Steven Hassan’s BITE (Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotion Control) model has become the standard tool used in analysis of groups perceived to be cults.
This article is going to explore the BITE model point-by-point and analyze what anti-trans activists have been known to call the Transcult.
Before we begin though, we should establish who exactly this group we’re examining actually is.
Immediately, we are met with a challenge in that there is no centralized leadership to this group, and depending on the person hurling the accusation, “transcult” could refer to the entire trans community, anyone who is trans, trans activists/orgs only, or perhaps only segments of any of the above populations. Considering that I have been labeled a member of the transcult and am even on @CultBlockerPro on twitter, a service which automatically blocks “trans cultists,” I must default to analyzing the trans community as a whole.
Promote dependence and obedience
It would be fair to say the trans community does enforce obedience to some degree, but does not promote dependence. Many unspoken rules are set on ways which we must identify ourselves and one another. Simply calling yourself a transwoman (or heaven forbid, someone else) without the space or agreeing that trans people should be treated any differently than anyone else on the basis of their natal sex can earn you the community’s chagrin.
Modify behavior with rewards and punishments
I think we’re all familiar with the phrase, “stunning and brave” in reference to trans people, which goes to show how prevalent this system of reward actually is, though you’ll only hear things like this when transwomen are behaving appropriately by calling ourselves women. When we behave inappropriately, we are called things like “truscum”, “TERF”, “quisling”, “self-hating”, “deluded”, and/or accused of internalized transphobia as forms of punishment.
Dictate where and with whom you live
This point I’ve never seen any instances of, but I’d be interested to hear about it if anyone has.
Restrict or control sexuality
Toward its members, the trans community is very free when it comes to sexuality. The attitude that sexuality and gender are not linked in any way is very prevalent. In this regard, I’d say no, the trans community does not restrict or control sexuality of its members. However, how we communicate about it is restricted, for instance a transwoman could never openly identify as homosexual and date men without expecting some form of behavior modification, though identifying as homosexual and dating women would be perfectly fine.
Control clothing and hairstyle
Our clothing and hairstyle is controlled, to be sure, but I’d say that comes from society’s enforcement of gender rather than being enforced in any way within the trans community. Non-conformity is actually a lot more celebrated in our community than is perceived from the outside.
Regulate what and how much you eat and drink
Nope, definitely not.
Deprive you of seven to nine hours of sleep
Only through my own anxiety over the behavior of our community and activists who wave our flags around.
Exploit you financially
This isn’t something that the trans community as a whole does, but certainly pockets do, though far more often than not, this exploitation is for a good cause that goes to helping people in need, so I’d not even call it exploitation so much as empathy and sharing opportunity.
Restrict leisure time and activities
Nope, not at all. For several years following transition, I had nothing to do with the trans community at all and literally no one cared. I’d say there is a sense of urgency we all experience to speak out and have our voices heard in our movements, but there is no force compelling us to but our own drive to be seen an understood by the world.
Require you to seek permission for major decisions
In some fringe cases, this might be true, but on the whole, I’ve never experienced anything at all like this.
Deliberately withhold and distort information
There are certain things the trans community certainly doesn’t like being talked about. Among them being detransition, desistence, typology, questions over the handling of our rights, and anything that makes us seem different/other compared to anyone opposite our natal sex. For the most part though, I’d not call what I see deliberate withholding/distortion so much as just many trans people/activists quite honestly not being very well educated on these difficult topics. I’d advise exercising patience when it comes to talking about these things. Have some empathy and try to build understanding. These things are important to talk about, but very difficult for us, for what I would hope are obvious reasons.
Forbid you from speaking with ex-members and critics
This ties in well with the previous point. Yes, this does happen with regard to ex-members too often, which I’m sad to say leaves them ostracized. I’d say we need to be there for them and support them. They’re still part of our community and deserve our respect and support in what’s probably the most difficult time in their entire lives. Myself and many others would like to see this change. These are all community dynamics though, and not enforced by any centralized authority, they just tend to happen, therefore I’d say not very cult-like. As for critics– there’s much debate over this. Equal numbers would say our critics should be engaged with so we can build bridges to understanding with them as would say they should *not* be engaged with and all bridges should be burned. C’est la vie? Not a cult.
Discourage access to non-cult sources of information
This one’s fair to say does happen, in line with the previous two points, though again I maintain that it follows since these are all issues based in community dynamics and difficulties handling self-critique and does not come from any top-down directive or anything of the sort, it’s hard to make a fair argument this is cult-like.
Divide information into Insider vs. Outsider doctrine
This is a clear yes, and it’s something I deeply dislike about the trans community. There is a deeply ingrained “us vs them” mentality that leads both trans people and activists to view anyone expressing concerns over issues as enemies. Too often, they are far too quick to label the “enemy” as TERF/bigot and use this to control discourse. These are dirty tactics that myself and many other members of the trans community do disagree with, though in the eyes of some of the most extreme-minded among us, opposition to their tactics in and of itself can leave you seen as an enemy. This returns to the earlier points on behavior control, where people like myself are labeled with all manner of aspersions and ostracized from the community.
