beyond the looking glass - 'autogynephilia', cultural narcissism and the fear of gender & sexual diversity
Want to mess with the heads of closeted trans females? Try something like the use of the term 'autogynephilia'. I should know. It bound me up, albeit very briefly, as I struggled in the past to come to terms with myself. It is a crude and toxic theory invented in the late 1980s by American-Canadian sexologist Ray Blanchard (and promoted by others such as J.Michael Bailey and Anne Lawrence). It is defined 'as a man’s paraphilic tendency to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of himself as a woman", whereby types of male to female transvestism and transsexualism are understood as 'erotic target identity inversions'. As such, it is roundly rejected both by transgender people and by authoritative research and transgender health expertise (see further, for example, Julia Serrano here). It does not cohere with the sheer complexity and texture of gender and sexually diverse people's experience. Indeed, whilst purporting to offer a basis for care and compassion, it invalidates our knowledge of ourselves and prevents wholeness. It thus does nothing for a healthy wider sexual ethic or positive gender relationships today. Yet, as a simplistic and sex-obsessive approach, it has become one weapon in the armoury of people on the religious right. Frightened perhaps by their own, actual but unacknowledged, sexual and gender fears and compulsions, they seek to portray sexual and gender diverse people as willingly, or unconsciously, perverse (in the destructive sense of that word). Indeed, the accusation of narcissism thrown at transgender people from such quarters, is in fact a better description of that approach itself Hypnotised, it seems, by an exceedingly narrow desired image of humanity, they cannot see beyond the mirror of their own imagined selves. In doing so, not only are the realities of those who are 'different' denied, but, in 'othering' us, they distance themselves from the divine Other which is the source and pathway of their own authentic identities. For no wonder they are consumed with outrage about so-called 'political correctness' and 'identity politics'. What gender and sexually diverse people do is to threaten the brittle identities some seek so hard to insist upon as wholly defined and exclusive. In doing so, we offer an invitation to greater authenticity for everyone...
hystericalising women and narcissistic personality disorder
Directly, or indirectly, the idea of autogynephilia underpins much resistance to healthy progress, Transgender female activists are, for example, frequently accused of 'narcissistic rage'. Like other women who have stood up for themselves, they are accused of 'hysteria', even by some feminists who have endured that clearly patriarchally constructed charge themselves. Genuine issues of pain, violence, real and felt exclusion are thus summarily dismissed. Transgender identities, even as they show maturity in self-expression, are problematised once again. Trapped in mirrored illusions, anyone who does not cohere with the narcissistic gaze is repelled, and immured with that very projection.
Significantly, it is transgender females who are the chief targets of such ire. For little if anything is ever heard for instance about any alleged 'autoandrophilia' or 'narcissism' in transgender males. As critics of Blanchard have long identified, this is because his type of a matrix of humanity is not only a simple axis based on two clear binaries (male-female and heterosexual-homosexual) but also because it is underpinned by gynophobia. After all, etymologically speaking, the word 'autogynephilia' might most obviously be translated as 'love of oneself as a woman'. Such a happy description would be something to encourage in cisgender and transgender females alike. Yet the term 'autogynephilia' is turned into a form of psychological illness. What does that say, at least unconsciously, about the perspective of Blanchard and those who follow him? If more women of all kinds truly loved themselves, what profound and loving difference would that make to our world?
In contrast, it is interesting to reflect on how narcissistic personality disorder is found more commonly in men. Symptoms include an excessive need for admiration, disregard for others' feelings, an inability to handle any criticism and a sense of entitlement. Typified above all perhaps by Donald Trump, these are so prominent in our contemporary culture and they are rampant on the Christian Right, as it ever more strenuously seeks to defend its privilege with its aggressive, demanding, monopolising voice. So perhaps, in this and in other struggles, the shattering of the patriarchal looking glass is precisely what is required to free the Spirit, as well as the bodies of so many?
The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: