October 8, 2015

What Dr. Zhana Vrangalova Taught Me About Transphobia in Science

This is the story about how science can be used to persecute transgender people, and on how some seemingly well-intended LGBT-allies can contribute to transphobia.
Zhana Vrangalova
Photo by Enid Alvarez, New York Daily News

In this post I will give you the story about Dr. Zhana Vrangalova's support for the transphobic autogynephilia theory.

The Vrangalova story is interesting because it is such a clear an example of how scientific theories can be used to recruit even  the most well-meaning helpers to the oppression of trans people.

And yes, in this post I will prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the autogynephilia theory is transphobic.


Those of you who do not know the ins and outs of this stagnant backwater of transgender research, may make note of the following:

1. The auogynephilia/AGP theory, created by Dr. Ray Blanchard of Toronto, says that there is a separate category of trans women who are motivated by a sexual paraphilia (perversion) that drives them towards transitioning.  They are, according to Blanchard, sexually attracted to the idea of themselves as a woman. The word is also used to describe male to female crossdressers and crossdreamers who do not transition.

2. Dr J. Michael Bailey is a supporter of Dr. Blanchard, and the author of The Man Who Would be Queen, a book that popularizes Blanchard's theory, dividing the world of trans women into two: "autogynephile transsexuals" (non-homosexual perverted men, according to Blanchard & Bailey) and homosexual transsexuals (extremely effeminate gay men).

3. Zhana Vrangalova is a sexologist; she has PhD in Developmental Psychology from Cornell and is currently an adjunct professor at the NYU Psychology department.

SIDEBAR This is not a blog post about the scientific value of the autogynephilia theory. This is a post about how it is used to harm MTF crossdreamers and trans women. I have elsewhere documented that  the science is bad, and that it has been thoroughly falsified by other researchers. You will find links to papers and blog posts showing this hereI have also written several blog posts on the scientific defects of the autogynephilia theory.

LGBT-support and autogynephilia do not mix

On June 13 Vrangalova tweeted a link to an interview the religious site Patheos had made with Bailey, adding the statement "There are 2 types of trans women".

I have been following Vrangalova since she often tweets interesting links to all things sexology. She has become an active spokesperson for the polyamorous amongst us. I also knew her as a supporter of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights, so her promoting Bailey in this way surprised me.

After all, the autogynephilia model is considered to be one of the most invalidating and stigmatizing theories around right now. It is routinely used by right wing religious  fundamentalists and left wing trans-exclusionary "radical" feminists to harass and invalidate trans women. It has been dismissed by transgender activists as toxic and unfounded, and has very little support among front line health professionals in the field.

The Vrangalova Dialogue

I responded in accordance with this, hoping I had been mistaken about the dear Doctor's intentions:

Click to enlarge!

Not only did she confirm that she believes the autogynephilia theory is good science. She even pulled the expert-card, rejecting trans activists because they are not scientists. The opinions of those who actually live and breathe as transgender every single day were dismissed by the doctor, simply because they have a vested interest in this conflict.

This is an argument that has been used over and over again by those who support Blanchard and Bailey, so I should not be surprised. But still, for someone who in other contexts show insight into how queer people are marginalized and invalidated by such various forms of suppression, this was more than a little disappointing.

Science is not neutral

The same tactic was once used by racist "eugenics"-researchers who dismissed the civil rights movement, because black people where not scientists and didn't understand the statistics (which at that time "proved" that black people were simple-minded, lazy and over-sexed). 

And yes, there were also those old bearded doctors who in their wisdom concluded that all feminist women were mentally ill, out of touch with their true nature, and suffering from hysteria. Given that women in general were denied higher education, nothing of what they said mattered anyway.

I am not saying that oppressed people are always right. But open-minded, progressive activists like Vrangalova might want to take a deep breath and consider the motives of scientists before playing the science card against non-scientists.