Generate and use propaganda extensively
This one’s difficult to say, as what would count as propaganda is really subjective. I’d say yes, certain activists/orgs do very much engage in propaganda campaigns, but does the trans community as a whole? I don’t think so, though I’m sure someone could see even my article here as propaganda so who knows!
Use information gained in confession sessions against you
We don’t have confession sessions, so no? Though I’d say I’ve certainly seen DMs and such used against people online. I think that’s typical of most any online community though. There’s never not drama.
Gaslight to make you doubt your own memory
When it comes to the behavior of activists toward their “enemies” outside the community, I’ve seen quite a bit of this, but this aspect of the BITE model is about in-group brainwashing. There’s little to none of that. Sure, there’s the people who like to deny their biological sex and any nuance that comes with it and will give me crap for publicly speaking about the fact I’m male, but as I’ve experienced things, they’re not nearly as prevalent as outsiders like to believe. That’s a loud, extremist fringe of our community. The majority of us are reasonable and realistic about our differences and would never gaslight anyone, inside or outside the community.
Require you to report thoughts, feelings, & activities to superiors
Thank goodness, no… I want nothing to do with authority figures. In fact, I kind of abhor society’s tendency to grant power of authority to celebrity figures. Caitlyn Jenner is not Queen of the Trans People, who cares what she thinks? For goodness sake, stop putting her on television. She’s rich and powerful enough as is. Sorry, just had to have a bit of a rant there.
Encourage you to spy and report on others’ “misconduct”
Again, no, though certain vindictive extremist pockets of the community might engage in this sort of behavior, it isn’t terribly common, especially not from authority figures. I can think of only one trans authority figure who has been problematic in this regard. On the whole, I’d say that the trans community is very free when it comes to information and ideas. I’ve had many healthy, respectful debates among my trans peers over our differing philosophies and experiences of the world. There certainly are pockets that dislike this sort of thing and find it unhealthy/othering, freak out, block you over it, etc. but I and many others would say they’re wrong to do so. So long as there’s a healthy battle of words, and there is, we are clearly a community, and not a cult.
Instill Black vs. White, Us vs. Them, & Good vs. Evil thinking
Unfortunately, yes. There is far too much of this in the trans community. It’s something I firmly believe needs to change. It isn’t good for us. Humans are naturally tribalistic. We all want to be part of a team, and we want our team to win. In that, it’s easy to internalize these attitudes. It’s part of a broader sickness growing in humanity with the rise of social media, particularly Twitter, and I think it’s something we all need to be critical of in every one of our communities.
Change your identity, possibly even your name
Erm.. Well, that’s just part of being trans. It’s not a requirement for anyone, but of course we do it as part of transition. Bit ridiculous to label it cult-like though, I think. It’s not like we’re forced to. It’s something that makes us feel better about ourselves. I didn’t jump off this bridge because everyone else did. I did it because it’s been good for me. I never expected to find all these others swimming in the water here with me, but here we are!
Use loaded language and cliches to stop complex thought
Yes. Of all the points on the BITE model, I think this one is most accurate to the trans community. The “trans women are women” mantra, while something I agree with in certain political aspects, is unfortunately too often weaponized to stop complex thought. When the answer to complex questions about trans issues becomes, “trans women are women and if you disagree with me you are a TERF/bigot,” we have a very big problem. Even if “trans women are women and cis women are women” is a true statement, within it we have acknowledged a great deal of difference. We may as well translate it to, “male women are women and female women are women” to properly understand it. Like it our not, our biological sex and all the experiences/nuance that comes with it does matter and I find it important to defer to our differences when we discuss complex topics. To deny them isn’t only foolish, it denies the entire depth and breadth of our pre-transition experiences; our entire dysphoric life histories. It needs to stop.
Induce hypnotic or trance states to indoctrinate
Nope, not in my experience. In fact I’ve never experienced anything I’d call “indoctrination” at all, only that I struggled in a horrific war with my own body that I sought, and sought, and sought treatment for; I tried everything, no treatment helped but transition very much did.
Teach thought-stopping techniques to prevent critical thoughts
This doesn’t seem so much of a problem with the trans community as it’s a problem with social justice activists. They’re the same ones who tend to take the “trans women are women” mantra far too far and weaponize it as I’ve described above. You’ll see them behaving the same way in all forms of social justice activism, “If a woman/trans person/person of color/etc is speaking, shut up and listen.” I’ve seen several documents written, tossing about dictation on how people should behave when in the presence of any given group that read exactly the same in spite of the fact each is about a different group. It’s an awful, divisive form of activism and I’m not here for it, no matter what form it takes.
