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.

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