- The Chronicle of Higher Education
- June 20, 2003
- A human-sexuality expert creates controversy
- with a new book on gay men and transsexuals
- By ROBIN WILSON
J. Michael Bailey clicks on an audio recording of four men: Two
are gay and two are straight. Can the audience guess which ones
are gay just by listening to their voices? asks Mr.Bailey, a
professor of psychology at Northwestern University.
When the majority of those in the Stanford University lecture
hall decide that a man with hissy s's and precise articulation
is gay, the professor pronounces them correct. The lesson: You
can determine a man's sexual orientation after simply listening
to him talk for 20 seconds.
Sound like science?
It is billed that way in The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science
of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism, a new book aimed at a popular
audience and published by the prestigious National Academies
Press. Mr. Bailey, who spoke at Stanford as part of a book tour
that has also taken him to Emory University and the University
of California at Los Angeles, is already widely known for his
studies linking sexual orientation to genes. (His research on
twins is mentioned in most introductory psychology texts.)
But his latest work has created a bigger buzz than most scholars
hope to enjoy in their entire careers. Not only does he identify
a set of interests and behaviors he says can be used to tell
whether a man is gay, he ties homosexuality to transsexualism.
The book is receiving praise and damnation in equal measures,
and the controversy is quickly making the author one of the most
talked-about sex and gender researchers in academe.
- Steven Pinker, a prominent psychologist at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology who is about to move to Harvard, wrote
in a comment for the cover that the book "illuminates the
mysteries of sexual orientation and identity," deeming it
"the best book yet" on the subject. In an interview,
he says Mr. Bailey has "opened up a whole new field by asking
new questions about sexual preference."
Other scholars and activists have blasted the book for reinforcing
inaccurate stereotypes. It has come under the harshest attack
for challenging the common medical diagnosis of "gender-identity
disorder," which is used in treating people who want to
change their sex. Men who want a sex change to become women have
long been thought of by psychiatrists as "women trapped
in men's bodies." But Mr. Bailey writes that men who want
sex-change operations are either extremely gay or are sexual
The contention has infuriated activists and scholars who are
transsexual. They have produced reams of strident online commentary
about Mr. Bailey's book. One Web site calls the book "junk
science" and likens it to Nazi propaganda.
Daniel I.H. Linzer, dean of the college of arts and sciences
at Northwestern, says Mr. Bailey's work is "having an impact
on the field. ... The most we can hope to do as scholars is stimulate
additional thinking and work. ... That's a wonderful recognition
of the impact Mike is having now."
Mr. Bailey, chairman of the psychology department at Northwestern,
teaches "Human Sexuality," one of the most popular
classes on the campus, with up to 600 undergraduate students
each year. Some of those students have dubbed him "Dr. Sex"
or "the Sex Professor." Despite the draw he has on
the campus, many of the descriptions of Mr. Bailey and his new
book that have appeared on Web sites and in interviews have been
ugly. "Cocky," "insensitive," "lurid,"
"condescending," and "mean-spirited" are
just some of the designations used.
It is hard to imagine that all this venom has been inspired by
the soft-spoken 45-year-old, who has barely a trace of his native
Texas drawl. If anything, Mr. Bailey is an academic nerd who
is just growing into his reputation as a provocateur. He doesn't
mind exposing what he considers sexual myths, no matter how much
the results might offend people. And he argues that he is "very
pro gay," while acknowledging that "the research I
do isn't." While he counts female transsexuals among his
friends, he says some "have their feelings hurt" when
he contends their sex changes were motivated by erotic fantasies,
not gender-identity problems. But he adds, "I can't be a
slave to sensitivity."
He majored in mathematics at Washington University in St. Louis,
married his college sweetheart, and worked as a high-school teacher
for a couple of years until he enrolled in graduate school at
the University of Texas at Austin in 1982. He decided against
an advanced degree in mathematics because, he says, he knew he
wasn't in the same league as some of the top math students at
the university. Besides, says the man who now studies transsexuals,
"two of them were very strange."
Instead, he pursued an interest in Freudian psychology that was
piqued by an undergraduate history course on the topic. "Freud
was into all this dark and sexy stuff with the unconscious and
how people's motives are usually hidden," says Mr. Bailey.
