The first person I knew who told me they weren't transgendered was a crossdresser I'll call Gene. He (and he did later come to insist on male pronouns, and stopped calling himself Gina on the message board we met on), decided that he really was in it for the clothes, and didn't find himself aligned with the other crossdressers on the board, who all thought of themselves as transgendered.

It was a little jarring to me at first; I had naively assumed that crossdressing=transgendered, so having someone overturn that conviction was surprising. But as I reflected on it, I could see his point. And since that time, I've met other people like Gene, some crossdressers, some genderqueer, and even some transsexuals who identify completely as their post-transition gender and have no desire to continue with any kind of transgender identity.

There exists, however, a group of trans women--at least, they seem to be exclusively trans women--who resist being placed under the transgender umbrella. Some refuse to even call themselves transsexuals, preferring the term Harry Benjamin Syndrome instead. They claim that transsexualism is a case of being "neurologically interesexed" by which they mean that they have a "female brain," and therefore a medical, not a psychological condition.

All well and good. I myself believe that transness will ultimately be seen as having a physical component, if for no other reason than it is a part of my thoughts and behaviors, and therefore must map to a physical structure in my brain. Likewise, there are a number of arguments to be made for removing Gender Identity Disorder (the official designation for transness) from the DSM, the same way that homosexuality was previously removed.

If this was as far as the HBSers went, I think they'd be uncontroversial. Unfortunately, it is not. Using Benjamin's old terminology (but ignoring the rest of his scale of transness, which included other forms of transsexuality--and Kinsey numbers, for that matter), the HBSers claim to be "true" transsexuals as opposed to "transgenders" who can never really be women. To bolster these claims, there are frequent references to the "more than 300" studies collected by Zoe Brain which are supposed to unequivocally prove that transsexuality is an intersex condition of the brain, and that this intersexuality distinguishes "true" transsexuals from mere transgenders.

Except that they do nothing of the kind. Ms. Brain has indeed collected an impressive number of studies, but she has done so by including studies that show any difference between male and female brains, not the small number of studies specific to trans people. (In fact, the main source of nearly all the claims rest upon the Zhou study that was based on postmortem analysis of just six transsexuals, all of whom had been on hormones for an extended period of time.) Worse, even those studies that do deal with transsexuals do not include other kinds of trans people, so even if there are identifiable differences in the pre-HRT brains of transsexuals (as this study seems to suggest), there is no way of knowing if those differences aren't present in the brains of, say, crossdressers as well. While there are a lot of reasons for believing--as I certainly do--that there are physiological causes to transness, the claims of the HBSers that they are "neurologically intersex" or that they are some how biologically distinct from other trans people are simply not proven at the present day.

It gets worse. In trans and queer circles, HBSers are notorious for their disruptive, dismissive, and insulting attitudes towards transgender people and even queer people. A quick trip to the Enough Nonsense blog will regale the reader with a heaping plate of homophobia, ableism, lookism, transphobia, and even nice side dish of political paranoia. (Transgender people are now socialists?) And that is hardly the worst of the bunch--witness, for example, the wanton destruction wrought at this thread on Bilerico. For people who claim to not be transgender--hell, who reject the use of transsexual as applied to themselves--certain HBSers spend an enormous amount of time on queer and trans sites vociferously shouting down anyone who dares intimate that transsexuals--or some transsexuals, at least--are transgendered. (They favor a "No true Scotsman" line of argument--if you're transsexual, but call yourself transgendered, then you're not a "real" transsexual.)

And surprisingly for a group that claims to be women, only women, they are remarkably antifeminist in thought. The belief that there is only sex, not gender, that biology is destiny, and their preoccupation with how a woman "should" look are, shall we say, unenlightened at best.

The claims to an intersex identity is also problematic; as Raven Kaldera, who is both intersex and trans, says:

"And anyway, you might want to think hard about why you want to be classed intersex. If it's for "legitimization", that's colonization of someone else's identity without their permission, in order to please people who probably don't deserve to be pandered to. If you think you'll find it easier to get a sex change, you're wrong - intersexuals who desire sex reassignment (and there are a few of us) often find it harder than "normal" transsexuals to find endocrinologists who will work with us. [....] Claiming the medically defined identity of intersex when you have none of the problems involved has been compared to claiming a nonexistent disability to get better parking spaces, or claiming a minority identity that you don't have in order to get a better job in an area with affirmative action laws. We are all minorities, and we don't need to prey on each other."

But perhaps most damning of all the things I can say about the HBS theory is that it simply uses the arguments previously put forth against all trans people to demonize and Other some trans people. That is, Janice Raymond has said that transsexuals can't be women because men can never be women; Germaine Greer has mocked transsexuals for their unwomanly looks, and I'm sure neither care about the BSTc region of the hypothalamus in their determination of what makes a woman. Likewise, Heart and the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival won't care what your MRI shows while they try to not sell you a ticket. (But fortunately, neither will Mara Keisling and other trans activists who work hard for the rights of all trans people, even the ones who would gladly discriminate against some trans people.)

Nobody should be forced into an identity that doesn't fit them--trans people understand this truth quite intimately. But neither should one group attempt to deny another group's own claims to identity, especially another disprivileged group--such sandcastle imitations of the real oppression impress nobody but their sculptors.

Creative Commons License