Being Trans in Autistic Space

When I came out to my autistic friends as a transwoman, I didn’t know how the autistic community would respond.  While I’m only a few months into my journey of authenticity, I have seen some things – some good, some not so good.

First, the good: we’re supposed to be inflexible as autistic people. Once we set up a habit, we’re supposed to have a hard time adapting and changing. That’s sort of bullshit, at least in this area. My autistic community has went out of their way to use the names and pronouns that fit my identity. I can count on one hand the number of autistic people who have used the wrong name for me after I told them my new name.  I’m consistently referred to using proper pronouns, and my wishes about my past are consistently respected (I typically ask that, whenever possible without causing a linguistic mess, to be referred to as a feminine person, including the past when I presented as a man).

That’s pretty awesome.  I don’t think I know of a lot of communities that would have done that well. So much for inflexible – it’s a pretty huge shift in someone’s mind to switch from “he” to “she” in communication about that person, as gender is such a basic element of how humans interact with each other.

In general, other autistic women respond to news of my transition by simply accepting me as part of the overall population of autistic women. Organizations like Autism Women’s Network even have well-written statements that welcome transwomen.

But I’ve also encountered some problems in autistic spaces, too.  Some of it is ignorance, while other parts of it are indifference. If you take a group of autistic people randomly, from the entire population of autistic people, you’ll find that trans people are literally everywhere in our communities – a lot of autistic people are trans.  Likewise, if you take a sample of trans people, you will find that there are a lot of autistic people in our trans communities.  Trans rights are autistic rights, and autistic rights are trans rights. Thus, it’s important to fight these issues, even when they arise within our own communities.

I’ve had other autistic people think it proper (and, apparently, necessary) to tell me that they are sexually interested in women, but not transwomen (hint: we are women), because our parts, apparently, don’t fit their fantasies.  Note I didn’t ask about their fantasies, I didn’t proposition them, and didn’t express any wish to be part of their sex life, nor have they ever actually seen my genitals that they are quick to make assumptions about. While I recognize that these feelings are likely real, they are repulsive, in the same way that it would be if someone told me they want sex with others, just not a fat person, a disabled person, a black person, an autistic person, and/or a Muslim.  I’m sure there are plenty of people that wouldn’t want to have sex with someone with one of these traits, but generally people are smart enough to know they need to keep their mouth shut when it comes to expressing prejudice (and, yes, it is ugly still, even if you “really do” feel that way).  And, yes, that’s what it is.  It’s prejudice – I seriously doubt these people are seeking out only a vulva and not the rest of the person its’ part of, but perhaps they are, and, yes, I’ve also seen this attitude from women, both trans and non-trans.  But maybe I’m giving these people too much credit.

Regardless, if I’m not showing a sexual interest in you, I’m not particularly interested in knowing whether you would find your assumptions about my body to be a turn-on or turn-off. I’m a woman. As are other transwomen. I don’t expect every single person attracted to women to be attracted to me. Hell, I don’t expect most people attracted to women to be attracted to me! That’s fine. But people just usually don’t feel a driving social need to tell people, “Your kind are repulsive to me.” I can’t particularly think of a context where that isn’t an insult.

When you tell others you’re trans, it’s also, apparently, a challenge to their all-encompassing theory of gender.  Everyone seems to see themselves as an expert on gender. After all, we all have some person experience with our own gendered lives.  Conveniently enough, I’ve not yet met someone who doesn’t fit within their own theory of gender.  But I’ve met plenty of people with theories of gender that don’t allow for my existence. Now, I’m not talking about theories that don’t consider that trans people exist (although I’m sure there are people that hold those views). No, instead I’m talking about theories that deconstruct gender (“Gender is entirely a social construct and we should reject gender! The world would be great if we did this!”) which negate the reality that for many people gender is more than social construct (and research supports the idea of gender being part socially constructed and part intrinsic to the person, not either-or).  I have no doubt that for some people, their internal self is independent of the “man” and “woman” categories of western society.  That’s cool.  It’s just not me, and I don’t want to be erased just so you can balance your all-encompassing gender equation.

