Transgender Brain Scan Headlines Are Misleading, Eugenic

A breakthrough presentation by University of Liège researcher Julie Bakker on transgender biology made international headlines this week. The presentation, which was misleadingly called a “study” in dozens of articles, boasts about having “possibly” discovered the cause of transgender identity through MRIs (popularly called “brain scans”).

“GD [gender dysphoria] might be caused by an atypical sexual differentiation of the brain [] during development,” Bakker said in an emailtoINTO. The presentation most closely relates to Bakker’s earlier co-authored 2017 publication, “Brain functional connectivity patterns in children and adolescents with gender dysphoria: Sex-atypical or not?”

Bakker described the study as nothing short of revolutionary. “Personally I believe that it would help to accept transgenders [sic] if it is shown that it is developmental and not a choice made by people later in life,”she said in an email. “I remember having this conversation with some Americans back in 1995 about sexual orientation. They told me that if it was shown to be ‘biological,’ they would be better accepted, because it would not be seen as a choice.”

Of the dozens of headlines garnered by the research, perhaps Inverse’s was the most alarming:“Brain Scans of Transgender Youth Could Put an End to Gender Dysphoria.” What does it mean to end gender dysphoria? An attempt to end the transgender community itself? While the article itself was friendly to the trans community and suggests that they can identify transgender identity earlier to provide hormones, the costs of this research are dire.

The rapid sharing of this study brings us to a slew of ethical questions about the validity and consequences of these sensationalistic headlines. First, contrary to the article titles, the presentation does not actually show an inherent connection between cisgender and transgender brains of the same gender. Secondly, the articles supporting the results of this research are promoting nothing short of eugenics. This prominent support will do more harm than good for the trans community.

It seems unlikely the authors of the articles actually saw the presentation or read the research, as the study does not show transgender brains are inherently the same as cisgender ones of the same gender. Rather, the researchers suggest that there may be a difference within functional connectivity patterns of the brain among transgender adolescents who were on Triptorelin, a GnRH analog that suppresses puberty, as compared to cisgender adolescents of the same sex assigned at birth.

It is also important to note that some headlines miss the point entirely. PinkNews writes, “Brain scan can tell kids if they’re transgender, study shows.” Bakker’s 2017 co-authored article, on the other hand, concluded they found “no sex- or group differences in brain functional connectivity were observed in prepubertal trans- and cisgender children.” The research only notices a difference in trends in adolescents’ brain functional connectivity. This is not a way of determining gender.

It is similarly dangerous to ignore that all participants in the study – a very small sample size of 40 trans adolescents and 31 trans children – identified as “girls” or “boys.” There were no nonbinary participants whatsoever. Nearly all of the subjects were straight, excluding one bisexual and three sexually unknown adolescent transgender girls. When asked by INTO about non-binary/genderqueer people being excluded from the study, Bakker conflated gender identity and sexuality, “No, we did not focus on sexual orientation. It was really focused on the development of gender identity.”

Among the various issues in the articles’ misreading of the research, there is also a problem with Bakker’s study’s methodology itself. It is commonly known among neuroscientists that “neuroplasticity” complicates research attempting to link identity to brain scans. Neuroplasticity is the phenomenon of the brain reorganizing itself with time and environmental changes. When examining structures as minute as those in Bakker’s research, small environmental shifts, thought processes, or even self-image can change the structure of the brain. The adolescent subjects were on Triptorelin, which could absolutely affect their brain structures. Additionally, even something as simple as identifying with a gender can change the brain’s functional connectivity. Another 2018 study showed that testosterone changed trans men’s hypothalamic microstructures to become closer to cisgender men. There is strong evidence that Triptorelin could have similar effects on functional connectivity.

We also have to take on the (un)ethical aspects of this study. The “born this way” argument is inherently flawed and eugenic. By eugenics, I don’t necessarily mean preventing individuals from having children. Instead, the research is attempting to find an “abnormality” with certain populations to suppress it. In a more severe case, fetuses designated as transgender could be aborted. This may be something we have to ask ourselves if the study was conclusive enough to determine gender. Is being transgender inherently suffering? Is it undesirable?

We can expect that if there was a definitive way of telling that someone is transgender, we would be required to do it to obtain necessary medicine. We should not have to go through brain scans to “prove” that we’re trans to get hormones or surgery. However, if insurance companies, doctors, or medical facilities found a way to guarantee that there would not be regret, they would most likely compel us to meet that guarantee. MRIs are costly, unnecessary, and can be traumatic. We should not have to endure gatekeeping to go through necessary medical procedures. While universal healthcare would alleviate some of these financial burdens, we still will not see it for years to come.

Finally, we shouldn’t have to validate ourselves with biology. Would these brain scans include everyone? Who would be left out? The research is already excluding queer trans people, nonbinary people, and adults. Gender is a social construct, not something exclusively biological. This means no matter how many groups are included, someone will always be omitted. Transgender people have always existed and deserve to be respected with or without scientific validation.

Eli Erlick

Eli Erlick queer trans woman, PhD student, and director of Trans Student Educational Resources.