Transcendence 1: under the spell of science


“Labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision. We may use scientific knowledge to help us make the decision, but only our beliefs about gender--not science--can define our sex. Furthermore, our beliefs about gender affect what kinds of knowledge scientists produce about sex in the first place."

Anne Fausto-Sterling, Ph.D.
Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality [1]

I have been accused by some of being “anti-science” in the course of this debate. In the wake of his defamatory book on transsexualism, psychologist J. Michael Bailey himself attempted to dismiss his many critics in a disjointed rant called “Identity politics as a hindrance to scientific truth” at a sex research conference in July 2003. [2] Apparently, Bailey was unaware or unwilling to concede how deeply involved in identity politics he is when proclaiming he is a “single, heterosexual man.” [3]

I’d like to address this misconception that I am “anti-science.”

Anyone who has followed my work over the years knows that I do meticulous scientific research and consumer reporting on medical issues, and that I hold scientists and salespeople to the highest scientific and ethical standards when presenting health claims, hypotheses, or research conclusions that affect our community.

My specialty is murky areas of science as it pertains to consumer issues, such as hair removal, where subjective and objective results can both be difficult to measure with accuracy.

I have now turned my attention to those who try to use “science” to promote an ideological agenda that affects our community, while disingenuously claiming they do not have an agenda. These people have an outdated notion that “science” is some sterile activity that can be divorced from the researcher’s subjectivity. While this is true for certain kinds of straightforward scientific work (sometimes called “hard science”), it is not true in the highly complex field of transgender research. This sort of research requires a more evolved type of scientist, one who is open to new ways of thinking, a higher order of intellectual capacity.

We live in a renaissance of multi-disciplinary study, where essentialism of the first-wave sexologists is no longer adequate to address today’s complex and nuanced issues.

Among the old guard in western society, there is an arrogant sense that peer review is invariably more valuable than viewpoints from outsiders. These viewpoints are easily dismissed, and the same thing happens when an outsider makes claims about the activities of any group of people (such as transgender people). This is evident in any field of endeavor, but it is most marked in the “professions,” primarily law, medicine, and academia. I prefer to work outside these institutions, finding that my position allows me to be more direct and pointed in my comments and criticism.

We live in a dawning era of collaboration and cooperation, where the competitive and insular paradigms of the past must necessarily be dismantled. This academic parochialism must make way for the new climate of consciousness borne forth by the scientific progress which has made us all even more closely connected.

The walls of the ivory towers are coming down, with bridges and open areas being built in their place. We are on the verge of a new era of mutual intellectual respect and scientific accountability. “Professionals” are less likely to abuse positions of authority when everything is conducted openly and with feedback from those they have a moral obligation to serve. Those who abuse positions of power and authority to advance theories or personal agendas at the expense of the powerless are hereby put on notice: we will no longer allow this to go unchallenged in our community. The abusers can no longer say or do something that affects us and then scurry back to hide in their ivory towers, because the people can now come directly into their homes and minds, just as this essay is doing.

This "science" fight about theories of transgenderism has little to do with science and everything to do with politics. That's why trying to isolate the "science" as if it can be separated from the subjectivity of the observer is an exercise in futility.

Language is a fluid and dynamic social construct, constantly undergoing revision and refinement, just like scientific methodology or medical procedures.
Definitions for the terms sex, gender, female, woman, feminine, transgender, and transsexual are subjective, and they vary from “profession” to “profession,” and even from person to person and year to year.

Anyone making “scientific” claims that involve these terms is trying to build a house on quicksand. They are basing their research and conclusions on fluid and dynamic social constructs. How you (and I mean you personally) define any of those terms is a political decision at its heart. Those who think “science” exists in some vacuum outside the politics of definitions are deluding themselves.

Science and “thoughtlessness”

I will be explaining in future essays that the Bailey book and the philosophy that informs it can be reduced to eugenics. Sociobiology, biological essentialism, social Darwinism, evolutionary psychology, whatever it’s called this year, are all basically repackaging of mental, ethnic, and genetic “cleansing.” Bailey’s book and its emphasis on “defeminization” is a prime example of “gender cleansing” in our society.

Should these issues be studied? Absolutely. However, it is essential that those who undertake this sort of work understand the responsibilities involved. Bailey claims that human success can be reduced to “counting number of descendents one leaves,” [4] as if humans operate on a level of consciousness akin to bacteria, as if he’s nothing more than a brain stem and a penis. In Bailey’s case, I’m inclined to believe that at times, but I believe that once consciousness enters the picture, this simplistic equation of first-wave sexologists like Bailey, Blanchard, and Lawrence is no longer of much use.

One can see the same mechanistic worldview in Anne Lawrence’s claim that the sex drive is “that which moves us most,” her interest in reproductive options, and her own quick bid to father a couple of kids in an “empty marriage” prior to transition. Neither Bailey nor Lawrence could maintain an emotional commitment to their ex-spouses, and one gets the feeling that their spouses were basically a biological means to an end, “a receptacle,” as Dr. Lawrence puts it. [5] Utterly depressing, if you ask me.

I will argue in upcoming essays that much of this “science” debate comes down to what Hannah Arendt called “thoughtlessness,” an almost autistic inability to make human connections at the same level of social functioning as others, an inability to make connections between actions and consequences beyond their direct effect on the individual. I will argue it is a type of narcissism writ large, a malignant form of “self.”

