The Blog I Write in Fear

I write this particular blog entry in fear.

A few days ago I was dismayed to discover that transgender activist Andrea James has been invited to speak at Northwestern University, where I work. Although Ms. James and I appear to be on the same page in terms of believing in the rights of transgender children and adults, her methods are repulsive to me.

Ms. James was one of many transgender women who were deeply offended by Michael Bailey’s 2003 book, The Man Who Would Be Queen. But Ms. James was notable for the way she decided to go after Bailey’s children to extract revenge. She posted on the internet photographs of Bailey’s daughter and labeled her a “cock-starved exhibitionist.” James also claimed in her online publications that there “are two types of children in the Bailey household,” namely “those who have been sodomized by their father [and] those who have not.”

Even though Ms. James’s actions were not directed at me, as a scholar who works on sex and politics, I found myself deeply intimidated by Ms. James’s actions. Because of Ms. James’s behavior, I became afraid of the ways in which I might be putting my own family at risk by the work I do advocating for intersex rights.

This was especially ironic since Ms. James’s colleagues—transgender activists whom I knew through my intersex work—actually wanted me to help them critique Dr. Bailey’s work. But I became afraid enough of opening myself to this kind of attack (which I risk all the time from the right) that Ms. James was effectively working to silence me, too.

I know Ms. James claims that she is simply doing what she has to do to be an effective defender of children and an advocate for sexual minorities. Well, I have been a strong defender of children and an advocate for sexual minorities, and I have no patience for her techniques. They are brutalizing and ineffective, and indeed backfire. She lost a lot of potential supporters (like me) with her idiotic methods.

By allowing her to speak on our campus, her student hosts are essentially saying that her tactics—of intimidating others, including by attacking their families—represent an appropriate political or scholarly reaction. I strongly disagree.

I want to make clear I am not saying Ms. James does not have the right to speak. What I am saying is that I don’t think we should be putting our university’s good name near her. I would feel the same way were someone to be interested in, say, inviting a neo-Nazi to speak on campus. I would defend that person’s right to speak but I certainly wouldn’t enable or support their speech.

When I raised this objection to a Northwestern colleague whose department I mistakenly thought was co-sponsoring Ms. James’s visit, he responded “I support Northwestern students in gathering knowledge about sex and sexuality from many points of view.”

My answer to him was this:

“I support students critically gathering knowledge about sex and sexuality. I hardly think there is any point in hearing from folks like Fred Phelps, nor do I think it makes any sense to invite Andrea James. It seems to me the method matters as much as the message, and there are some people whose methods we simply should not support.

“It’s clear from looking at Ms. James’s productions that she is much more invested in self promotion than her alleged cause [the most repetitive lament in her work is that Bailey didn’t consult or cite her] and I wish the students [inviting Ms. James] could see that and realize there are far better choices [see the end of this post] if they want to hear from a leading transgender advocate. As a sex/gender scholar, and as a person who has for years advocated for the rights of transgender children and adults, I’m quite disappointed to see someone who has viciously intimidated scholars and so harmed the cause of transgender rights being welcomed.”

After working nine years as a leader in the Intersex Society of North America, I can say from experience there are much more ethical and effective alternatives to Ms. James’s methods. One of the reasons I stuck with ISNA was because its founder, Cheryl Chase, shared with me high standards of scholarship and activism. In the long run, this is the way to win your cause. Ms. James and all those who choose to associate with her have obviously not learned this.

I suppose now I risk the wrath of Andrea James, a woman who seems unable to control herself when challenged. Ah well, maybe getting attacked by the right and the alleged-left will leave me in a moment of zen. I just hope she keeps her words off my kid. (Defender of children, my ass.)

