»  National Review

June 30, 2003

  Lost in the Male

The Man Who Would Be Queen
by Michael Bailey


Sexual eccentricity raises difficult philosophical issues for conservatives. On the one hand we have a core belief in the individual and his privacy. Since no form of activity is more private than sex, our instinct is to let people follow their inclinations, within obvious legal constraints against, for example, the corruption of minors. Further, we all have friends whom we know to be, or suspect of being, sexually odd in one way or another, and we do not want to say or write things that would hurt their feelings. On the other hand, conservatives remember what much of the rest of society has forgotten: that even the most private of acts can have dire public consequences, as witness the epidemic of bastardy that has ravaged the lower classes this past forty years, and also of course the AIDS plague, spread in the U.S. mainly by promiscuous homosexual buggery. Religion, to which most non-Randian conservatives are at least well-disposed, adds another complicating factor, since the sacred texts of all three big Western monotheistic faiths proscribe homosexuality in unambiguous terms.

These matters are therefore at the very crux of conservative thinking as it has developed in this country across the past half-century. In order to tackle them, it is helpful to have as much actual understanding of them as we can acquire. Michael Bailey's new book is a very useful addition to that understanding. The Man Who Would Be Queen has a narrow and well-defined scope: it is about feminine men. The author has also done research on masculine women, but decided, he tells us in his preface, that: "Masculine females deserve their own book." He has further restricted his scope by presenting only the psychological point of view, mostly ignoring the sociological. This is entirely understandable, as Bailey is a psychologist — to be exact, he is Associate Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University. Within these chosen and declared boundaries, his book offers a wealth of fascinating information, carefully gathered by (it seems to me) a conscientious and trustworthy scientific observer.

The book is in three parts. The first deals with "gender identity" in infants and young boys, the second with male homosexuals, and the third with male transsexuals. These three topics are bound together by the search for answers to common questions: How do we know what sex we are? Why is it that our conviction in this regard is sometimes at odds with our physical bodies? How, in such cases, do we act on our conviction?

Part 1 of the book, subtitled "The Boy Who Would Be Princess," drives a stake through the heart of the "nurturist" theory of gender identity. How did I acquire my knowledge that I am a man? The nurturist would answer: "By indoctrination during childhood." Bailey refutes this both with statistics and with striking individual case studies. The most moving of the latter concerns a male baby whose lower parts were so deformed — the condition is called "cloacal exstrophy" — that he was surgically changed to a female soon after birth, given a girl's name, and raised as a girl. It didn't work. The boy knew he was male, and at age seven dropped the female name and role.

A few days later Jason said: "The day I became a boy was the happiest day of my life." He has said that many times since. He is the best player on his junior high school basketball team, and he has a girlfriend.

Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret. All the phenomena Bailey writes about seem to be congenital, not learned. "Congenital" is not the same as "genetic," of course. Events at the fetal stage of development are believed to play some part. For example: on average, homosexual men have more older brothers than heterosexuals. It seems likely that this is caused in some way by the mother's immune system reacting to a succession of male fetuses.

Yet family-tree and identical-twin studies strongly suggest that there is a genetic component too. This presents a major puzzle for biologists, since it is hard to see how genes predisposing against ordinary reproductive roles could persist against the competitive pressures of natural selection. A number of ingenious theories, with names like "the kind gay uncle hypothesis," have been proposed to explain the survival of such genes. None of them is very convincing, though, and Bailey easily slaps them down, leaving us with what he calls "an evolutionary mystery."

Bailey's researches into male homosexuality have yielded many interesting findings. He has discovered, for example, by carefully-controlled experiments, that there certainly is such a thing as a "homosexual voice." Volunteer listeners were able to distinguish male homosexuals by their voices alone at levels far above random chance. This finding, though indisputable, is one of the few that have not yet been convincingly fitted into the large general truth about homosexual men, which is, that they carry a mix of feminine and masculine traits. They are feminine in their career and entertainment preferences, in their desire for masculinity in their partners, and in a preference for the receptive role in sexual intercourse. (That last one creates obvious imbalances in their social lives, though Bailey says that the "1,000 bottoms looking for a top" complaint frequently heard at homosexual bars is an exaggeration.) On the other hand they are typically masculine in wanting younger partners, in their strong emphasis on physical attractiveness in partners, in indifference to babies, and in their acceptance of casual promiscuity.

The third part of the book is the most difficult because it deals with the aspect of male effeminacy that is hardest for the reader to understand. Also the rarest: Bailey says that less than one man in 12,000 is transsexual, a condition defined simply by "the desire to become a member of the opposite sex," whether or not that desire has led to actual surgery. The striking finding here is that there are two quite distinct types of men who wish they were women, distinguished by the choice of erotic object. On the one hand there are "homosexual transsexuals," who desire masculine men  — heterosexual men, for preference — and who dress and behave like women to attract them. And then there is the "autogynephilic transsexual," a man whose erotic attention is fixed on the idea of himself as a woman.

The strangeness of this latter type is captured nicely by the title of Bailey's chapter on them: "Men Trapped in Men's Bodies." An autogynephile is essentially a heterosexual man whose object of desire is an imaginary feminine creature which happens to be himself … or herself, depending on how you look at it. Such a person was usually not effeminate as a child, has likely been married, and does not show typically homosexual preferences in career or entertainment choices. The historian and travel writer Jan (formerly James) Morris, to judge from her autobiographical book Conundrum, belongs to this category. The consummation of sexual desire presents obvious difficulties for the autogynephile. Indeed, it is occasionally fatal: around 100 American men die every year from "autoerotic asphyxia," which seems to arise from a conjunction of masochism and autogynephilia — the two conditions are related in some way not well understood.

All of these types  — girlish boys, male homosexuals, transsexuals of both styles — are of course human beings, who, like the rest of us, must play the best game they can with the cards Nature has dealt them. No decent person would wish to inflict on them any more unhappiness than their mismatched bodies and psyches have already burdened them with. At the same time, there is circumstantial evidence that complete acceptance and equality for all sexual orientations may have antisocial consequences, so that the obloquy aimed at sexual variance by every society prior to our own may have had some stronger foundation than mere blind prejudice. Male homosexuality, in particular, seems to possess some quality of being intrinsically subversive when let loose in long-established institutions, especially male-dominated ones. The courts of at least two English kings offer support to this thesis, as does the postwar British Secret Service, and more recently the Roman Catholic priesthood. I should like to see some adventurous sociologist research these outward aspects with as much diligence and humanity as Michael Bailey has applied to his study of the inward ones.