Transgender scientists

Here's the ironic part: If Vrangalova had done her home-work, she would have known that nearly all the main trans activists opposing Blanchard and Bailey have solid  academic backgrounds. 

Let me mention a few: Lynn Conway, professor; Joan Roughgarden, professor;  Deirdre McCloskey, professor; Andrea James, MA; Jaimie Veale, Post Doc; Kelley Winters, Ph.D; Talia Mae Bettcher, Professor.  And yes, I am also trained as a researcher.

Somehow the AGP-supporters have created their own myth about the uneducated trans activists, and is now using that myth to invalidate those that oppose the autogynephilia-theory.

The educational level should not matter, though. We can read, we can write, we have real life experience. That should be enough. Indeed, the great researchers in this field have always listened attentively to the ideas of transgender people. Read the research of Magnus Hirschfeld and Harry Benjamin if you do not believe me.

Is the autogynephilia theory transphobic?

The next line is even more fascinating: "Who wrongly think it [the autogynephilia theory] is transphobic."

Hm. If being being transphobic means that you have to be afraid of trans people to the point of not wanting to shake their hands or something, I guess she is right. I mean, in the same way American slave owners were not racist. After all, they were not afraid to touch their slaves.

We know that both Blanchard and Bailey have met trans women. Blanchard met some at the Clarke Institute in Toronto (now known as CAMH). The only original "research" in Bailey's book The Man Who Would be Queen is based on him meeting a couple of androphilic (man-loving) trans women while Bailey were cruising clubs.
"She was stunning... My avowedly heterosexual male research assistant told me he would gladly have had sex with her, even knowing that Kim still possessed a penis." (p. 182)
"Juanita is a very attractive postoperative transsexual who has worked as a call girl both before and since her operation... she does not feel degraded and guilty about what she does for a living. I suspect that this reflects an aspect of her psychology that has remained male... her ability to enjoy emotionally meaningless sex appears male-typical. In this sense, homosexual transsexuals [he is actually referring to heterosexual trans women] might be especially well suited to prostitution.] (p. 185)
So yes, B&B have met trans women, but it is extremely hard to conclude that their statements about these encounters are not transphobic and stereotyping. They are definitely not based on science.

From homophobia to transphobia

Indeed, Bailey effectively anchors autogynephilia in a scientific tradition that is not only transphobic, it is also homophobic and -- would you believe it! -- connected to ideas fetched from the discredited eugenics/mental hygiene tradition of psychiatry (where sterilization and/or euthanasia often were considered legitimate solutions to unwanted human diversity).

Bailey says that "Homosexuality is evolutionary maladaptive." (p. 116) And since the non-autogynephilic trans women are effeminate homosexual men in his book, I guess that also makes them maladaptive. 

Bailey suggests that aborting gay fetuses should be considered OK, if the parents would not like to have a homosexual child or out of the desire to "spare their children the difficulties of societal intolerance of homosexuality".  (p 114) He has even published a paper defending abortion on the basis of sexual orientation

He does not say anything about aborting "autogynephiles", though, but given that Blanchard thinks that autogynephilia is inborn, I guess that should be possible too, in the Brave New World of B&B.

Yes, I do know that James Cantor, B&B friend and AGP supporter is gay. I have seen the argument that  Blanchard himself is gay. But being gay has never stopped men from being homophobic, in the sense of supporting an ideology that invalidates gay people. My guess is that the main driving force here is the traditional contempt for femininity in men. What Bailey wants to avoid is the burden of being a feminine man or having a feminine son.

Is Bailey supporting homophobic attitudes? Definitely! 

Sissies throwing like girls

Blanchard argues that he only wants to help autogynehphilic trans women, but he insists on calling them men, which is not helping at all, and extremely invalidating. 

Motherboard asked him once in an interview: "Do you think that classifying transgender people as having a disorder does contribute to stigma against the trans community?"

