Mass Murderers Might be Autistic – and Why the term “High Functioning” is Discriminatory

As most people probably know, a few days ago a man murdered 6 people and injured several more.  The murderer may have been autistic.

Before I go any further, I want to note that I recognize the horror of what happened in California and am very sad for what happened to the victims and their families. I do believe the entire autism community is united in this aspect and feels the same way.

One of the first reactions of any community, including the autistic community, when something like this happens is to want to distance themselves from the evil person. Some of this is in the form of, “We are not like that!” That’s valid, and true. Autistic people are less likely than average to commit violent crime (and more likely to be the victims – so we’re not the ones that someone needs to be protected from, we’re the ones that need to be protected from someone else).

But, there’s also a darker response: “He’s not autistic.” I can’t accept this knee-jerk response, as much as I do wish that the murderer is not autistic. Sure, we don’t know for sure that he was autistic, and that’s fine to point out in some limited contexts (but not as a way of saying, “So autistic people are okay”). Whether or not this murderer was autistic, the violence he displayed was something that isn’t part of autism, nor is it part of any number of other things (such as being a man, being a college student, being a gun owner, being a white sort-of-well-off kid). But it certainly isn’t part of his autism. That doesn’t mean he isn’t autistic, though.

We have good and bad people in our community.  Just like there are good and bad men, good and bad college students, good and bad gun owners, good and bad sort-of-well-off people. And I do believe we can and should judge individuals as individuals. And, yes, I recognize that there is typically a power – privilege if you like – differential between men and women, whites and people of color, sort-of-well-off people and poor people. But there’s a huge difference between being a member of a group that has social privilege and being a bad person. I’m not saying that privilege doesn’t exist or people shouldn’t be aware of it, but I am saying that it’s not a moral failing to be a member of such a group!

But, back to the autism, we can (and, in fact, should expect we have) bad people in our community. There’s a lot of myths that autistic people have perpetuated about how we’re beyond deceiving people, honest, trustworthy, kind, and any number of other positive things. But we’re not. I’m not saying we’re dishonest, untrustworthy, unkind, liars, either. We’re neither of these things, neither angels nor devils. We’re like everyone else: we have good things in each of us and also some ugly things in each of us. We’re not beyond jealousy, greed, or malice. We have good people and bad people in our community, and we need to recognize that. It’s a mistake to think a group I am part of is better than another group. It’s a mistake that the murderer in California made, one that fed into his evil acts – he felt he was better than the men and women he murdered. Obviously the rest of us have a different opinion. Autistic (or Aspie) supremacist stuff is bullshit.

But, when the “angel theory of autism” isn’t being used to try to discount the murder’s potential autism, another ugly belief pops up: that the murderer was too functional to be autistic. The logic is, essentially, “He was too high functioning to be anything like most autistics. He could talk normally, he could go to college, he drove a car.” Whether or not this leads to someone saying he wasn’t autistic, the point is the same: if you drive, go to school, and talk, then you’re not like real (phrased as most) autistics.

Two things lead to this: first, people have limited experience with autistic people. They may only know one or two, often children. And the person they know probably doesn’t go to college, drive, and may have obvious communication differences. Of course the person they know might only be 6 (how many 6 year olds go to college or drive?), but none-the-less when someone thinks of autism, they think of what they know. If the person they know is an adult that cannot do these these things, too often it is assumed that others are like this.

The other problem is that people think the world works as follows:

Two arrows, one pointing left, one pointing right. The left arrow says "Low functioning" and has, under it, "More Autistic."  The right arrow says "High Functioning" and under it says "Normal"In other words, there’s a line on which we can place autistic people.  There are middle-functioning people in the middle, still clearly autistic, but in the middle of autistic. There’s a few geniuses like Temple Grandin off to the right, approaching “normal” and definitely “high functioning”, and there is a bunch of people on the left who are more affected and thus “low functioning.”

But that’s all bullshit.

You might be able to draw a line like the above for one very narrowly defined skill. But it has to be really narrow. For instance, we all know there are good and bad car drivers. Some people are just plain better at it than others. But is it even that simple? For instance, someone might be great at driving on-road, but horrible driving a jeep on an off-road trail. Are they a low functioning driver?  Probably not. Or they might be fine driving during the day, but not at night. Or they might be great in a city, but easily fall asleep on a rural highway. Or they might be fine driving a little compact car, but totally lost if they are asked to back up a truck with a 35 foot long camper attached. They might be better at driving fast, but is someone that frequently exceed the speed limit a high functioning or a low functioning driver? Where would you be on the line (assuming you drive)? It probably depends on the situation and environment – I suspect I’d be pretty far to the left, near low functioning, if you put me in the cab of a tractor trailer, since I probably wouldn’t even know how to release the parking brake. But maybe I’m pretty far to the right when it comes to backing up a trailer (I can usually get into a tight spot on the first attempt easily). I’m probably somewhere in the middle for most tasks. So, am I a mid-functioning driver? Would you say the same thing if I said I am a professional tractor-trailer driver who can’t release the brakes (but is, on average, mid-functioning considering other skills)? Probably not – context matters. We probably need several lines, for different skills, like “Winter Driving”, “Trailer Backing”, “Tractor-Trailer Brake Operation”, “Night Driving”, “Rural Awareness Maintenance”, and “Speed Limit Obedience.”

Life is a whole lot more complex than driving a car. If we can’t just give one score on a continuum to a driver, imagine how much more complex life as a whole is!

I’ll use myself as an example. I have no problem driving a car most of the time (I can’t say I’m perfect, but I’m not a “low functioning” driver either). I attended college, even obtaining a degree. And I do talk.

Of course what this misses is that of these things, the only one I’ve done without significant difficulty is driving. For whatever reason, I’m comfortable operating pretty much any vehicle I’ve had a chance to operate, from bicycles to aircraft. I’m not sure why, considering how uncoordinated I am with most other things, but I can manage motor vehicles just fine. But the other stuff is definitely difficult.

Sure, I attended college. And it only took about 16 years for me to get my degree. I received a 4.0 average my first year. My second year saw me on academic probation. What happened? It wasn’t the material – I could and did understand the material. Trying to keep everything together for over a year was too much for me, and I was loosing the ability to handle all the daily activities of life. Sure, I could force myself through it – and did – for a while. But eventually that catches up. I don’t know many non-autistic college students that had grades decline as steeply (I do know several autistic students that have). I ended up dropping out, only returning a decade later when somehow I was willing to try to force myself through the process again. This is hardly “high functioning.”

I could talk about speech, but I won’t now, other than to say I had similar difficulties and still do – it’s why I still own and occasionally use speech generating devices.

But there were the other areas of my life too. I didn’t eat for a week when I started school, because I didn’t know where the cafeteria was. I was getting a 4.0 GPA at the time, but couldn’t find where the food was kept.  After a week, I was barely functional from hunger. Yet I couldn’t do the obvious thing: ask someone. Eventually, I ended up stalking another freshman for a few hours, figuring he’d eventually eat (fortunately, he did eat in the cafeteria). Food was a problem throughout my adult life, until I got married (my wonderful wife cooks for me – something that is a tremendous blessing after you’ve lived years of your life dangerously underweight because you lack the ability to manage this task yourself).

But I was high functioning. I went to college. I drove a car.

That’s the thing with autism (and, in fact, humanity). Having skill in area X doesn’t mean I have skill in area Y, even when it looks like X and Y should be reasonably related.

Sure, we like to be able to categorize people. We think there must be some difference between that kid we say is low functioning and the high-functioning examples of people like Temple Grandin. And certainly there is a difference – the obvious one is 50 years of age. But, beyond that, autism isn’t about being good or bad at any one thing. It’s about having a set of abilities that doesn’t follow the normal neurotypical model, and this goes both ways. I don’t have the research handy, but I know some researchers have found that autistics with low measured IQs, typically part of the group that is considered low functioning, share, with their higher measured IQ autistic peers, an ability to do certain types of intellectual processing that far surpasses that of neurotypicals. Of course neurotypicals far surpass both groups – the “high” and “low” functioning groups on other tasks. It’s not about better or worse, higher or lower, but rather different.

