Summary of Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger

Transgender people are often misunderstood. People often confuse the term or just brush it off completely making some ignorant comment. However, there are many activists who are trying to change this. There had been much work done to spread more knowledge of what it means to be transgendered. Beyond that, researchers have also dedicated studies to try and find a scientific explanation.

Despite this, there will always be those among us who refuse to listen and refuse to understand. But have we really not learned from our mistakes? How can people still refuse to listen to what science has to say? It may not always be what people want to hear, but there is no way to deny it. 

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • What transgendered means
  • The controversy of The Man Who Would Be Queen 
  • Sexuality versus Gender
  • What happens when science doesn’t play along

Key lesson one: What transgendered means

Describing one’s sexuality these days is aided by the complex terminology available. However, it also leaves many people confused. Over the years, it has become quite common for people to incorrectly use the terms transgender and intersex. 

Firstly, intersex refers to biology or anatomy. It is used to describe those who are not male or female as defined by biology. An example would be a person born with both ovaries and testes. As can be imagined, people who have grown up being neither man nor woman by traditional standards, have faced many difficulties. Not only do they have to suffer the wrath of a sometimes cruel society, but they also have to deal with the psychological problems this causes.

 Furthermore, people who are intersex have also had to battle what are called sex normalization procedures. These procedures result in the person being assigned the gender as decided by the doctor. Unfortunately, most of these procedures are done in childhood when the child is unable to decide for themself which gender they identify with. A friend of the Dreger’s, Brian Sullivan, had both a uterus and ovotestes at birth. At nineteen months old, the doctors decided that Brian would most likely become a fertile woman and removed his phallus. Brian was the renamed Bonnie. When Bonnie grew up, she became a sexually active lesbian but was unable to achieve orgasm. It was then that she realized that she was missing her clitoris due to her surgery as a child. This is only one example. It has happened to many other people and is unfortunately still an issue today.

Secondly, the term transgender refers to a person’s gender identity. It is the way they identify themselves regardless of the way sex is defined biologically. Usually, it means them identifying differently to the gender assigned to them at birth. The problems faced by the transgendered community are somewhat the opposite of those faced by the intersex community. Many transgendered people want to have surgery to change their sex but it is not an easy process. The medical system tightly controls hormone treatments and surgery making it still heteronormative in many ways. This is one of the biggest problems that the entire LGBTQ+ community faces today.

Key lesson two: The controversy of The Man Who Would Be Queen 

When someone is transgender, other people often comment that they are finally their true selves. However, gender identity is not such a simple matter. There are those that believe that you are either born with a male or female brain. Thus, they are of the opinion that a male brain could be trapped in a female’s body or vice versa. Even though there is very little scientific proof of this, it has still become quite popular as it is still in line with the traditional concepts of gender.

One person who has infamously rejected this theory is J. Michael Bailey, a professor of psychology. In his book called The Man Who Would Be Queen, he went on to describe a different perspective on transgenderism. Bailey’s opinion is that transgendered people are not born with a specific identity, they are born with their own sexual preferences and behaviours but not with the desire to transition. The need for transition to a different gender than the one born with is a result of external factors. You can tell how this goes against typical opinions in the matter. Bailey goes on to say that society and culture are just as important as biology in determining a person’s feelings about remaining in the closet or coming out. 

To put this in an example to make people understand, he says that an effeminate gay man who grew up in a tolerant environment is more likely to be openly gay. Feeling safe in an open neighbourhood leads to being more comfortable with who you are. In contrast, if that same person grew up in a homophobic environment, he may begin to feel like the only way for him to survive without fear would be to transition into a woman.

Bailey’s book stirred many people up in the wrong way. It went against the norm at the time and people found his theories outright disturbing. The one that irked them the most was what he suggested about transgender sexuality. Bailey identified two groups of transgender men – the first being homosexual males who want to be female and the second being men who identified as men but were sexually aroused at the idea of being female which was termed autogynephilia. He went on further to describe autogynephilic men as those who decide to transition after they get married to a female and have had children. This idea was offensive to activists, the transgender community and even other researchers.

What made matters worse was the stories that emerged about Bailey and his unethical actions whilst collecting research for his books. He was charged with failing to get permission from the Board of Ethics for his study, not sticking to patient confidentiality and practising psychology without a license. Bailey was also targeted by many transgender activists. The most aggressive of these was Andrea James who posted disturbing photos of Bailey’s family along with derogatory comments about his wife.

Key lesson three: Sexuality versus Gender

The whole reason activists were angry with Bailey is that it had taken the community such a long time to desexualize transgenderism – and his book seemingly erased all their progress. One of the biggest problems faced by trans people is their inability to access healthcare and their lack of basic human rights. The big step which aided in this was introducing the term transgender to replace transsexuality.  This took the focus from sexuality and placed it on gender identity but Bailey’s book took it back. 

Most trans people have to fight for health care. Medical professionals sometimes deny patients the hormones they request. This is based on their traditional views and is especially hard on masculine patients because they believe they will never pass for females. They also consider male to female transitions a sort of fetish or mental illness. What doctors fail to realize is when they deny their patients, they are actually doing more harm than good. Patients have to suffer psychological repercussions and there is also a risk of them seeking treatment from dubious sources. 

Sexualizing transgenderism is hurting the community greatly. They already fight uphill battles with society but also have to deal with discrimination and problems with housing, education and employment. In addition, trans people have also faced discrimination from first responders – emergency workers refuse to treat them and the police refuse to investigate hate crimes.

Key lesson four: What happens when science doesn’t play along

Upon closer inspection of Bailey’s allegations, there was no proof of any wrongdoings. He never claimed to be offering therapy to participants nor was he asking them to pay for anything, so he was not guilty of practising without a license. In addition, Dreger was surprised to find that Baley actually helped many of his participants by writing letters of recommendation for their gender reassignment surgeries. 

Therefore, even though the activists were against him, Bailey helped the trans people he worked with. Unfortunately for Bailey, even though he was cleared of all charges, his reputation was already tainted. Some of the activists even convinced the participants in his study to charge him with unethical behaviour even though they were not completely in agreement. When questioned, the participants felt more used by the activists than by Bailey.

In reporting her findings, Dreger was also met with backlash from Andrea James and other trans activists. What was immediately noticeable was the unfounded allegations that the activists made and somewhat childish insults that were sent by email to Dreger. This conflict showed how progressive causes can quickly become rigid ideals with just a single agenda in mind. Scientific data and even biology has become politicized and are used in these conflicts. But what people fail to realize is that this will not amount to progress. In fact, it is the complete opposite of progress.

The key takeaway from Galileo’s Middle Finger is:

Transgenderism is a controversial topic for everyone. Not only are there differing theories and much confusion as to what being transgender really means, but there is also the fight for progress for trans people. Unfortunately, both sides of the fight have their faults. The medical field and trans activists both suffer from being stuck to their ideas and views. When this happens, facts are ignored and no one wins. This means we remain stagnant and no progress is actually made.

How can I implement the lessons learned in Galileo’s Middle Finger:

Now that you have learned a little about what it means to be transgender, why not learn more about the LGBTQ+ community? Most people get confused with all the different terminology but educating yourself on the matter and having an open mind will help you better understand and accept people. Most of the time, people from these communities just want to be understood and accepted as they are honestly no different from the rest of us.

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