Grandstanding with Faux Diagnoses: J. Michael Bailey Again

Katja Thieme
5 min readSep 1, 2023
Diorama of three taxidermy muskox and a husky, grandstanding.

J. Michael Bailey seems to specialize in touting faux-clinical diagnoses. If one follows his work, one can witness how, with some insistence, he pushes quasi-clinical labels via his non-clinical work: in research publications, through public writing, and during podcast appearances. A few days ago, Scientific American published a piece debunking the wannabe diagnosis of “rapid onset gender dysphoria,” a category which Bailey has touted in a co-authored article which was retracted not long after it was published. And just yesterday, Bailey has responded to the retraction by posting a manifesto of sorts on Bari Weiss’ *Free Press* in which he vows “to establish the validity of ROGD.” While “rapid onset gender dysphoria” is only the latest pseudo-diagnostic label that Bailey attaches to people whom he has never met, treated, or asked for consent to appear in his research, he has a longer history of exhibiting similar habits with the concept of autogynephilia. (Important side note: Bailey is not a clinician.) Both these concepts come together in a revealing moment in his retracted article, so let us start from there.

In the discussion section of the retracted paper on ROGD, Bailey and his co-author write:

The current study’s results are consistent with the existence of different causes for gender dysphoria in natal females and males, at least in some cases. Specifically, one kind of gender dysphoria, stemming from autogynephilia — a natal male’s sexual arousal at the idea of being female — occurs only in adolescent and post-adolescent natal males and does not appear to have an analogue among natal females (Bailey & Blanchard, 2017).

What is happening here? Bailey and Diaz are working from survey results that have been submitted by parents who are skeptical about their children’s experiences of gender dysphoria and who — on a website by and for such trans-skeptical parents — provide parental recollections of their children’s feelings, thoughts, and experiences. The survey asked parents questions about their children’s timing and early signs of gender dysphoria, mental health incl. formal diagnoses, social adjustment before and after onset of gender dysphoria, and steps taken toward social and medical transition. We would have all reason to question what these parents may claim to know about their children’s patterns of sexual arousal. However, we do not even have to apply such questioning as Bailey and Diaz did not ask the parents what and how they think they know about their children’s sexual reactions. Instead, Bailey and Diaz claim as their prerogative that they may speculate about the patterns of sexual arousal among a specific, existing group of young people with whom their project did not interact.

This attitude strikes me as very questionable, to put it mildly. I want to highlight how readers need not be trained in this research field to be able to recognize how wrong Bailey is here. If a psychologist has not interacted in relevant ways with the particular teenagers in question nor obtained their consent for having their sexuality discussed in his research publication, that psychologist really should not make claims about those teenagers’ patterns of sexual arousal.

The paternalism of this approach is heightened by the fact that what Bailey and Diaz are speculating about is the generally discredited concept of “autogynephilia” and the contentious claims about sexual arousal that attend it. While the concept is frequently treated as suspect in current research discussion, it is often confidently wielded in public discourse as an attempt to stigmatize and denigrate trans women. Julia Serano has called autogynephilia a “pseudoscientific talking point in anti-transgender propaganda and disinformation campaigns.” Bailey himself says that he intends no stigmatization; nevertheless, he insists on naming trans women who he considers “autogynephile” even against their clearly stated demands not to label them in that stigmatizing way. He has done so recently on various podcasts, for instance, where he categorizes specific trans women as “autogynephiles” even while declaring he has no evidence that they would see themselves in this category or that they have described their sexuality in this way.

Bailey justifies his paternalistic attitude with his sense that he is scientifically objective in his pursuit of the truth about other people’s sexual orientations. He writes: “Declining to question identities and narratives may soothe feelings in the short term. In the long term, it ruins sex research by closing off important questions from empirical investigation.” That may be the case in ethically conceived research that has participants’ consent (but also, it may not even be the case in those circumstances). It certainly does not hold for public assertions about the sexuality of one’s critics, especially when those assertions are nothing but unwelcome conjecture. And there is no scientific merit to speculating in one’s research article about the sexual arousal patterns of a specific group of teenagers based on no relevant data and without their consent.

Bailey appears to be perpetually seduced by the paternalism that assertions about scientific objectivity afford him. He insists that he so truthfully knows about the existence and markers of autogynephilia and ROGD (both discredited labels, esp. in clinical contexts) that he can attach them with little regard to the persons to whom he is attaching them. In addition, attaching either of those labels serves to discredit that person and their sense of themselves. It tells trans women who are thus unwillingly labelled that they misunderstand their identity and sexual arousal and trans youth that their perception of themselves is false. Bailey seems to be saying: psychologists like him and parents like Diaz know best about other people’s transness.

As Julia Serano has noted, Bailey’s particular approaches and attitudes, the sustained criticism they have incurred from trans folk and their allies, and the way in which he has tried to narrate the controversies around it are part of a much larger story of the last century during which “there has been growing resentment and resistance within the trans community to having our identities and realities defined by non-trans researchers/gatekeepers.”