"I thought, 'I can become a psychoanalyst.'"
But at Texas he quickly grew annoyed with the clinical-psychology
program. "The people doing it were not really researchers.
They were more like an authoritarian cult: Believe this or else,"
he says. He was more attracted to scholars who were "being
hard-headed and asking questions," and even considering
unpopular possibilities, like a link between IQ and genes.
Mr. Bailey focused his dissertation on what was then a little-studied
subject: the biological causes of homosexuality. The project
ran directly counter to Freud's explanation, which is that gay
men are the result of overbearing mothers.
The dissertation kicked off an important area of research, which
Mr. Bailey continued after landing an assistant professorship
at Northwestern in 1989. Two years later, he was a co-author
of an article in the Archives of General Psychiatry based on
a study of brothers that found a genetic component to homosexuality.
The research found that 52 percent of the identical twins of
homosexual men were also gay, compared with only 22 percent of
the fraternal twins and 9.2 percent of the brothers who were
Mr. Bailey makes a point in his book and in his off-campus lectures
of telling people he is straight. He divorced in 1996, and has
two all-American looking teenagers, who excel at swimming, wrestling,
and academics. What's it like to have a sex researcher for a
dad? The kids know all about their father's work, although Mr.
Bailey has been known to cover his 16-year-old daughter's ears
when discussing his research. If the kids visit his office, though,
they're bound to see some of the dozens of sex-related videotapes
he uses for his research or in class, including The Sexual Brain,
Men, Sex, and Rape, and a three-part series: Sex: A Lifelong
Mr. Bailey says his divorce, not his research on sexuality, has
influenced his choice in clothing. Now, instead of a white dress
shirt and khaki pants, he wears tight-fitting knit shirts, a
black-leather jacket, and plenty of Ralph Lauren Safari cologne.
After Northwestern gave him the raise three years ago, the professor
bought himself a car that stands out as well -- a black BMW 325i.
Still, Mr. Bailey is not a social magnet. He has an awkward,
bouncy walk and a reserved, sometimes brusque manner. But he
is well liked, not always the case for a department chairman.
"He's the kind of person you go to when you have a problem,"
says David H. Uttal, an associate professor of psychology.
Mr. Bailey lives in an apartment on the edge of Boys' Town, Chicago's
historic gay district, and frequents gay bars on Halsted Street,
both for research and for fun. "It is very interesting and
vibrant and kind of wild," he says.
He recalls one time in 1995 when he took students to a gay bar
called Vortex, where he was doing research. He was interested
in drag queens, surmising that they were a link between gay men
and transsexuals. "There was gay porn on video monitors,
and here I was with these 21-year-old sorority girls," he
Four rooms constitute Mr. Bailey's sex lab in Northwestern's
Swift Hall. In one room, a graduate student plays videotapes
of men and women talking and asks visitors to rate the subjects'
voices and body language on a scale from masculine to feminine.
It is the kind of research that backs up Mr. Bailey's claim that
gay men are more effeminate than straight men, and confirms,
he says, that snap judgments about sexual orientation are often
In another small room, graduate students monitor Mr. Bailey's
most sexually explicit project. Subjects are left alone to watch
pornographic videos on a small television in a darkened room
where gauges measure their arousal. The subjects also report
their own responses by operating an electronic lever.
The arousal study is supported by a $100,000 federal grant from
the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development,
and the results are to be published soon in the journal Psychological
Science. Mr. Bailey found that while straight men are aroused
by women and gay men are aroused by men, women -- whether heterosexual
or lesbian -- are bisexual in their arousal, attracted to both
men and women.
- Mr. Bailey likes to call himself "politically incorrect,"
and takes positions that run contrary to conventional wisdom.
For example, acting as an expert witness in a 1999 case in Illinois,
he supported a child molester who requested a reduced jail sentence
after agreeing to be castrated.
"People for emotional reasons were saying stuff that simply
wasn't true, like castration won't work because rape and child
molestation are crimes of violence, not crimes of sex,"
says Mr. Bailey. "Although this may have been violent to
the victims and wasn't sexually enjoyable, that doesn't mean
it wasn't for the rapist." He wrote an article with another
psychologist on the subject for the Northwestern University Law
Review, citing others' research on how castration reduces sex
Mr. Bailey also believes AIDS-education campaigns are misguided.