When people think of the California murderer, and think, “But he’s too high functioning to be autistic,” they are closing the doors to life-saving daily living services that some people need. They are deciding that autistic people can’t learn skills A, B, or C. They are ignoring decades of research. They’re also ignoring the tremendous variance between individuals, even when those individuals are all called autistic. We’re different, with vastly different skills. One autistic person might not just be able to drive a car, but could be a successful race car driver, while another would be a tremendous risk to traffic if they got behind the wheel. That doesn’t mean one is more autistic than the other. It means that one is a shit driver, while the other may be great. But still autistic. Yet others may have tremendous talents, but because they can’t do some random unrelated task, it’s assumed they wouldn’t be able to do whatever they are talented at doing. They’re “low functioning” after all. Well, that’s bullshit. Don’t dismiss us as non-autistic because we can do something, don’t assume we have other skills because we can do X, and don’t assume that we can’t do something because we can’t do X.

If you think you can put autistic people on a functioning line, from high to low functioning, you just don’t know autism.

More on the Link between Autism and Violence

I’ve blogged on this in the past, so I won’t go into too many details now. There is a link.

I’ve also recently put up a survey about intimacy that included some questions about abuse. The numbers show how often we face this type of mistreatment (yes, I’m aware of the limitations in my methodology; that said, the results match remarkably well with “real” research) – 80% of autistic respondents indicated that they have been abused.  FOUR OUT OF FIVE.

We die in bad confrontations with police (particularly if we don’t or can’t speak), where we did nothing wrong other than being unable to communicate with police.

Too often, we are murdered by caregivers, parents, and family (you know, the people who are supposed to have our best interests in mind) – but it doesn’t stop there. When it happens, juries and judges say they can understand why we were murdered and give a light (if any) sentence to the murderer. You see, it’s so horrible to raise us, that of course people would murder us. Or something like that. Other times, we’re told that murder of autistic people is a “mercy killing” because nobody would want to be like us. Of course we’re not asked. It would be wrong to try to link being a parent or family member to being a killer.

And there are plenty of us who kill ourselves. My first serious attempt was in 3rd grade. If every day of your life was filled with the abuse from schoolmates (I could say, “neurotypical school mates” but I don’t believe neurotypicals are a slave to neurology when it comes to violence, despite the fact that it was typically neurotypical students doing the abuse).

Like other minorities, when we’re killed, it’s often preceded by torture. Remember Steven Simpson, who was murdered by being doused in oil and set on fire during his own 18th birthday party. They changed the title of this article, but you can still see it in the URL: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2166327/Autistic-teenager-Steven-Simpson-dies-burn-injuries-tanning-oil-prank-went-wrong.html – “Dies from burn injuries during a tanning oil prank that went wrong.” Uh, no. Having anti-gay obscenities written on your body and then being doused in oil and then having your genitals set on fire is not a prank. Being doused in oil and set on fire is a torture. This is the very definition of a hate crime. What’s the punishment for lighting someone on fire, leaving the scene without calling emergency services, not trying to put the fire out? What is the punishment for hearing someone scream in total agony? In the first-world country where this happened, the penalty is nothing for most of the accomplices and 3 1/2 years for the worst of the accomplices. Yet, it is reported as a “prank” and this light sentence is handed out. Yes, there’s a link to autism and violence: you will walk free after just a bit more then 3 years in jail if you light us on fire in England (the USA is no better when it comes to sentences handed down). Lest you think that the UK is just light on sentencing, check out this robber, sentenced to 13 life sentences. Now, this robber is obviously a bad man who needs to go to jail, who did incredible harm to his victims. But it should be noted that he didn’t kill anyone.

Yet autistic people are the ones who are need to be prevented from owning guns, who are a risk to society, who are supposedly (without any evidence whatsoever backing this up) likely to kill you. Uh, no.

