Monthly Archives: August 2012

Autogynephilia: On the “Shelf of Shame”

Years ago, I was in the “lesbian and gay nonfiction” section of a used bookstore, and I stumbled upon a book titled The Man Who Would Be Queen. Written by J. Michael Bailey, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, the title and the cover art of this book were intriguing – and a bit unsettling. I bought the book, and the word “autogynephilia” came into my life. And so we revisit our discussion of the DSM, which many of you may remember from a few weeks ago.

The DSM-IV includes a diagnosis called “Transvestic Fetishism,” which applies to heterosexual men who cross-dress for sexual gratification. In DSM-V, this will be changed to “Transvestic Disorder” (which, by the way, is categorized as a “paraphilia” – an aberrant sexual behavior), and it includes several notable changes. For one thing, the DSM-V version is no longer specific to heterosexual men – it’s now more of an equal-0pportunity diagnosis, applicable to people regardless of gender and sexual orientation. What’s more interesting to me than the fact that the diagnosis now casts a wider net, however, is that the DSM-V “Transvestic Disorder” diagnosis now also includes three potential specifiers:

  • with Fetishism (sexually aroused by fabrics, materials, or garments);
  • with Autogynephilia (sexually aroused by thought or image of self as female); and
  • with Autoandrophilia (sexually aroused by thought or image of self as male).

Most people are familiar with the concept of fetishism, although there’s considerable debate as to whether or not this is an abnormal behavior. But “autogynephilia” and “autoandrophilia” are unfamiliar terms to most people – although to many transpeople they are quite familiar, and quite disturbing. And the fact that they are soon to be included in the DSM sets off serious alarm bells for the trans community. For the purposes of our discussion, we’ll focus more on autogynephilia – largely because that concept has been more widely researched and debated.

Autogynephilia is a term popularized by Ray Blanchard, a Toronto researcher who has proposed the “two-type” model of male-to-female transsexualism. These two types are, according to Blanchard:

  1. the “homosexual transsexual,” who is effeminate, usually identifies as gay, transitions earlier rather than later and passes well; and identifies with the “I’m a woman born in a man’s body” narrative; and
  2. the “autogynephilic transsexual,” who tends to identify as a heterosexual male, is traditionally (and often excessively) masculine, and tends to transition later in life. The autogynephilic transsexual, according to Blanchard, isn’t motivated to transition because he was “born in the wrong body;” rather, he’s sexually aroused by the idea of having a vulva, and this motivates sex reassignment surgery.

Autogynephilia, not surprisingly, is a VERY controversial idea – there’s divisiveness about it in the academic world as well as in the trans community. About a third of the discussion in The Man Who Would Be Queen (which one trans activist included on her “Shelf of Shame”) is devoted to autogynephilia. There’s a decent amount of research behind it – much of which is documented in Bailey’s book – but most of the studies come from Blanchard and his colleagues. Not surprisingly, many transpeople are strongly opposed to this typology, arguing that the chosen terminology is offensive, and that the theory dehumanizes them and reduces their identity to a bizarre sexual fetish. The debate has gotten very, very ugly – if you want the full story, complete with lurid details, you can peruse Lynn Conway’s site at, and then take a look at Michael Bailey’s website at (My book Backdrop has a summary of this controversy as well.)

Is autogynephilia an idea concocted by ignorant, transphobic researchers? Is it a valid phenomenon that transpeople are afraid to talk about, because they don’t want to be seen as freaks? I think it’s entirely possible that autogynephilia is a true phenomenon – among some transpeople and, if you read Charles Moser’s research, in natal women as well. I also understand why transpeople are upset, and why they consider the theory and the terminology to be offensive and oppressive. I will, however, say this:

1.  If it’s not a widely accepted phenomenon, it probably shouldn’t go in the DSM.

That should probably go without saying, right?  But Ray Blanchard, along with several of his colleagues, sits on the DSM-V Working Group for Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders. Of course, numerous members of the trans community argue that the deck is stacked unfairly in this Working Group – and that’s an important point of consideration. Moreover, it’s important to note that naming the phenomenon isn’t necessarily problematic – in fact, some people who are autogynephilic may experience relief at knowing there’s a name for their desires. But including it in a diagnostic manual brings the “naming” process to an entirely different level.

Here’s my second thought:

2.  If autogynephilia does exist, it’s probably more closely related to sexual orientation than to gender dysphoria.

It’s common to see autogynephilia (and other “paraphilias”) referred to as “erotic target location errors.” To some researchers, homosexuality is considered to be an “erotic target location error.” Language is powerful – once you call something an “error,” the logical assumption is that it needs to be corrected. And if that’s the case, we’re looking at some form of reparative therapy – which LGBTQ activists have been fighting long and hard to eliminate.

