“Galileo’s Middle Finger”: When scholars and activists clash over controversial research, we all lose

Originally published at Salon

The book, intended to offer real-life stories that illustrated the theories of another researcher, endorsed the idea that trans women have varying motivations for making the male-to-female transition. Among the transsexuals he worked with, Bailey believed he had observed at least two general types. One consisted of “effeminate” individuals who might even have done OK as gay men — provided communities (mainstream or gay) would value them just as they are — but who, given the world’s entrenched prejudices, were much happier living as straight women. The other category Bailey identified became the source of his troubles. It encompassed people who, in Dreger’s words, “looked to the outside world like typically straight men” but who inside “felt there was a powerful, almost overwhelming feminine component of their selves. Part of that sense involved finding themselves sexually aroused by the idea of being or becoming women.”

This is, to put it mildly, a controversial assertion, although both Bailey and Dreger have encountered plenty of trans women who told them that the latter category (given the ungainly name of autogynephilia) does describe their own experience. However, people seeking sex reassignment surgery have traditionally run into opposition when doctors perceived their motivations as erotic. The idea that trans identity might be, for some people, a kind of sexual orientation, flies in the face of a counterargument that has been effectively deployed by trans activists to fight social and medical prejudice: that a trans person possesses the brain of one gender trapped in the body of the other, and that a desire to make the transition has nothing to do with sexuality.

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