Likewise, in some parts of the autistic community, like the wider community, I’ve been pressured to define what makes me a woman, what makes me feminine, and what it means for a person to express herself as a woman. The questions really are just different ways to phrase another question: “What makes someone a woman?”  The simple answer? Well, fuck if I know! I’ll let people who are far more expert in these things figure this out, but all I ask is to not end up sitting at the kids’ table when you’re done. I’ll also note that, outside of some academic settings, I don’t generally see most other women asked this question. But transwomen are expected to entertain and inform in this area, to allow others to decide whether we’re persuasive enough to convince someone else that we are entitled to womanhood.

I’ve also endured endless arguments about bathrooms in the autistic community. Too many in the community want a rule to apply to which bathroom I (and other trans people) should use, not recognizing that this very conversation is degrading and painful for many trans people (should you want a rule, here’s one: use the bathroom you feel comfortable using).

Then there are autism/autistic conferences – and the need to ask, every time, if I will be allowed to pee. I have to ask (actually I usually have to do the research) to find out if the conference is somewhere that protects my legal rights, because my legal rights aren’t an important consideration when picking places to host a conference (in fact, they are rarely on the list at all). When I ask, it  usually ends up turning back into the bathroom discussion.  The reality is that, at least in the USA, any place that doesn’t affirmatively protect trans people under the law is a place that has had that discussion – and decided that trans people shouldn’t be protected.  When places like Dallas, TX; Terre Haute, IN; Des Moines, IA; Jackson, MS; and Laramie, WY can get this right, and entire states like Colorado, California, Iowa, Vermont, Nevada, and Massachusetts do so as well, it tells me that a place that doesn’t get it right has made a conscious choice that I am less than a person.  This hasn’t been cutting edge for 15 years.

In all, it’s exhausting.

Now, many of these criticisms can be leveled against the non-autistic community.  And the autistic community, as I said before, does get many things right (like my name, something the non-autistic community has a lot more trouble with).  But there is a qualitative difference in some areas.  I’ve been told about people’s personal sexual attractions (or non-attraction) to trans people within the autistic community many times, whereas it’s pretty rare to be told about these things when I’m in non-autistic space. The same goes for the all-encompassing-gender-theorists – I’m much more likely to encounter this in the autistic community. But the bathroom discussions and suggestions that I visit hostile jurisdictions are, unfortunately, also common outside autistic space.  So I don’t mean to say my people are particularly worse than anyone else – but we should be better, because the intersection between autistic and trans is so much a part of both the autistic and trans communities.  We’re not insignificant to either community.

Do you want to support people like me? I’ll give some tips (I use “you” in here to refer to the generic person who might do these things, not any individual reader, so it only applies to you if you would actually do these things!).

  • Think carefully before you tell people you are or aren’t sexually interested in them.  Both can be harassment.  The rule I’d like you to follow around me: I don’t want to know if you are or aren’t interested in me sexually, particularly if you’re about to reference your guess as to my genitals.  Really.  The one exception to this rule knows they are an exception already. If you don’t know, you aren’t.
  • Don’t try to impress me with your theory of gender.  Again, I don’t give a shit that you believe gender is merely a social construction that should be demolished in the name of equality.
  • Just let me pee in peace. I don’t want urinating to be an act of advocacy or politics – I just want it to relieve my bladder.  I don’t want long policies about which bathroom to use. If you need a bathroom policy, it’s simple: “Use the bathroom that you are most comfortable using.”
  • Laws matter.  If you’re suggesting I visit some place, and that place doesn’t have basic non-discrimination law in place, then I know that the official government of that place has decided that I’m unworthy of protection – and that you don’t think this kind of thing matters, at least not enough to inconvenience yourself. You better have a damn good reason why I would want to want to go to any place where the government thinks discrimination against people like myself is okay.