More on Brooks Gibbs & the Kalman Bullying Prevention Hogwash

I wrote a bunch yesterday.

I’m not going to go through that again, but I do notice that the Brooks Gibbs’ program page is now returning a page not found (as it appears the rest of the site is also doing).

So I’ll give a new link, so long as it remains up.

And I’m going to do something I pretty much never do: I’m going to warn you that these videos are decidedly unplesant and you probably don’t want to watch them if you’re not somewhere that you can yell at your computer. You also don’t want to watch them if you can’t, right now, deal with teaching and role playing that reflects what too many victims are told when they are told that they, not the bully, is the problem.

Here’s the link to the videos.  Remember, Brooks Gibbs is paid by schools worldwide to “teach”. Also remember his qualifications – Brooks Gibbs went to a right-wing Christian unaccredited (edit: nationally, but not regionally, accredited, which isn’t a great thing – regional is generally what you want) college that doesn’t have degrees in education, childhood development, or psychology.

In “Lesson 5”, you’ll even see a guest appearance of Izzy Kalman, the person who designed this “Buddies to Bullies” thing.  I confess I didn’t watch all of them.  Lesson 5 was awful enough.

What I Think about Autistic Criminals

In the news today was a story about a man who allegedly used malware to take over his victim’s computers and take pictures of them (particularly undressing in front of the computer, not knowing they were being watched), which he then used to blackmail his victims into providing more pictures or video.

As one can almost expect in this type of case, the man’s family has apologized and added that the man, Jared James Abrahams, was autistic.

Now, I’m autistic. I’m also a man. And I, too, know how to use computers. But that’s where the similarity ends. And I have no sympathy for Jared, if he did what he is alleged to have done (and, according to police, admitted to).

Autism doesn’t prevent us from knowing right from wrong. In fact, many autistic people have a very strong sense of right and wrong.

And, contrary to popular opinion, we can manipulate, lie, cheat, violate, and intimidate people. As Jared did. And as do many other people, both autistic and non-autistic alike.

Now, assuming Jared did this (he does have a right to a trial and innocent people have confessed before – albeit I see that as highly unlikely to be happening in this case), the problem I have is the attempt to use this diagnosis as an excuse. Autism should not mitigate sentencing or prosecution in the type of case Jared is involved in. He knew this was wrong. And he did it anyhow. Laws were written for people like him.

I also have fairly little respect for someone using computers for this purpose. It’s not “being good at computers.” Being good at computers is going and fixing the Linux IP packet scheduler so I don’t have 2 seconds of queuing on my wireless interface. If you want to impress me, go do that. But that’s a whole different kind of “good at computers” than downloading some easy-to-use hacker program and tricking your victims into installing it so you can take nudie pictures of them (hint: there are plenty of nude pictures on the internet that you don’t need to hack anything to see). If people want you to stay out of somewhere, then stay out. And, for creepy guys who violate privacy, you probably need to stay out of women’s bedrooms. This wasn’t an intellectual crime – this was a crime not very far removed from that of a rapist. There’s plenty of things of intellectual interest in computing that don’t involve violating people’s privacy or bodies.

But I do think there are areas where autistic people do deserve special treatment: we don’t win in interrogations. It’s really important that an autistic person in particular have easy and early access to legal defense. It’s easy to manipulate someone who doesn’t follow all the normal social cues. That’s why we have lawyers – to protect our rights. Even if we are guilty or a creep.

Now, I have no idea if James had access to a lawyer or not, or if he was coerced in anyway to confessing. I’ve read the complaint and it is pretty convincing (albeit I’d challenge some of the technical points, but the complaint would still stand), and it seems as even without the confession there is plenty of evidence. But I do think this – and the reporting of being a victim – are two areas where autistic people lose. The system is not designed for us.

But, if the facts show he is guilty: sentence him as you would sentence anyone else. I would say that I suspect general population prison to be inappropriate for most autistic people. But I do think we can earn prison time – but in prison, it’s important to recognize that we are vulnerable, and that prison does have a responsibility to provide safety even for creeps and criminals.

