B.C. on Gender: Autogynephilia
They say that there are two types of people: those who categorize the world into two group, and those who don't.
I bring this up because the transgender community has always been at the receiving end of categorization by the medical community. It's commonly held that there's two types of TGs: transvestites and transsexuals. And within the category of transsexual, there's two types: MTF and FTM.
And now, the medical community has come up with a new way to categorize. According to Dr. Ray Blanchard of the Gender Identity Clinic of Ontario's Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, within the category of male-to-femal (MTF) transsexuals, there's two types: homosexual transsexuals and autogynephilic transsexuals.
Homosexual transsexuals, Dr. Blanchard argues, are people who are born male and who feel sexual attraction to men. He further suggests that the sexual attraction is a big part of the desire to change sex. (And, yes, I think that the fact that Blanchard describes these people as "homosexual" is evidence that he Just Doesn't Get It).
It gets better. He additionally suggests that autogynephilic transsexuals are people who are born male, and who seek sex reassignment because they are sexually aroused by the idea of being feminized. Basically, he equated it to some kind of fetishism or paraphilia.
There's None So Queer as Folk
Autogynephilia. What are we to think about this idea? Should we embrace the concept? Does it describe our lives, and our motivations, or is it poorly thought-out?
For my part, I have conflicting feelings about the idea. On the one hand, I think that some of the ideas are interesting, and should be talked about, but on the other hand, I have some real problems with the way those ideas have been packaged into a "classification".
First, let's look at the cast of characters in this debate:
Dr. Anne Lawrence
First, I want to clarify my opinion about Dr. Anne Lawrence. Dr. Lawrence has prepared one of the most (if not the most) popular TG web sites on the web. Her pages strive to be factual, and to present information that will help transgendered women understand the medical options available to them.
I am certain that Dr. Lawrence has helped hundreds, or thousands -- or perhaps even tens of thousands -- of transgendered women. And she does this on an entirely volunteer basis. The community owes a great debt to Dr. Lawrence, and I admire her greatly.
I do, however, have great problems with many of the things that she says about autogynephilia.
There's a saying: "When your only tool is a hammer, every problem tends to look like a nail." I mention this because many of my problems with her statements about autogynephilia have to do with some of the medical/scientific justification she uses in her claims.
I hold the rather unpopular opinion that science goes through fashions. I believe that people will dismiss evidence because it doesn't fit a particular scientific theory that just happens to be in vogue. And I think that's what Dr. Lawrence is doing, here.
Dr. Ray Blanchard
Dr. Ray Blanchard, as I mentioned above, is a clinical sexologist at Ontario's Clarke Institute. The Clarke houses one of only two Gender Identity clinics in Canada, and it's not so much famous as infamous.
The Clarke is despised by many Canadian TGs. In fact, I would go so far as to opine that it is despised by the majority of TGs in Ontario. To be fair, I have heard of TGs who tell me that "it's not so bad", and that they were able to get the help that they needed, but those have been the exception rather than the rule.
Further, if you get a bunch of Toronto trannies in a room together, chances are that they'll start talking about what the people at the Clarke want to hear, and what you should and should not say to them.
I'm sure that Dr. Blanchard's intentions are good; I think that he perceives himself as furthering the field of sex research for the benefit of people. But I still question his findings.
Some time ago, while participating on the Transgender Canada Mailing List (TGC-L), a TS friend of mine, whom I'll call "Tracy", was talking about fetishism among transsexuals. In short, she was saying that it was interesting that trannies never really talk about this -- that there's a great silence about the sexual component of changing gender, although many TSs experience some sexual response to the process.
And I agree with her. I think it is odd that this is never discussed. I think it should be discussed more.
Heike Bödeker is a new name for me. And I only know of her from a theoretical (although densly-written) response to Dr. Becky. (It's an odd thing, the Internet. I'm responding to Heike's critique of Dr. Becky's objections to Dr. Lawrence's restatement of Dr. Blanchard. Hmmm...)
Some of her concerns are that:
Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar
Here's the most succinct example of why I am against the theory of autogynephilia: Dr. Lawrence has posted an essay from "a colleague" who considers herself a homosexual transsexual. This essay was written in response to Dr. Becky, and consistently aligns homosexual transsexualism with "realness", and autogynephilic transsexualism with artifice.
Note what this says. It says:
This is the kind of divisive thinking that, well, sickens me. It is the attitude that exemplifies the worst members of our community. I think her meaning is clearest when she says:
She is implying that people who have difficulty passing aren't real women -- they're sexually motivated autogynephiles. And I can't help but wonder if "autogynephelia" is just a new way of talking about an old issue: passing.
I mean, consider the following questions on a "test" to determine whether or not someone is an autogynephilic transsexual or a homosexual transsexual:
So, basically, this test suggests that transsexuals who don't pass must therefore be autogynephilic. Because, hey, isn't it obvious that our ability to pass affects the gender identity formed when we were babies?
If the Clue Phone Rings...
When I read Anne Lawrence's discussions about autogynephilia, I'm inclined to ask a question that might be very basic: what is the evidence? Dr. Lawrence tries to answer this question on her web site. She says that Blanchard's theory is informed by "clinical observations". Basically, the claim here is that of all the transsexuals seen in counseling sessions, two general types of experiences being described.
First up, is it possible that the observations are mistaken? Is it possible that some of the people who, say, attend the Clarke are lying? This is a very interesting question, because, you see, I've sat in countless groups of transsexuals who talk about what the shrinks really want to hear. Basically, if you get a bunch of Toronto-area transsexuals together in a room, they counsel each other about how to lie to the Clarke. What does that do to Blanchard's "clinical observations"?
Secondly, even if all the patients are telling the truth, is it possible that the differences being reported have more to do with the ways people cope with gender dysphoria, rather than nature of the dysphoria itself? Our society does a fairly thorough job of teaching us how to repress the desire to change genders. So if we're doing all that repressing, when might those feelings be let out? Is it possible that those feelings are only allowed when we're engaged in early sexual experimentation ¾ another thing we're supposed to suppress? And might that not cause transsexuals to report a relationship between sexual release and gender-changing "fantasies"?
But wait a minute! Dr. Lawrence says that there are statistics about this:
But why might that be? Here are two possible explanations:
"Nyah, Nyah. I'm Not Listening to You"
I think that when people, especially scientists, want to narrow-mindedly stick with a theory, they tend to ignore evidence that contradicts their theory. Does Dr. Lawrence do that? Well, consider the following questions and answers from her web site:
Do these situations not sound like someone who is choosing to ignore certain facts because they don't fit in with a theory?
Put simply, I have a lot of problems with Anne Lawrence's position on autogynephilia. I think that it's, at best, a wild guess about what's going on in the minds of transsexuals. What's more, I think that categorizing nature of the theory is almost certain to cause huge rifts in an already over-categorized community.
I think that there are some ideas that are worth pursuing, but I really think that the way those ideas are expressed could stand to be rethought.
Copyright © 1999, 2000 by B.C.
Holmes. Last updated February 11th, 2000.
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