Northwestern University psychologist J. Michael Bailey's recent book "The Man Who Would Be Queen" has been criticized by transgender advocacy groups. But most of Bailey's book is about gay men and that part of his book should have received far more attention than it has.
Bailey's primary claim is the link between femininity and homosexuality is well-established: "My research demonstrates a large degree of femininity in gay men." And Bailey thinks this gay femininity is rooted in the brain. Gay men's brains are a mosaic of male and female parts, he says.
For example, Bailey says gay men were feminine in childhood. They move in feminine ways, have feminine voices (a "gay accent") and tend to be feminine in sex roles. They have feminine interests-showtunes, decorating, fashion, dancing. They have more psychological problems than heterosexual men such as depression and anxiety, just as women do.
These are long-familiar stereotypes about gay men. But Bailey claims the stereotypes are true and true of most gay men. No doubt some gay men fit part of the stereotype, but the problem with stereotypes is that believing them causes people to overlook gays who do not fit the stereotypes, even if they are far more numerous. Such people think there are few gays.
Thus although Bailey vacillates about the proportion of men who are gay, he finds 2 percent or even "at least 1 percent" plausible estimates. Yet avowed gays are at least 4 percent of voter turnout. And the 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey found that in large cities such as Chicago, where Bailey lives, more than 9 percent of men identify as gay or bisexual. (Bailey himself thinks most "bisexual" men are gay.)
The problems with Bailey's use of stereotypes of gay femininity to support his notion of gay men's feminized brains are that a) they are based on exaggerated notion of gender dichotomy and b) there are very plausible non-biological explanations for the instances of stereotyped behavior Bailey mentions.
Gay men may not feel more depression and anxiety than heterosexual men, though they may be more willing to label and acknowledge those feelings. But gays obviously face additional stress growing up and living in a potential hostile environment, so anxiety could be a valid response.
Most of our speech patterns and body language are learned behavior, differing from culture to culture, rather than brain-regulated. And much of "gay" gesture and affectation are social performance. Kinsey noted that most gay men can drop them readily.
Gay men who enjoy receptive anal sex probably do so not because they feel feminine but because their prostate gland is stimulated that way. Nor does Bailey trouble himself about "tops," or men who enjoy both receptive and insertive sex, or men who do not engage in anal sex at all.
Bailey sometimes acknowledges these alternative explanations, but even when he agrees they are plausible, he dismisses them with little argument.
Bailey's view that gay men were feminine boys is based largely on some gay men's recollections. But retrospective memories are unreliable. Most people recall the things that fit the prevailing cultural view. In a culture suffused with notions of gay femininity, gay men likely recall more feminine behavior (and heterosexual men less) than was actually the case.
And like most heterosexual researchers Bailey views team sports as the distinctive masculine activity. He assumes a false dichotomy of either playing those sports or being feminine. But gay youths who did not enjoy those sports need not have been feminine, though some may have internalized that interpretation.
Boys may have preferred individual sports-running, swimming, diving, gymnastics. Or they might have enjoyed entirely different activities. I remember as a young child riding bikes, climbing trees, making castles and forts out of blocks, playing cowboys and Indians, creating marionette plays, building dams and canals in a creek, playing with our dog, playing Monopoly, writing a little newspaper, listening to a lot of classical music, writing stories, collecting stamps and coins, reading science fiction, books on astronomy and news magazines.
Basically Bailey tries to update and biologize the hoary psychological theory that gays suffer from faulty gender identity. But Bailey's view, like the older one, dies the death of a thousand cuts and counter-examples.
When did Bailey go wrong? First, he believes simple-minded notions of exaggerated gender dichotomy. Second, although he is not forthcoming about his methods in this book, his past methods of gathering research subjects or data (for example, ads in gay newspapers) seemed to skew his results without his realizing how they might be systematically unrepresentative. Third, Bailey over-interprets his findings and those of people he agrees with.
Fourth, Bailey's view of gay men seems shaped particularly by visits to gay dance bars in Chicago. But the generally younger, single gay men at dance bars are hardly typical of all gay men in Chicago's gay enclave, much less those living elsewhere. Fifth, Bailey seems remarkably un-self-critical, reluctant to look for, acknowledge or discuss problems or inadequacies in his intuitions, hypotheses, methods or findings.