I do wish that we wouldn’t hear “he’s autistic” as often as we do when people are brought to trial. Autism doesn’t make criminals. And in fact, we’re way more likely to be victims (and that part of the justice system treats us poorly too) than most people, while we’re less likely to be criminals statistically (but, obviously, there are exceptions).  Too much popular discourse surrounding crime involves demonizing the mentally ill (of whom, autistics are popularly considered to be a part, whether or not they are also mentally ill).

I also don’t like to hear the response of some of my autistic peers: “He’s not autistic.” I don’t know if he is or isn’t, or if any given criminal is or isn’t. But I do know we can be criminal, we can manipulate, and we can do bad, bad things.

So, am I surprised that autistic criminals exist? Of course not. And I hope we see justice served in this case, whatever outcome that requires.

Coy Matthis – and Excuses to Exclude

I wanted to write a bit about a big local news story. But I also wanted to write about how different populations (in this case, trans people and autistic people) face too many of the same stigmas and excuses when we’re excluded.

As an autistic person, I’ve seen plenty of excuses to exclude. Of course we’re not the only group of people excluded from places and activities, as a long history of exclusion in the USA demonstrates. Today, one group that frequently loses their rights is transgender people. As autistic people, we should be concerned anytime anyone’s rights are infringed – we know what it is like.

Coy Matthis is a (now) second grader. She successfully brought a complaint against the Fountain-Ft. Carson School District (Fountain is a town directly south of Colorado Springs, home of Focus on the Family and several other right-leaning political-religious organizations). Her complaint was that the school district prohibited her, a transgender girl, from using the girl’s bathroom, and suggested (initially) that she used the boy’s bathroom, or, (later) a staff restroom.

Predictably, the Division of Civil Right’s decision (pdf) angered a lot of people, with predictable complaints, as it affirmed Coy’s right to use the girl’s bathroom. As you read through some of the complaints I’ve seen below, as I paraphrase them below, think about what other populations you’ve seen these complaints used against. This is one reason it’s important to ally ourselves with other communities – their struggle is remarkably similar to our struggle, so it’s useful to learn from each other. Of course Coy and others like her have plenty of different struggles than autistic people generally have, but there are some commonalities even where the specifics are different.

I don’t believe she’s really trans, her parents are using her

This argument comes down to “I don’t believe her.” How many times have we heard that about autistic people in the autism community? The minute an autistic speaks out against something someone is saying or doing to autistic people, we learn that we aren’t really autistic. Denial of our identity is a pretty basic way of trying to silence an opponent. And plenty of autistics are told that they are only pretending to be autistic.

But, that aside, I’ll make one suggestion: if you know a 6 year old boy (Coy was 6 at time of the bathroom ban), see if you can get him to wear girl’s clothes to school, tell people he’s a girl, and otherwise do “girl things.” I’ll be mightily impressed if you can do this. After all, society strongly encourages gender stereotype conformity.

How can a 6 year old know she’s trans?

Likewise, we’re (autistics) are too often dismissed when we relate our experiences interacting with the world. “How can you be bothered by a fluorescent light?” It’s basically, “My experience was nothing like yours. I never went through being trans at 6, so I can’t see how that’s possible. I never was bothered to the point of pain by a fluorescent light, so you’re making it up.”

The answer to this question turns out to be pretty easy. From a recent American Academy of Pediatrics (not to be confused with the American Academy of Pediatricians!) policy technical report (pdf) on treating LGBT children:

Awareness of gender identity happens very early in life. Between ages 1 and 2 years, children become conscious of physical differences between the 2 sexes. By age 3, children can identify themselves as a boy or a girl, and, by age 4, gender identity is stable. In middle childhood, gender identification continues to become more firmly established, reflected in children’s interests in playing more exclusively with youngsters of their own gender and also in their interest in acting like, looking like, and having things like their same-sex peers.