Related to this idea is my final concern:

3.  If we’re going to include a diagnosis in the DSM, we need to consider what ramifications its inclusion will have.

And what might some of those ramifications be?

  • Including autogynephilia in the DSM legitimizes it – even if it hasn’t been fully vetted by the research community. The DSM is a very powerful document that carries an incredible amount of weight, and every change needs to be considered with that in mind.
  • Including autogynephilia creates one more thing that transpeople – one of the most oppressed groups in the LGBTQ community – can potentially be diagnosed with, marginalizing them even further.
  • People diagnosed with autogynephilia might be prescribed some form of reparative therapy to “correct” their “erotic target location error.”
  • If autogynephilia is included in the DSM, it will likely become part of the decision tree that gender clinics use to determine whether an individual is a candidate for sex reassignment surgery. I can imagine a flow chart with a series of if-then statements:

“If ‘Gender Dysphoria,’ then ‘Yes.”

“If ‘Transvestic Disorder with Autogynephilia,’ then ‘No.'” 

A decision tree based on a tenuous concept, at best. No wonder the trans community is so enraged about this DSM revision.


August 26, 2012 · 8:00 AM

Think before you speak

The LGBTQ community has a wide breadth of diversity, which is something that we tend to pride ourselves on. Our rainbow flag – the iconic emblem of our community – symbolizes that diversity in its spectrum of colors. But the racism that accompanies that diversity – and that is a systemic part of the LGBTQ community – exists on the flip side of diversity. It’s like the dirty little secret that we don’t want to talk about, or deny that it even exists. “Just because I don’t want to date [insert racial/ethnic group] doesn’t mean I’m racist,” isn’t an uncommon statement. Or “Just because I ONLY want to date [insert racial/ethnic group] doesn’t mean I’m racist.” That dirty little secret is what I’d like to talk about this week.

Take a look at the dating profiles of gay men on online dating sites, and you’ll see all kinds of exclusionary criteria, like:



“NO POZ” (meaning “no HIV-positive”).

Or you might see:


Or you might see some more, shall we say, colorful – and disturbing – language used. What’s particularly striking to me is how brazenly this language is tossed around, without concern for political correctness or potential offensiveness. This coming from a community that’s no stranger to oppression.

Years ago, I was part of a panel of judges at a psychology graduate student research conference. In one particular study I was asked to judge, the student was studying the relationship dynamics between “rice queens”  – White gay men who only date Asian men – and their Asian-American lovers. While I would never throw that term around, I use it deliberately in this context – because this student, who was a gay White male, used that term repeatedly throughout his presentation – AND he used it in the manuscript he’d submitted to a well-regarded academic journal. It didn’t once cross his mind that this term might be objectifying and perjorative; in fact, when I raised that issue in my critique of his presentation, it was clear, based on his facial expression, that he’d never been given that feedback before.

Rice queens, bean (or taco, or salsa) queens, hummus queens, chocolate queens – believe me, there’s many more contemptous terms where that came from. Not that slang in and of itself is necessarily a bad thing. Historically, gay slang has functioned as a secret code, allowing gay men to communicate with each other and express themselves without being detected. Polari, a British form of slang used within the gay underground subculture throughout the 20th century, is one example of the ways that gay slang functions in the community. But when a “secret code” is used within an underground subculture, there’s no social monitoring of that code. If we apply linguistic relativity theory (also known as the Whorfian hypothesis), which presumes that the language we use has a powerful influence on our cognitive processes, we can see how racism gets woven within the fabric of one’s culture.  If racism is embedded within the structure of one’s language, and that racist language goes unchecked and unchallenged, then a collective racist cognitive process starts to get its hooks into that culture. My guess is that this is where some of these “queen” terms came from – “queen” being an empowering reclaiming of a gay slur, the modifiers of “queen” adding a racist tint.

Let’s take this a step further. Cognitive psychologists would likely argue that not only does language influence our thought process, but our thought process influences behaviors. Racist language leads to racist thoughts, which, in turn, leads to racist acts. And when we look at the psychological research, what do we find? Racism happens in the LGBTQ community. For example, in a study published this month in the Journal of Latina/o Psychology, Latino gay men reported feeling ostracized in White gay environments; being treated rudely and unfairly by White gay men; and being sexually objectified by White gay men because of their race. So not surprisingly, objectifying language contributes to a climate of objectification.

