The HBS Controversy and the Fun of Fallacious Reasoning (And For The Uninformed: GID)


This post was originally published August 15, 2009 here.

For those that remember the last post about people finding cisgendered offensive based on some of the most fallacious and stupid reasoning applicable, don’t forget, trans people are just as capable of fallacious silliness.

When in comes to fallacious arguments and pseudoscience, no one does it better than the Harry Benjamin Syndrome proponents. To give you a reasonably good idea of what they’re claiming would require me to suspend about 90% of my biology knowledge, beat my head against my desk until it became numb and try very hard not to make the wtf face that my friends are so very familiar with nowadays.

I will do my best for you. But first, there may be uninformed cisgendered people here. Cisgendered people who (provided they haven’t ran off from being so offended by the word cis) may want to know what Gender Identity Disorder (which is certainly not HBS) entails first. A point of comparison if you will. It’s blindingly simple to describe so it isn’t necessary to make an entire For The Uninformed post for it (but to be helpful, I will put a tag for GID and a For The Uniformed tag on this post).

For the Uninformed Mini Section: Gender Identity Disorder

Put simply Gender Identity Disorder (or GID for short) is a mental disorder wherein one exhibits a persistent (meaning it doesn’t go away) urge to exhibit traits of a different sex. These traits may be the somewhat ethereal and short lived cultural elements assigned to a given sex. Or these traits may be a simple self conceptualization and involvement with the social group of a given sex. Or these traits may be the actual physical bodily structures that arise from the developmental path of a given sex (not necessarily all of them either). Or all three. GID doesn’t specify, so it covers an epic shit ton (technical word) of symptoms.

GID is often characterized by dysphoria, which causes this urge and is persistent in and of itself. This dysphoria has triggers and normally the triggers are traits of one’s birth sex. It’s often described as a feeling of foreignness or wrongness to one’s body parts and/or social and cultural roles and expectations and/or sociological group and conceptual description as assigned at birth.

Okay, maybe not so simple. My fault for being a biologist and loving technical terms. To make it a little bit less sciencetastic: Your body’s sexed traits (penis, breasts, vagina etc) and/or your grouping in society (guys, chicks or androgynes), and/or your social/cultural roles and expected expressions (how society expects you to behave) causes you to hurt a lot and makes you want to change one or more of those things.

Ending of For the Uniformed Mini Section!

Transsexuality is more of a phenomenon then a disorder, it’s the phenomenon in which individuals with the conditions described by GID (or other folk with different issues) seek out, attain or finish a process known as transition. This transition can be physical or it can be social or it can be both.

So what does this have to do with HBS? After all, HBS’s website claims that it is an intersexual condition wherein the mind is the only section that possesses the traits of another sex (whereas more commonly intersexed folk may have genitalia and physical structures that do not strictly follow a male or a female development path alone). That doesn’t sound much like GID right?

Well actually, “HBS sufferers” (you will find out why I used quotes shortly) experience dysphoria, often seek out physical and social transition and are pretty much entirely medically and conceptually described by the phrases “GID” and “transsexuality”. In fact, the HBS people like to claim that HBS is “true transsexuality”. Well shit. So that makes things a lot more interesting now, doesn’t it?

First problem: HBS claiming “true transsexualism” (as a medical version of the word transsexuality, which is a fabrication in and of itself, as transsexualism is essentially the exact same damn thing) is a No True Scotsman Fallacy. In case you abhor hyperlinks, a no true scotsman fallacy is based around circular reasoning wherein the actual data or definition of a concept is ignored and counterexamples are dismissed as not being true so and so.

So if I were to say, “all MtF transsexuals like high heels,” and then someone else were to dispute that by saying, “I don’t like high heels and I’m an MtF transsexual” and I responded with, “you’re not a true transsexual, therefore your example doesn’t do anything” it would be circular fallacious reasoning based on misuse or complete ignorance of a definition.

Transsexual’s definition does not specify a brain intersexed condition. It doesn’t even really specify dysphoria or GID. So to make claims about “true transsexuality” or worse yet to attempt to pretend that transsexualism is a medical term replacing a political term, when those claims involve things that have nothing to do with its definition (while simultaneously dismissing all counter examples as not real transsexuals) is the textbook example of No True Scotsman.

And that is exactly what HBS proponents do.

Wait, it gets worse.

GID is established in the medical community for America and written into the DSM (diagnostic statistical manual, the book used to diagnose and keep track of the disorders that the psychological sciences know of). It has essential equivalents in the ICD (what the World Health Organization uses for the same purposes as the DSM). It’s backed by the psychological field and biological field’s research and the methodology of treatment has been tested and is detailed in the standards of care put forward by WPATH an organization of medical doctors, psychiatrists and other biology and psychology related scientists. It’s also accepted by the American Medical Association (which is usually a good sign for its scientific authenticity)

What does HBS have establishing it? Well… nothing actually. It’s a theory presented by a layman (an admittedly latently sexist word for non-scientist) named Charlotte Goiar and expanded on by more laymen, all of whom are transsexual and personally invested in HBS being taken as reality by the medical field. This theory is based on a flawed study that tested the brains of dead transsexuals who had already undergone hormone replacement therapy against the brains of dead cisgendered folk of the same birth sex who underwent no HRT. A study done in the 1990′s I might add.

The reason why this is flawed? Because exposure to estrogen or testosterone changes the brain, as established in this study published in 2006. Oh and the fun part? They based this study on a group of people with GID and a group of people without it, took brain tests using MRIs and whatnot and then exposed the people with GID to hormone replacement therapy. Which not only tests to see whether HRT changes the brain but also establishes what a pre HRT transsexual’s brain looks like.

The information revealed is pretty damning. The transsexual individuals had brains identical to cisgendered people of the same birth sex. After HRT, the transsexual individuals had brains nearly identical to cisgendered people of the same sex as their target sex. So this idea that trans people have intersexed brains? Completely and utterly unscientific. To the point where you can arguably state that the evidence used to back up the hypothesis has been scientifically disproven.

As a note: This is not to say that there couldn’t be elements of the brain’s structure that we can’t detect with current methods that are sex specific and could contribute to or actually inflict GID on someone if they were mismatched with the external birth sex. But the only study used to back up the idea of “intersexed minds” has been disproven so HBS has been relegated back to layman unbacked hypothesis. Any attempt to claim that it is scientific, empirically proven or backed by research is at best shoddy pseudoscience and at worst outright willfully ignorant lying

So the whole HBS thing? Fallacy and a lack of scientific backing. Good times. As Laura from Laura’s Playground has cautioned one should not take the HBS proponent’s standards of care seriously, nor should one take what they say seriously. The fact that they continue to peddle this abhorrent pseudoscientific garbage as scientific and medical fact is a pretty good indicator of either willful ignorance or outright self inflicted delusion. Not a great bunch to be taking advice from.

There are a few people though (especially because of the note above) that would ask, “well isn’t it possible that they’re still sort of right? That there might be an intersexed brain condition or something causing GID?”

Perhaps. But something that is important to remember is that anyone who claims that they know the single cause of GID is either full of shit or doesn’t understand how the disorder is named and defined.

You see, when I went over GID above, you’ll notice that it is (basically) a name assigned to a collection of symptoms. The name doesn’t yield a whole lot of idea about what might cause these symptoms and if you look around, you’ll find that there’s not a lot of ideas on what any causes might be. Considering the sheer numbers of substantially different experiences of dysphoria, transition and whatnot had by various trans people who still meet the definition for transsexual and meet the diagnosis of GID one would be hard pressed to make a viable argument that GID had one single unifying cause.

Like most disorders named after a collection of symptoms (like Multiple Personality Disorder was before it became DID) you really don’t know if there’s multiple causes. Whereas a disorder that is named including a causative agent (Dissociative Identity Disorder, same effects as MPD, but caused by dissociation fragmenting one’s identity and self conceptualization into multiple individuals) can definitely be shown to have a single cause.

