Galileo’s Middle Finger | Alice Domurat Dreger

Summary of: Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Justice
By: Alice Domurat Dreger


In Galileo’s Middle Finger, Alice Domurat Dreger dives deep into the complex world of transgender and intersex individuals, their struggles with societal stigma, and the consequences of medical interventions. The summary discusses intersexuality, where a person’s biology doesn’t fit the standard definitions of male or female, leading to traumatic and damaging ‘normalization’ procedures. It also examines transgenderism, where a person’s gender identity doesn’t align with their assigned sex at birth. The summary further delves into the controversy surrounding J. Michael Bailey’s book, The Man Who Would Be Queen, and its impact on the transgender community, leading to a tense battle between scholars and activists.

Intersex vs Transgender: Understanding Differences

Intersex and transgender are two distinct terms involving diverse aspects of one’s identity. While intersex individuals possess anatomy that doesn’t conform to standard male or female biological definitions, transgender people identify with a gender different from their assigned sex at birth. Society’s stigma and the medical establishment’s normalization attempts have caused challenges and trauma for both communities.

Diving into the world of sexuality might leave you puzzled with the various complex terms, such as “intersex” and “transgender.” To clarify, intersex concerns biology and anatomy, referring to individuals whose anatomical features do not fit the standard definitions of male or female. Picture someone born with both a set of ovaries and testes – that person is intersex.

Historically, intersex people faced stigmatization, guilt, shame, and trauma due to societal expectations. Doctors subjected the intersex community to “normalization” procedures aimed to force individuals into a specific sex. These inhumane efforts resulted in extreme dissatisfaction and harm to countless lives.

Take Brian Sullivan, for instance. When doctors found out nineteen-month-old Brian had a uterus and ovotestes, they removed his phallus to make him Bonnie, believing she could become a fertile woman. In her teen years, Bonnie realized she lacked a clitoris, preventing her from achieving orgasm.

On the other hand, “transgender” refers to a person’s gender identity, representing how they perceive themselves sexually, irrespective of their biological sex. Transgender people usually reject the gender assigned to them at birth. Examples include Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Caitlyn Jenner and the TV show Transparent.

Ironically, transgender individuals face different challenges, often needing sex-change surgery and hormones but struggling to access these resources. Both intersex and transgender people confront an unwelcoming, heteronormative medical establishment seeking to control their gender identities.

Beyond Binary Gender Identity

The notion of gender identity is more intricate than simply being born with a male or female brain. The prevailing misconception that a person’s brain determines their gender is a gross oversimplification and not conclusively supported by scientific evidence. As argued by psychology professor J. Michael Bailey, external factors such as culture and society play equally essential roles in shaping transgenderism. He suggests that an individual’s decision to come out as gay or transgender is heavily influenced by their upbringing, environment, and experiences.

When a high-profile individual, like Bruce Jenner transforming into Caitlyn Jenner, comes out as transgender, it may create a false impression that they have finally discovered their true selves. Many believe that who they were initially was merely a facade hiding their authentic identity. However, the reality is far more complex.

There’s a widespread assumption that an individual’s gender is solely determined by their brain. This suggests that male and female are the only possibilities, and sometimes a person’s body doesn’t align with their brain’s gender. Consequently, when someone undergoes a gender transition, it’s believed they’re revealing their “genuine inner self.”

Yet, dividing the brain into strictly male or female categories lacks substantial scientific backing. Despite this, such dichotomies appeal to traditional views on gender and identity, garnering widespread acceptance.

Contrary to mainstream beliefs, J. Michael Bailey posits that transgenderism isn’t a birthright identity. In his book, “The Man Who Would Be Queen,” he presents a more nuanced perspective based on sexologist Ray Blanchard’s classification system. Bailey acknowledges that people are born with gendered behaviors and sexual preferences but considers the desire to transition a result of numerous external influences.