Clearly, children know they are boys or girls at a young age. When that knowledge is significantly different than the apparent sex of the body, to the point where the person can’t accept living according to the stereotypes of their body, it’s a serious – potentially life threatening – problem (it can create such unhappiness that people feel suicide is their only way of dealing with this). The solution to this problem is to live as you are, not as people might want you to be. This, in Coy’s case, was confirmed medically through her doctors and therapists. I imagine the “Is she really?” question crossed these experts’ minds. I also imagine they investigated that and got a good answer. Probably a better one than someone without knowledge about gender identity can come up with, particularly without knowing Coy!

Finally, again, ask a random six year old if he’s a boy or girl. Hopefully you’re not surprised that the child provides an answer quickly (well, unless the child may be questioning, in which case it’s very healthy). Children generally know what they are. Really!

Boys have Penises, Girls have Vaginas

We have expectations about “obvious” things. Lots of people have expectations about autistic people – “They don’t talk” or “they couldn’t live without 24×7 help” are two obvious ones (I’ll note that the 24×7 help isn’t something people get even in institutions, but that’s not the point of today’s post, so I’ll move on). It’s another way to say, “NO, you aren’t. You’re what I think you are.”

I’m not sure where Arnold’s kindergartener learned about penises and vaginas, but as the decision by the Division of Civil Rights states, it’s a bit more complex than that. The decision cites the presence of intersexed people as examples of people that don’t conform to the overly simplistic “boys have penises, girls have vaginas.” Enforcing some sort of uniform standard is yet another way of dismissing someone’s identity. “You’re what I think you are. I know better than you. Or your parents. Or your doctors. Or the State of Colorado. Or the US Department of State” (all of the above recognize Coy as a girl). I’m going to pick the sex trait *I* think is important to determine your gender (note that gender and sex are different – I’ll mention that later).

It’s a way of saying, “There can’t possibly be any girl who has a penis, because, well, I say so, that’s how I’m defining girl. No penis.” (Ironically these same people probably would pick a different trait if Coy was ever to have genital reassignment surgery – part of the proof that they aren’t really concerned about genitals nearly as much as making sure they voice their disagreement with the person’s identity) That simplistic, genital-based thinking not aligned with most current research or thinking on gender. Just as someone can believe man-made pollution has no or extremely little impact on climate, you can believe whatever you want about gender. But that doesn’t make you right. With the vast degree of diversity in the human condition, it’s pretty hard to say anything with absolutes, particularly with something as complex as gender. We might all like absolutes (penis = boy, XY = boy, or whatever else), but absolutes just don’t fit the realities of humans. We’re complicated. And trying to make it simple might make you seem smart to yourself, but really exposes your ignorance.

Ah, we’re not discriminating on the basis of gender, we’re discriminating on the basis of sex

Again, autistic people see this type of hair-splitting. We’re told, “We’re not refusing to hire autistic people, we’re refusing to hire people with (insert some autistic trait).”

Likewise, trans people face this as a result of sloppy language used by politicians, lawyers, and the general public.

Quick, if you’re asked if you’re “male or female”, should that question be entitled “sex?” or “gender?” If you said gender, you’re wrong. Gender is identity and/or expression (depending on context). Man, woman, girl, boy are words to describe gender. It’s how you interact with society, which generally doesn’t involve genitals or chromosomes (I don’t ask someone for a genetic test before calling her “Ms” or ask someone to drop their pants before I call them “Sir”). Sex, on the other hand, is biological (and complex!). It’s the combination of traits, such as brain structure, gonads, genitals, secondary sex traits (height, bone structure, muscle structure, fat distribution, breasts, baldness, voice pitch, etc), hormones, and chromosomes – any one of which can point towards a different sex than the others (hence why it is complicated!). So, if you’re interested in a person medically, you may want to know their sex, but if you’re interested in whether you call the person “sir” or “ma’am,” you’re interested in gender (and then you should ask “man or woman” generally, not “male or female”, or better yet, allow the person to fill in the blank in case they don’t identify either way).

