On the Science of Changing Sex

The Science of Passing

Posted in Transsexual Field Studies by Kay Brown on June 22, 2015

androgynous faceFor years, I’ve been using this image on my blog to represent the perception of sex.  I’ve long had an intense interest, both personal and professional, in the branch of psychology that deals with perception.  In my professional career that area has been mostly focused (yes, pun intended) on early vision processes.  But in my own time, I’ve always loved higher level perceptual processes.  I’ll bet you, my reader, do too… as in the so called “optical illusions”.

For transfolk, the issue of perception can be of even more practical interest.  To wit; how to “pass”. But before we can answer that question, we need to ask another, “What perceptual characteristics do people use to attribute a given sex to an individual?”  The image above is one of my favorite “illusions”.  Which face is that of a woman?  Which face is that of a man?  In fact, the two faces are identical.  The only difference is the contrast adjustment that was applied by post-processing.  Take a moment to view this video:


While contrast is important, so is chromatic cues.  Women have greener faces overall, while men have redder (ruddy) faces, due to capillaries carrying red blood closer to the skin surface.  Which underscores the use of cosmetics.  Women use cosmetics to increase the contrast and color cues that our brains will interpret as gender cues, increasing the sexually dimorphoric cues into super-cues, as people find highly sexually dimorphic characteristics more attractive in both sexes.

visagesBut as thousands of transwomen who have had Facial Feminization Surgery (FFS) can confirm, cosmetics alone aren’t sufficient.  Other cues feed our perception and attribution of sex.  Certain facial shape / feature distances also contribute.  Consider the images here.  Which is more feminine?  Masculine?  The one on the left has lower eyebrows than that on the right.  This shows why women tweeze their eyebrows from underneath, to increase the distance between the eyes and the brows.  But this small difference is not as powerful as the other cues, all things being equal.

So far, science hasn’t really looked at the three dimensional aspects of the face.  But given the obvious effects that FFS have on one’s ability to pass, they obviously have a very powerful effect.  I look forward to further studies which will include these facial cues.

Further Reading:

Passibility differences between transsexual types

Differences between androphilic vs. non-androphilic transwomen, passing, and transition decision making

Passibility: Mannerisms and Motor skill differences between MTF transsexual types


Dupuis-Roy, N. et al., “Uncovering gender discrimination cues in a realistic setting”
Journal of Vision (2009) doi:10.1167/9.2.10

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A (Wither) Spoonful of Poison

Posted in Editorial by Kay Brown on June 10, 2015

CloudyWhen transwomen think of transphobic attacks, they often think of Paul McHugh.  He was the adminstrator who shut down the John Hopkins Gender Clinic.  Of course, looking back, it was just a tiny fraction of a blip in time before it would have been shut down anyways – as all of the clinics in the United States were – a victim of its own success.  Yes, success, as their involvement in what was thought to be experimental became routine palliative medicine.

McHugh has long been the darling of the so called “social conservatives”, translation:  homophobic bigots.  We can see this by how ardently he is admired by the Witherspoon Institute; the same Witherspoon Institute that funded and supported the academically fraudulent Regenerus paper which purported, but in fact did not, show that children of gay and lesbian parents were emotionally harmed.  In fact, McHugh has published yet another anti-trans editorial on their website.

In his editorial, he makes some rather amazing claims regarding transsexuality and transgender sexuality, mixing just enough scientific truth to sound credible.  But mixed in are some amazing falsehoods, not just mistaken ideas, but outright lies,

“In fact, gender dysphoria—the official psychiatric term for feeling oneself to be of the opposite sex—belongs in the family of similarly disordered assumptions about the body, such as anorexia nervosa and body dysmorphic disorder. Its treatment should not be directed at the body as with surgery and hormones any more than one treats obesity-fearing anorexic patients with liposuction. The treatment should strive to correct the false, problematic nature of the assumption and to resolve the psychosocial conflicts provoking it.”

McHugh correctly identified that there are two types of transwomen, autogynephilic and non-autogynephilic… but then makes the most silly comparison that those with gender dysphoria “belongs in the family of similarly disordered assumptions about the body, such as anorexia nervosa and body dysmorphic disorder”  He KNOWS better, or at least, he should.  Autogynephilia is NOT related to these two disorders in any way, shape, or form.  By making this statement, it is clear, as his final sentence in this quote shows, that he is attempting to mislead his reader into the false understanding that psychotherapy can treat autogynephilia and gender dysphoria.  It can’t.

McHugh bemoans the recent movement to outlaw the clearly ineffective and damaging practice of “reparitive therapy”, which he would like to see used to treat transkids.  A careful reading of his editorial will show that he fails to acknowledge that transkids are (with respect to their natal sex) “homosexual”.  It doesn’t take a super sleuth to know that the reason that he doesn’t mention this is because he would also like to see reparitive therapy used to “treat” homosexual teens under the guise of treating gender atypical / dysphoric youngsters.  But he knows this is even more unlikely to be allowed if society understood that the choice for transkids is one of living as a very gender atypical gay man or lesbian, or as gender typical heterosexual transwoman or transman, respectively; but McHugh wants that to be no choice. He wants such youngsters to be “repaired” to be gender typical heterosexual adults, which he knows, but seems incapable of accepting, is an impossibility.

