The Man Who Would Be Queen

July 21, 2010

On the recommendation of Seth Roberts, I picked up a book from the library called The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism by J. Michael Bailey (full pdf here). You might have heard of it, as it caused some controversy a few years back. One of the book’s major premises is that gay men tend to behave in feminine ways and probably do so from a young age.

The other premise is that there are two types of transsexual: the homosexual type, which consists of extremely feminine gay men, and the “autogynephilic” type, who are “erotically obsessed with the image of themselves as women.”

It’s that autogynephilic bit that sparked the controversy, according to the Times:

This idea runs counter to the belief, held by many men who decide to live as women, that they are the victims of a biological mistake — in essence, women trapped in men’s bodies. Dr. Bailey described the alternate theory, which is based on Canadian studies done in the 1980s and 1990s, in part by telling the stories of several transgender women he met through a mutual acquaintance. […]

[D]days after the book appeared, Lynn Conway, a prominent computer scientist at the University of Michigan, sent out an e-mail message comparing Dr. Bailey’s views to Nazi propaganda. She and other transgender women found the tone of the book abusive, and the theory of motivation it presented to be a recipe for further discrimination

It doesn’t help that Bailey’s no Michael Warner. I almost stopped reading in Chapter 2, when Bailey was discussing the concept of “gender identity disorder” (GID). After reviewing the controversy over GID — some experts think feminine boys have a mental illness that should be treated, others think it’s a bunk diagnosis that reflects societal intolerance — Bailey interjects with his own feelings on the subject:

Imagine that we could create a world in which very feminine boys were not persecuted by other children and their parents allowed them to play however they wanted. Do we really think that boys with GID would have the same low rate of transsexual outcome that they do in our crueler, less tolerant world? As much as I would like to arrange such a world, I think that it might well come with the cost of more transsexual adults.

Sigh. But then he (mostly) recovers the ball:

Maybe it would be worth it, though. It is conceivable to me that transsexuals who avoided the trauma and shame of social ostracism and parental criticism would be happier and better adjusted than the gay men whose masculinity came at the expense of shame and disap-pointment. Certainly their childhoods and adolescences would be. Per-haps it would be more humane if we educated boys with GID early on that if they wanted, they could eventually become women. If they still wished to become women when puberty began, we could put them on hormones to prevent their bodies from becoming very mas-culine, so that they would be more realistic and attractive women once they made the change. At age 16, boys who had retained their cross-gender wishes could opt for surgery. I can imagine that this world would be more humane than ours, although we cannot know it with-out conducting an experiment that will probably never be possible.

I like that he thinks we need an experiment to determine what would be more humane in this instance.

I’m glad I kept reading, if for no other reason than Bailey discusses the berdache!

One of the most extensively studied transgender homosexuality traditions has been that of the berdache, among some Native American tribes. The berdache tradition involved males who typically were identified in childhood by their femininity and placed in a role that would allow them both spiritual leadership and sex and marriage with men. As one observer said about the berdache among the Crow of the Plains in 1903: “I was told that when very young, those persons manifested a decided preference for things pertaining to female duties.”

“Two-spirit” is the preferred term now, according to Wikipedia.

Two-spirit people, specifically male-bodied (biologically male, gender female), could go to war and have access to male activities such as sweat lodges.[13] However, they also took on female roles such as cooking and other domestic responsibilities. Today’s societal standards look down upon feminine males, and this perception of that identity has trickled into Native society. The acculturation of these attitudes has created a sense of shame towards two-spirit males who live or dress as females and there is no longer a wish to understand the dual lifestyle they possess.[citation needed]

For me the biggest question the book raises is why some boys act in strongly feminine ways. Bailey says it could be a subtle social influence but the thrust of this kind of book invites the interpretation that feminine behavior is directly biologically encoded, when I’d say it’s more likely that feminine boys sense a kinship with women, which causes them to adopt the subtle behavioral cues that our culture uses to enforce the concept of Woman. (See page 75, where Bailey lists a series of opposed traits such as moving one’s arms from the shoulder [masculine] or from the elbows [feminine], etc.)

Can any of you post-structuralist feminists and queer theorists out there tell me how to reconcile gender performativity (which I don’t understand) with the poorly understood biology of sexual orientation? I.e., let’s assume that for purely biological reasons, little boys who will grow up to identify as gay are generally attuned to the presence of other males in a way that little hetero boys are not. Take it from there.

Or do you find the whole thing to be an exercise in Otherizing and therefore uninteresting?

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3 Responses to “The Man Who Would Be Queen”

  1. Michael Vine Says:

    I dunno about post-structuralist feminism, but post reading, I sigh. To this we’ve come? (Really?)

    How telling that so many of our virtually extinct indigenous people(s) observed the the “two-spirit” and whether out of necessity, benevolence, fascination, or worry simply accepted the legitimacy of their existence.

    At the beginning or end of the day, if a young boy’s (or a grown man’s) limp wrist and/or predilection for sibilance is upsetting to anyone’s sense of Self, Other, or Otherwise, I question their sense and beware.

  2. JR Minkel Says:

    Ain’t it the truth, though? Forget a third party, our country needs a third gender. Bailey says in the Philippines it’s pretty common for straight guys to lose their virginity to very feminine gay men. It’s considered about as transgressive as smoking. Over here, it might damage the whole Good/Bad thing we’ve got going on.


  3. […] question J. Michael Bailey takes up in Chapter 7 of his book, The Man Who Would Be Queen. See my earlier post on the controversy surrounding the […]


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