It’s pretty simple.  But I do ask that people actually give a shit about the trans part of the autistic community.  And giving a shit means, “Spending a bit of time and effort on it,” not just ignoring it.

A Safe Life

One of the comments I’ve received from friends, since coming out as a transwoman, is that they are concerned for my safety.

That’s a valid concern – trans people face more risk of attack than almost anyone else in our society. A autistic trans person is even more vulnerable, as are trans people of color, poor trans people, and people who are otherwise marginalized in our society, like sex workers.

But let me talk about safety. While presenting as a teenage boy or man, I’ve been kicked, punched, and burned. I’ve been urinated upon. I’ve been raped. I’ve had someone point a gun at me. I’ve had a disgruntled coworker that frightened me enough that I did what I tell everyone not to do – slept with a gun next to my bed. I’ve worried about people coming after me because I turned down their advances.

And most of these people probably thought I was a man. Yes, probably a gender non-conforming man, maybe a gay man, but most probably didn’t see me as a transwoman.

I grew up in a rough town – I didn’t realize how rough it was until I got to college, and the reaction of people I met there was along the lines of, “Well, you can take care of yourself then.” That wasn’t exactly true then – I was an autistic kid just old enough to leave home, without a lot of coping skills for the world. Heck, I went a week without eating because I couldn’t bring myself to ask anyone where the cafeteria was. Take care of myself?

I do know this, though: I survived.

Add to that a physical build and problems that basically mean I can’t make quick movements effectively – I have a ton of willpower and endurance, but that doesn’t help me kick, punch, or block. It doesn’t even help me run away. It would be hard to find someone that couldn’t beat me up, even today.

But I survived. I’m still here.

I grew up in a town where drinking and drugs were the norm, where a man wouldn’t do a “girly” job, where the real men were running oil drills and blasting the side off of hills to get the coal out. Meth was king. We had two suicides by gun at my school, and many others outside of school. My town, for far too many, chewed you up and spit you out. And it’s not like that type of thing stopped when I moved from that town – I’ve lived in slums and trailer courts, trying to figure out if I’ll be able to eat dinner tonight.

I am still here.

I didn’t fit the world – between being autistic and not fitting into the masculine world, there wasn’t a lot I understood or took joy in – but I found some things to somehow keep me alive, and the joys I did experience were precious. I spent decades trying to find ways to find my masculine center, to be in the world as a man, to learn to “be a man” as so many people told me to be growing up.

Well, I am still here. But I am no man.

Yes, I know the risks trans people face, particularly when they are part of other marginalized communities, such as being a disabled trans person. I know how many of us are murdered, attacked, and otherwise harmed by people who can’t deal with someone being their authentic self. And I don’t discount that. While I don’t present as a woman publicly yet (but will be doing so soon), I’ll take some precautions as I do.

But the biggest thing I can do for my safety is to be myself. Even when I present as a man, I face danger because of who I am. But worse than that danger is the larger killer among the transgender community: suicide and, when not suicide, the slower forms of self-hate. When you hate who you have to be, it’s hard to find reasons to carry on. Somehow, I did, and I pray that anyone else in my situation can find whatever small, seemingly dumb reason they can to stay alive, because just by being alive, you help me and I help you. Even if I didn’t kill myself, living a life where you can never be yourself is…well, even if your still breathing, it lacks the vibrancy life should have. It can turn into simply a slower way of killing yourself, when you lack the concern about your health and life. Maybe you don’t grab a gun or a knife or a bottle of pills, but maybe instead you simply ignore your health problems, take risks you shouldn’t, and put yourself in places where the end may come a bit sooner. None of that is safe, yet too often when we talk about safety for trans people we forget that being a closeted trans person isn’t really any safer – indeed may be a hell of a lot less safe – than the risk of being in the world.

