The Lambda Literary foundation this week withdrew an award nomination from the author Alice Dreger, for her book Galileo's Middle Finger. While Dreger and her allies are already playing the victim card, the truth is that Dreger, her ideas, and the people she defends are deeply transphobic and inextricably linked with hate groups working to legislate transgender people out of public life.
In Dreger’s book, she defends The Man Who Would Be Queen by J. Michael Bailey. Bailey's 2003 book promotes the pseudo-scientific theory that there is no such thing as transgender people, just self-hating homosexual men who believe they could have guilt-free sex if they were female and heterosexual men with an out-of-control fetish (autogynephilia). This theory has helped paint transgender people as hypersexualized perverts — a smear that has devastating consequences that affect more than just trans people.
In short, Bailey’s book attacks the identities of transgender people, labeling them as delusional, fakes, liars, and sexual deviants.
Bailey’s book was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in 2004, which was subsequently withdrawn when the Lambda Literary Foundation determined the book to be “transphobic and inappropriate.”
Since 2004, right-wing extremists have latched onto this theory and Michael Bailey’s book as a rationale for discriminating against transgender people. It was used in court to justify employment discrimination. It is used by radical religious organizations to demonize transgender people, endorse so-called reparative therapy, and urge that they be denied legal recognition and medical care. It is also used in widely read right-wing media outlets urging conservatives to reject transgender people and fear them as sexual deviants.
Most disturbing is the use of Bailey’s book to justify cultural genocide. Bailey’s book and the theories behind it are the linchpin rationale used by the Family Research Council in its five-point plan to force transgender people to self-deport back to the closet by creating a legal framework that makes transition and living as a transgender person nearly impossible.
Dreger endorses and actively promotes the theories in Bailey’s book. She opposes the affirming model of therapy for transgender youth. She supports psychiatrists who use coercive behavior modification on children to prevent them from growing up to be transgender. She urges transgender people to simply accept or embrace living in a society in which they cannot transition, rather than building a more open and affirming society. Finally, Dreger has also publicly opposed laws banning reparative therapy if they include gender identity.
Dreger uses scare tactics on LGB people to convince them that transgender people and affirming therapists are “forcing” innocent gay and lesbian children into being transgender. Anti-transgender splinter groups from the LGBT commnity use Dreger’s fear-mongering as a rationale for why LGB people should abandon transgender people to their fates.
The FRC cites her in its anti-transgender manifesto, and to date she has registered no objection to her name or the theories she is promoting being used in the FRC’s document attacking the transgender community. Indeed, when conservative, anti-transgender news outlets call on her for a quote supporting the positions of people like Paul McHugh, Dreger is happy to oblige.
Reading through Dreger’s writings, it is hard to find many differences between her positions and those of intensely transphobic sources like The Federalist or hate groups like the FRC. All of them oppose the idea that transgender women are women. They all take the position that gender identity isn’t real, and they deny the lived experiences of transgender people. They all support autogynephilic theory, which is used primarily to label transgender people as sexual deviants. All of them oppose laws against reparative therapy. All of them oppose affirming models of care for transgender youth. All of them have taken the position that transgender people are better off not transitioning and should be encouraged (coerced) to not do so.
The only real difference in Dreger’s positions and those of hate groups is that she argues transgender people should have access to health care. However, given she has argued so strenuously for reparative therapy, that transgender people’s identities are just sexual deviancy, and that transgender people should just learn to accept that society will never accept them if they transition, this support for health care convinces no one. You don’t win debates by agreeing with everything the opposition says right up until the conclusion.
While Dreger and some of her defenders might protest this as the actions of a few radical transgender activists, they’re completely wrong. They also fail to realize it’s not 2004 anymore. Transgender activists were only a part of the vast coalition of friends, allies, organizations, parents, spouses, and family who opposed this nomination. The people who stood up against her were hundreds of parents of transgender children who oppose so-called reparative therapy. It was LGB activists who opposed the barbarity of reparative therapy whether it’s because of sexual orientation or gender identity. It was a half-dozen national LGBT organizations who urged Lambda to take back the nomination.
All of them stood up, and spoke in unison: Dreger is not an ally to transgender people and is doing great harm, and we will not stand for it. Lambda doesn’t owe Dreger an award, the same way NAACP doesn’t owe Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray an award for The Bell Curve.
Which is why Lambda made the right decision. The organization wrote, “The nomination process did not include full vetting of all works to be certain that each work is consistent with the mission of affirming LGBTQ lives.”
Affirming trans lives does not involve putting us in reparative therapy. It does not involve attacking our identities or labeling us as perverts and deviants for hate groups to use against us. It does not involve encouraging therapists to tell people it’s OK that society will never accept you, and it’s better to live like a celibate gay. Affirming trans lives has nothing to do with working to maintain the stigma we suffer. Not does it involve lending your voice to media outlets and groups that wish to see us “morally legislated out of existence.”
Alice Dreger and her writings are the antithesis of affirmation of transgender lives and experiences.
BRYNN TANNEHILL graduated from the Naval Academy in 1997 before serving as a campaign analyst while deployed overseas. She later worked as a senior defense research scientist in private industry; she left the drilling reserves and began transitioning in 2010. Since then, she has written for OutServe, The New Civil Rights Movement, Salon, Everyday Feminism, The Good Men Project, Bilerico, and The Huffington Post.