Saturday, July 05, 2008

Dreger and Bailey and NWSA - Part I

As promised, part one of my post on the two NWSA panels that dealt with the Bailey/Dreger controversy. This would have been live-blogged, had the internet been working in the conference center!

The first session was an untitled paper session that included the following presentations:

"Intelligible Citizens and Aberrant Examples: A Judicial Rendering of the Female Body in the Canadian Courts" – Caroline Alexandra Hodes, York University

"The Politics of Inclusion and the Boycott of Michfest Performers" – Jo Trigilio, Simmons College

"Activism in the Bailey Transsexualism Controversy Compared to Intersex Patients' Rights Activism" – Alice Dreger

"Toward an Ethics of Exemplarity? Transgender Critiques and the Ambivalence of Anti Representation in Queer Theory" – Shifra Naomi Diamond

I am going to focus on Trigilio's and Dreger's paper's, because those are the ones I took the most notes on. Trigilio's paper is not about Bailey nor Dreger, but it was a very interesting paper (hence my note-taking).

Trigilio gave a brief history of the beginning of the conflict over trans at MichFest in 1991. Her focus was the Boston Dyke March and its relationship to the boycott of MichFest. Specifically, she centered on the issue of whether or not boycotting performers who performed at MichFest was a successful strategy, sharing the case history of Bitch, who had been invited to perform at the Boston Dyke March in 2007 but who was then uninvited after making statements supporting the MichFest’s "women-born-women" policy and performing at MichFest – despite the fact that the boycott against MichFest performers no longer existed at that time. Trigilio suggests that "boycotting MichFest is a legitimate strategy," but that "boycotting MichFest performers is not." Trigilio goes on to say that the "targets of our boycotts…ought to be the institutions, not the individuals." She points out that we allow racist, sexist, misogynist performers to continue and we buy their cds, yet we boycott musicians who are fighting these systems. Why is this?

Trigilio underscores the importance of organizing around intersections rather than around single-identity issues. She states, "intolerance of divergent views will not lead to inclusion but to factionalism."

She further notes that MichFest performers are often not successful in the mainstream, and that they themselves may also be genderqueer or may not support the MichFest "women-born-women" policy. She raises the question of whether hurting the careers of genderqueer women really does anything to further the cause of gender inclusion. Further, she asserts, such boycotts have the opposite of the intended effect: in addition to hurting these women’s careers, they also result in a "backlash [of] fans [who develop a] rigid identity politics, even though they had never done so" before. (In other words, the boycott merely makes fans of a boycotted performer more loyal to the fan, and may help that fan to develop rigid, exclusionary identity politics based on what they see as an unfair targeting of a beloved performer – PF)

Trigilio suggests, "instead of a boycott, support events that are striving to be inclusive."

(Y’all, I loved Trigilio’s paper, partly because it touched on some of the issues I’ve written in my own work, but also because I thought it was good, practical strategy – if the goal is inclusion, we need to think about strategy that will promote this inclusion, not that will hurt people who are already pro-inclusion or that will spur a backlash.)

And now for Dreger’s paper. Dreger gave an overview of the beginning of the intersex rights movement and also of her analysis of the response to Bailey’s work. She notes that the "Intersex rights movement has been one of the most successful patients’ rights in history," and while I don’t have this in my notes, I believe that she attributed this to strategy and to the ways in which ISNA and others have worked with the medical profession.

Dreger then gave a recap of her earlier paper on Bailey, in which she took on the role of an investigative reporter, and, "after a yearlong investigation of this matter…concluded that the charges were groundless." The mistake, she said, is in the notion that "marginalization means legitimacy." But, she argues, "identity politics do not transfer into believability."

(In other words, simply because transactivists are up in arms, that does not mean that anything improper has occurred – PF)

Now, that's about all the notes I took during Dreger's presentation. I'd read her paper prior to attending the conference, and I was interested to hear if she had since realized exactly what she had done by taking it upon herself to be that investigative journalist. She doesn't seem to have done so. So, I'd like to offer some of my immediate responses to her article, which can be found here. I think there are critical issues that need addressing, and doubtless others have already addressed them, but the one that I had an immediate response to regards the IRB. For those who have not read Dreger's article, let me explain that the Institutional Review Board is a committee at every academic institution that determines whether or not research is ethical and under what conditions it may continue. Every researcher must go through the IRB for permission. Bailey apparently felt that since what he did in The Man Who Would Be Queen was not strictly science, he was not bound to any ethical guidelines whatsoever. Here is the problem that Dreger does not seem troubled by and does not address, and this is what I would like to focus on.

The fact that Bailey's work was not found to be in violation of IRB guidelines does not make it ethical. Since I got involved in doing oral history in the '90s, there has been a debate between oral historians and others who do life story interviews and the IRBs at their home institutions. Basically, the issue is that, first, IRB guidelines have been set up to protect the participants of scientific studies, in both the natural and social sciences. We don't have to look far to see why this might be necessary. Consider 20th century experiments with orphaned infants that involved dropping babies – we hope, onto soft surfaces, at least – to study their physical reactions (that arching of backs we see in infants who feel physically unsupported). Or, consider the Tuskeegee experiments, in which Black men with syphilis were purposefully left untreated (while being told that they *were* receiving treatment) in order to study how long it took for them to die, and what effects the syphilis had on their bodies as minds as they did so.