So to sum it up GID does not contain a cause mention, nor do scientists really know the cause(s). And people with GID have had really radically different experiences. What does this say, logically? That it is highly likely that GID is multicausal. This means that there could be an intersex brain condition version of GID (maybe called Neurological Intersexuality Disorder if it exists, is discovered and split off). This means that there could be a sociologically and psychologically induced dysphoria version of GID (after all, there’s a few folks out there for whom the body is not the issue but the way society treats them is). This means that there could be a self conceptualization version of GID, unrelated to society (which would probably still be called GID if others are split off, honestly). This means, overall, that there could actually be quite a few different types of GID caused by different things (going beyond even what I listed above).

All of these versions (with the exception of hypothetical ones that defy what we do know about the brain, body and GID) are possible because nothing about what we know of GID suggests that any single cause is responsible for every case of it. So when people start talking about “true GID” or “real GID” or “the real cause of GID” they are, for lack of a better way to say it, full of shit.

Always good to keep that in mind for medical trans discussions.

Go here to read the comments on the original post. There’s over 60 of them so I guarantee it’s worth it. XD

4 Responses to “The HBS Controversy and the Fun of Fallacious Reasoning (And For The Uninformed: GID)”

  1. 1 Schala

    The study about the 6 trans women back in 1999 (I think) is not completely flawed, in that one of them died before HRT ever started. Yet her brain was similar to the other 5, and the cis women, and dissimilar to cis men.

    Also the part studied in the 2006 study may not be the exact same.

    Brain structures that vary with hormonal input may include certain parts of the hypothalamus, but AFAIK, not the one studied by SWAAB in 1999.

    I’m not a HBS proponent, mainly because their no-true-scotsman fallacy puts me off, a lot. But I do think transsexuality is an intersex condition. We’ll know more once more research is done, maybe in a few decades only, doesn’t matter. I know who I am, but am also curious.

    The hypothalamus has many structures that exist and some brain structures certainly are plastic enough to change following hormonal input. Yet the BSTc of the hypothalamus doesn’t seem to be one of those. It develops in early adulthood and remains the same for all life, and seems to depend on sex identity rather than hormonal exposure.

    This would be the basis for knowing that testosterone was poisonous for me, not merely unwanted. My body rejected it as poisonous, long before I knew what being trans meant. Note that I also resist testosterone to a certain degree (not enough to have ambiguous genitals, but enough to have a much more “lite” puberty). I started hormones at almost 24, in a state I would qualify as underdeveloped male. Even if my hormone levels (testosterone mainly) tested as right in the middle of the adult male range.

  2. I definitely don’t dismiss the NI model (neurological intersex) out of hand. I just think it’s putting a lot of eggs in one basket that may not help us socially at all. Even if the NI model is established, we’ll likely still face the same level of hate from society.

  3. 3 Schala

    I don’t doubt that we would suffer harshly all the same, though this would be a sound basis for removal from the DSM, probably in the 6th edition. Then ignorants couldn’t bring up “but its the crazyness speaking!” to dismiss any and all arguments we have (mAndrea used that one before), just because GID is listed in a mental illness directory, because it wouldn’t be. Radfems aren’t the only one bringing the “it’s in the DSM, it means you’re mentally ill, hence cannot be trusted to say the truth”, the US seem to be fond of that line of thought in some places.

    The SWAAB thingy was 1997, figured I didn’t have the date right.

    Zoe Brain has more stuff about a 2007 study showing fMRI of living people and confirming that trans women think like women. It’s based on erotic stimuli on the brain. Sexual orientation doesn’t influence results at all, only your identified sex.

    I’m confident more data will accumulate as time goes on, and while it might not reduce stigma that much, or for opponents, bring about a “prevent/abort trans kids” strategy (since its not gene-based AFAIK, thus undetectable in-utero), it’s still a step in the right direction of understanding the how and why we are the way we are.

    If anything, it might stop the Zuckers of the world in their tracks when they get formal proof that all they’re doing is traumatizing children, that all their efforts are vain.

  4. One can hope, right?

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