Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science
Alice Dreger, Penguin Press, March 10, 2015
by Jamie Faye Fenton
Galileo’s Middle Finger (GMF) describes Alice Dreger’s career as an academic and an activist. Her story intersects ours in her involvement in the Bailey affair. Dreger’s retelling of this story has reignited passions and draws renewed attention to an unsettled controversy over the basis of transgender identity.
I have a standard formula for reviewing a book: 1) Say what the author says. 2) Describe my reactions. 3) Make sense of the experience. 4) Ponder what to do. I gloss over much and focus on the transgender aspects. I also assume a basic familiarity with the “Bailey Controversy” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_Who_Would_Be_Queen) and “Autogynephilia” (the claim that transgender identity emerges from the erotic). ((https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blanchard%27s_transsexualism_typology)
Alice is a historian of science. Her first focus in the social justice movement was on intersex people, where she crusaded against early medical intervention for disorders of sexual development, preferring to empower the individual.
During this time, the Bailey Affair happened, which she observed from afar. Later, a friend introduced her to J. Michael Bailey, then battered by a concerted effort by transgender activists to ruin him for publishing a book entitled “The Man Who Would Be Queen” (TMWWBQ). TMWWQ had many flaws, the most outrageous was presenting “autogynephilia theory” as scientific fact. Dreger explains what the autogynephilia theory is, why it is controversial, and why Bailey’s book explaining it incited the backlash. Alice then starts digging into the backstory and discovers that Bailey’s transgender opponents were indeed using appalling tactics to destroy him.
Bailey’s primary tormentors are Lynn Conway, the renowned engineer, economist Deirdre McCloskey, and advertising copywriter/transgender activist Andrea James. They do a host of dirty deeds, including filing complaints with Bailey’s university alleging violations of Federal Regulations, accusing Bailey of inappropriate sexual conduct & practicing psychology without a license, of impairment due to alcohol dependence, misleading the women he wrote about his intentions, and “outting” them. James put up (on her web site) pictures of Bailey’s kids with obscene captions, accused him of spousal abuse, called Alice’s child a “womb turd”, made threatening statements, and created denunciation pages on her web site attacking people whom she thought supported Bailey. Alice quickly earned one of these.
As Dreger learns more about her detractors, she finds evidence of autogynephilia in their backgrounds and narcissistic rage in their responses. The lady(s) doth protest too much, methinks.
Alice digs into the charges and finds them all to be a sham. She interviews Bailey, his subjects, autogynephilia theorists, and the few Bailey opponents who will talk to her. Her report is published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, along with dozens of peer commentary articles, both pro and con.
This was a powerful counter-punch to James and Conway, who react with outrage and denounce her efforts as being part of a transphobic conspiracy, Alice is now a prime target as derided and beleaguered as Bailey. While the ASB article is well received by the community of sex researchers, it does not undo the damage and scientific inquiry into transgender etiology slows.
The ASB article leads to a Guggenheim Fellowship to study the modern persecution of scientists for politically incorrect research. This leads her to stories of an anthropologist falsely accused of genocide, a sex researcher who claimed that adult/child sexual contact is not always devastating , another researcher who believed rapists were motivated by both power and sexual desire, and more. Bailey isn’t alone.
Returning to the fray as a bioethicist, Dreger tangles with Dr. Maria New, who gives a drug called DEX to prevent susceptible pregnant women from producing a lesbian daughter, and the quest continues.
Just before I came out, I read the DSM-III-R description of transvestitic fetishism and purged for the last time. I have no love for the psychiatric view of transgender as a mental disorder. I also saw what happened to Dylan Scholinski in mental hospitals while I was living with his mother. I know where our outrage comes from.
I also know firsthand what it is like to have a run-in with Andrea James. I was part of the “Autogynephilia Support” Yahoo group, and my participation garnered one of her “denunciation pages” (Just Google “Jamie Faye Fenton”, its still there). I was there to develop a better theory yet found myself under attack for doing that. I also was appalled at the tactics that James and Conway were using — I knew that the IRB complaints were bogus, that having sex with a research subject didn’t matter, and that the laws in Illinois covering psychotherapy licensure specifically exempted university professors and had written about these things.
Unlike most transgender readers of GMF, I am torn between wishing Alice had more empathy for the transgender predicament and gleefully cheering her on for calling out Andrea. Alice trod the same path I did and was getting attacked in the same way I was. Unlike her, I gave up trying.
Reading GMF felt like PTSD. It was worth it.
The transgender community is treating GMF as a shameful sequel to TMWWBQ. Like TMWWBQ, GMF was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award which was later rescinded due to TG community pressure. It is also clear that most of the strident critics of GMF have not actually read it.
One problem with discussing TMWWBQ and the autogynephilia theory is that you have to explain it, and it isn’t simple. Its easy to mistake a lengthy description for advocacy. Most opponents handle this by weaving in course threads of condemnation. Alice doesn’t. Moreover she gradually tends partisan as her own experience of blowback builds.
Another criticism of Dreger is that she does not fully appreciate the moment in history that the TMWWBQ controversy was. For many, it is our “Bastille Day” when the transgender community rejected stigmatizing origin stories once and for all. While Dreger has been counter-stigmatized, she can find comfort in having earned that courageously. She has not, like us, escaped and then been threatened with return. The TMWWBQ uprising was about a lot more than an ugly book cover and the overreaction of three people.
Despite these distractions, Dreger’s main point stands. This victory was earned through a vicious ad hominem campaign with attendant collateral damage. None of the basic facts that Dreger found have ever been disputed. Threatened, her critics pile on more ad hominem, straw-man characterizations, and accusations of transphobia. It continues unabated.
You can’t prove you are not crazy by doing crazy things.
Ultimately GMF is not about Bailey or autogynephilia, it is about Alice’s journey as a scientific activist. The validity or invalidity of the theory does not matter — what Dreger saw was a flawed political response to a scientific problem, and she is right.
The ultimate theme of GMF its that Truth Matters and it is hard-won.
Science is ultimately about the agreement of experts. The Bailey affair ran many of them off. We now have a situation where broad agreement isn’t possible. Transgender critics of the autogynephilia theory have struggled to make their case, but decisive victory is distant. It does not help that engaging with the proponents is so dangerous. The lull in scientific progress is tragic.
To the outside world, it seems that James and Conway are living up to the description of them as wounded narcissists with internalized autogynephobia. Ironically, they are quick to retweet and share everything Alice Dreger writes. Their antics draw renewed attention to themselves and deflect criticism of their tactics. Its like the Ayatollah and Salman Rushde, an epic troll that rolls on and on.
If we want this war to end, we need to be able to talk about autogynephilia and transgender psychology without fear. Otherwise it will lurk as a hobgoblin over the progress of the transgender movement. We can only kill the messenger so many times.
As for the book, please read it! It is well written, captivating, and makes important points. It is also making history.