Debunking the COGIATI


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 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-comics 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, it’s 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 transsexulity 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 reccomendation 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 dissapoint 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.


Featured image is the title graphic from Unicorn Jelly, copyright Jennifer Diane Reitz.

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  1. Is it really any different these days? It is still incredibly hard to find anything other than Anne Lawrence, TSRoadmap, and Lynn Conways website when you have no idea what to search for. Especially when you haven’t been exposed to anything trans related, and in those early days when its almost impossible to admit to yourself, or even Google/Bing/whatever other spider.

  2. Ah, the infamous COGIATI. Taken that test a few times, the last times just for fun as it has become something of a nostalgic “lol”. First reaction people get nowadays is that it is sexist. I would rather say it’s outdated. It separate “male” and “female” abilities. It doesn’t put value on them, so sexist may be replaced with misguided. The variation in people’s abilities has little to do with gender. And the gender-difference you do find is as far as I know mostly due to socially enforced stereotypical behaviour.

    Of course people want easy answers to complicated questions. Unfortunately the world rarely works like that.

    Oh, and Calpernia Addams and Andrea James are still cool people. Can’t remember them specifically from back then, though I did read a lot on the subject then too. I follow them on Twitter though. Calpernia is a nerd like me 🙂

  3. The COGIATI is a fairly blunt little instrument to assess anything with, and many of the questions are only relevant to male to female transsexuality or transgender people assigned male at birth, obviously, so its only function is to put an arbitrary number on an otherwise hard-to-pin-down variable and to suggest what that might mean for the person taking the test. And yes, there’s more than a suspicion of stereotypes about coded masculine and feminine traits, for example the reverse parking question for pete’s sake (I would only consider it if parking was scarce). Skepticism about the more ridiculous of these gender essentialist stereotypes is indeed warranted. I almost dread to think what a version for female to male transsexuality might look like.

    Defeating the COGIATI as a serious tool is that there seems to be no way that data from the test is collected and aggregated (perhaps too many trolls would swamp and ruin the data submitted by genuine transfolk?), and you can’t save your answers, which I would have found quite useful.

    I’ve had periodic depression – sometimes correlated to personal crises about my sexual orientation or gender identity – and the last time this raised it’s head, I took the COGIATI, which assessed me on the positive side of Class 3 (classes defined here by score); upon taking it again just now, I’m firmly in Class 4. So if my gender identity is stable, then the tool might be better understood as having large error bars as well as giving a raw score. It might be better for it to say that given the inherent imprecision of such a test, a score should be interpreted as having an across a range (which might extend to the next ‘class’).

    Also, not everyone who’s transgender has a fixed gender identity, and I strongly suspect I’m genderfluid to a degree, certainly if my sexual orientation is anything to go by. Over the years, by Kinsey’s scale I’ve been all over the shop – never at 6 (exclusively homosexual) and there was only about one year during puberty when I was technically 0 (exclusively hetero), as it took me a while once I had noticed sexual attraction at all, before I started noticing my sexual attraction to more than one of the sexes.

    • Oh, for a time-limited edit function on skepchick! Toward the end of the 3rd paragraph should have read, “… score should be interpreted as having a deviation across a range”. (And for the record I usually identify as genderqueer, because it’s too hard to work out whether I’m an androgyne or a transgirl on any given day of the week.)

  4. Oh wow, I remember reading Unicorn Jelly! I didn’t know much about the author though, or her other projects.

    Back when I was questioning, I really wanted there to be a test that would tell me if I was asexual. I mean, I was emotionally distraught, and obviously didn’t have the impartiality required to make a good decision by myself! But this was more a fantasy than a real desire, because I knew very well that if there was a test, the test would be complete BS and tell me nothing.

  5. This sort of reminds me of the Harry Benjamin Syndrome “neurologically intersex” thing, which I understand plays into some hierarchies of trans-ness.

    As a neuroscientist, I can’t figure out what bugs me more – this kind of superficial “male brain” vs. “female” brain stuff, or the terrible “left brain” vs. “right brain” stuff. They basically play on the same stupid simplifications and false dichotomies (language vs. emotion!), but I think the former has more social effect and is thus more dangerous, even if it has slightly more basis.

  6. Oh, for fuck sake. Question ONE is all Barbie doll “math is hard teheehee”, and you just know how a proper girl is supposed to answer. And it goes on and on – all that shit about how social you are and how good with faces and words, or maths and space. This is just appalling.

    So yeah, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my theory, which is mine, is that this claiming of the stereotypically feminine is the major reason for big fat wedges between feminists and transwomen in the 80s & 90s.

    Please tell me that they’re not still doing this.

  7. Stuff like this is what gave me permission to see myself as trans. Like, if the internet can prove to me that I am, then I won’t have to explain to others myself, I can let this “expert” do it for me. Especially since I’d much prefer to re-code my body socially than to re-form it though medical intervention. If I have this “proof” that my brain is really a different gender, then it shouldn’t matter what my medical history is or isn’t.

    Most of those thoughts are the result of living in a society that de-legitimizes trans genders. The narrative that a real trans person has a certain brain structure and needs surgery to be released from being trapped in the wrong body – that ignored my very real, very persistent, non-binary experience.

    The body I crave actually cannot be created (currently). The gender I am doesn’t legally exist. I desperately wanted someone, anyone, to tell me that I’m a real person. But somewhere along the way, I realized that merely by existing as myself, that is enough to make me real. I may not feel it some days, but I’m still here, existing in spite of even myself.

  8. The COGIATI, I believe, is just one of many transgender tools that actually do more to perpetuate gender stereotypes than to help break them down.
    Coming out I’ve encountered some TS that cannot understand why I do not want to wear a dress! This is the type of thinking encouraged by the HBSOC. Not all women dress feminine. Some cis women enjoy dressing masculine and yet still enjoy being women.
    This reminds me of the Citizenship test required of applicants to be US citizens. Funny, most US citizens cannot pass the test and would therefore fail at being citizens. Likewise some of the tests and criteria placed on transgender folk can unwittingly exclude people with very valid TS tendencies.
    For me being a (trans)woman is not about the way that I dress but about the way I perceive my own body, in particular my genitalia and breasts (or lack of at this point).

  9. I took the Cogiati… -60 (Androgynous)… Not dissapointed, I know who I am, and that doesn’t represent it.
    1. It asked the same set of questions, in different ways, over and over. It was a little like it was weighting questions about being able to identify emotions and voices, etc.
    2. There is a lot of science that says that men and women don’t have any difference in math and emotional awareness… there is only a social bias that says they do. When each of those are tested in a non-biased way, they is little difference.
    3. I have found a better COGIATI test that answers the question am I transgender…

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