What’s even more disturbing is that, according to the same study, more frequent experiences of racism – both general and gay-related – were strongly associated with lower self-esteem among the Latino gay male participants. And other studies have identified a range of risk factors associated with racism in the gay community, the two most widely studied being depression and risky sexual behaviors.

There’s a great PSA campaign sponsored by the Ad Council and the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) that’s called “Think B4 You Speak.” While these PSA spots, featuring stars like Hilary Duff and Wanda Sykes, call attention to the damaging effects to youth incurred by the phrase “that’s so gay,” I think the title of the campaign is relevant here. The words you use have more power than you think.



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Be a part of the Fringe!

This week, I’m taking a little detour from my typical format to talk in more detail about this new project I’m working on – and how you can potentially be a part of it. The working title for my new book is Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community, which will explore the experiences of people who exist on the edges of the LGBTQ community. These groups include people who are bisexual, polyamorous, alt-sex/BDSM/kink, disabled, non-White, poor and/or working class, older, trans or genderqueer – groups that don’t get as much attention in the mainstream LGBTQ rights agenda, and who often experience marginalization within the LGBTQ community.

When I say “marginalization,” what do I mean by that? As an example, the other day I spoke with Dr. Keely Kolmes, who works with the bi, poly, and kink communities in her psychotherapy practice. Early in her career, when she decided to focus her research and therapeutic skills in this direction, she experienced all sorts of negative reactions – and many of those reactions came from members of the LGBTQ community. “Most of us who are gay aren’t like that,” a gay male professional made a point of saying.  The assumption behind that statement, of course, is that we want to be seen as normal by heterosexuals – not like those “freaks.”

Or take Dany Atkins, who is bisexual and gender-variant, and who has been in a triadic polyamorous relationship for almost two decades. She had previously been part of a quad relationship, and when the biological mother of their son decided to leave the quad, a fierce and ugly custody battle ensued – with little support from the LGBTQ community. “You got what you deserved,” one lesbian woman told Dany, who was denied any legal rights to her son.

We could even consider Phyllis Lyon (of Phyllis Lyon/Del Martin fame, the first couple to be legally married in San Francisco and under pre-Proposition 8 California law). If anyone has been a trailblazer in the LGBTQ community, it would be her. Back in the 1950s, Lyon and Martin started the Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian organization in the United States. They helped start the Council on Religion and the Homosexual. They were the first out lesbian members of the National Organization for Women. As they got older, they started the group Old Lesbians Organizing for Change. The San Francisco LGBTQ community is what it is largely because of them. And while Lyon was once front and center in the LGBTQ community, at 88 years old, she now exists on the edges of it. In an ageist culture that celebrates youth, Phyllis Lyon finds little connection in the community she helped build.

That’s what I mean by “marginalization.” It happens within the LGBTQ community – even though we all know what it feels like to be a member of an oppressed group. And that’s why I feel so motivated to write Fringe.

But in order to make this project happen, I need your help.

First, I need to raise money in order to make this project happen. I invite you to take a look at my Fringe Kickstarter campaign, and please consider contributing whatever is possible for you. Also note that with your contribution, you will receive a reward – including a signed copy of Fringe, an opportunity to guest blog here on The Active Voice, or an invite to my book launch party, where many of the people I’ve interviewed for the book (including the three individuals listed above) will be present.

Second, I’m looking for additional people to interview for Fringe. I’ve completed about a half-dozen interviews so far, with another half-dozen lined up in the next few months. If you are a member of an “edge community” within the larger LGBTQ umbrella, I’d be interested in hearing your story. Note that the opportunity to be interviewed is also a reward for contributing to my Kickstarter campaign. If you think your story would be relevant to this project, please contact me at

Thank you for continuing to read The Active Voice and to engage in conversations about my reflections – whether those comments are made on the blog itself, in person, or backchannel via e-mail. These conversations have challenged me to consider issues I hadn’t considered before – and they’ve fueled my excitement for writing and learning more about the community I’m a part of. While I will continue to blog on The Active Voice, I invite you to be a part of this new direction I’m going in.

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Filed under biphobia, bisexuality, gender nonconformity, hate crimes, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, intersex, LGBTQ, LGBTQ youth, psychological research, racism, relationships, sexism, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized

Hitting the wall

“We’re just as normal as everybody else.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that statement – or variations of it. I’ve seen headlines titled “Gay – the new straight.” Or “The mainstreaming of gay.” I must say, though, if anyone’s been paying attention to the Chik-fil-A drama, it’s pretty clear that, for many people, being gay is kind of a big deal, and far from being considered normal.