"No. I mean how many people who make a joke about trannies consult the DSM [psychiatric manual] first?"
Toxic language aside, it is amazing that Blanchard cannot see that having health personnel calling transgender patients sexual perverts (as defined by the DSM manual) is contributing to stigma against the trans community.

In the same interview he goes on to argue that calling someone a sissy is OK:
"I mean, what are you going to do? Nobody says you throw a ball like a cross-gender identified boy."
These comments clearly show that Blanchard not only despises femininity in boys. I find it hard to believe that his contempt for trans women does not in any way influence the way he does research.

Trans people turned into specimens

Blanchard is deeply embedded in what I have called the binary, pathologizing, tradition of transgender research. For Blanchard "normal" sexuality is all about reproduction. On this basis he meticulously makes up new pesudo-greek words for sexual fantasies that do not fit his narrow view of a normal heterosexual intercourse ("gynandromorphophilia" and "teleiophilia" anyone?) That might have been acceptable in the 1890s, but in 2015? Come on!

I sense no empathy, no real wish to help and understand here, only this obsessive desire to put people into boxes. To Blanchard, "autogynephiliacs" are exotic specimens in his collection of human perversions. 

When Motherboard asked him:  "So, in your point of view, science rules. Scientific inquiry is the first priority, whatever it might mean for social justice?", Blanchard answered: "If you put it in abstract terms, it makes me sound vaguely lunatic."

No, not lunatic -- I do not think Blanchard is insane -- but he is suffering from a severe empathy deficiency and from what can be described as a severe "ethical target location error".

By the way, in the same interview, Blanchard also argues homosexuality should be considered a mental illness.

SIDEBAR: Read the amazing story about how Ray  Blanchard's definition of paraphilia  ended up making his own personal preferences and prejudices the basis for who are going to be labelled sexual perverts in America.

Bailey's love for AGP

Bailey pretends he has a heart for "the autogynephiliacs", that is true; he says so even in the interview linked to by Vrangalova. 

Imogen Binnie describes the true nature of J. Michael Bailey
in her book Nevada. Click to enlarge!
He argues that “Autogynephilia is nothing to be ashamed of,” and  that people who admit and deal with their autogynephilia are even admirable. This admiration requires, however, that the "autogynephiliac" admits that he or she is motivated by a male sexuality, and that the experience of having a female identity is an illusion. 

Bailey reminds me of the kind of right wing Christians who feign admiration for gay men who stay celibate. "We love you, brother, as long as you do not behave like a gay man!"

But hey, Blanchard and Bailey are not calling all "autogynephiliacs" mentally ill, are they? There is a difference between "paraphilia" and "paraphilic disorder", they say, and only those suffering from a "paraphilic disorder" are mentally ill. 
Ray Blanchard has reduced the complexity of 
sex and gender to one single dimension:
homosexual vs. non-homosexual.
According to the AGP-supporters
anyone who deputes this
simplistic approach is either deluded 
or lying.
Photo from twitter.

I am not so sure the trans-haters out there will appreciate and respect the difference. That doesn't matter, however, because all who are impaired or distressed by their gender dysphoria are disordered according to this schema, Caitlyn Jenner and me included.

In other words: Only those who threaten the traditional binary gender system and the traditional white, Western, middle class ideals of normal sex are mentally ill. The rest are still paraphilic, mind you, but not mentally ill.  

Thank Blanchard for small favors!

Allowing surgery

Some have told me that Blanchard and Bailey are friends of trans women, because they will allow "autogynephiles" to get hormone therapy and bottom surgery. 

This seems to be Vrangalova's point as well:

Click on image to read

I can't possibly be the only one to find this utterly bizarre. 

If Blanchard and Bailey were right in that bisexual and woman-loving trans women are mentally ill (which they are not), it would be unethical and dangerous for the health system to give in to such "delusions". Not only because the patient would be living a lie, but because the same health system would make their new lives living hell by telling the whole world that they are sexually perverted men. 