"Middle-class, straight kids at Northwestern who are having
sex with other middle-class, straight kids at Northwestern have
a close to zero chance of getting AIDS," he says. "They
are being over-worried about AIDS. If people feel there's little
difference between gay or straight and getting AIDS, gay men
are going to underestimate the risk."
Those are hot topics in the professor's human-sexuality course.
But the most popular part of the course actually takes place
outside the lecture hall. Mr. Bailey invites transsexuals and
gay men to speak after class, and gives undergraduates free rein
in asking questions.
Students have requested tips on oral sex and wondered what the
gay men think about monogamy.
Mr. Bailey says he's never received any flak from Northwestern,
either about his course or about his research. In fact, when
the University of Pennsylvania offered him a full professorship
in 2000, Northwestern matched the offer, giving him a $28,000
raise, to $92,000 a year.
That doesn't mean everyone on the campus agrees with his work.
"He is looking to the body for truth, as opposed to social
and cultural frameworks," says Lane Fenrich, a senior lecturer
in the history department who teaches gay and lesbian history
and the history of the AIDS epidemic. "It's in many ways
no different from the way in which people were trying to look
for the alleged basis of racial differences in people's bodies."
It was during his visits to gay bars near his home that Mr. Bailey
began to refine his research on gay men's femininity, and came
to the conclusion that homosexuality and transsexuality are part
of the same continuum.
Gay men have more feminine traits than straight men, he writes,
including their interests in fashion and show tunes and their
choice of occupations, including florist, waiter, and hair stylist.
If a man is feminine, says Mr. Bailey, it is a key sign that
he is gay. And if a man is gay, Mr. Bailey says he can tell a
lot about what that man's childhood was like. He "played
with dolls and loathed football" and "his best friends
were girls," he writes in the book.
In fact, writes Mr. Bailey, some gay men are so feminine that
they want to become women. He calls men who have sex changes
for that reason "homosexual transsexuals." These people
are typically very sexy and convincing as women, as well as extremely
likely to work as escorts, or as waitresses,
receptionists, and manicurists, he writes. They have trouble
settling down with a mate because, like gay men, he says, they
enjoy casual sex with several partners.
The other type of transsexual is completely different, asserts
Mr. Bailey. These men who want to become women were not particularly
feminine as little boys and aren't particularly female-looking
after a sex change.
As men, they may have cross-dressed, or masturbated to fantasies
of themselves as women, and they typically have "sex reassignment"
surgery much later in life than do the first type.
Using categories defined in work by other sex researchers, Mr.
Bailey labels this type of transsexual "autogynephilic,"
which means they are sexually stimulated by the act of making
their male bodies female.
Mr. Bailey realizes that most transsexuals won't like his characterization.
In fact, he says, some are so unwilling to face their motivations
that they "lie," falling back instead on the more accepted
"I'm a woman in a man's body" narrative. But, he says,
their protests don't negate his theory.
Some prominent gay scientists argue that Mr. Bailey's book candidly
tackles subjects that have been taboo among gay men.
- "If you go back a decade or two, people would be much
more defensive and stridently deny the existence of 'gaydar,'
and emphasize that gay people are just like straight people,"
says Simon LeVay, a neuroscientist who has published several
books on sexuality. "Well, we're not. There's more to being
gay than who you're sexually attracted to."
- But Niko Besnier, a visiting professor of anthropology at
the University of California at Los Angeles, believes "there
is a real homophobic agenda" underneath Mr. Bailey's pronouncements.
"You cannot judge whether a voice sounds masculine or feminine,"
says Mr. Besnier. "I can sound much more feminine if I start
talking about interior decorating, even if I don't change my
Mr. Besnier says there are all kinds of gay men, from the "feminine,
willowy type to the butch, leather daddy." He was one of
about a dozen gay and transsexual people who showed up at Mr.
Bailey's lecture at UCLA this month. While most of them asked
respectful questions after the professor's talk, some harshly
criticized Mr. Bailey.
The same group persuaded a bookstore in West Hollywood that caters
to gay customers to cancel a reading by Mr. Bailey and stop selling
The Man Who Would Be Queen.
'As Varied as Any Gals'
No one is more outraged by Mr. Bailey's book than transsexual
activists and scholars who believe he has mischaracterized them.
One Web site, tsroadmap.com, posted photos of the professor's
teenage son and daughter, with black bars over their eyes and
sexually explicit captions underneath. "Bailey's book is
one of the most insidiously vicious pieces of 'transphobia' ever
to come out of academia," Andrea James, a transsexual woman,
wrote on the Web site, where she labeled Mr. Bailey's book a
Mr. Bailey says he isn't intimidated by tsroadmap, and he accuses
Ms. James of "throwing a tantrum and calling me and my family
names." (Ms. James recently removed the photographs.)
Lynn Conway, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering and
computer science at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor,
says Mr. Bailey is threatening to overturn 40 years of mainstream
scientific thought that says men who want to become women are
suffering from "gender-identity disorder."
"This book seems like a lurid and reactionary attempt to
strip us of our hard-won female gender and of our social and
legal rights, too, by relabeling us as either homosexual men
or male sexual fetishists," says Ms. Conway. She had a sex-change
operation 35 years ago and describes herself as a "nice
married gal" who lives in rural Michigan with her husband
Charlie, whom she has been with for 15 years.
Ms. Conway and other transsexuals say Mr. Bailey never bothered
to talk to them, even though many learned about his project and
offered their views. Instead, they charge, he focused on the
handful of transsexuals he met in Chicago's gay bars.
"He knows, what, nine gals?" asks Ms. Conway. "I've
known hundreds of post-op women, and they're all over the boat.
There is no generalization. They are as varied as any gals are."
Joan Roughgarden, a professor of biology at Stanford University
who had a sex-change operation in 1998, was so angry about Mr.
Bailey's book that she wrote a letter to the National Academies
Press. "In academia, we've lived on this Noah's ark of inclusion,
and we're sailing along on calm waters when all of the sudden
we hit this big rock, and that rock is a psychologist,"
she said in an interview. Mr. Bailey's research method was simple,
says Ms. Roughgarden. He calls all transsexuals he finds attractive
"homosexual transsexuals," and all the rest "autogynephilic."
Mr. Bailey's work on transsexuals, unlike his scientific research
on gay men, is anecdotal, and his book doesn't cite any figures
to back up his claims. In his defense, he says he "went
every place I could think of that I'd find a decent chance of
finding transsexuals" to talk to and observe. That often
meant gay bars near his home, like the Circuit nightclub.
Mr. Bailey, who bites his cuticles and shifts in his seat during
a dinner one evening with his children and a reporter, seems
more comfortable later on at the Circuit. He mixes easily among
the transsexual women he knows, and buys a round of drinks. Most
of the women are what Mr. Bailey would call "homosexual
transsexuals," and unlike their academic counterparts, they
count Mr. Bailey as their savior.
As a psychologist, he has written letters they needed to get
sex-reassignment surgery, and he has paid attention to them in
ways most people don't.
"Not too many people talk about this, but he's bringing
it into the light," says Veronica, a 31-year-old transsexual
woman from Ecuador who just got married and doesn't want her
last name used. A real-estate agent, she wears her black hair
pulled back in a tight ponytail, and her slight build and smooth
face would never betray her origin as a man.
Anjelica Kieltyka, a 52-year-old transsexual woman, was the "poster
girl" for Mr. Bailey's writings on autogynephilia. At least
on the surface, her appearance matches Mr. Bailey's classification
to a T: her thinning, bleached-blonde hair is tucked up under
a brown tweed beret, and her towering frame and broad shoulders
give her an androgynous look.
- But Ms. Kieltyka says the professor twisted her story to
suit his theory. "I was a male with a sexual-identity disorder,"
not someone who is living out a sexual fantasy, she says.
At midnight a show begins on the dance floor. The place is packed,
and smoke fills the air as the performers sing and dance to Latin
Mr. Bailey and his guests crane their necks to see, putting his
theories to the test by wondering aloud whether the performers'
voices, looks, and movements betray their identity as gay, straight,
When the show ends an hour later, the professor and his friends
head for the dance floor -- where he seems to come alive.
Section: The Faculty
Volume 49, Issue 41, Page A8
Copyright © 2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
- The Chronicle: 6/20/2003: 'Dr. Sex'