I’ve said it before in a previous essay, but it bears repeating.  McHugh, a conservative Catholic, seeks to substitute religious bigotry for palliative medicine… and is quite willing to bend the truth to get it.

Notes: Autogynephilia, while NOT related to anorexia nervosa and body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), is related to Body Integrity Identity Disorder, a member of the family of Erotic Target Identity Disorders.  This family is about sexuality and sexual orientations, which like heterosexuality and homosexuality have been shown to be very resistant to change, thus the move to outlaw “reparitive therapy”.  Erotic Target Identity Disorders are far more common in men than women.

Anorexia Nervosa is a member of the eating disorders and is far more common in women than men.  Interestingly, among the men, it is more common in gay men than straight, suggesting a connection with hypomasculinized brains.  Cognitive Behavior Therapy helps about 50% of clients.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a member of the Obsessive-Compulsive disorders.  It is equally common in men and women.  The disorder responds favorably with Cognitive Behavior Therapy in combination with SSRI’s.

Note that not only are anorexia and BDD not related to autogynephilia, they aren’t even related to each other!

For the record:  No study has EVER shown that ANY therapy can “cure” either type of gender dysphoria, autogynephilic or transkid.  One can only come to some accommodation.  Among those useful accommodations is social transition, HRT, and SRS, as was fully endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association.

Addendum 5/16/2016:  McHugh continues his anti-trans ‘crusade’.  You may wish to read another rebuttal of an earlier version of McHugh’s misleading op-eds:  http://www.transadvocate.com/worlds-experts-condemn-the-mchugh-hoax_n_13924.htm

Reference: Paul McHugh, “Transgenderism: A pathogenic Meme”

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The New Math

Posted in Transsexual Field Studies by Kay Brown on June 9, 2015


There’s a wonderful new study that uses the United States Social Security Administration and Census Bureau data to get a much better estimate of the number of post-transition transsexuals in the United States.  The numbers line up pretty well with what we already knew, but we get additional data, like where we are more likely to live and when we transitioned.

Take a look at the map above.  Note that religosity, homophobic & transphobic laws and associated “conservative” views are inversely proportional with the transgender density.  (That is to say, that “red” states have fewer transfolk than “blue”.  People move to where they are more likely to be welcomed, comfortable, and not socially & economically discriminated against?)  It looks like very few transfolk live in Utah, home of the very openly transphobic Mormon (LDS) Church.  Quite a few transfolk call the West Coast home, while the North East is another inviting locale, not really surprising, but interesting non-the-less.

The study’s abstract says it all,

“This paper utilizes changes to individuals ’first names and sex-coding in files from the Social Security Administration (SSA) to identify people likely to be transgender.  I first document trends in these transgender-consistent changes and compare them to trends in other types of changes to personal information.  I find that transgender-consistent changes are present as early as 1936 and have grown with non-transgender consistent changes.  Of the likely transgender individuals alive during 2010, the majority change their names but not their sex-coding.  Of those who changed both their names and their sex-coding, most change both pieces of information concurrently, although over a quarter change their name first and their sex-coding 5-6 years later.  Linking individuals to their 2010 Census responses shows my approach identifies more transgender members of racial and ethnic minority groups than other studies using, for example, anonymous on line surveys.  Finally, states with the highest proportion of likely transgender residents have state-wide laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression.  States with the lowest proportion do not.”

The data shows that as the population of the US grew, so did the number of transfolk.  The two went nearly hand in hand, supporting my long held thesis that there had NOT been an increase in the percentage of transfolk in the population.  The data shows that from 1936 to 2010, perhaps 30,000 post-op transsexuals changed their sex designation on SSA data.  We know that from 1980 onwards, the SSA would only allow that to be done upon proof of SRS.  Interestingly, the data indicates that the average age of name and sex change is around 35, consistent with other studies.  The other really interesting thing is that about 25% of those who had SRS, changed their names about five or so years before.  This is consistent with the experience of younger MTF transwomen and FtM transmen who often cannot afford SRS until later.

But, this author, using both SSA and Census records, looking at name changes, not just SRS, says,

“I am able to identify 135,367 individuals who are likely to be transgender. Of these, 89,667 were alive during the 2010 Census.”

The author noted than many of these individuals who had not changed their sex designation did so because they were FtM transmen who likely had not elected to get ‘bottom’ SRS that would qualify for such designation change under the SSA rules.  This also means that these individuals were not included in the map above.

(Addendum 6/15/2015:  For the past 13 years, many news sources, including the New York times and GLAAD, have been quoting an erroneous figure of 700,000 transgender people in the United States, from a highly suspect surveys which include in an estimate of closeted cross-dressers / cross-dreamers (i.e. non-transsexual autogynephiles) which expressed an unrealized low level desire to transition.  Recently, that figure has been doubled to 1,400,000 transgender people!  Here, we have solid numbers from the SSA and Cencus records, that show that there are perhaps 90,000 actual post social transition transgender people in the US today.  Often taken by the press and the public to indicate the number of post transition transgender people, the higher estimate by counting those with only a half-hearted wish to transition, or simply “identify” as transgender, overstates the number by over ten fold.  This lower figure also underscores the high anti-trans hate crimes and murders as a percentage of the transgender population.)


Benjamin Cerf Harris, “Likely Transgender Individuals in U.S. Federal Administrative Records and the 2010 Census”


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