But I don’t want to talk about Chik-fil-A – there’s enough media saturation on that topic. However, I do want to talk about religion, which is embedded in the Chik-fil-A debate, because I think that the LGBTQ community’s struggles in this arena powerfully illustrate the challenges of gaining acceptance in a mainstream cultural institution. More specifically, I’d like to spend some time focusing on one particular religious enclave – the contemporary Christian music industry.

Marsha Stevens, at one point in her career, was considered to be the “mother of contemporary Christian music.” She had a record label and a successful career – and then, in 1979, she came out publicly as a lesbian. Her record label dropped her. Her music was pulled from retail stores, and promoters canceled her concert bookings. Christan Century magazine called Stevens “conservative Christianity’s worst nightmare – a Jesus-loving, Bible-believing, God-fearing lesbian Christian.” Her career hit a wall.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and we have Jennifer Knapp, a top-billed Christian singer who sold a million records between 1998 and 2002, earned four Dove Awards from the Gospel Music Association, and secured two Grammy nominations. In 2010, after a six-year hiatus from the music industry, Knapp made a public announcement stating that she’d been in a same-sex relationship since 2002. She, too, lost her record label, and her latest independent release isn’t being played on Christian radio stations.

Qui510, formerly known as TriQui Di, is a vocalist and songwriter hailing from Oakland, California. Although she doesn’t perform Christian music, she got her start in the African American Baptist and Pentecostal churches, singing in the choir that produced the Hawkins Singers (of “Oh Happy Day!” fame). She, like Marsha Stevens and Jennifer Knapp, was signed with a major record label and performed with Snoop Dogg, Aaliyah, Natalie Cole, Chaka Khan, and Tony! Toni! Toné! Since 2009, when she came out publicly on her radio show, she’s had difficulty getting even local gigs. “Before, I was on the front page,” Qui510 told me. “Now, I’m an afterthought.”

All three of these artists decided to be true to themselves, and live as openly, honestly, and authentically as possible. All of them still hold strongly onto their religious faith. And all three of them have been effectively shut out from the mainstream – and their careers have suffered tremendously.

When it comes to accepting LGBTQ people into the mainstream, religion seems to be the last house on the block. And I think that psychological theory and research can help us explain why that’s the case. Using social identity theory, Megan Johnson, Wade Rowatt, and Jordan LaBouff of Baylor University explain why there’s such a strong divide between people who identify as religious and people who are gay. In their most recent study, “Religion and prejudice revisited: In-group favoritism, out-group derogation, or both?” published in the May 2012 issue of Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Johnson and her colleagues found that people who identified as Christian were more likely to hold negative attitudes towards gay men (and to Muslims and atheists, interestingly), compared to people who didn’t practice a Christian faith. This finding probably isn’t all that surprising, given the stronghold that the religious right has on anti-gay policies.

But it’s this next finding that is quite interesting, in my opinion. Regardless of preexisting religious beliefs, people who were subliminallly primed with religious words developed more negative attitudes towards gay men than those who were primed with neutral terms. In other words, being exposed to religion – even in a subconscious way – was enough to create animosity towards gay men.  Clearly, there’s a very powerful “us vs. them” mechanism that is embedded within traditional Christianity.

Here’s where social identity theory comes in: According to this theory, identifying as a member of a particular group helps people to maintain and enhance their self-esteem. If that group is associated with positive characteristics, such as “good” or “moral,” that enhances self-esteem even further. Moreover, establishing an out-group (such as “gay”) and establishing a set of negative connotations to that group (such as “bad” or “immoral”) further helps to solidify one’s in-group identity and self-esteem. Put more simply, putting others down helps us to feel better about ourselves. And putting gay people in the “them” category helps people feel more secure in the “us” category.

No wonder the stonewalling in the music industry (particularly in contemporary Christian music) is so pervasive. Keep the lesbians out, and we’ll all be safe.

At this moment, it doesn’t look like assimilating into the Christian music industry is much of an option. So what choices do these artists have? When Marsha Stevens was shut out of the Christian music house, so to speak, she built her own – in the form of BALM (Born Again Lesbian Music) Ministries, which now has its own record label. As for Jennifer Knapp, she’s chosen to abandon Christian music altogether; for now, she’s writing and recording secular music under her own independent label. And Qui510? Although she’s doesn’t perform Christian music, her fan base was the Black community – and that fan base has dissipated significantly since she came out. And as a Black performer, she’s historically faced challenges in getting booked at venues that have more White audiences. As an African-American lesbian, she’s a member of more than one out-group – and her career has taken the hit. But she’s not giving up – if anything, it’s strengthened her resolve to live her truth.




Filed under coming out, homophobia, LGBTQ, media, psychological research, racism