Does Bailey really think it will help Caitlyn Jenner that he denies her sense of self and reduces her female identity to a man's "erotic target location error"? Does Bailey really think we will be able to reduce the insane number of trans women being murdered each year, by arming the sexist bastards out there with these cultural A-bombs?

And isn't it interesting that neither Blanchard nor Bailey have spent any time on finding ways of helping crossdreamers and trans women?  Nope, instead they have wasted gallons of digital ink on explaining why all trans women are sexual deviants. 

"Autogynephilia is a fact"

I have lost count of how many times I have heard that autogynephilia is a fact, because many MTF trans people get aroused imagining themselves as their target sex. 

This is not the issue. Most transgender activist recognize the existence of such fantasies. Trans researcher Jaimie Veale calls this "cross-gender arousal". Julia Serano has suggested the terms "female/feminine embodiment fantasies" or "male/masculine embodiment fantasies". This blog is devoted to what I have called "crossdreaming", which means the same thing.

Calling MTF trans people autogynephilic, however, is both unethical and transphobic because the word autogynephilia refers not only to the phenomenon of crossdreaming, it refers to the explanation given by Blanchard and Bailey. The word itself means "love of oneself as a woman", which is based to the mistaken idea that this is a "erotic target location error", and therefore a paraphilia and a mental illness.

No doubt Vrangalova, with her PhD in sexology, knows this. 

The autogynephilia theory reflects extreme transphobia

Oxford Dictionary defines transphobia "Intense dislike of or prejudice against transsexual or transgender people". Macmillan simply refers to it as "prejudice towards or unfair treatment of transgender people". The autogynephilia theory is all about contempt, prejudice and unfair treatment of trans people.

The title and the cover
of Bailey's book does not hide
the author's contempt
for transgender women.
It is also absolutely clear that it leads to internalized transphobia, defined by WPATH as "Discomfort with one’s own transgender feelings or identity as a result of internalizing society’s normative gender expectations."

Having your sense of self reduced to a sexual perversion can be devastating. I have lost count of the number of crossdreamers and trans women who have told me they have been close to suicide because of this diagnosis.

How many who have actually killed themselves because of this, I do not know. Given the anonymous nature of many such interactions, I have no way of knowing what caused so many of my online crossdreamer acquaintances to fall off the grid.

The Bailey - Vrangalova connection
Vrangalova has not written anything about autogynephilia, to my knowledge. So why this need to defend the transphobia of Bailey and Blanchard? 

One contact in the transgender community pointed me in the direction of Gerulf Rieger, a student of Bailey's. Rieger gained some fame years ago, denying the existence of real bisexuals.  Vrangalova and Rieger have published together, so my guess is that she has gotten the Blanchard/Bailey narrative from him.

I hope so, because that gives her a chance to retract her statement, telling the world that she has been mislead. This would also be embarrassing for her, but less so than being known as a Blanchard-supporter in the LGBT-community.

To paraphrase J. Michael Bailey:

"There is no way to say this as sensitively as I would prefer, so I will just go ahead:"

There is no doubt that both Blanchard and Bailey present sexist and transphobic attitudes. The autogynephilia theory is clearly transphobic. Anyone who supports this theory contributes to the continuing persecution and harassment of transgender people. Anyone who does so is therefore not a friend of the LGBT community.

Selected reading:

Ask a sex researcher (Dr. Zhana Vrangalova on Slutever)
Kelley Winters: Gender Madness in American Psychiatry
Lynn Conway: "CAMH battles notorious reputation of Zucker’s and Blanchard’s gender clinics with scathing report"  (Blanchard's transphobic treatment of transgender patients at the CAMH clinic cost him his job. This report explains why. Original report available as PDF here.)


There can be no doubt that the autogynephilia theory and Blanchard and Bailey's research are in violation of fundamental ethical principles  of both science and patient care.

Discuss crossdreamer and transgender issues!