Allow only positive thoughts
This one’s fair to peg on the trans community, but I think it’s with the best intentions. A problem I’ve seen is an unwillingness to be critical of our own. I’m not a fan of blindly believing the best in everyone calling themselves part of the trans community. There’s this incredibly regressive idea that our group can/has/could never do wrong. But that simply is not true. We are human, and as such we are flawed. We make mistakes. We need to be willing to own them and be critical of them. Thankfully, these days I’m seeing more and more of that and fewer and fewer uncritical blind eyes.
Use excessive meditation, singing, prayer, & chanting to block thoughts
Hmm.. The only example I can think of here is again the “trans women are women” mantra, which truthfully is more intended to be a counter to the hurtful idea we are men than anything, but as I’ve discussed activists do take it too far too often. I’m sure there are other examples you might find here and there at protests and the like especially, but would you ever call them “excessive”? I think not. They’re fringe.
Reject rational analysis, critical thinking, & doubt
This is one we are split on. As I’ve said previously, I’ve had a lot of healthy, respectful, rational debates with members of the trans community. You’ll find one faction that celebrates all of the above, and another that rejects them.
Instill irrational fears (phobias) of questioning or leaving the group
This doesn’t seem common, but I’m sure that it does happen, especially when it comes to people considering detransitioning, but I think when that happens it isn’t driven by malicious intent, and instead more often driven by concern for the individual. We might fear someone’s detransition will lead them back to living in constant dysphoric distress or just generally be detrimental to their well-being. I don’t think any of that’s irrational, and I’m sure that it’s exactly what the detransitioner is struggling with themselves. The concern’s valid, but when you think about it, it really only adds to their burden. I’d say the proper response should be to give them all the support and positivity we can muster.
Label some emotions as evil, worldly, sinful, or wrong
Emotions? No, I’d not say anything emotional is restricted by the trans community in any way, unless you count fringe extremists who attempt to enforce that very narrow-minded and misguided view that anyone calling themselves trans can do no wrong and we must be positive and uncritical about ourselves at all times! They’re a bit nuts, I think most anyone would agree.
Teach emotion-stopping techniques to prevent anger, homesickness
Again no, I don’t think either of these apply. I could draw some abstractions, but honestly I don’t think that would be worth my time or yours.
Promote feelings of guilt, shame, & unworthiness
I’m going to be very honest here. Yes, I’m of the mind that the beliefs of too much of the trans community do promote all of the above. In our quests from AMAB/AFAB to becoming women/men, we are at impossible odds, as sex is ultimately immutable, and there’s only so far our transformations can carry us. It helps us a great deal, but it isn’t perfect, and there’s a lot of complexity and nuance that is a constant burden on us, which we are made to feel guilt and shame over. We are taught that our differences are bad. Being “other” is shameful. That living with our differences somehow means we are unworthy of womanhood. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think our experience has a lot to bring to the table. We can speak of what it’s like to walk the world being perceived as both men and women. With that, comes so much complexity I find worth celebrating that too many of us deny. I don’t think this is driven by any kind of cult mentality though, it’s a natural extension of dysphoria. It’s us pathologizing society, and taking our need to pass and be included as women and men too far, to the detriment of both ourselves and society. I’m very critical of myself in this regard and encourage all other trans people to be also. I’ve found that most of us truly are self-critical, it’s the activists waving our flags around who engage in the vast majority of the denial of our differences. We can only hope they listen to us and learn something one day.
Shower you with praise and attention (“love bombing”)
Stunning and brave.
Threaten your friends and family
This certainly happens. It hasn’t happened to me personally, but I have friends it has happened to. Actions like this are nearly universally condemned across the trans community, but individuals and pockets of extremists will engage in this kind of crap. It’s so ugly, but I’m proud of how critical the community as a whole is of anyone engaging in it.
Shun you if you disobey or disbelieve
Yes, again going back to the behavioral control we see from certain extremist pockets of the community.
Teach that there is no happiness or peace outside the group
The only way I can see this applying is again to detransitioners, who might be told they’ll never find peace by detransitioning by people with good intentions who pave the road to hell with them.
And that’s that! The whole BITE model.
So, what do you think? Is the trans community a cult?
On the whole, I’d say certainly not, but we do have a lot of concerning behavior in pockets of our community worth criticizing. You may disagree, and if so I welcome your disagreement (on this point or any other I’ve written here) and am happy to discuss this further.
From my experience of things, it seems far more accurate to declare that there are cults of personality within the trans community that coalesce around certain figures, activists, and orgs and share ideas in echo chambers whilst blocking out any critical voices that might rattle their walls.
As I alluded to earlier, this kind of thing is a sickness we can see springing up all across humanity, in most all of our endeavors recently. Look any discourse over most any political alignment. Western society is deeply divided generally right now. We have a multitude of gaps to bridge, and too many people who are only interested in burning bridges rather than building them. This is way bigger than what we see happening within the trans community.
It’s everywhere, in all things, and I’d say that every community should be mindful of this sort of thing and be willing to apply a critical eye and analyze itself with tools like the BITE model.
I hope that the points of concern I’ve raised can help us build a better community that will move out into our divided world and work to mend those divides rather than deepen them.