Seed Magazine, May/June 2004



Ethical Minefields

The Sex That Would Be Science


By Julia M. Klein

Copyright © 2004, Seed Magazine


J. Michael Bailey was visiting the popular Chicago nightclub Crobar to recruit subjects for a study on transsexuals and drag queens, and found himself especially entranced by a transsexual he called Kim. “She is spectacular, exotic… and sexy,” he wrote in The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism. “Her body is incredibly curvaceous, which is a clue that it may not be natural…. It is difficult to avoid viewing Kim from two perspectives: as a researcher but also as a single, heterosexual man.”

It’s this sort of rumination that has gotten Bailey, now chairman of Northwestern University’s psychology department, and an expert on the biological origins of human sexuality, into trouble. His book, published last year, has sparked both a bitter ideological dispute and an ongoing university investigation that will likely have ramifications far beyond the Bailey case.

In the minefield of sexual research on human subjects, preconceptions can easily taint observations, and the intimacy between researcher and subject can overtake objectivity. The Man Who Would Be Queen is presented as science, but at times it seems more like a voyeuristic memoir by a man admittedly fascinated by the links between sexuality and gender.

Some transsexuals have charged that the book is lurid and unscientific, with a half-dozen (some of whom have never met Bailey) complaining to Northwestern that he failed to obtain written “informed consent” from his human subjects—a federal and university requirement for scientific research. One transsexual further claimed that Bailey had sex with her two years after writing a letter backing her sex-reassignment surgery, an allegation Northwestern subsequently dismissed.

The crux of the issue is whether or not Bailey’s book is science, or a work of journalism. If it isn’t science, Bailey would have had no obligation to follow regulations on scientific research requiring that he submit his project proposal to a Northwestern University Institutional Review Board; nor would he have needed his pseudonymous subjects’ formal written consent.

“I have done nothing wrong,” says Bailey, suggesting he was being pilloried for his iconoclastic views. “It is my belief,” he continues, “that everything that has happened originated with the hatred [by many transsexuals] of the ideas in the book.”

In fact, Bailey points out, the most contentious of these ideas aren’t even his. The Man Who Would Be Queen relies on sexologist Ray Blanchard’s classifications of transsexuals as either “homosexual transsexuals,” extremely feminine gay men, or as “autogynephiles,” men who become women as a result of an acute sexual fetish.

It’s the “autogynephilic” label that has incited much of the anger against Bailey. Randi Ettner, a psychologist and author, says that the autogynephilic profile applies, at most, to “a very small minority” and is greatly oversimplified. “You have people who are filled with shame anyway, and you’ve cast them all as sex workers and people who are obsessed with sexuality,” she says. “He’s set back the field 100 years, as far as I’m concerned.”

Ettner’s book, Gender Loving Care: A Guide to Counseling Gender-Variant Clients, embodies the more commonly accepted view that transsexuality is “gender dysphoria”—or unhappiness with one’s biological sex—that “contains no explicit sexuality.” She writes that “gender variance...exists on a continuum, with transsexualism at one extreme.”

Bailey himself had never met a transsexual until he was contacted a decade ago by C. Anjelica Kieltyka, an artist and an advocate for the trans community who had seen him on television. She said her aim was “to educate him” about transsexuals. As Bailey recounts in the book, his education took him to Chicago bars frequented by Kieltyka’s transsexual friends. Soon, he was writing letters backing their sex-reassignment surgeries. Kieltyka and others reciprocated by speaking to students in Bailey’s popular “Human Sexuality” class.

Today, Kieltyka, who says she’s the autogynephilic character “Cher” in the book, is among Bailey’s fiercest critics. “He turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she says, citing his unflattering portrayals of her and her friends. “He crossed so many lines that the lines themselves are confusing.”

For his part, Bailey calls his book a work of “popular science,” and says he reached his conclusions “from personal contacts” and “understanding these people and their stories through the lens of Blanchard.” But Kieltyka maintains that Bailey wasn’t exactly a dispassionate researcher. “He and I were on the same wavelength. We both found [transsexuals] attractive,” she says. “We were like two guys talking in a bar, [saying] ‘Would you do her?’ ”

“He’s trying to have it both ways,” Kieltyka says. “To some, he’s saying it’s science, and to others, ‘It’s just my experiences within the underground.’ ”

“That kind of research is a gray area. It always has been,” says Jeff Sherman, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern who sits on one of the university’s review boards. He says he knows Bailey did not think he needed the panel’s approval merely to conduct interviews.

Arthur L. Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, says he believes the book does constitute scientific research. But he says Bailey didn’t need to get consent because he used pseudonyms, and a review panel “wouldn’t spend more than 15 minutes thinking about this proposal” before approving it. “My read,” Caplan says, “is that he’s gotten a lot of people angry. It’s a tough subject.”

“I knew autogynephilia was touchy,” says Bailey, whose opponents have tried to brand him as a neo-eugenicist. “Did I think that people would devote their lives to trying to ruin me? I did not…. I have also never been an advocate of believing things just because it makes people comfortable. Sometimes, when the emperor has no clothes, I’ll be one of the first to say it.”

But, in this case, it’s Bailey who has left himself exposed. Says Sherman, “This is the danger when you do this kind of research. Personal and professional lines can easily get blurred.”

—Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia