Thursday, 16 February 2017

Interview with Prof. Deirdre Nansen McCloskey

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Prof. Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, a well-known American economist, historian, and rhetorician, LGBTQ activist, the author of 17 books and over 400 scholarly pieces on topics ranging from technical economics and statistical theory to transgender advocacy, including the biographical book titled “Crossing: A Memoir” (2000). For more information about her academic career, see

Monika: Let me tease you a bit. Some people say that economists can be compared to weather forecasting guys we see on TV. They are most precise at describing the weather we had yesterday but far from being precise when they have to tell us whether it is going to rain or not tomorrow. Do you object? :)
Prof. McCloskey: A little bit! I wrote a book in 1990 entitled "If You're So Smart" arguing that economists cannot predict profitably, simply because if they could they would all be rich. And, believe me, I am not rich. People, and some economists (when they are also people), think that economics is indeed like forecasting the weather. It is not. The economic "clouds" and "cold fronts" are listening.
We economists can offer only wisdom, such as "Don't nationalize the steel industry: it has never worked" or "Let people enter the occupations they want, because then the customers will be best served." We cannot make profitable predictions of, say, the stock market.

Monika: In one of your articles, you elaborated on the way how economics is influenced by the male perception of the world and market, and called for more female approach to this science. Do women understand the economic challenges better than men?
Prof. McCloskey: Women in my experience are more "realistic" than men, that is, more vividly aware that will-power is not all we need to prosper. Women think about connection, men think about autonomy. Women dream of love, men of courage. But to really understand the economy, of course, or to have a full human life, each of us needs both love and courage.
Yet economics as presently understood, whether the "Samuelsonian" way prevalent in what we used to call The West or the Marxist way once enforced in The East, is highly masculine. It praises courage and hope as against love and faith. We need all the virtues in play, the masculine ones of autonomy and the feminine ones of connection.
Monika: In 2003, among Andrea James and Lynn Conway and other trans-activists, you played the instrumental role in refuting the theory of J. Michael Bailey who published a controversial book about transsexualism “The Man Who Would Be Queen”, claiming that there are two forms of transsexualism: male homosexuality and a male sexual interest in having a female body. When I asked Andrea James about that scandal, she highlighted a positive aspect of the whole case, namely that the community rose up in near-unanimous condemnation of this book because it makes it impossible to discuss the very interesting and nuanced topic of transsexuality outside of a pathological model. When you look back yourself, which aspects of that debate you find as most important?
Prof. McCloskey: The key to the Bailey book, and to the little group of sexologists from which he emerged, especially those torturing gender crossers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, is the belief that everything is about sex, sex, sex. "Sex" as in "sexual intercourse." It is the locker-room theory held by the more stupid straight men—that all those queers are the same, and all have sex, sex, sex on their minds. It's silly as science. 
For example, none of the experiments in "sexual" excitement have any born-female controls. I myself have never had sex as a woman, but am not at all bothered. It wasn't what I was doing.
Who you are is not the same as whom you love, or wish to have sex with. I love my dog! Bailey's own "research" consisted of hanging out in a bar in north Chicago with six gender-crossing prostitutes (he dropped one of them from the "sample" because she became a real estate agent instead).
At a meeting of sexologists one of the leading (non-Toronto) scientists stood up and said to Bailey, "Michael, I don't know what your book is. But it is certainly not science."
Monika: In my opinion, Riki Wilchins hit the nail on the head in her book titled “Read My Lips” (1997), stating that "Academics, shrinks, and feminist theorists have traveled through our lives and problems like tourists on a junket. Picnicking on our identities like flies at a free lunch, they have selected the tastiest tidbits with which to illustrate a theory or push a book." How can we stop such people? They will always revert to freedom of speech etc. …
Prof. McCloskey: Yes. Riki and I hear the "freedom of speech" claim every time we criticize people like Bailey.
Alice Dreger, a fake historian, for example, says that we are "censoring" Bailey when we complain that he is practicing clinical psychology without a license, or simply that he is wrong scientifically. She does not seem to understand—as Poles are learning again to their distress—that "censorship" is something that people in possession of the monopoly of violence do, people called "the government."
Complaining about fellow citizens is the exercise of free speech, not its denial. I have no legal objection to Bailey and the Toronto sadists spreading hate. I'm not going to a court and calling on the police to arrest them. I am arguing against them! 
Monika: Why did you decide to write your biography? You wrote many scientific books before. However, this particular book was quite special …
Prof. McCloskey: Partly it was personal, to explain myself, especially to my family, at a time when gender crossing was less common (1995 was when I started my transition; the book was published in 1999; it needs a Polish translation, by the way).

“Crossing: A Memoir” (2000) available via Amazon.
From the left, the editions in the following languages: English, Japanese, and Italian.

Partly it was professional, to explain to my colleagues in economics and history. And partly it was political, to defend other gender crossers and assorted queers. I had in the 1950s and 1960s the correct views against segregation and in favor of Black civil rights, but didn't do much. I had in the 1970s and 1980s the correct views against discrimination against women and gays and the handicapped and colonial people, but I didn't do much. 
Then in 1995 God (who is, by the way, a Black, lesbian, working-class single mother who lives in Leeds: better get ready!) touched me on the shoulder. "This is your last chance, dearie, to stand up for something you believe in!" So I did.
Monika: Which aspects of your experience can be useful for other transwomen?
Prof. McCloskey: Well, maybe not so much, since I was a tenured full professor at the time. True, I was willing to give it all up to be the person I wanted to be. But fortunately I didn't have to. Having the income and standing made my path smoother—although not entirely smooth: for example my sister tried four times and succeeded twice in having me seized by the police and put in a mad house; and my marriage family turned against me, never relenting in the 21 years since then.
Yet there are some lessons that might be useful. Get on with your actual life as a woman. Don't become a professional transwoman, necessarily, unless you have the political gifts of people like Andrea, Lynn, or Riki. Get with born women, in church or clubs or work. 
Attend to your facial appearance with operations (nose job and the like), and don't worry too much about the plumbing—after all, your plumbing is not inspected hundreds of times a day. Learn the right gestures. Don't have vocal operations (I did), but work on how to talk, not in sound only but in content. 
Deirdre with cast member at Cage au
Fol show in Iowa City, 1997.
Monika: I read about such operations conducted in South Korea. Most girls opt out for vocal training though. Did you suffer from any vocal post-op complications?
Prof. McCloskey: Oh, yes. Avoid the operation and do the vocal training.
Monika: I must say that I love the cover of the book. An elegant lady is having a big laugh. What or who do you laugh at?
Prof. McCloskey: I think I was laughing at some gentle criticism from the audience—the occasion was my presidential speech in 1999 to the American Economic History of Association. I laugh a lot. If you don't have a pretty good sense of humor I advise against crossing gender!
Monika: You transitioned in your early 50s, proving that it is never too late to become your real self, but did you ever have any regrets that you waited so long?
Prof. McCloskey: Sure. But on the other hand, as my 94-year old mother always says I should be thankful: I had the experience of a full life as a man—as husband in my 30-year successful marriage, as a father of two children, as a tough-guy academic—and now a pretty full life as a woman.
I would prefer to have changed in 1953, age 11. That way the male secondary characteristics such as having a big body and the like would not have developed. But in 1953 there was nothing to be done. If I had told my parents then (no one but my wife ever knew), they would have put me in the mad house—and they were loving, liberal parents.

Monika: Your business trip to Australia, where you were asked to give lectures, coincided with your meticulous plan for undergoing GRS there. Was it symbolic?
Prof. McCloskey: Nothing "meticulous" about it! I was going there to speak, and an Australian friend put me in touch with her surgeon. Outside the USA or the Netherlands (I was teaching in the Netherlands for a year at the time), I could do it, and not worry about psychiatrists or my sister intervening. I was six months into full time, by the way, having had all sorts of facial surgery already. As I say: face first.
Monika: Usually it is Thailand that transwomen choose to have their GRS done…
Prof. McCloskey: Sure, and if I had been going to Thailand to speak at an academic conference I might have done it there! Seriously, I needed the assurance of a more familiar sort of country (I knew Australia well already).
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Prof. McCloskey: A number. Principally, concerning people whom I actually met, the Australian pioneer Katherine Cummings, whom I still love and visit. What a sweetie she is! Read her memoir, Katherine's Diary.
And my friend Susan Marshall, the domestic bursar of Exeter College, Oxford, late of the Royal Navy, a commander and barrister when named "Simon." I went to Susan's wonderful wedding in the chapel of Exeter.
But then also a few who had written about their transition, especially Jan Morris, whose book Conundrum is a little vague, but inspiring.
The point is that these were all serious professional women: Katherine was a university librarian, Susan a university administrator, Morris (whom I have not met) a successful writer of non-fiction.
From Donald to Deirdre: name changing day.
Monika: Are there any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Prof. McCloskey: All of the above, such as Lynn Conway—-who was outed some years ago and decided then to become a brilliant advocate for transpeople worldwide. But now it's becoming commonplace. I like the graceful way that Caitlyn Jenner handles it, allowing for the somewhat bizarre situation of rich party-goers she has lived in for decades.
Monika: The transgender community is said to be thriving now. Teenage girls become models and dancers, talented ladies become writers, singers, and actresses. Those ladies with interest in politics, science, and business become successful politicians, academics, and businesswomen. What do you think in general about the present situation of transgender women in the American society? Are we just scratching the surface or the change is really happening?
Prof. McCloskey: Oh, it's really happening. When I transitioned twenty years ago people thought of it as sex, sex, sex. My wife thought I would become a prostitute. Now, people do not think that way. But liberalism can be reversed—as again Polish people do not need to be told. Weimar Berlin was highly tolerant of all sorts of queerness, and then . . . 
So the defense of liberty requires eternal vigilance. If Poland falls back into fascism, as Hungary has, watch out. The Catholic Church in Poland, like the Orthodox in Russia, has not been helpful.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out? The loss of family, friends…? 
Prof. McCloskey: Before I did it I greatly exaggerated how many people would react badly. I used to declare, "I am willing to abandon my scientific career and become a secretary in a agricultural region if I can be a woman." For someone as career-driven as me such a declaration was startling. But in the event very few rejected me. Yet it is unpredictable.
The people I thought would have a hard time, such as my mother or my brother or my colleagues in economics, had no problem. People I thought would find it easy, such as my wife or my sister or my colleagues in history, did have a problem.
Sadly, as I mentioned, my marriage family has rejected me. My two children have not spoken to me for 21 years. I have three grandchildren I have never seen. But into each life some rain must fall. Aside from that, the news is good. And even if I had known that my wife and children would reject me, I would have gone ahead, sad but determined.

Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBTQ communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBTQ group?
Prof. McCloskey: Note that Q is actually the last. The LBGs "added the T" with some reluctance. In my experience gays and lesbians are no better informed about trans issues than straight people. They were embarrassed by the drag queens at parades. But now the T is there, and the startling emergence of sympathetic trans themes in the popular culture (Trans-America movie, Trans-Parent TV series; Caitlyn Jenner; Oprah's shows) will keep it there.
Monika: What do you think in general about transgender news stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Prof. McCloskey: It's how real social change happens. Pop culture is where we do our thinking as a society. Until, say, 1990 in US popular culture the trans person was a dangerous freak (see for example the movie Dressed to Kill (1980). Then it started to soften with a movie like To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995). Oprah used to have a trans show every so often (I was on one in 2000).
Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Prof. McCloskey: We're a pretty small group! Not as small as was once thought (the desire to change, whether MtF or FtM, affects about 1 in 400 or so births, according to Lynn Conway's sensible figures). But too small to matter in politics, except to anger the fascists. 

Monika: What do the recent political changes in the US mean for the transgender cause? The previous President was very supportive to the LGBTQ community …
Prof. McCloskey: That's true, he was. But he was also once a Democrat, supporting the Clintons and in favor a a woman's right to choose abortion. So I think we have to conclude that he actually has no political convictions at all, and will go with whatever he thinks is popular. So he will not be a defense. His daughter is more supportive.
Monika: So far we have been very serious. Time for lighter questions … Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Prof. McCloskey: I had to explore a lot of different looks, as though I were some 14-year old girl! I finally settled on sober but elegant clothing—-long tops, for example; blue-jeans when I can. For years after 1995 I would not wear pants! Now I don't get out of them.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Prof. McCloskey: Just what I think about non-trans beauty pageants: Ugh!
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Prof. McCloskey: I love many people and they love me. But I have no romance. When I complain to my girl friends, they reply, "Look, dear: join the group! We tall, successful, professional women of a Certain Age can't get a date, either. And you have that Other Matter!"
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Prof. McCloskey: Accept who you are, find a safe place away from thugs and the Church, start taking hormones as early as you can (but not so many as to have a stroke).
Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transsexuals and transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Prof. McCloskey: Is Gina trans? She is? Well, I wish she would not say such things! You can't make dreams without a bit of reality in them—if you have a big, male nose, get rid of it! 
Monika: Prof. McCloskey, thank you for the interview! 

All the photos: courtesy of Prof. Deirdre McCloskey.
Done on 16 February 2017
© 2017 - Monika 

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