Unfortunately for Coy, Colorado, in addition to making transgender a sexual orientation (huh? Trans people are straight, gay, bi, and otherwise – it’s like making transgender a skin color, it makes no sense), confuses sex and gender throughout its laws, to the point where the Civil Rights Division concluded they are synonyms and the meaning has to be discerned through context. Both parties (the school district and Coy’s lawyers) agreed that sex and gender are distinct. But of course our laws are muddy, because legislatures are not quite so clear. Other examples are the Colorado “Change of Sex” form which is used to record a change on Colorado ID cards and driver’s licenses. The State form titled “Change of Sex” doesn’t, outside of the title, ask about the person’s sex. It asks for the person’s gender! Or, the famous, “One man, one woman” standard for marriage. They don’t really mean man or woman (gender), they mean one male, one female (sex). Courts have all agreed that they mean sex, even when they said man and woman (and didn’t define what makes someone a man or a woman) – it was a ban on same-sex, not same-gender marriage.

This is unfortunate because you have statements in law that allow creation of some single-sex (or single-gender, depending on the regulation or law – both terms are used) facilities. For instance, having a “men’s bathroom” is not illegal in Colorado, but the legislature absolutely intended to make it illegal to prohibit trans men from using it (even female men). So, is it sex or gender discrimination to ban a man from the men’s room, when single-sex (or is it single-gender) facilities are allowed?

It turns out that the saving grace for trans people is that the law is otherwise clear – the law was clearly intended to allow trans people to use a bathroom that matches their identity. But there’s going to be a lot of pointless debate in the future due to imprecise language. While advocates might agree that women need to be treated like women on paperwork and in laws, we probably should ensure we don’t muddy the waters by letting laws pass using the word “sex” when “gender” is meant, or vise-versa. The argument could have been avoided with precise language.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…

Okay, it makes for a good movie. But it makes garbage public policy. This argument was essentially the argument used in every single case of widespread discrimination in the USA. Why were Americans that had Japanese ancestry locked away in interment camps? Because trampling on their rights was seen as an acceptable price to pay for the illusion of security it gave the majority of citizens. It’s today used against autistic people to argue for segregation in school or institutionalization.

This argument used towards trans people implies that use of a bathroom by a trans person (or whatever other right they might have) is somehow interfering with the rights to another. There’s this idea that just being in a bathroom or other place with someone with different genitals is somehow hurting the other person – that it’s an infringement on rights. This is probably only true if you value a “right to discriminate”, which sadly some do value. The only right violated is your right to violate someone else’s right.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I would hope the school would do something about two male boys showing each other their penises in the boy’s room rather than using the room for it’s intended purpose. You go in there to do your business. And by all accounts, that’s exactly what Coy did – her business and nothing more. Now if someone was showing their genitals, you deal with that. It is inappropriate behavior to do that in public restrooms, but it’s equally inappropriate if it is two boys (with penises) doing it. Or two female girls.

And there is a solution for the person who really does feel uncomfortable (no students reported feeling uncomfortable with Coy, it should be noted; it was a couple of school administrators that felt uncomfortable with the idea of Coy using the girl’s room). You let them use a more private facility. Problem solved – now both kids can pee in peace.

She can use the boy’s room…or the staff bathroom, so she can pee

Again, this is used in other areas of discrimination. With autistic people, we’re told that there are other places we can, other activities we can sign up for, etc. We can be somewhere else, just not here. So it’s all cool, right? Of course not.

There’s more to bathrooms than just peeing. While it’s not a place to wave your genitals around in front of others, it has a social component – actually several of them. People do socialize in bathrooms (particularly, from what I hear, women). And, more importantly, bathrooms have a gender confirmation purpose. Some people are violently attacked simply for not following society’s expectations for their presumed sex. Sometimes someone will watch someone use the bathroom, just to determine, “Is that person a man or a woman?” The door they use tells them. If they use a third door, or a door not in conformance with their expression, that confirms, “This person really isn’t a woman, ‘he’ is a man” rather than, “Oh, this person might just be a tall woman.” Someone that already drew a conclusion may not be swayed by this, but for people that were unsure, this can confirm or exclude that a person is dressing and acting appropriately. Equally bad, if people thought the person was a woman, and had no doubt about her being a woman, but she uses the men’s room (or a third bathroom), now she’s obviously and visibly different – and very likely the conclusion will be, “She’s not a real woman.” That’s a risk to her. (it can work the same way for trans men) It’s a risk she should evaluate, not someone else.

