Part of the genesis of the idea for my “Science!” articles came from a blog I stumbled across a couple months back: Sex Change Info, a disingenuously named anti-trans blog run by a man named Walt Heyer where individual studies on transgender topics are waived about as proof that transgender is nothing more than a mental illness. Heyer also runs the website Sex Change Regret, where he tells his own story of gender dysphoria: he transitioned MtF as an adult, getting the full SRS, and after seven years detransitioned back into a male persona due to regret he felt over the surgery. Today, he refers to himself as “the Maverick Transsexual.”
I am not going to judge Heyer’s personal experience nor his decision to detransition. That’s a private journey and only he can be the judge of it. What I will take issue with, however, is the way he’s chosen to turn his negative experience into a crusade against SRS and the transgender community.
Heyer’s main argument is that Gender Identity Disorder (GID) is wholly a mental illness, and that science backs up his position; however, the science is being ignored. Instead, transitioning is being forced on mentally ill men by a conspiracy of trans activists who want to force acceptance of their deviant lifestyle and unscrupulous doctors who are making big bucks off of SRS and related surgeries. [And yes, Hayer focuses almost exclusively on MtF transsexuals; there’s rarely any mention of FtM on either website.] He maintains that the high suicide rate amongst transsexuals, even after undergoing SRS, is a result of their regret over the irreversible damage these mentally ill men have done to their bodies. And if it sounds like I’m exaggerating his position, let me share a few of his own words with you, like this:
We transgenders have been lied to all these years. Doctors and surgeons have been ripping us off because they told us we indeed would be changed from a man into a real woman after the gender change surgery.
Activist transgenders experience social conflict mostly because of their own behaviors. It’s true; some transgenders’ behaviors are flat out offensive to almost everyone else on earth and they know it and they love it. Transgenders want laws that protect them so they can provoke others with their often flamboyant, even obnoxious, behaviors. They want legal protections as transgenders so they can freely provoke, taunt and bully non-transgenders, secure in knowing they are protected from any consequences.
And my personal favorite example:
If someone doesn’t put a halt to this gender madness soon they will take babies from their cribs and inject them with hormone blockers. We are placing kids and adults at very high risk of unnecessary deaths in a “Dr. Frankenstein like” surgical fabrication of gender imposters.
So that’s his view on the matter: perverted gender imposters and greedy surgeons are going to get your kids if you don’t fight back! Won’t someone think of the children?
The main ways that Heyer backs up his extreme position are overemphasizing the importance of individual studies, cherry-picking data, and relying on a fallacious black-and-white view of the debate,. These are tactics are straight out of the pseudoscience playbooks of the anti-vaccination and anti-GMO movements.
First, in classic pseudoscience style, Heyer likes to tout any new journal article or news report that agrees with his position as if it is the smoking gun that destroys his opposition and proves him right. As such, he overstates the import and impact of any study he reports on. One study, he claims, has “turned the transgender world upside down;” another is “the biggest [study] that I have ever seen on the brain in GID.” Never is a study insignificant, or methodologically weak, or merely “evidence.” It’s all damning proof of the conspiracy to make men castrate themselves.
This approach reveals a fundamental lack of understanding on Heyer’s part about how science works. One study in science does not “prove” or “disprove” anything. In fact, in science the concept of proof is invalid:
The knowledge that is built by science is always open to question and revision. No scientific idea is ever once-and-for-all “proved.” Why not? Well, science is constantly seeking new evidence, which could reveal problems with our current understandings. Ideas that we fully accept today may be rejected or modified in light of new evidence discovered tomorrow.
No single study can ever be the beginning and end of inquiry, and no single study can be held up as the definitive word, even if it does agree with his worldview. Science isn’t about proof; it’s about a preponderance of the evidence.
In addition to this overpromoting of data points, Heyer also has a tendency to cherry-pick both the studies he acknowledges and the quotes he offers in support of his positions — another tactic of the pseudoscientific crowd. For example, on his page Sex Change Regret, Heyer quotes the conclusions of what he calls the “Sweedish Study” (he has a tendency to name studies after their places of origin, as if there’s ever only been a single study put out by Swedish scientists about transgender). Here’s what Heyer quotes from the study on his page:
Persons with transsexualism, after sex reassignment, have considerably higher risks for mortality, suicidal behaviour, and psychiatric morbidity [diseased state] than the general population. Our findings suggest that sex reassignment, although alleviating gender dysphoria, may not suffice as treatment for transsexualism.
Sounds like a pretty damning judgement against SRS … until you actually read the part Heyer omitted. If you look at the abstract for the actual study, Dhejne et al (2011), this is what you will find as the entire conclusions drawn by the authors:
Persons with transsexualism, after sex reassignment, have considerably higher risks for mortality, suicidal behaviour, and psychiatric morbidity than the general population. Our findings suggest that sex reassignment, although alleviating gender dysphoria, may not suffice as treatment for transsexualism, and should inspire improved psychiatric and somatic care after sex reassignment for this patient group.
I’ve bolded the line Heyer omitted. Notice how it changes the context of the findings considerably, at least as they serve as support for Heyer’s anti-SRS agenda? The article concluded that treatment for gender dysphoria cannot end with the surgery (which is what the WPATH Standards of Care says) and that current models of post-op care appear to be insufficient. In other words, the article was calling for better care, not an end to SRS.
So, Heyer sees each study that leans his way as proof that the evil transsexuals are just men with psychological problems. As noted earlier, that’s a problem because science doesn’t work that way. But there’s another issue as well. Did a study come out that failed to support a hypothesis that there may be a genetic component ro transgender? Good; that’s a data point. But just because one study failed to support one hypothesis does not automatically mean YOUR hypothesis is true. To make that assumption is to commit the fallacy of the false dilemma.
It’s no different than creationists who, instead of spending time supporting their own position, look for flaws and uncertainties in evolutionary theory; and if they find anything that they can interpret as a flaw or inconsistency, then that’s “proof” that evolution is wrong and therefore creationism must be true. Disproving someone else’s ideas does not make you the winner by default.
In a larger sense, all of these flaws expose Heyer’s true problem: confirmation bias. He has an agenda that he is promoting, and therefore he selectively presents and overemphasizes the import of anything that agrees with his view while dismissing science that does not agree. Ironically, he accuses his opponents of “ignor[ing] studies that do not support their fabricated false information.” I’m sorely attempted to invoke the “takes one to know one” defense here.
In addition to these flaws, there’s the simple fact of Heyer’s general anti-trans rhetoric. He uses terms like “delusional” and “gender-imposters” when referring to transgender people, and calls transgender advocates “gender non-compliant activists” and “pushers of sex change.” He’s clearly not interested in an open dialogue, and certainly not interested in changing his mind.
Ultimately, is Heyer right about trans being purely a mental disorder? The scientific jury is still out. But his approach to defending his position is full of the worst sort of pseudoscientific flaws. It’s selectively edited, riddled with fallacy, and shackled by a concrete anti-trans agenda. It’s hard to take his conclusions seriously when they are so poorly argued in so many ways.