The Globe and Mail – Toronto, Canada

October 20, 2007


Free to be she - or he

By Deirdre McCloskey


Perhaps you’ve thought about changing gender.


I don’t mean you’ve thought about doing it yourself.  Good Lord, no.  We who have thought that way are only 1 in 500 of the born males, roughly the same of born females.  Most people, even people who have complaints about how society makes women or men behave, settle their gender choices about age 2.  Probably you have thought about the matter merely in the sense of catching half of the sweet movie “TransAmerica” on your cable, or watching for a few minutes one of the gender-crossing shows that Oprah does with her girl-friendly grace every year or so.  Probably your thinking hasn’t gone much beyond “Gosh: strange.”


One book that you can use to think about gender crossing is Kate Bornstein’s classic, Gender Outlaw (1994).  Kate, who after being girly for a while has finally come to rest comfortably outside the dualism of gender, has an amusing follow-on, My Own Gender Workbook (1998).  She writes most entertainingly, but the message of gender freedom is dead serious.  Another beautifully writing and edgy Kate, Katherine Cummings, wrote in 1993 Katherine’s Diary, a frank, tough-minded, but loving memoir of an Australian naval officer and librarian who began, as some do, as a crossdresser and father and needed, as very few do, to go further.  And if you are a caregiver of any sort---a teacher or a nurse or a social worker---I recommend Randi Ettner’s Gender Loving Care (1999).  Ettner has treated hundreds of gender crossers, and knows what she’s talking about.  That’s not something one could say, for example, about the authors of the “gender dysphoria” (Greek for “gender discomfort”) section in the standard Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which your psychiatrist will reach for if you should get a notion to change.


The story you’ll learn from the good books is not, as people always think, that a MtF (“male to female”: see, you’re learning already) is “a woman trapped in a man’s body.” 


What you’ll learn instead is freedom.  That’s all.  You were once a child.  Without knowing exactly what it was like to be an adult, you knew you wanted to be one, and freely became one.  It wouldn’t make much sense to say you were “an adult trapped in a child’s body.”  Though some kids are a bit like that.  You were once a first-year university student.   With grit and free choice you’ve now become a businesswoman.  You weren’t a businesswoman in a first-year’s body.  You were a free Canadian citizen.


A guy wants to go to Venice on holiday.  Feel free.  That’s similar to crossdressing, like what my friend Michael Gilbert, a brilliant professor of philosophy at York University does from time to time, quite openly (Michael and I don’t like closets).  But one in 500 men, say, wants to go to Venice. . . and become Venetian.  That’s like MtF gender crossing.  No one would say the new Venetian was trapped in a Upper Canadian body.  He chooses, freely.


But hold on.  Suppose you don’t want to think about gender crossing, or to understand it to the extent that any free choice is “understandable.”  Suppose instead you want to reinforce the prejudices about gays, women, bisexuals, drag queens, and gender crossers you acquired in the locker room age 16. 


In that case, do not read these books.   Really, don’t bother.  They will just annoy and confuse you.  Go on line instead and read Michael Bailey’s The Man Who Would Be Queen.  Bailey says for example that most gay men lisp.  And that young gender crossers become prostitutes.  And that women are hardly sexual at all.  Hey, cool.


Bailey’s book has a Toronto connection.  He gets his theories---his own scientific contribution was to cruise the drag bars of Chicago for a sample of six Hispanic drag queens---from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health over on College Street.  The Centre harbors a tiny group of psychiatrists and psychologists who are against people choosing to become what they want.  They claim, against most psychologists who have thought seriously about gender crossing, such as Ettner, and against the experience of gender crossers like Bornstein and Cummings and me, that gender crossing is about sex, sex, sex.  Men do it for pleasure.  (Lord knows what FtMs do.)  They’re like pedophiles.  They should be stopped.  At the Centre, vee have vays.


A few weeks ago your own columnist Margaret Wente looked at Bailey’s book on line, and found it good.  “In other ways [gender crossers] aren’t womanly at all,” wrote Wente out of a close study of Bailey and locker rooms.  For example, “they aren’t interested in babies and children.”  Lisping, sex, sex, sex.  Simple.  So let’s see.  Born women who aren’t interested in babies and children are less womanly than am I, who was a man until age 53---since I am in fact extremely interested. 


So?  Why should you read Bornstein and Ettner and Cummings, but take a pass on Bailey?  Two reasons.  Bailey’s book is drag science, not real.  And locker-room sexology is dangerous.  The sex, sex, sex theory of the locker room and Bailey and Ms. Wente kill queers.


And it does a lot of lesser damage.  My son, for example, thinking my free choice was about sex, sex, sex, won’t let me see the babies whom in my vulnerable, womanly way I am most interested in, my two grandchildren.   Lovely.


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