Interestingly, I’m finding strength I never knew I had. I care about this body now, I care about my life, I care about being around. Not just for others, but for myself – because I have hope. For myself. I have dreams. I see the light of the possible. And that means, unlike so much of my life, I will fight for this life. That alone makes it more likely I’ll make it to tomorrow.

For me, I’ll take the risk of my very existence and expression provoking the bigots and assholes to harm. Because if I don’t do that, the bigots and assholes certainly harm me even more, keeping me from living, keeping me away from the vibrancy of life.

I get to be me now and I’ve got to be me. I have years of building scripts and trying to predict others, as an autistic, so I know that many people will think I’m out of my mind and see me with a mix of disgust and sadness. Some others will think it is awesome I’m living my life (you all are precious people!). And some will hate my guts, while a fraction of those will try to harm me – through bullying or through violence. But those same people have kept me from being me for my whole life – they’ve taken decades away from me, where I could have been who I am. That harm is done, it’s not a theoretical risk, it’s a certainty. But, finally, I’m at the point where I’m done living with that harm – and am choosing the path of light, the path where there is hope.

To my friends: Thanks for being concerned about me. I am too, for the first time in my life. I promise I’ll fight to be around – if I am harmed, it won’t be because I didn’t care if I was harmed, unlike so much of my life. I’ve found strength and confidence in who I am, and it’s going to be hard for people to take that away.

Staying in the closet…well, that’s what is really not safe for me. It’s taken so much from me to pretend to be a man. And it’s time that I stopped.

I am no man. I am alive.

A New Author for this Blog!

I want to introduce a new blogger who will be writing on this blog!  I’m going to let her introduce herself now:

(a shy girl peeks out from behind the living room couch, sees potential friends, and then jumps up, yells “Hi”, waves, and ducks back behind the couch)

(Joel says, “You can come out, these people aren’t that mean. No, really, they’re pretty decent folk)

Hi!

I’m looking forward to writing here – I’ve been involved in the autism advocacy community for nearly two decades, and frequently posted (under other names!) for years in mailing lists, newsgroups, and forums about my experience. I’ve somehow navigated work well enough to end up in a respectable technical job (yes, I’m that stereotypical autistic software development type). I’ve been lucky enough to find the love of my life, who I married – she’s also autistic, which is why our marriage works.

Oh, you sound like you have a similar background to Joel.

Uh, yes, I  know. Because I am Joel, or, rather, I used to be Joel.  I’ve begun my transition from male to female, which means a bunch of things are changing – like my name (Joelle now), my pronouns (she/her/hers), and how I dress, at least in certain circumstances (I’m not yet “full time” in my gender presentation).  I’ll also probably be writing about this experience of transition sometimes. But I’ll write about a lot of the things I wrote as Joel, too – after all, I’m the same person.

So I probably don’t need to introduce myself after all! Instead, Joelle will continue to write about the stuff she’s always written about – just with a more authentic byline and a more honest perspective.

 

Too Scared to do What I Want

Today, I something pretty huge happened. You see, I’m traveling in Europe and attending a conference.  At the conference, another attendee offered to take a group of people on a walking tour of this city (they know the city well) the day after the conference – just “come up to me after the session and we can exchange contact information” if you want to go.

I started shaking. I really wanted to go – it sounds like a really fun way of seeing the city, and doing it with someone who actually knows the city is even more exciting. It’ll give me a chance to see things and talk to some of the attendees at the conference who, no doubt, are interested in many of the same things I am interested in. And it’s hard to meet up with people.

But I was shaking.

Would I recognize this person in 10 minutes? Almost certainly, no.

Would I be able to go up to them and tell them I’m interested? Again, no way.

But I really wanted to.

Yet I was terrified.

