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Deidre McCloskey on family and trans* battles to be won
by Gretchen Rachel Blickensderfer
2014-09-17

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Role models in the transgender community are becoming increasingly more prolific, not solely because they are trans* but because their accomplishments in a vast range of arenas from the arts to business are speaking for themselves.

The curriculum vitae of Deirdre McCloskey is a portrait of distinction in academia. Her life is a profile in scholarship—the "eye that watched before there was an ocean." The Distinguished Professor of Economics and History and professor of English and communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago has authored 15 books and co-authored another. She has been a recipient of the Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships and has received honorary doctorates from universities across the world such as Sweden, Ireland, Guatemala and Denmark.Her published and award-winning works detailing economic history in the United Kingdom as well as capitalism and the age of commerce have been groundbreaking.

She faced many problems familiar to the trans* community when she transitioned in the mid 1990s, such as the loss of family. Thus, she has remained a fierce advocate for trans* issues having authored Crossing: A Memoir, a book detailing her own journey, while taking on Michael J. Bailey's portrayal of trans* women in his infamous 2003 book The Man Who Would be Queen.

McCloskey's parents encouraged her to "burn always with a hard gem-like flame." For the trans* community, that flame has been testament to the fact that the 'trans' prefix does not make a person less able and accomplished while remaining free to be themselves. Windy City Times caught up with McCloskey while in Europe.

Windy City Times: Can you tell us a little about your European tour?

Deirdre McCloskey: "Tour" is not to be understood in the sense of "book tour" or "triumphal tour." Some triumphs, though: Last week I was interviewed by Ewan Davis on BBC 4 ( he wrote a nice piece for the Spectator to correspond ), and on Monday, June 16, I'm on Newsnight on TV, next weekend a piece in the Financial Times, and an interview has appeared in the London Times. The fuel is Piketty—Ewan cast me as the anti-Piketty, so the enormous ( if unjustified ) excitement his book has created spills over onto poor little moi. I'm attending conferences in Germany and Britain, and doing graduate teaching in Sweden and Italy. And going for a five-day cruise down Norway in a car ferry, reading Ibsen and looking at the scenery of my great-grandparents' native land!

WCT: As a British transplant to Chicago, I am curious as to what originally drew you to the economics of my home country, specifically your award-winning work on the British Iron and Steel Industry from 1870-1913.

Deirdre McCloskey: I had lived in England for many months in 1959 as a teenager. I was already disposed to love and admire Britain from its literature. I had no foreign languages, so it was going to be Britain. I was already enthusiastic about capitalism ( the fervor of a convert from socialism ), and wanted to defend Britain from the crazy charge that it had "failed" even in the late 19th century. Cousins of my father's had built Gary, Indiana, and settled there, so it seemed doubly natural to study the British steel industry. The moral? Scholarship needs passion, too!

WCT: Your writing—certainly in Crossing—possesses the soul of a poet and your father's study of the evolution of the American conservative discusses capitalism and democracy. Can you talk a little bit about the influence of your parents on your early life?

Deirdre McCloskey: My personality has always been more like my mother's than my father's. Mom was passionate, a promising young opera singer and actress, always throwing herself into creative projects. When trapped in suburban Boston by the expectations of 1950s wifehood, for example, she learned ancient Greek, and would tear down walls to improve the house. There was the example of how to work! Dad was learned and witty but very Manly and Veiled the way many men are, and especially were. Both loved me and I loved them—I never had doubts on that score, which has given me some confidence in life.

WCT: You describe yourself as a "Christian libertarian." An April 1 article in The Economist pointed out that many libertarians are religious and "some of them are even fundamentalist Christians." Is it sometimes difficult to reconcile your own political views with those fellow libertarians who would openly criticize your personal life?

Deirdre McCloskey: Very, very few libertarians would criticize my personal life. Conservatives, yes—they would, and will and have. But libertarians are ashamed to be called conservatives, and realize that if they are true to libertarianism they can't be homophobic or transphobic or pretty much anything-harmless-phobic. My son, who lives in Chicago, is an exception. He was, at the last time he would talk to me—1995, a libertarian. But he is a transphobe, it appears, and has kept me from seeing my grandchildren.

WCT: You have mentioned that you have not spoken to your children since 1995. How have you coped with the loss of family like this?

Deirdre McCloskey: Badly. I now cry about it about once a month. Not seeing my grandchildren is like being stabbed in the chest. I learned about my third grandchild only last year, highly indirectly, the son of my daughter. It's not that I have not spoken to them. I have tried and tried. They've never responded.

