The Chronicle of Higher Education
gets the story on J. M. Bailey - aka 'Dr. Sex'!
[see also letter to the editor, August 1, 2003]
"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."
- The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 20, 2003


The Chronicle of Higher Education
June 20, 2003

'Dr. Sex'
A human-sexuality expert creates controversy
with a new book on gay men and transsexuals

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 fetishists.

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.

Academic Nerd

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 not twins.

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 Pleasure.

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 recalls.

'Politically Incorrect'

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 correct.

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 drive.

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."

Gay Femininity

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 voice."

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,, 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 "bigoted treatise."

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 music.

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, or transsexual.

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'

The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated August 1, 2003
To the Editor:
The Chronicle correctly reports that J. Michael Bailey's work on transsexuals is anecdotal and lacks data to back up his assertion that all transsexual women are either homosexual men or male sexual fetishists ("'Dr. Sex,'" June 20).
Bailey's unscientific methodology and his resulting unsubstantiated characterizations pose a threat to transgendered individuals, particularly as his book may be used to influence public policy. ... Bailey studiously ignores contemporary research on the etiology of transsexualism and the formulation of gender identity, and he extinguishes the voices of authentic lives. He vilifies as liars the many transsexuals who describe experiences and motivations for gender transition that are inconsistent with his narrow taxonomy. ...
While Bailey is entitled to his opinion, the danger lies in his book's being deemed credible because of the reputation of its publisher, thus facilitating the incorporation of its uncritical and damaging assertions into the formulation of public policies opposing civil rights and social justice for transgendered individuals.
Barbara P. Nash
Professor of Geology and Geophysics
University of Utah
Salt Lake City

To learn more about this controversy, see the following webpages:

Page by Lynn Conway