When you’re an autistic kid, particularly if you don’t fit into the clique of other boys at all, life is pretty horrifying – and that leaves scars. It leaves a scar that makes it hard to go up to people and say, “Yes, I WANT SOMETHING!”  You learn that your interests are wrong, that you aren’t cool enough to hang around with other people, and, if by some miracle they let you come along, that’s only because they plan on doing something awful to you away from the prying eyes of an adult. Maybe they’ll steal your money. Or hit you with something. Or violate your body. Or hide, waiting for you to show up and find nobody there, while they laugh at the dumb boy. Or leave you somewhere. Or tell you that they are doing something illegal – and convince you to join in it, only to find out it’s a setup for which you take the blame because the “good kids” turn you in.  But whatever happens isn’t going to be that something you want.

But I’m nearly 40. These things won’t happen. The people making this offer want people like me to come, or they wouldn’t have offered. I know all of this.

But I’m shaking. I’m terrified.

And I’m not going to recognize this person after the session anyhow.  I can’t just go around to 300 attendees and say “Hey, are you the person that talked about X?” And I certainly can’t ask anyone to point them out to me – then I have to overcome this twice.

It makes you want to cry. Why can’t I have the smallest amount of confidence?

Because I’m terrified. It’s not logical, it’s deep in the heart.

This time, the person making the offer was distinctive enough looking that somehow I was able to find them – they look (to me) just like their partner (same gender, same age, same basic body type, same hair color), so I have a 50/50 shot. And I risked it.

I was shaking.

What kept coming to me was a quote, from a different context, about activism: “Speak your mind–even when your voice shakes.”

I can do that when someone else needs me to. Mess with my family and you’ll find that out – there is nobody I can’t go up to and set straight when they’ve wronged someone I love. Or when someone I love just would be happy if I did.

But asking for something about me–that’s different. That’s hard. And it’s not something I need, I’m not advocating for rights. I am just saying, “Yes, Joel wants something.” But isn’t this, too, advocacy? Aren’t I a person worthy of happiness and joy, and needing someone to speak?

I was terrified.

Somehow, when I found that person.  And I gently tried–and failed to get their attention.  I wasn’t positive of their name, so I didn’t want to use the name, but I couldn’t get their attention either.

I was shaking.

I just about gave up.

Someone else saw me and said to the person I was trying to talk to, “Hey, someone’s trying to get your attention!”

More shaking. More terror.

But I did it. I spoke, with my shaking voice. “Are you the person organizing the walking tour?”

Terror.

Shaking.

“Yes, are you wanting to go?”

Terror.

Shaking.

But I somehow found the voice to say yes.

Tomorrow, when I meet up for the tour, will be another bit of stress and terror. I have to find someone tomorrow, in a building I’ve never been to before (another thing that terrifies me).  I’m terrified.

But I’m also excited. And proud. And happy. Filled with anticipation of doing something I want to doBecause I want to do it. Not for someone else. Not pretending I am not interested, lest I be humiliated by finding out I wasn’t really allowed to do this. No, it’s wonderful!

So, tomorrow, that’s what I’m doing.

And I’m terrified.

And shaking.

But the shaking is just as much excitement as it is terror. And probably the cold temperature in this room.

I Will Remember

Today is a day of mourning for disabled victims of murder.

I will remember.

I will remember those who lost the battle for existence…
…those who were killed by parents, caregivers, or others
…those who were killed by bullies that pretend to be friends
…those who were killed by taking their own life after years of abuse, harassment, and prejudice.

I will remember.

I will remember those who are still with us…
…who bear the wounds of abuse and prejudice
…who receive little, if any, support
…who were told they are “less-than.”

I will remember.

I will remember for myself…
…that my interests are precious
…that my way of participating is valid
…that my uniqueness is important in the world.

I will remember.

I will not just remember but will be someone…
…who spreads hope
…who takes care of themself
…who loves and be loved.

I will remember.

I will remember not just for…
…those who we have lost
…but for a different world
…and for those we won’t lose.

I will remember.