Some people have been upset with my discussion of Anne Lawrence in “The Anne Who Would Be Queen,” characterizing it as a personal attack. While it is certainly personal, I would not call it an attack, but rather an analysis. In the case of Drs. Bailey and Lawrence, I believe science becomes a façade by which they do not have to be introspective. Biology offers absolution for their thoughtlessness. My writings represent a multifaceted attempt to facilitate some introspection.

In May, I put forth a hypothesis about four shared goals of Bailey-Blanchard-Lawrence. They all seem interested in:

1. Creating and maintaining boundaries that are important to how they structure the world and their places in it.

2. Retaining control and regulation of the transition process within a medical and psychological "professional" framework.

3. Reinforcing their self-identification as powerful and respected "authorities."

4. Making their own sexual proclivities appear socially acceptable.

Three months into the investigation, I believe these all remain valid.

The dangers of “science” without introspection

Does history progress in cycles of disintegrating and reintegrating value systems, as Spengler suggests? I wondered when I read this comment from Bailey:

“People being extremely kind to strangers and giving poor strangers lots of their money, that would be a great thing. But evolutionarily, it would be a terrible mistake.” [6]

I do not make Nazi analogies lightly. They tend to be rhetorically facile, and they have been diluted through overuse, but what Bailey is espousing has me re-reading some of the philosophical discussions of Nazism, namely discussions of Goebbels and Eichmann. I was put in mind of Hermann Broch’s Massenpsychologie. Much of Broch’s work centers on the psychological works that contributed to the scientific philosophies of Nazism. Along these lines comes the critical question in the philosophy of science:

Is science an Entzauberung (a spellbreaking), which might free us from prejudice and open a way to transcendence, or is science used as a Verzauberung (a spell) which blinds us to this transcendence?

Transsexualism represents a convergence of multidisciplinary issues that go to the very foundations of how every human cognitively structures the world in order to make sense of it. These cognitive concepts are so deeply imbedded as to seem “natural.” Many are so deeply under the spell of “science” that they cannot comprehend the quotation at the start of this essay, which they would likely dismiss as “political correctness.”

Are transgender people an evolutionary mistake, as Bailey suggests? Are we “degenerate” in the biological sense? Or is that “scientific” expression of humanity and sexuality inadequate?

For those who attempt to apply a rational equation to human sexuality, transsexuals represent something akin to pi. You have to start from a scientific premise of whether pi is rational (purported by kooks and fringe academics), irrational (Lambert 1761), or transcendental (Lindemann 1873).

I would argue that the Bailey-Blanchard-Lawrence model of transsexualism is like saying pi is rational or rounding it to 3. It's a gross oversimplification that leads to fundamentally flawed conclusions. It is anything but science, and it implies a breathtaking arrogance and thoughtlessness.

I would further argue that like pi, transsexualism is transcendental, demonstrating that "sex" and "sexuality" are complex systems of interlocking signifiers which elude full human comprehension at this time. Transsexualism exposes the failures of these two systems of meaning.

So, what can we do? How do we move forward from this point? Does this mean science can never address these complicated issues? Science alone cannot. Those who see us merely as research subjects or as a problem (whether a math problem, an evolutionary problem, or a social problem), toil under a spell.
I am not anti-science, but when science is invoked, we must always be mindful of the ways it has been invoked in the past as both a spell and a spellbreaker. As with some people’s gender, it can sometimes be hard to tell, and will always come down to how you (and I mean you personally) define gender and science.


Originally published: 3 September 2003

1. For more thought-provoking quotations, please see my introductory comments entitled “Illegal immigrants and the border patrol of sex and sexuality”

2. International Academy of Sex Research conference, July 19, 2003

3. Bailey, JM. The Man Who Would Be Queen, page 141

4. Bailey KOOP interview, May 2003

5. Lawrence, AA. “Taking Portlandia’s Hand”

6. Bailey KOOP interview.

Reader comments

Dr. Katie wrote with concerns that I was reinforcing that I was anti-science rather than minimizing it. She suggested I quote scientists who are drawing the distinction I would like to make about good and bad science. Let me quote one of my favorite scientists, Dr. Katie herself:

"I'm a transsexual and I'm a psychology graduate student. As a transsexual, I read the clinical psychology literature about us; I'm always disheartened by the way we're portrayed. I feel like we're viewed by much of the clinical research in very simplistic terms and more like lab-rats than true persons. Every day I'm designing experiments and running studies to try and understand how children grow and learn. My participants constantly amaze me. I'm truly in awe of children. What they teach me during my studies pushes me to dig deeper into the issues surrounding child development. I only wish those researchers studying transsexuals could and would experience the same awe when looking at the lives of their participants too."

-- From, "The Banality of Insensitivity: Portrayals of Transgenderism in Psychopathology"

My reply:

Thanks for the helpful comments. My audience is more for the community than for scientists, but I agree that I could make a better connection to the scientific audience. My main goal would be to get old-school scientists out of their comfort zone and have a paradigm shift about how they see science.

As you might imagine, my philosophy is the post-positivist stance of critical science. I’ll be looking at Doan and Bland’s history of sexology down the road, and how a positivist like Lawrence (who may have never even been exposed to critical science before) sees herself in dispassionate medicalized descriptions and forms identities with diagnoses.

I very much want to talk about academic elitism, because I think that’s what much of this boils down to. Interestingly, “transsexual elitism” is what I am accused of as well.

Another reader adds: "Science is a tool used by hero and villain alike, and carries with it moral responsibility."