THE BLOG
08/16/2007 05:43 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Can Professors Say the Truth?

Kaiping Peng, a friend of mine who is a professor at Berkeley, recently said to me that professors have an unusual place in our society: They are expected to tell the truth. Hardly anyone else is, he said. But what happens when they do?

The most impressive professorial truth-telling in my lifetime has been The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism (2003) by Michael Bailey, a professor of psychology at Northwestern. It's mainly about male homosexuals but it also discusses male-to-female transsexuals, not all of whom are homosexual. The "controversy" -- actually defamation campaign -- after its publication is described in an excellent new article by Alice Dreger, another Northwestern faculty member.

The serious truth-telling in the book is in the chapters about transsexuals, in which Bailey brought into public view the ideas of Ray Blanchard, a Toronto researcher. Blanchard had proposed that there are two types of transsexuals: homosexual and autogynephilic -- in other words, that all or almost all transsexuals fall into one of these two categories. I'm going to call them Type 1 (homosexual) and Type 2 (autogynephilic). Both are men who become women or who want to become women; but they are otherwise quite different. There are many surface differences -- so many that it is no surprise that, as Bailey says, the two types almost never mix socially. Type 1 appear far more like other women than Type 2, who sometimes resemble men wearing dresses. As children, Type 1 acted feminine; Type 2 did not. Type 1 often work in occupations full of women, such as beautician and hairstylist; Type 2 usually work in male-dominated professions, such as policeman, truck driver, scientist, engineer, and computer programmer. Type 1 usually start living as a female before age 25; Type 2 usually start much later, after age 40. Type 2 have usually been married (to a woman); Type 1 have not.

Blanchard proposed that these surface differences derive from a difference in motivation. Type 1 transsexuals are sexually attracted to men; changing their sex will help them attract men. (They prefer straight men to homosexual men.) Type 2 transsexuals are sexually aroused by thinking of themselves as a woman; this is why they seek sex-change surgery.

Blanchard's typology, well-known to sex researchers, had not reached the public when Bailey's book was published. "When I have tried to educate journalists who have called me as an expert on transsexualism, they have reacted uncomfortably," wrote Bailey. "One said: "We can't put that in a family newspaper."

I learned about Blanchard's typology of transsexuals from a draft of part of Bailey's book that Bailey had posted on the Web. If correct, it is surely central to understanding male-to-female transsexuals.

I read Bailey's draft a few months after reading Crossing (1999), a memoir by Deidre McCloskey, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Crossing tells the story of McCloskey's change from man to woman. It is an emotionally powerful book, full of longing. According to Crossing and Bailey's draft, McCloskey had at least three features in common with Type 2 transsexuals (worked in male-dominated profession (economist), married, changed sex after age 40). Crossing also describes being sexually aroused by cross-dressing. This appeared consistent with Blanchard's typology -- which Crossing didn't mention. Why not? I felt deceived. I wrote to McCloskey to complain: Shouldn't you have mentioned Blanchard's ideas? Her reply: Do you believe everything you read on the internet?

No, but I believed Blanchard was a serious scientist. I did not know Bailey but he wrote extremely well. The draft I had read was brilliant science journalism. I liked Bailey's own research, too, which was about how gay and straight men differ. Blanchard could be wrong but to discuss transsexualism at book length without mentioning him seemed like writing a book about France without mentioning Paris.

After The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism by Michael Bailey was published, several transsexuals started an extraordinary defamation campaign against Bailey.

The defamation campaign was led by professors. They claimed Blanchard's typology of transsexuals was false, of course, but never clearly explained why. Bailey's crime wasn't that his book spread falsehoods; it was that it spread a truth they didn't want spread.

One of those professors was Deidre McCloskey, the author of Crossing. She wrote an amazing review of Bailey's book. From her review:

Almost everyone in the scientific study of sex and gender has checked and balanced and resisted the Clarke Institute's [Blanchard worked at the Clarke Institute] theory. It has proven to be wrong and has been laid aside by the mainstream of gender researchers.

Who are these "almost everyone"? McCloskey never says. And it's a long review.

Lynn Conway, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Michigan and a member of the National Academy of Engineering, constructed a website called "An investigation into the publication of J. Michael Bailey's book on transsexualism by the National Academies". This big website has little to say about Blanchard's typology other than this, written by Conway:

It is unfalsifiable (note: any trans woman who reports that she doesn't fit the classifications is explained by the "theory" as being a "liar"). Furthermore, the scheme has no predictive capabilities. Thus it is thus untestable.

Well, which is it? "Proven wrong" by "almost everyone" (McCloskey) or "unfalsifiable" and without "predictive capabilities" and "untestable" (Conway)? McCloskey and Conway must have talked many times. This discrepancy in how they attacked Blanchard's theory shows how little they cared about its truth -- or that they knew it was true.

For people engaged in what they called a noble cause (defending transsexuals), McCloskey and Conway showed a remarkable disinclination to tell Dreger what they had done. Dreger tried hard to interview both of them.

McCloskey gave Dreger some brief email answers and then

refused to tell me anything more substantial unless I first proved to her, by showing her what I was writing, that I agreed with her position.

As for Conway, Dreger was unable to reach her at the University of Michigan. Finally she called Conway at home:

We had a phone call that lasted about a minute (August 16, 2006). She surprised me by being extremely hostile at the outset. She also would not answer a question about whether she was willing to speak to me on the record. This confused me -- why would she not just tell me whether or not she wanted to speak on the record. I said as much. She responded that it was very strange that I would call her at home. I told her how many other ways I had tried to reach her with no response before finally calling her home. She then said that I was stalking her and added that she would circulate this fact widely.

Deidre McCloskey and Lynn Conway are both powerful persons. McCloskey is Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication, a title created just for her. In October 2007, she will receive an honorary degree from Goteborg University. Conway is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. McCloskey and Conway abused their power when they attacked Bailey.

As awful as their actions were, even worse is what Northwestern University administrators (led by Provost Lawrence Dumas) did: Let themselves be used as tools in the attack. McCloskey and Conway master-minded the filing of an absurd human-subjects complaint against Bailey -- and Northwestern took it seriously! As Bailey says, it was "obvious to Northwestern officials" what McCloskey and Conway were trying to do (ruin Bailey) and why. It was like the teacher in a playground taking the side of the bully. Except worse, because Bailey could have been fired.

Kudos to Alice Dreger for shining light on a very unsavory episode in American academic history.