Monday, April 18, 2011

HBS pseudoscience

Now I want to show you an example of skepticism as applied to a queer issue.  Skeptics will appreciate the article I found, but first I need to explain a lot of background.

Like any other community, the trans community has its internal politics and factions.  What's more surprising is that there are some trans factions which are... I don't want to poison the well, so let's just say that they believe there is a hierarchy of trans people, and that they themselves belong at the top.  I should emphasize that these factions are necessarily small because they're built on exclusivity.

The most extreme of these factions are the people with Harry Benjamin Syndrome (HBS).  Named after a doctor who would probably not support them, HBS is an invented intersex condition causing the brain to develop as one sex, and the rest of the body to develop as the other sex.  True HBS women conform to conventional gender expressions, down to the shopping, makeup, handbags, and painted nails, and any transwomen who fail to fit this are not real women.  HBSers set themselves apart from "all the gay, lesbian, bisexual, crossdressers, transvestites, transgenders, genderqueers, autogynes, non-ops and others who claim to be afflicted with exactly the same condition that Harry found when in fact they have nothing but various degrees of mis-nurturing to account for their weird urges."*  They even distance themselves from "transsexuals", since they believe the word has been tainted. 

*Quote from here.

In short, HBSers feel that they are different from, and better than all people who fall under the transgender umbrella.  And in fact, they could be right.  About being different.  Trans people are quite diverse, and it is likely that it is really a collection of different conditions with different etiologies.  HBSers might even be right about belonging in a separate movement from transgender.  After all, people who undergo complete transition do face some distinct issues.

But I doubt that HBS is quite as different as they suppose.  And even if it were, this would not justify the way HBSers invalidate transgender people.  And it does not justify, nor is it justified by, the pseudoscience they use to support their claims.

The article I found is called "The Science behind HBS", critically investigating the scientific arguments used in a book by HBS author Rose White.
White quotes an article by Zhou, Hofman, Gooren and Swaab from Nature 1997 (my emphasis):
"HBSS Harry Benjamin Syndrome Sufferers have strong feeling, often from childhood onwards, of having been born the wrong sex. - A female-sized BSTc was found in male-to-female HBS's -- the size was not influenced by sex hormones in adulthood and was independent of sexual orientation. - Investigation of genetics, gonads, genitalia or hormone levels have so far produced any results that explain HBS."
The paper is about statistical differences in the brains of people with gender dysphoria.  Of course, when you actually look at the referenced paper, you find that the paper never referred to HBS, and was instead referring to transsexuals.
White has changed the text in order to make it look like these researchers support the use of the term Harry Benjamin Syndrome instead of the problematic word "transsexual". This is interesting, given that no official medical or psychiatric organisation anywhere in the world recognize the syndrome or use the label.
I find it interesting that they feel the need to go beyond quote mining into deliberate misquotation.  But there's more.
The six transwomen Swaab & Co autopsied for their 1995 paper were not checked for HSB. They were dead and would not have been able to answer, anyway. All you can say is that they were M2F transwomen who had had sex reassignment surgery (or "sex affirmation surgery" to use White's term).

White agrees that a majority of those who transition are not HBS women. The chances are, therefore, that a majority of these six transwomen had been crossdreamers [ie autogynephiliacs] as well. If that is the case the paper could be said to have proved that crossdreaming has a biological basis.
And if that weren't enough, there's actually a paper that contradicts the claims of White.  In White's view, only male-oriented transwomen could possibly be real women, but that's not what the studies show.
White does not mention a later paper by Swaab & Co, where they look a related part of the brain, the INAH3. In this study they did check for sexual orientation, and found no differences between gynephilic [female-oriented] transwomen and androphilic [male-oriented] transwomen:
Go ahead and read the rest of the post, and the rest of the series on the Crossdreamers blog.  HBS is a pretty obscure issue, but a fascinating one, and I appreciate any smackdown as well-done as this.

1 comment:

maddox said...

I always love debunking stuff that is has such obvious logical fallacies.

This is especially true though:
"But I doubt that HBS is quite as different as they suppose. And even if it were, this would not justify the way HBSers invalidate transgender people."