Bailey's work, as described by Alice Dreger, offers evidence that interviewing that occurs outside the parameters of the research the IRB was created to supervise can have a profoundly negative, harmful effect on its subjects. Dreger states correctly that historians, esp. oral historians, were exempted by the national policy-making body that set the rules for the IRB. In a clarification of the IRB purpose, it was stated that the IRB was never meant to govern such research, presumably because it doesn’t involve such risk for participants. While many historians, particularly oral historians, were doubtless pleased at this clarification (which makes the research process much easier), as a sometimes oral historian, I believe that we absolutely need to be governed by, if not the IRB, then some larger body that will ensure that our research is ethical. And in fact, there does exist such a structure of which Dreger is apparently unaware - she does not mention that oral historians have their own set of very complex, ethical guidelines for their work. If Bailey's personal interviews and what we might call writing from life were not governed by the IRB, then they should have been governed by the ethics that govern oral historians.

For example, Bailey has been accused of sleeping with one of the women he interviewed. He denies this, but in Dreger's long discussion of the charges raised by transwomen against Bailey, she writes that he told her that even if he had, it would not have been in violation of IRB guidelines. This may be true. However, this does not mean that such an act, if it occurred, is ethical. Rather, what it suggests is that the IRB does not effectively protect research subjects from exploitation by the researcher. In the field of oral history, this would not be seen as harmless but as a serious transgression and perhaps* exploitation of the subject by the researcher.

Dreger's apology – and I was not expecting, from the way that she has positioned herself in this debate that it would be an apology, but it is, if not necessarily for his conclusions then for his behavior and his research method in The Man Who Would Be Queen – lets Bailey off the hook. She does not acknowledge that a scientist who writes a non-scientific-method-produced book for a popular audience will be perceived as having scientific authority, nor that a researcher who is writing in another discipline (in this case, I argue, something akin to oral history) still has a responsibility to conduct vetted and ethical research.

Moreover, her apology goes well beyond championing the causes of academic freedom and civil discourse. Instead of simply focusing on the actions of some transactivsts that, I agree, went beyond the bounds of what is acceptable (primarily, in my estimation, the use of children), Dreger felt the need to serve as judge and jury for all the charges against Bailey. In this, she overstepped her bounds. One of the problems is that Dreger's 62-page document does not take seriously the impact that Bailey's work, poorly-researched as it is (another issue that might have been resolved with IRB involvement), has had on real people. It does not address the larger ethical issues that are at play when a researcher interviews, during the development of personal relationships in some cases, real people. Bailey was not, as far as I can tell, steeped in the guidelines of oral history. As an outsider unfamiliar with Bailey's work, just from reading Dreger, I have the feeling that he went into this book thinking that, since he was just going to write about people he knew, he didn’t need to take an ethical approach or think seriously about how he worked with them and what impact he had on their lives. Responsible oral historians would know that these are issues that must be considered. I have no doubt that Bailey might well be a well-meaning guy who didn’t think – and still doesn’t think – he did anything to violate IRB guidelines or that he needed to follow them for his work. I'm sure he doesn't understand the impact he has had. Perhaps he even thinks he's helping. But intentions are meaningless when it comes to research, and that is largely why IRB is necessary.

Thus, I am unconvinced by Dreger's clearing of Bailey. Moreover, reading it disturbed me greatly. It was not a document about academic freedom; rather, it was a document that seemed intent on downplaying the impact that Bailey may have had, on his subjects and on policy and scientific thought more generally, as well as on proving that the people who perceived Bailey as a threat were simply acting out for some inexplicable reason. This is not a strike for academic freedom, but rather a strike against academic responsibility. (Julia Serrano made some of these same points here.)

Part II to come (with links to papers!)…

*I say "perhaps" only because of the possibility of there being a pre-existing relationship between the researcher and subject. Bailey used this possibility as a way to assert that all physical relationships between researchers and subjects were ethical; I am stating that many, perhaps most, would not be. (The fact that Bailey would say such a thing – which Dreger asserts, in her article, that he did – suggests volumes about how he views the vulnerability of the subject to the researcher, which is to say, he does not view them as vulnerable at all – and this, in itself, is a huge problem.)


Circe said...

ISNA ( Intersex Society North America ) has closed it's doors. For more information i would suggest checking out OII's site ( Organisation Intersex International ): http:

Anna said...

I don't feel a lot of sympathy for people who harbor ignorant attitudes toward trans women, even if they're struggling genderqueer artists. Boycott them, boycott where they perform, I don't care. My understanding of the Bitch situation is pretty limited, but I would think that if someone who was invited to an event for a certain community then made -phobic remarks about a portion of that community and was unapologetic about that, the person might expect that the community wouldn't want them around. As an artist, or performer, or academic, or hotel desk clerk, you're responsible for the shit that comes out of your mouth. And how could the dyke march say it was welcoming to trans women while providing someone who is openly transwomanphobic a platform to continue to share her point of view? Why excuse this kind of behavior? Why should I focus on intersectionality when that means letting this kind of thing slide? What types of -phobic behavior do we excuse, and what types do we condemn? Why isn't supporting trans women part of "fighting the system"?

I get more upset about people like Bitch who ought to know better than I do about, say, Phyllis Schlafly or someone like that. Bitch has the ability to educate herself - I'm sure there are people in her circle of friends who could help with this - and is choosing not to do so.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Thanks, Circe!

Anna - I agree with you. I guess I would frame it this way, though - I think it makes sense to boycott Bitch for things she's said. I don't think it makes sense to boycott MichFest performers across the board, if the point is to try to make MichFest - or the Lesbian Nation - more inclusive. Does that make sense?

TotalD said...

This was an awesome analysis that I am stealing parts for for the wiki article on TMWWBQ . Thank you so much for the words.

Plain(s)feminist said...

TotalD - I'm flattered! Glad it was useful.

TotalD said...

It was useful and one of the most competent explanations of why the IRB exists as well . Most academics forget that the average person doesn't understand under what restrictions scientific research is done and why these issues are of importance in the case of Dr Bailey. Again, well done.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Could you post a link to your piece?