P.S. Several readers have asked me who I would recommend if they were interested in inviting a transgender activist/advocate to their campus to speak. Lots of great folks spring to mind, but let me here recommend four: (1) historian and filmmaker Susan Stryker, Ph.D. whose documentary, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteriarecently won an Emmy; (2) Marcus de Maria Arana, Discrimination Investigator and Mediator for the San Francisco Human Rights Commission (SFHRC); Marcus has provided LBGT issues training for police departments, has worked to support Native American Two-Spirit people like himself, and was the chief author of the SFHRC’s report on the medical “normalization” of intersex people; (3) clinician and scholar Anne Lawrence, M.D., Ph.D. whose work has focused on improving healthcare for transgender women like herself; (4) Jamison Green, writer/speaker/activist extraordinaire.

A follow-up on my encounter with Andrea James

June 7, 2006

I write to report what I’ve learned from my encounter with transgender activist Andrea James which began about a month ago with my objecting to her being invited to speak at my university. I’ll focus here particularly on what I’ve learned about censorship, self-censorship, and autogynephilia.

On May 13, I posted a blog on my personal website objecting to the invitation of Ms. James to Northwestern University, where I work. (See above.) My major objection to Ms. James being invited concerned her abuse of Michael Bailey’s children in her campaign against his work. In response to my blog, I heard from many transgender people and sex/gender scholars some of whom are also transgender.

I also heard from Ms. James herself who unfortunately lived down to my expectations by sending me obnoxious emails including threats. Some people have asked me whether these were really threats. Let me say they were threatening enough that I sent the mail on to my dean, who sent it on to university counsel, who asked me to let the police know about our concerns. I am not bothering to post what she wrote since I see no point in spreading what amounts to rhetorical toxins. Let me just say that her choice of the admonition “Bad move, mommy” suggested she is still interested in dragging people’s children (including now my own) into her intimidation tactics. Her further reference to my five-year-old son as my “precious womb turd” also suggested that she is astonishingly juvenile.

From talking with other people who have contacted me these last few weeks, I have learned that Ms. James has helped a number of transgender women over the years by teaching skills and pride. I learned this not directly from those she has helped, but rather from fellow critics of Ms. James who made a point of emphasizing this to me. She has also, however, harmed some transgender women. This has happened both directly and indirectly: directly by intimidating and sometimes outright silencing (by removing from internet discussions) transgender women who disagree with her; and indirectly by her venomous attacks on people like Michael Bailey, Anne Lawrence, Ray Blanchard, and lately myself, which have led some people to erroneously conclude that this behavior is somehow representative of transgender women. (I have quickly corrected this idea anywhere I’ve encountered it.)

I have also learned that some of the transgender women who disagree with Ms. James accept the theories set forth by Bailey, Blanchard, and Lawrence and see themselves as “homosexual transsexuals” or “autogynephilic transsexuals.” They find that these theories and labels fit their experiences and self-identities. But Andrea James doesn’t want to hear about their experiences or self-identities. This is strange at best and ironic at worst, since in 1998 Ms. James sent Anne Lawrence an email in which she praised Lawrence’s paper on autogynephilia as “excellent” and said she “found many of [Blanchard’s] observations to be quite valid, even brilliant.” Further, while she said she didn’t agree with all of Blanchard’s theories, she agreed enough with the idea of autogynephilia to tell Lawrence “your paper backs up my own experiences….I readily admit to my own autogynephilia.”

Ms. James is, of course, entitled to change the way she thinks about herself. Indeed, she told me in an email that she no longer thinks of herself the way she did when she wrote that email to Lawrence in 1998. Fine. But what is problematic is her profound unwillingness to let other transgender women describe themselves as they wish without being harassed, intimidated, and abused.

Universally the people who wrote to me about Ms. James asked me not to use their names publicly. This demonstrates, I am sorry to report, that Ms. James’s methods of intimidation are effective. Indeed, she has effectively censored people to the point of causing them to engage in self-censorship. After my experience with her, I understand their choice; nevertheless, I find this depressing and frustrating because I think it sets back both transgender rights and sex research. Mostly I am disappointed that so many people—whether they be transgender people, sex researchers, or both—do not think it is safe to speak publicly about who they really are and what they really think.

Alice Dreger

[For a free copy of the article that came out of my subsequent examination of the Bailey book controversy, click here.]