Don’t recommend Bailey either

If you read my blog at all, you know I have very little patience for transgender dogma. I don’t have much more patience for the Blanchard model either, but it seems to be the most popular alternative. Alice Dreger is right that my “community leaders” have been nasty to Ray Blanchard and friends, but she also seems to think that Blanchard’s theory is actually worth something. Last month I posted about the difficulties of coming out about transvestite sexuality, and I got a very nice email from someone who asked if that was the same as “autogynephilia.” I found the blog of a therapist who questions transition, and she recommends that parents of dysphoric children read Michael Bailey’s The Man Who Would Be Queen.

Of all the books I could recommend to an anxious parent, The Man Who Would Be Queen is one of my last choices. If you forced me to choose between that and a transition-cheerleading book I would probably throw them both in the pulping bin. It’s a nasty, polemical, judgmental screed that offers little hope to any trans people. And that, really, is the message I’ve gotten from the entire Blanchard camp.

Ray Blanchard developed his dichotomy between “autogynephilic” and “homosexual transsexuals” in the 1980s, based on work by Kurt Freund and others in the late 1960s and early 1970s,* when the primary mission of therapists working with trans people was gatekeeping. There was a real danger that people would make all kinds of body modifications, get fired from their jobs and ostracized by their friends and family, and wind up broke and destitute. They found that the “HSTS” were more likely to succeed in their transitions – and in those days that meant blending into society post-transition and being able to live “stealth.”

There was probably some value in the “HSTS/autogynephilia” dichotomy as a gatekeeping heuristic, just like there was some value in the “we’re all women trapped in men’s bodies” idea for getting people to relate to transgender ideas at all, but they’re both based on wild oversimplifications, ignoring a vast quantity of exceptions. Both camps have spun elaborate essentialist theories and spent the past thirty years searching for biological evidence to support those theories, and neither camp has come up with anything particularly satisfactory.

My biggest beef with Blanchard, Bailey and friends is that as far as I’m concerned, they’ve done fuck-all to help me and other trans people to cope with trans feelings. I decided not to transition with no help from them, I came out of the closet a year later with no help from them, and I’ve spent the 21 years since figuring out how to live out and proud without transitioning. Where is their guide to doing that? It’s not there. All they cared about for decades was preventing me from transitioning (didn’t want to anyway), and attacking the Everybody Must Transition dogmatists.

I wish I could offer the therapist a book she could recommend to worried parents instead of Bailey’s book. For that matter, I wish I could offer a book that people could recommend instead of Julia Serano’s book. The problem is that the parents want certainty. They want a book that will tell them How Things Are, and What To Do. But the fact is that when it comes to transgender feelings we don’t know how things are. We don’t know what to do. We’re all fumbling blindly in the dark. The difference is that some of us are prepared to admit it.

* I had originally said that Blanchard developed his taxonomy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Someone wrote to correct that. I regret the error.

Gender solidarity is a kludge

The other day on Twitter, someone posted about “that knowing look” that women exchange when a man is talking down to them. This is the mild end of a spectrum of actions that women take out of solidarity with each other, from looks through accompanying each other to the bathroom, through friendship to full-on man-hating separatism.

Added February 7: In a speech endorsing Hillary Clinton for President yesterday, Madeleine Albright said “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” According to Maureen O’Connor she has been saying this since at least 2004. It’s a striking example of the kind of problematic solidarity I’m talking about.

In contrast, Erica Violet Lee gives examples of situations where solidarity may well have been the best available course of action – in part because of solidarity among men.

The problems they are responding to are a hundred percent real. From disrespect to discrimination to harassment and rape and murder, women are systematically oppressed in our society. This is a matter of social structure, not agency, but the structure exerts its oppression on women in large part by enabling and encouraging people to take action against them, and the vast majority of those actors are men. It is thus not surprising that in many circumstances women trust each other more than men.

It is also not specific to gender: members of oppressed groups have always tried to show each other solidarity. Black people share knowing looks, gay men walk each other home, Deaf people form friendships, Jews form separatist communities. Sometimes these measures work, sometimes they don’t.

