Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Identities—What Are They Good For?

Straight Man to Queer Woman

Untimely Meditations on Transitioning

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey

Blind Tiresias Confirms—Women Have More Fun by Hazel Lee Santino; courtesy of the artist.

Identity is not fungible with utility.

When the conversation turns, as it should more often, to the low percentage of women in economics, especially in academic life (in Sweden and the Netherlands, by the way, it’s worse), I’ll wait for a pause, and then drop in my usual joke: “Well, I’ve done my part.” It always gets a laugh, amused from the women and uncomfortable from the men. Ha, ha.

It didn’t seem so funny when in the fall of 1995 I started transitioning. Terror was more like it. The Des Moines Register put the news on the front page, repeatedly if not unsympathetically: “University of Iowa Economics and History Professor to Become a Woman.”

That, of course, is not possible. I’ll always have those pesky XY genes and can never have the life history of a girl and woman—never, for example, experience the hostility directed at an assertive female graduate student. At Harvard in the 1960s, Donald McCloskey was praised for such assertiveness. Ten years earlier, the economist Barbara Bergmann had, she told me, been thoroughly dispraised for it.

High school football player, tough-guy Chicago economist, I was married from 1965 to 1995, to the love of my life. When I was a guy I was a guy. I was straight. Well…since age eleven in strict privacy I had occasionally cross-dressed, but that little male peculiarity is pretty common, especially for some reason among engineers. Most of them are straight in affectional preferences, “heterosexual cross-dressers” being the term. And they don’t want to be women. For example, I didn’t, I thought. My wife caught on more quickly than I did in that turbulent year. When early in 1995 I discovered cross-dressing clubs, I was struck by the heavily male conversation at them; the engineers gathered in drag to talk in a meeting room at the local Holiday Inn about Iowa football. Regularly, the few GGs (genetic girls) at such gatherings, a handful of wives or hairdressers, would be serving the food and cleaning up afterward. Hmm, that’s odd, I would think. Don’t these guys realize we’re playing at being women? Then in August 1995 I twigged.

There was nothing false about my love over a third of a century for the woman who was first my girlfriend and then my wife. If she appeared at my front door today, I’d hug her and invite her in. (So too my son and daughter, who, alas, like my now ex-wife, have not knocked at my door since late 1995.) Affectional preference does not correlate with gender preference, contrary to the locker-room theory of people like the Northwestern University psychology professor Michael Bailey that queers are queers, and all the same, and that gay men want to be women. Incidentally, the “experiments” in Toronto on which his theory is based have no GG controls. And his “sample” for The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism (2003) consisted of six Chicana prostitutes from a bar in Chicago. Economics is not the only depressingly unscientific science in which ideology controls the show from behind the curtain.

People do change identities, migrating to a new country or growing from children into adults, which are changes that our methods in economics need to allow for. The way not to do it is the way the economists George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton do it, by putting the “Prudent Man” inside a wider Prudence. Identity is not fungible with utility. Prudence isn’t the matter. Ask the mother who runs into a burning house to save her child, or the soldiers who went over the top at the Battle of the Somme.

Economists, on the whole, viewed my change with equanimity. (Well, I’ll never know for sure: Maybe that appointment at, say, Yale was, so to speak, queered.) “He…I mean she…has the right to choose.” Free to choose, you might say. In fact, Milton and Rose Friedman, they of the free-market book Free to Choose, were smoothly graceful about it when I attended Milton’s ninetieth birthday party, in 2002. At the first American Economic Association meeting I went to as Deirdre McCloskey, in January 1996, Albert Harberger of UCLA, who had been my colleague for years at the University of Chicago, chaired the meeting of the Executive Committee, referring to me carefully each time as “Deirdre” because, I think, he was having trouble remembering to use “she.” So occasionally does my highly supportive ninety-five-year-old mother. She has known me as “Donald” longer than anybody else and can be forgiven an occasional slip to “Donald” and “he,” Lord knows.

Economic historians, my subtribe within economics and history, were especially gracious. Claudia Goldin, Elyce Rotella, and other female economic historians organized a party in November 1995 after I was released from a night in a locked psychiatric ward. (It was one of two such imprisonments arranged by my sister and an economist I had hired at Chicago. Another economic historian, Joel Mokyr, hired a lawyer to spring me from the loony bin. My sister and I are now just fine.) At the party, the balloons declared “It’s a Girl!” A few weeks later, Richard Sutch and Susan Carter invited me to spend Thanksgiving with them at their house in Berkeley. Thanksgiving 1995 was my first day as Deirdre, and I’ve spent the holiday with Richard and Susan ever since. Martha Olney and her wife, an American Baptist pastor, then gave me sanctuary in their East Bay home, protecting me from my sister and the economist ex-colleague and showing me how to live a religious life.

My colleagues at the University of Iowa in history seemed to have a harder time than the economists. I imagine it’s because they have in their theories no presumption of liberty, as economists do, even when the economists are willing on even days to give the government massive powers of violence—for our benefit, you understand. The Blessed Adam Smith wrote of “the liberal plan, of equality, liberty, and justice.” Damned right. Modern historians, by contrast, feel that identity once conferred, is sociologically determinative of an entire life. Like Popeye, they think you are what you are. And my colleagues in literary studies, gay or straight, tend to view my change as something like a fashion choice. Hey, cool. I guess their attitude is better than confused disdain.

