed than straight men might tell us why women are also.” (p. 83) Then he piously states, “nothing I have written means that we should return homosexuality to the DSM and again consider it a mental illness… the problems are being… depressed,… homosexuality, per se, is not a problem.” (p. 83) This disclaimer is a variant of blame-the-sin-not-the-sinner; blame the symptom, not the patient.

Charging ahead, Bailey introduces biological determinism into the moral realm. “Gay men will always have more sex partners than straight people do. Those who are attached will be less sexually monogamous.” (p. 100) Then he follows with another pious disclaimer, “Social conservatives will view this prediction as tantamount to an admission of the inferiority of the gay male lifestyle, but it is not.” (p. 101). And he winds up raising the specter of eugenics, “I certainly have no motive to change gay people or prevent them from being born.” (p. 113)

These pious disclaimers are disingenuous. Bailey knows full well that he’s setting the stage for others to advocate the persecution of gays from a scientific perspective. Exactly this tack was used when setting up a biological argument for racially cleansing the Aryan race of Jews in Nazi Germany. I feel today’s American scientists should not be accomplices to a homophobic project as German scientists were in a racist project not too long ago. I have concluded that Bailey is a deeply prejudiced man. His work is indeed being increasingly cited in the literature of homophobic groups such as NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality), a group dedicated to “curing” homosexuality with so-called reparative treatments.

Many are claiming that the Academy has become complicit in publishing junk science, as though the Academy had published Shockley on race and IQ, and Simon or Lomborg on conservation. The situation is actually worse however. Junk science at least goes through the motions of science. Junk-science books include references, footnotes, data tables, and statistics to create the semblance of science. Only by tracking down the references can junk science be refuted. Bailey, on the other hand, has written a thin book without references, a book that nonetheless makes exceptionally broad and dubious claims in the name of science, and draws legitimacy from appearing under the Academy’s imprint and on the Academy’s website. The situation is remarkable. There’s nothing in Bailey’s book to refute other than hot air – no data tables, no statistics, no knowledge of the principles of classification, no experiments, no controls, no out-groups, nothing. Just a few second-hand narratives, many unsubstantiated assertions, and lots of far-fetched and mean-spirited speculation. I can’t recall any comparable situation – pure vaporware trying to pass as science.

A few years ago when the Pentium computer chip was first introduced, mathematicians found a flaw in its mathematical engine. Under exceedingly improbable circumstances, the chip would return an incorrect result to a calculation. Intel was prepared to continue production of the chip, and to introduce a bug-fix in a future release of the firmware. Then a mathematician wrote to the president of Intel, Andrew Grove, and said it was simply wrong for a computer chip to return a mistaken calculation. The president of Intel thought about this, and agreed. Regardless of the bottom line, on his watch Intel was not going to be shipping chips that made mathematical errors. He ordered a recall of existing Pentium chips and speeded up the revised chip. I remember being so impressed that Andrew Grove was an honorable man. He had nothing to do with why a flaw had crept into the early Pentium, and had a full set of error-checking procedures in place. Still, the flaw did develop on his watch, and Andrew Grove did the right thing. In the aftermath of Enron and other corporate horrors, remembering that some corporate CEO’s have stood for integrity is inspiring.

I feel you’re in the same place that Andrew Grove was several years ago. You had no responsibility for why the Bailey book was published. But this has happened on your watch. I believe the responsible path now is to recall the Bailey book and to transfer it to some other publisher who might have a commercial interest. Bailey is of course, entitled to say what ever he wishes. The Academy is also entitled to review the effectiveness with which its standards were applied, and to rescind its support of Bailey’s work if it finds that scientific standards have inadvertently been compromised.

Sincerely,   

Joan Roughgarden
Professor