The Dregerian Narrative (or why “trans activists” vs. “scientists” framings are lazy, inaccurate, and incendiary)
Sometimes in my writings on transgender issues, I will mention the “Dregerian narrative.” This article is a brief “explainer” for those who don’t know what this refers to.
Basically, the Dregerian narrative goes something like this: There is a cabal of transgender activists who are irrational, overly sensitive, out of control, and on a mission to censor any and all science that they do not like!
This narrative was first popularized by Alice Dreger’s depiction of the backlash against J. Michael Bailey’s 2003 book The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism that appeared in her 2008 Archives of Sexual Behavior (ASB) article, and later in her 2015 book Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice. I detail precisely what’s wrong with Dreger’s rendering of these events in my peer commentary on her ASB article, but here’s a TL;DR: Bailey’s book promoted a controversial (and since disproved) theory about trans women as though it were settled science. The book was widely critiqued, not only within the trans community, but among many researchers in the field. But Dreger largely ignored these valid critiques, and instead focused primarily on the actions of a few trans activists who supposedly set out to “ruin” Bailey’s reputation and the theory.
This narrative has since been repurposed to dismiss transgender perspectives on other important matters, such as in the Jesse Singal (who was seemingly inspired by Dreger) retelling of Ken Zucker’s gender-reparative clinic in 2015, and the controversy surrounding Lisa Littman’s “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” paper in 2018. I suspect it will be deployed against trans people again in the future — hence the explainer.
So what is wrong with the Dregerian narrative?
Several things! First off, I think we should be skeptical of any narrative that involves a cabal of people who wield disproportionate power, especially when those individuals are members of a marginalized group. For the record, Dreger doesn’t actually use the word “cabal,” but she does blame the entire Bailey backlash on “a small number of transgender activists,” which is pretty much the same idea. Why a small number, you may ask? Well, if it were a large number of people protesting, that might seem significant, and readers might feel it necessary to listen to their perspective, and perhaps even take them seriously. But if it’s just a mere handful of people, then they can be summarily dismissed as anomalous.
Second, the Dregerian narrative ignores the fact that scientists (especially psychologists like Bailey) have historically held institutional power over trans people, not the other way around. Thus, portraying trans activists as master puppeteers who are single-handedly pulling all the strings of scientific discourse is patently absurd.
Third, by framing critics as “trans activists,” the narrative erases both the scientific credentials that many of us have, and the fact that many other researchers and trans health professionals share our assessments. Indeed, in all three of the incidents I shared in the opening section of this essay (Bailey’s book, Zucker’s clinic, Littman’s ROGD paper), many if not most trans health professionals and researchers were similarly critical of those endeavors (as evidenced via those links).
Fourth, even trans people with no scientific background have real-world knowledge regarding their own experiences growing up transgender, navigating the healthcare system, conversations they’ve shared with other trans folks, and so on. The “irrational trans activist” framing unjustly discounts all of these experiences and firsthand knowledge. This is especially pertinent in the case of Bailey, as he relentlessly accuses trans people whose personal accounts contradict his pet theory of “lying” or being “in denial” (as discussed in more detail here).
Finally, the Dregerian narrative puts all of the emphasis on protecting academic/scientific freedom, while failing to address the equally important issue of academic/scientific responsibility — I discuss this point in more depth in my ASB peer commentary.
Why does the Dregerian narrative resonate with people?
For starters, most readers have very little personal knowledge of transgender people, issues, healthcare, research, etcetera. So it’s relatively easy for a writer to spin a tale wherein “scientist says X, but trans activists irrationally reject X.” After all, if readers aren’t familiar with X, but some scientist says it’s true, and the writer similarly frames X as true, how could they possibly reach any other conclusion?
Relatedly, a lack of scientific fluency also plays a role here. Within every scientific field, there is always some debate about findings and theories. And even when it comes to largely settled matters (e.g., anthropogenic climate change, cigarettes causing cancer, the efficacy of vaccinations), there are always outliers with scientific credentials who publicly hold the opposing position. As a scientist myself, whenever I read an article about a subfield that I’m unfamiliar with, and see “scientist says X” without any other context, I am immediately suspicious! I will often look up X in the scientific literature to see if it’s widely accepted, or if there are opposing hypotheses or counter-evidence. But for readers whose only exposure to science comes from childhood schooling and pop-science articles in which “science” is presented as synonymous with “the facts,” they may be inclined to mistake debatable, controversial, or even improbable scientific propositions as unquestionable truth.
A second reason why the Dregerian narrative often reverberates is that many people are skeptical about, or uncomfortable with, trans people, or with changes to the gender status quo more generally. So upon hearing that trans p̶e̶o̶p̶l̶e activists (be sure to call them activists!) are supposedly “undermining science” and/or “ruining” some scientist’s career, such readers may uncritically accept these claims at face value because they jibe with their own “gut feelings” that trans ̶p̶e̶o̶p̶l̶e̶ activists are misguided and generally up to no good.
Finally, while I didn’t realize it back in 2008, Dreger’s ASB article is one of the earlier examples I can recall of what has come to be known as the “cancel culture” genre. As should be readily apparent to anyone who isn’t currently immersed in the Fox News Cinematic Universe, critiquing other people’s writings, opinions, and research falls squarely under the realm of free speech and civil discourse. Plus, the majority of people who claim to be “cancelled” continue to live prosperous lives, and often tout their so-called “cancellation” as a way to further their careers (as chronicled here). Bailey is still a tenured professor at Northwestern University and continues to publish scientific articles about topics like autoanthropomorphozoophilia unabated. Zucker not only maintains his private practice, but he is still editor at ASB, arguably the most influential sexology journal. While their theories about trans people may be largely rejected these days, neither of these scientists has been “ruined” or “canceled.”
So please, if you come across a “trans activists versus scientists” narrative in an article, book, or news program, I entreat you to not take it at face value. Instead, perhaps start from the premise that the so-called “trans activists” are knowledgeable about their own firsthand experiences, and should be listened to when it comes to issues that directly impact their lives. And if you scratch beneath the surface, I’ll bet that you’ll find actual scientists — and perhaps even entire trans health professional organizations — who share their assessments.