One might ask what the general utility is, if any, of identifying myself as a trans-whatever person in dealing with others. None. You don’t change gender, especially male to female, to advance your career. I want to pass on the street merely as another woman, and a year into my transition, after some surgery on my face, I did. Meanwhile, it was nasty to be read as walking around in the wrong persona. Very nasty indeed, and in, say, a country-and-western bar, dangerous.

I often say that when I realized in August 1995 that I could and would do it, I would have been willing to give up my career entirely and do something like move to Spokane to become a secretary in a grain elevator company (after improving my typing skills), if I could be a normal woman there. For such a career-driven person that assertion may seem remarkable, but it’s true. In the event, nothing like that happened. I carried on with my academic career. The students, accustomed to Boy George and rock musicians with eye makeup, didn’t care one way or the other. The university and state of Iowa took it in stride. The conservative governor was asked in late 1995 by a journalist what he thought of the gender-changing professor at the university. He replied, “Can she still teach?” “Well, uh, yes.” “Is her CV the same as it was?” “Um, yes.” “Well, then, what’s the problem?” Sweet, sensible Iowa. Every four years, during the Iowa caucuses, the coastie press discovers that there is, after all, sentient life in the state. I wish they would give up the term “flyover country” and note what Iowans actually do.

One might ask, too, how much the identity threatens to occupy or take over my sense of myself, how much it impinges on my dealings with others. Again, massively. Women and men live different lives. Women form deeper and quicker friendships, for example, something I had not expected at all, so dense was I as a man. But no worries. I feel entirely comfortable. I have met myself. Yet that’s not to say that I was tortured or suicidal as Donald. When I was he I was a he. Now I’m different. Fine.

Very fine. Most of life’s actions give occasions for regret, that four-o’clock-in-the-morning doubt that you married the right person, say, or divorced the right person, or are in the right job. Remarkably, from the moment that I got it, beside the DeKalb Oasis travel plaza on Interstate 88 while driving back to Iowa City, I have not had a moment of doubt.

Nonetheless, there are real tradeoffs in this identity business. Yet tradeoffs are not much to the point. Obviously, if I had been born in Afghanistan, or in Denmark before antibiotics made operations safe (see the wrenching movie The Danish Girl), I would not have done it. To that extent, cost and benefit matter. But you are not buying an ice cream cone or an automobile when you decide to become, say, a lawyer, or move to France and become French, or change gender, or, as I said, grow up. (Remember how you thought as a child that the great thing about being an adult was that you could buy all the action figures or Barbie dolls you wanted?)

A society like ours trying to follow Adam Smith’s liberal plan allows gender transition, and allows gays and lesbians who have come out, and allows green hair. In Iran, in accord with the queer-killing, locker-room theory, gays are compelled to change gender. And you know how the queers are treated in Uganda, that bastion of Anglican Christianity. Being religious doesn’t guarantee that you follow the spirit of the tent maker of Mecca or the carpenter of Nazareth.

I don’t need to tell you how much that has changed in northern Europe and its offshoots. (The psychiatrist-supervised 100-year legal reign of terror, typified by the United Kingdom, where transgender people did not receive legal recognition of their changed status until 2004, did not happen in southern Europe.) In the spring of 2017 I gave a talk on transsexuality and economics to an enthusiastic audience at, of all places, the Central Intelligence Agency. If a transgender spy was threatened by the Russians with revealing her former gender, I suppose she would reply, “Feel free, guys.” So much for Trump’s fake worry.

I lived in Adams House as a Harvard undergrad, class of 1964, but didn’t know that the place was notoriously gay. It shows how deeply people were in the closet back then. Academic life has become an easy place to come out. When I wrote a piece for the Times Higher Education (London) about the matter, some brilliant editor headlined it “It’s Good to Be a Don if You’re Going to Be a Deirdre.” Most of the private colleges were slow to adjust. By contrast, my beloved University of Iowa, I discovered, had detailed and liberal policies in place, a decade before Fair Harvard. By now, though, Harvard has a sensible dorm policy and a GLBTQ magazine—although it comes through the mail in a plain brown wrapper.

In 1996, while teaching for a year at Erasmus University of Rotterdam—I was trying to give my wife and two grown children space to adjust, a plan that did not work—I was standing around with some other economists, all male. They of course knew my recent history. As economists are inclined to do, we were talking about economics. I, the only women in the group, made a point. The men ignored it. Entirely without malice, they simply couldn’t hear a woman. A few minutes later, George made the same observation I’d made. Their reaction was “Oh, George, what a great point! You should publish it in the American Economic Review!” I admit that at the time I thought to myself in triumph, “Yes! They’re treating me like a woman!” It was the first time, but also the last, that I enjoyed the experience, which every girl and woman is familiar with.

A few years later, at my fiftieth college reunion, the Radcliffe women of my class invited me to join them in the group photo on the steps of Widener Library. Huzzah! Only one woman, with whom I had thought I was having an affair in the spring of my freshman year, objected. After my transition, I called up a male dean at Harvard—since Radcliffe, idiotically, had been closed—and asked him if Harvard could change my degree to Radcliffe. “Oh, I don’t think we can do that.” In reply, I whined, “But the US State Department had no trouble changing my passport from male to female.” Pause. Then, with a smile in his voice, “Ah, yes. But Harvard is older than the US State Department.”

Sigh. Some things never change.

An earlier version of this article was published in Maynard’s Notes: The Newsletter of the American Economic Association’s LGBTQ and Friends Community, in September 2017.