I’m on vacation this week! This post originally appeared on Queereka.
My first forays into the trans internet were back in the Fall of 2001, while I was having a particularly bad “episode” of dysphoria that led, for the first time in my life, to actually conducting extensive research into what transition entailed. The e-landscape back then was a bit different than it is now. Those were the days of GenderPeace and AuthentiKate. When TSRoadmap.com was the Bible and Andrea James had yet to fall under criticism for presenting such a scary and difficult, expensive and passability-obsessed vision of transition to those at the beginning of their process. Calpernia Addams was God. Lynn Conway’s TS Women Successes was an important touchstone for demonstrating that yes, it was possible to live a happy, full life as a trans woman, and that many possibilities existed for what, exactly, that life would be (if you weren’t so terrified by TS Roadmap that you spent all your time there comparing and contrasting the levels of passability).
And amongst these various websites there was a cornerstone that promised instant, easy answers to all those who were questioning and exploring the possibility of transition. It presented itself as being able to remove your doubts, rule out the possibility that you weren’t really trans and just confused, show you just how trans you were (relative to all those super-duper transier-than-thou Troo Wimminz), and give you a sort of intellectual “permission” to finally pursue this. It was called the COGIATI (Combined Online Gender Identity And Transsexuality Inventory).
Created by Jennifer Diane Reitz, well known in some internet circles for her creation of the web-comic Unicorn Jelly, and infamous in some trans circles for the COGIATI and various personal rumours. She lives in Olympia. I love Olympia. The COGIATI advertised itself as the first prototype online test to be able to determine whether or not you were a male-to-female transsexual and ought to pursue transition and surgery. It presented itself as being able to make a rough determination of your “brain sex” and from that extrapolate the degree of gender dysphoria you are likely experiencing and the degree to which transition is or isn’t a good idea.
The COGIATI, at the time, seemed like such a blessing. A means of abdicating the responsibility for such a terrifying decision onto an external, objective-ish tool. Exactly like HIV and cancer cures and psychic surgery, 12 step programs and psychics who profess to speak to the dead, its danger lay (and continues to lie) in the enormous degree to which those taking the COGIATI will want its claims to be true.
But it’s exactly as hollow as any of the similes I provided. In essence the COGIATI is structured around some assumed basics of the differences between a “male brain” and “female brain”. It is primarily based around a set of very archaic assumptions about the relative abilities of men and women… that men (and therefore “male brains”) are good at maths and spatial reasoning, while women (and “female brains”) are good at language, reading emotions and interpreting social cues. I guess everyone on the autism spectrum can’t have a female mind? The only questions included that are in any way relevant to the actual issue of whether or not someone is trans or should transition are a few sprinkled in questions regarding self-identification and feelings about your body (specifically genitals… because apparently there’s no such thing as non-ops?).
These assumptions that certain trends in the relative abilities of men and women are somehow indicative of “male brains” and “female brains” is a crazy leap of logic. There are certainly women with good mathematic skills, and they are not “more male” than other women, likewise there are men who are good at social skills and language, and they aren’t “more female” than other men. A statistical trend is not a predictive model, (take for instance that the majority of women are sexually interested in men, but certainly there are many women who are not), nor can we say that these trends are necessarily innate rather than resultant from cultural differences (such as stereotype threat and disparate emphasis in schooling and childhood development). It’s an even further leap to suggest that the “male/female brain” hypothesis could be used as an indicator of transsexuality or the wisdom of pursuing transition.
Full disclosure: I once scored in the 99th percentile for spatial reasoning ability on a multiple intelligences test. I guess I must have a supremely masculine brain…
The test is not only flawed in terms of not being scientifically sound, but fails at even the most basic understanding of reason and scientific process. Reitz asks that people with a background in psychology or science could aid her in helping make the test more accurate, or using it as a jumping off point for their own. I’m sure the resounding recommendation from most would simply be “you could improve it by taking it down.”
As much as I completely understand the desire to be able to have an external means of determining whether or not you should transition (I took the test myself, back in 2001, hoping like everyone for a clear answer), since it’s such a terrifying, huge and complex decision, the sad truth is that there simply isn’t any such thing. Nobody can ever determine for you whether or not you should transition. That can only ever be your own choice to make. Even if in the future we are able to conduct brain scans to locate structural abnormalities associated with transsexuality, it will still ultimately need to be an individual’s own choice, own feelings and own self-identification that take precedence.
You need to be willing to give yourself permission.
Tests like this are dangerous. They can allow people to absolve themselves of the responsibility. They can play directly into self-deception. They can lead to people who probably ought to transition to push themselves deeper into denial, and can lead people who probably shouldn’t to make bad decisions. The degree to which you do or do not fit into cultural stereotypes of male or female intelligence has absolutely fuck all to do with whether or not transition will make you happier, and it is very, very harmful to perpetuate the idea that it does.
Beyond simply being potentially damaging to trans people who are in the process of questioning, it also props up archaic, sexist evo-psych concepts about the nature of men and women in general. The last thing us trans people ought to be doing is helping prop up an essentialist gender-binary. Certain transphobic rad-fems already accuse us of that anyway. Let’s not give them ammunition, okay?
The COGIATI is no longer the centerpiece it once was in web resources for people exploring the possibility of transition, but it still exists, is still up, still shows up in google searches, is still being taken, I still have people ask me about it, and is still just as dangerous as ever. This past week I received an e-mail from someone who in earnest was asking me to point them to an “objective” test through which they could determine whether or not they are transsexual. They responded rather negatively when I informed them that I could not provide them any answers, and that it had to be their own decision. This reminded me of the extreme desperation with which people want something like this, and reminded me in turn of how much scarier pseudo-science, scams and woo become when people are desperate and really, really want to believe in them.
There are many other such “brain sex” tests floating around on the internet. Many give a much stronger veneer of professionalism and “scientific-ness” than the COGIATI, and are better thought out, but they are equally based on shaky assumptions and evo-psych pseudoscience. Their professional veneer only serves to make them more dangerous and insidious, and many do not include the same overt disclaimer that the COGIATI provides. None of them should ever be trusted as a tool for determining your gender identity, and all of them should be approached as the sexist, binary-enforcing, unsubstantiated silliness they are.
Gender is nothing if not diverse. It’s a rule as defined by its many exceptions as by its occasional consistencies.
If I were to construct an online test to help someone who is questioning their gender identity and whether or not to pursue transition, I would do the following: I would select 20 fairly random and completely inconsequential questions that sound vaguely related to gender and neurological abilities. The answers wouldn’t matter. The result, regardless of how you answered the questions, would invariably be “No, according to your results, you are not transsexual and are simply experiencing a mild form of gender confusion. You should probably not pursue transition”.
Then one final question would pop up: “did your results disappoint or sadden you?”. If you answer yes, then yeah, there’s a very good chance you’re trans, you know you’re trans, and you were just looking for permission. Go get yourself to a qualified, trans-friendly therapist and take it from there. If you weren’t disappointed, then this test can’t tell you anything of value at all. But you should probably ask yourself why you were taking the bloody quiz in the first place, and go see a therapist anyway, because most cis people don’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about whether or not they’re trans.