WCT: Prior to beginning your own journey in 1994 can you talk about both your theory and understanding of the trans* experience?

Deirdre McCloskey: My theory and understanding was primitive, but not surprising. Consider: we as children do not know what it is like to be an adult. Yet we want to be it. Or we don't really know what journalism is like. Yet we study for it. Or we don't really know our lover very well, yet marry him or her—and on and on. Humans leap. Good. It's not true that we should plan out everything, because perfect planning is impossible. So plan, estimate, hope. It's our privilege in a free society. Yogi Berra said, "Prediction is difficult. Especially about the future."

WCT: Recently a self-described libertarian named Kevin Williamson drew the justifiable anger of the community with his article attacking and even dehumanizing Laverne Cox and, one could argue by default, you. You strike me as a pragmatist. So how you respond to his assertions?

Deirdre McCloskey: I've not read Mr. Williamson, and propose not to—ever. But as far as I can gather, he's a simple-minded bigot. A sophisticated version of what he says is natural law, which poisons the mind of many otherwise sensible intellectual Catholics to construe homosexuality as unnatural ( they missed the BBC program on gay animals, I guess ) and to take pleasure in insisting on using "he" when referring to Laverne or me. It's just boyish stuff, immature and ungentlemanly.

WCT: You have called for an "ethical reinvestment [so] we can avoid repeating the slaughters and lesser sadnesses of the twentieth century." Yet one might say that the words Williamson used beget ignorance, then fear, then hared, then violence. He is free to voice his opinion naturally, but isn't there a danger that slaughters and sadnesses can easily be repeated because of the way and the sheer lack of understanding with which he chose to express it?

Deirdre McCloskey: Yes, such talk is dangerous. For a local example, see Michael Bailey, a professor of psychology at Northwestern, who expressed a locker-room theory of homosexuality and gender crossing in a silly book called The Man Who Would be Queen. Under George Bush, the conservative National Academy Press published it. Bailey's theory is that homosexuals want to be girls and that men who want to be women are homosexuals—that is, do it in order to have sex with men. Oy.

WCT: In your talk to the Oxford Liberatian Society, you discussed the strict gender corals you grew up with in the '50s. Agreed, we have advanced a little from those days, yet there is a quite ingrained fear of those who have the temerity to cross them. How does one negate this fear in your opinion? How does society evolve beyond rigid, gender norms?

Deirdre McCloskey: Personally, I'm not bothered about gender norms, except those that restrict expression by males and, especially, as a feminist, females. I want to be a woman. I do not want to use my crossing to challenge or change the norms. I know some people see themselves as between genders and so forth. Good on them. But I don't. I'm a woman. If could magically make everyone forget I was ever a man, I would do the magic! There's no such magic, but no complaints. I have a fulfilling life and many female friends, and many male, too.

WCT: And professionally, you were able to continue to nurture your career, even as you were prepared to lose it. Many are not so fortunate. Homelessness here in Chicago particularly among trans-youth is a tremendous issue and almost a hopeless cycle of loss of a job, unemployment and businesses often refusing to look at them twice as a potential employee, often leading to survival crimes.

What lessons can be drawn from your own experiences? How does the trans-community overcome this cycle?

Deirdre McCloskey: By working hard to get a job. By conforming to employment norms. Show up on time. Work very, very hard. By presenting as a woman ( or a man ), not frightening people by challenging gender stereotypes. The culture still wants to treat us as crazy ( though it's getting better, with Oprah and Transamerica ). So lean against that assumption.

I feel for the children tossed out of their homes by horrible parents. But in the present situation lots of young people have trouble in the labor market. Go where the jobs are. Stay out of the sex trade. And so forth. Nothing controversial, and one can say I am in no position to offer such advice—point taken. But then what's the non-utopian solution? ( No fair saying, "Eliminate gender discrimination." )

WCT: One of the main obstacles that needs to be overcome is de-pathologizing the transgender experience. The LGBs have crossed that obstacle successfully. How does the transgender community cross it? Can we use, for example, the arts?

Deirdre McCloskey: Yes, the arts, which is the way that anything changes in a free society. But the arts in question are not mainly avant-garde installations or street theater. The arts that matter have to be popular. I mention Transamerica, which by itself did more for trans equality than a hundred angry assaults on convention through cutting edge art. The press needs to stand up—I am getting, as I told you, a crazy amount of publicity these weeks in London. "OK, Deirdre, act well, act like a graceful but strong woman, don't scare the horses." It makes the transphobes look stupid.


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