When solidarity fails, it’s because people fail to realize that it’s a kludge, a statistical bet on the effects of these social structures. It’s because they mistake the structures that encourage people to dehumanize others and behave like assholes with the prevalence of actual psychopaths and assholes. They forget that God (or Odin or Krishna or whoever) has carefully sprinkled assholes and psychopaths throughout the population, so that they are represented among Black people and gay men and Deaf people and Jews and trans people and yes, even women.

Solidarity also fails when people fail to realize that the structure does not affect everyone equally. Of course, many people are smart enough to adjust their solidarity to take into account edge cases and intersectionalities. One well-known example is when women include gay men among their “girlfriends” – but absolutism fails here too, as many people have observed that there are gay men who are just as misogynist as any straight man.

Like any kludge, gender solidarity can be incredibly useful. But like any kludge, it works best when we know its limitations, use it sparingly, and try not to think of it as a stable long-term solution to our problems. See also: segregated bathrooms and gender roles.

Predators, prey and gender overlap

In 2013 I wrote about how I and many other people sometimes interact with the world as a woman, and sometimes as a man. Some people are very uncomfortable with this. They may accept the idea that a person is “really” a different gender inside, or that they have to live as a different gender, but they want everyone to transition and get it over with. They hate the idea that someone could be a man one day and a woman the next and a man again the following day, or even both simultaneously.

I puzzled over this for years, but I think I’ve figured out now why some people are violently opposed (many of them quite literally) to the idea of someone being both a man and a woman. It is because they see the two categories as not just incompatible but as antagonists, even enemies. It is because they see men as predators and women as prey.

Our culture has many metaphors based on this model. We talk about sexual predators (the vast majority of them are men), men being out on the prowl, women as trophies and feathers in caps. We talk about the chase and about the thrill of the hunt. There are other metaphors where women are valuable prizes won by men, and in the other direction where men are fish or bears, and women are trying to catch them with nets and traps, but the ones where men are hunting women are more common.

These metaphors are not created out of thin air. In my first grade class a common pastime of the boys was to have “girl chases” (I boycotted them on principle, so I don’t know what happened if a boy ever caught a girl). When I was a teenager I learned from movies and songs that getting a pretty girl – or at least having a pretty girl say that she liked him – was one of the main goals in life, and a way that a boy could get people to like and respect him.

I have known people who really do relate to the other primary gender in those terms most of the time. I’ve known men whose first reaction on meeting a woman is to size her up as a potential mate. Those who are suitable they pursue, and if they catch them they may use them and drop them. Those who are not suitable they try to ignore, or to relate to as “one of the guys.” If that fails, they are often at a loss.

Similarly, I have known women who evaluate all men as potential threats. Those who turn out to be threats they may run away from, or grit their teeth and try to bear it. Those who are not threats they try to ignore, or dismiss as annoying boys. If that fails, they are similarly at a loss.

Some women reject the idea that trans people who were raised male can be women, but are occasionally willing to make an exception for passable trans women with lots of female socialization – provided that they transition, get rid of as much of their maleness as possible, and then stay transitioned. If we spend any time as men, we’re automatically disqualified. This makes sense if they are thinking of us as predators: we can’t be simultaneously predators and prey, so we must be wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Similarly, men who attack trans women seem to do so when they feel attracted, but there is some unmistakable sign of the trans woman’s maleness. This also can be understood (not excused, of course) if they are thinking of men as predators and women as prey. Just when they think they have caught their prey and begin to let their guard down, she turns into a predator before their eyes!

Anyone who has actually made the effort to relate to people of other genders as human beings knows how superficial this way of thinking is, and how unrewarding. The reality is that both men and women are people, and every person is a complex individual. Some are nice and some are not. But of course, if they’re treating you either like a predator or like prey, you can’t get to know them anyway.

We are not safe around us

I’m reading The People of Sparks with my kid, and it’s a concise, believable depiction of prejudice: how it arises and how to defuse it. We’ve evolved in tribes, and we have a strong tendency to take tribal solutions to danger and conflict. Someone’s dangerous? Well, he’s not one of us. She’s not one of us either, better watch out for her!

When we find out that x percent of crimes are committed by y people, our immediate reaction is to avoid all y people. It doesn’t matter if these crimes are committed by a small percentage of y people, better to avoid them all. It’s a completely normal and understandable response, and sometimes when you’re under attack it’s the best you can manage, but as DuPrau shows us, it’s often the absolute worst thing you can do.

There are “women’s spaces,” because women fear men. There are whites-only suburbs, because white people fear black and Hispanic people. There are people who avoid contact with anyone who isn’t LGBT, because they fear straight people.

Then there are the numerous posts on Tumblr about “cis” people, as if our danger comes entirely from without. Posts about what trans men do to trans women, as if trans women didn’t do the exact same things to other trans women.

If you’re feeling backed in a corner and assailed from all sides, then go ahead and make whatever generalizations you think will protect you. But if you’re not, if you’ve got at least some breathing room, I encourage you to take a deep breath and look around. Because the truth is that safety does not lie with “us.” No matter how you define “us.”

There are trans women who rape. Trans women who kill. Trans women who inject each other with silicon. Trans women who play shitty coercive games. Trans women who keep other trans women from getting the help we need.

Non-trans women? Yeah, some of them rape and murder and exclude other women. Gay men? Lesbians? Yeah. White people? Hell yeah. Rich people? You bet.

We are not safe around us. Is anyone safe, then? Well, nobody’s completely safe, but some people are generally okay. How do we find them? Well, that’s tricky. The best way is to observe them, from a distance at first and then gradually closer if they go for a while without doing anything dangerous.

In other words, the best way that anyone’s ever found to determine whether someone’s safe: let them earn your trust. Despite what we’d like to believe, there are no shortcuts.

Gender roles are a kludge

A while ago I talked about gendered spaces, and how they’re something of a kludge, a shortcut. Gender roles are also a kludge, but one that’s even less justified than gendered spaces, given what we can do with modern prosperity and technology. They persist out of some combination of tradition, politics, personal preference and convenience.

Stewardess: Is your...
Photographer unknown.
The primary sex difference is of course the ability to bear children, so a thousand years ago if a man wanted to raise healthy children, the way to get them was by marrying a healthy, young, maternal woman. Of course, not all women can bear children, as numerous frustrated European kings have shown us, but looking for a man was definitely an unproductive strategy.

Nowadays it’s possible for gay couples or even single men to adopt children, so women are no longer necessary, but marrying a woman is still the most convenient way to get children, and it’s acquired the weight of tradition and politics. For men who are sexually attracted to women, marrying a woman tends to be the preferred way of getting a child, because it pretty much ensures that the man will have sex with a woman.

Other gender roles are based on secondary sex characteristics: men tend to be larger and stronger, so they’re preferred for fighting, smashing and lifting. Women tend to be able to lactate, which made them the obvious choice for caring for infants before formula was perfected.

Once these roles are established, they make it easier to segregate other roles. If women are taking care of infants, it’s easy for them to keep caring for older children, and eventually for the elderly and sick. If childcare happens mostly in the home, it makes sense for women to take care of other household needs.

If men are fighting, it makes sense for them to be policing internal order, and then it’s easy for them to be the ones who set the internal order. If they’re smashing and lifting, it makes sense for them to build houses and fortifications, and then it’s easy for them to be the ones who make machines.

Women and men also tend to form communities of practice based on these activities. Any father who’s spent time with a “mom’s group” knows what I mean, as does any woman who’s attended an engineering conference.

All these tendencies make sense. What doesn’t make sense is to be so rigid about them. Natural variation means that these sex characteristics aren’t a given. Some people are naturally infertile. Some women are big and strong, and some men are small and weak.

Technological and social changes have made a lot of these biological generalizations irrelevant. If we do most lifting and killing today by pushing buttons, how strong does a soldier or construction worker have to be? If we can feed infants with formula, we don’t need nursery school teachers to have functioning breasts.

