The use of research to oppress and erase minority groups is not a new phenomenon. It has been perpetrated for decades (centuries?), often under the guise of helping us, or ‘helping to better understand’ us. This disingenuous tactic allows people in positions of power to assert and propagate their political agendas, behind a false mask of scientific curiosity and philanthropic exploration.
This allows damaging and oppressive ideologies to spread freely, carried now on ‘evidence’ that was often extrapolated through a mess of poor methodology and societal assumptions. This fresh wave then allows those same assumptions to deepen their roots in the public mindset, furthering a cycle of stigma and abuse that hurts those that it supposedly set out to help.
I’d be hard pressed to find a better example of this than Simon Baron Cohen’s latest escapade. Baron Cohen is a well-loathed figure in autism research, and in his latest piece he set out to not only erase the identities of people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders, but trans people as well. He went about this by making various groups of people take the Autistic Quotiant test, and then carving the dubious results into a facsimile of his beliefs.
The AQ is a problematic beast, that Cohen himself published back in 2001 with the aim of squeezing all autistic spectrum individuals into a narrow band through 50 forced-choice questions. Though there are ‘slightly’ and ‘definitely’ answers (never a ‘neither’), this distinction is entirely deceptive; it has no effect on the actual results. The answers are split into those deemed ‘autistic’ and those that are not, which is established through five areas; social skills, communication skills, imagination, attention to detail and attention switching/tolerance of change. No heed is given to the fact that many high-functioning individuals with ASDs (who this questionnaire is most commonly pushed at) develop highly complicated and often effective means of compensating and developing in these areas. The answers are also problematic in how they depend on the individual’s opinion of themselves, and the frequency of their interaction with others. For example, if I spend little time with people who don’t know me well (a state which many individuals with ASDs find highly preferable), then “Other people frequently tell me that what I’ve said is impolite, even though I think it is polite.” is entirely irrelevant to me. However, there is no room in the AQ for the complexities of the actual lived experience of people with ASDs; just narrow stereotyped behaviors picked out by nuerotypical ‘experts’ such as Cohen. Likewise, the complexities of growing up as part of an oppressed and oft-ridiculed minority group are entirely disregarded; So what if you ‘prefer to be alone’ because of abuse and misunderstanding by others? You prefer to be alone, so that’s an autism point for you. To cut a long story short (as the AQ isn’t the main problem I’m addressing here), the subject scores 1 point for each ‘autistic’ answer they give, and from those points Cohen claims a meaningful diagnostic estimate can be made. In reality, the AQ is about as useful as any other online quiz, and a lot less so than some of the better ones out there.
Simon Baron Cohen found that the smallest group he sampled (trans men) scored higher than the nuerotypical average. He took this and ran with it, concluding that ” “Girls with a higher than average number level of autistic traits tend to have male-typical interests, showing a preference for systems over emotions. “They prefer not to socialise with typical girls because they have different interests, and because typical girls on average have more advanced social skills. Both of these factors may lead girls with a higher number of autistic traits to socialize with boys, to believe they have a boy’s mind in a girl’s body, and to attribute their unhappiness to being a girl.” Emphasis is my own. Here Baron Cohen degenders the Faab men who participated in his dubious study, as well as reinforcing the social assumptions of ‘male’ and ‘female’ typical interests as biological facts, rather than the result of any societal pressures. He uses the AQ results as an excuse to degender any trans men who dare to identify as male, instead setting them up as poor, misinformed individuals who have had their minds corrupted by a cruel twist of genetic fate, and construct an elaborate male fantasy to escape their suffering.
Cohen’s research partner takes this setup and knocks it home, adding: : “If such girls do believe they have a boy’s mind in a girl’s body, their higher than average number of autistic traits may also mean they hold their beliefs very strongly, and pursue them to the logical conclusion: opting for sex reassignment surgery in adulthood.” This helpfully furthers the degendering language that Baron Cohen uses, while including an ideological bear-trap for any trans men who might protest; Of course you believe that you’re male, but the strength of your convictions comes not from your identity, but simply from the ‘fact’ that your presumed autistic traits makes you irrational and easily led to poor conclusions. Where would we silly ol’ trans people be without cis ‘experts’ to set us straight?
Except this whole argument is based on a dishonest and flawed premise; That gender is set in concrete by some trigger external of self-definition. This is something that cis society clings onto, painting trans people in the process as either misguided victims of biological fate (as above), or wily tricksters out to sneak into societal areas in which they don’t belong (and often getting what’s coming to them in the process). The truth is that there is no meaningful way of assigning gender outside of self-definition. An individuals gender is their own property, to edit and assess as they choose without external excuses to validate them beneath the gaze of cis society. And so it doesn’t matter, ladies, gentlemen and everyone else, whether the AQ results are valid or not; Whether any autistic traits influence a person’s decision or not, because the result of that decision is the only thing that fucking matters. To pathologise difference and attempt to erase trans people’s identities through that pathologisation is dishonest, flawed and deeply oppressive.