Finally, asking any student to do something different just because of who they are (rather than a choice they make), such as using a third bathroom, will say to other students, “This person is different.” Now, difference isn’t bad in itself, but too often that message is communicated too. In this case, the message is, “This person isn’t a real girl.” That contradicts the message the school was properly trying to send when it used feminine pronouns and otherwise treated the girl as a girl.

I don’t think I could ever understand what it is like for someone who has went through pain of being trans, and having a body that didn’t match their being. But I imagine it’s incredibly humiliating and triggering to be told, “No, I think you’re really something else.” A life of people not accepting who you are probably becomes very painful to many. It implies that the trans person is a liar, cheat, fake, evil, sinner, and whatever else. Imagine the pain that it must feel like to have people constantly remind you that they don’t see who you are. Imagine that someone has chosen to live who they really are, not the lie that was killing them, only to be told they are wrong for choosing life over death.

What about safety?

Again, this happens for autistic people. People have stereotypes about what is safe and what isn’t. Someone screaming in a meltdown is “unsafe”, whether or not they intend to do violence. As is someone saying things that an autistic person might to an authority, like, “What you’re doing isn’t safe, it could get you hurt if someone didn’t like what you were doing” (something an autistic person I know did to someone without authority or training who was trying to enforce zoning codes). It feels like a threat, either the meltdown or the concern about a person’s safety. So it must be. Even when it’s not.

Likewise, discussion about bathrooms always comes around to safety. There is an idea that a rapist or molester would never rape or molest someone with the same body parts as themself, and would never enter a place where he or she shouldn’t be – but once you let them in, they’ll now rape or molest. This is problematic for a bunch of reasons, such as assuming that people who have the “wrong” parts would only be in some places to cause problems. But it’s also wrong – we still have extremely strong laws to protect people against rape and molestation. They aren’t always applied or used, but the laws themselves are generally pretty strong and carry severe penalties. If that’s not going to keep someone from doing wrong, no sign on the door will.

Even more significant, however, is who’s safety is seen as important to protect. The idea is that this hypothetical wrong-bathroom-rapist (I know of no case where this has actually happened – where someone raped someone after entering a bathroom and claimed he or she had the right to be in a bathroom because he or she was trans) is a bigger concern than the safety of trans people (who are raped, molested, beat, and killed for using the “wrong” bathroom). The concern wasn’t about making Coy comfortable and safe (part of that is showing that she’s normal and a real girl, not a fake or liar in need of correction). It wasn’t empowering (by letting Coy and her parents make decisions about what is safest for her). No, it was treating people like Coy as the threat – if she uses the bathroom, then people are unsafe because hypothetically someone else might. So the threat needed to be removed.

Likewise, forcing Coy to use a different bathroom doesn’t make her safe either. While a private bathroom may be more safe than a shared bathroom, it can also be less safe. It’s more safe when it’s a non-stigmatizing option that everyone might (and do) use, but it’s less safe when it serves to “out” someone or communicate she isn’t a “real” girl.

If you’re really worried about everyone’s safety, then worry about it (start by giving people privacy in anyplace where they may be partially or fully undressed, privacy even from people with the same sex parts). It means also worrying about rapists that have the same genitals as their victims. Otherwise, it’s just an excuse.

Other Excuses

I’m sure there are other excuses. All of the above were excuses I recall hearing, either in the formal determination by the Civil Rights division, or by commentators about this. The reality is that none of them get to the root of the problem: they are justifications, not the real problem. The real problem is dislike for how someone else lives their life. The excuses are simply attempts to justify bad behavior on the part of the person making them.