Some roles have undergone gender flip-flops, or simply diversified over the years. In the nineteenth century, the position of secretary was considered too cerebral to be entrusted to women (with all the misogyny that implies), then in the late twentieth century it was treated as exclusively female; in Binghamton in 1992 a retired temporary placement agent told me that they would never send a man on a secretarial assignment. “Stewardesses” were once all female and doctors male, but last month I flew on a plane where most of the flight attendants were male, and my last dermatology appointment was at a practice that was mostly women. The best nurse in my son’s neonatal ICU, who taught me to change a diaper, was a guy named Scott.

There have long been exceptions to these roles. The US Army’s recent official inclusion of women in combat is notable, but women have been fighting throughout human history. There have been women leaders and male nurturers.

There will probably always be roles in every society that are more strongly associated with one gender or the other. There will also be people who will, for one reason or another, be drawn to the other roles. We need to be flexible and ask if there’s really any good reason why a role should be rigidly reserved for one gender. If there isn’t, we should accommodate everybody.

Segregated bathrooms are a kludge

Bathrooms are an important issue to me. When I present as a woman I use women’s bathrooms, and I want every trans person to have the right to choose their bathroom. But I realize that the desire some people have to exclude us from bathrooms is based on a legitimate concern. I heard this recently in a story from Afghanistan, where some people have made gender-segregated bathrooms a priority.

Graduates of the Women’s Afghan National Police training course in Kandahar province, Afghanistan smile after receiving their ANP graduation certificates Aug. 5 at Camp Nathan Smith. Photo by Spc. Tracy R. Weeden / Isafmedia.

In Afghanistan, crimes against women often go unpunished. The Afghan government recognized that a major factor was the absence of female officers, and hired a number of new recruits. Now, many of those police officers are leaving, because they are being regularly attacked and raped.

The most common locations for these assaults are the police station bathrooms, which are open to all genders. The female officers are most vulnerable when half-naked, performing involuntary bodily functions. The proposed solution, advocated by Human Rights Watch, is to institute women-only spaces, where a man would be automatically suspect.

It’s too often overlooked that the shared bathrooms in no way cause the attacks. These attacks are deliberate acts of violence chosen by individuals, encouraged by a culture that dehumanizes women, and perpetuated by a legal system uninterested in bringing the perpetrators to justice.

This story helps some of us understand why gender-segregated bathrooms exist in the first place. They are a kludge, a short cut to stop the worst abuses. And like all kludges, bathroom segregation doesn’t work one hundred percent. There are false positives – trans people who are denied access to the bathrooms that fit our presentation and marked when we use the others. Significantly, there are plenty of false negatives – men who walk right into segregated bathrooms and attack women without any claim to transgender status.

A kludge may be necessary to break through a logjam. Think of the US Marshals who accompanied Ruby Bridges when she became the first Black student to attend William Frantz Elementary School. Segregated bathrooms may similarly be warranted in the case of the Afghan police. But just as integrated schools no longer require guards for every Black student, in some places segregated bathrooms may no longer be necessary.

Twice when I was in college here in the US I lived on dormitory floors where the bathrooms were nominally reserved for a single gender, but the residents had voted unanimously to open them to all genders. When I was studying in Paris, the public bathrooms in the classroom buildings were similarly integrated, with all gender markings removed.

Of course rape and voyeurism still exist in both the US and France, and in some places it may still be necessary to segregate bathrooms by gender. But the two experiences I mentioned suggest that in some situations respect for women’s rights and the rule of law is so secure that we no longer need the kludge of segregated bathrooms to protect women.

Even in places where gender-segregated bathrooms are still deemed necessary, it is clear that people who want to rape, ogle or video women in bathrooms will do so if they think they can get away with it. A small minority of them claim to be trans, probably because they actually are trans. In the end, what really protects women in bathrooms is not ineffective attempts to keep trans people out of them, but strong enforcement of the laws against assault and voyeurism.