Bailey emphasizes the significance of culture and society in determining whether someone remains closeted or comes out as openly gay or transgender. For instance, an effeminate gay male raised in an accepting and supportive environment is more likely to be openly gay. However, if the same person grew up in a homophobic environment, they might feel compelled to transition into a woman as a means of survival.

Debating Autogynephilia

Resistance to Bailey’s book was fueled by the introduction of autogynephilia, the concept of men being sexually aroused by the idea of being a woman. Critics argued that this concept was offensive, particularly to transgender women, and questioned Bailey’s research ethics, resulting in a storm of backlash and controversy.

Bailey’s groundbreaking book faced immense backlash due to its revolutionary ideas on sex and gender, which unsettled many people’s long-standing beliefs. At the core of this controversy was Bailey’s take on transgender sexuality, in which he identified a unique group of men known as autogynephilic. These men identify as male but experience sexual arousal from the thought of becoming a woman.

Autogynephilia, derived from “auto” meaning self-directed, and “gynephilia” meaning love of females, describes a male with a conventional upbringing: participating in sports, enjoying automobiles or motorcycles, and perhaps envisioning a future in the military. Like their more conventional counterparts, autogynephilic men are predominantly attracted to women, often marrying and starting families prior to deciding to transition.

The concept of autogynephilia provoked a slew of angry reactions, accusing the work of being blasphemous. Many, including transgender women, were offended by the idea. However, the controversy ultimately revolved around Bailey’s alleged unethical conduct.

Critics accused him of violating federal regulations by neglecting to secure approval from the Board of Ethics for his research on transgenderism, disregarding patient confidentiality, practicing psychology without a license, and engaging in a sexual relationship with a research subject.

Bailey also faced harassment from transgender activists, including Andrea James, who sent a disturbing photo of Bailey’s family to him, featuring their eyes blackened out and a caption questioning his wife’s character. This activist even displayed the photos on her website.

In the following section, we delve into the reasons why transgender groups reacted so vehemently against Bailey’s work.

The Struggle for Transgender Rights

The backlash against Bailey’s theories on transgenderism is rooted in the long and ongoing effort to desexualize the subject and fight for the rights and dignity of transgender people. Activists have sought to emphasize gender identity over sexuality to reduce stigma and improve access to healthcare and essential rights. The long-standing battle against discrimination in areas such as housing, employment, and schooling persists, with some members of the medical community still perceiving transgenderism as fetishism or mental illness. These challenges are compounded by legal exclusion from disability discrimination protection and occasional refusal of police or emergency workers to assist transgender individuals. This uphill fight for transgender rights makes any perceived setback, like Bailey’s theories, unwelcome and controversial.

Transgender people have faced a long and ongoing struggle to dissociate their identity from sexuality, aiming to reduce stigmas and improve access to healthcare and fundamental rights. Changing the term “transsexuality” to “transgender” is a crucial step towards emphasizing gender identity over questions of sexual attraction.

Unfortunately, the battle for basic rights remains uphill; any focus on sexuality, such as Bailey’s theories, feels like a significant step backward to activists. Health care for transgender people often suffers from heterosexist biases, with many medical professionals believing that only feminine males can convincingly transition to straight females. This restrictive view can lead to masculine autogynephilia patients being denied hormone treatments they need.

Discouragingly, some within the medical community still consider male-to-female transgenderism as fetishism or even mental illness, arguing against access to hormones or surgeries. One example is Paul McHugh, a psychiatrist who compares sex reassignment to “liposuction on anorexics,” disregarding the evidence that most people are healthier and happier after transitioning.

Transgender activists are determined to eliminate this sexualization of their cause, which they believe contributes to ongoing rights violations. In many states, transgender people legally face discrimination in housing, employment, and education. Federal disability law in the United States excludes transgender people from coverage, and protection varies among states. Severe biases even result in some police officers refusing to investigate hate crimes against transgender individuals, and emergency workers neglecting to treat life-threatening injuries.

This enduring struggle for transgender rights is likely why any perceived setback, such as Bailey’s work, stirs up controversy and backlash.

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