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.

Autistics Speaking Day

I want to say something. So here goes: FUCK.A bunch of text, including *(#! #W:# and similar text, to stylistically represent internet cuss word obfuscation

Seriously.

No, I’m not trying to make the blog unsafe for kids (that said, I’d love to meet the kid who hasn’t heard the word “fuck”).  But this is a huge part of what I want to say: we will say things people like.  And things they don’t.

We’ll cuss. We’ll insult people. We’ll talk dirty. We’ll lie. We’ll do all the things that the sanitized, nice, touchy-feely movies about escaping from autism or about how there are geniuses in the autistic population won’t say.

We say – if we’re allowed – these things even if we use speech devices. Too often, we’re silenced by being given devices that don’t speak these words. (hint to parents: if your child uses a speech device that uses a language system – not just spelling, but a word-based language system – and it doesn’t include some words you don’t ever want to hear said, the vocabulary is too small for your kid) Seriously, kids cuss. So should autistic kids. Just like neurotypical kids, we need to learn what is and isn’t appropriate in what context. Whether you like it or not, it is appropriate for two fifth graders to share lists of cuss words with each other. It’s not appropriate to do so in the hearing of an adult. That’s a pretty important social lesson to learn – that your communication needs to change based on audience. How do you learn that if you’re only options in language are always appropriate for the adults?

We say we’re horny. That we’re aroused. That we want to have sex. Maybe even that we want to fuck. Just like a neurotypical does. Sure, there are all types of sexualities among autistic people, including asexuality, but most of us aren’t asexual. So we want these things. And need to talk about it. Yes, there are more and less appropriate places. And, yes, we may or may not have our parents’ moral values. But we need the same rights that any other adult has – the ability to express our sexuality, including expressing it in ways that while legal may not be what our parents would like.

Too often, we live in group homes or institutions where the staff fears the complications that a sex life would bring into their own jobs. Or have religious views about what sex is or isn’t okay. That’s fine if we willingly agree to those rules and have real options and places to live that don’t include those rules. But most of the time, we don’t get that choice when placed into group homes or institutions – we have to take what we get, or run away. A neurotypical might choose to live in a monastery. An autistic shouldn’t be forced to. Yet, studies have shown that many – quite possibly most – group homes ban homosexual relationships while allowing limited (usually way too limited) heterosexual relationships. It’s another place where our desires don’t matter.

We also need to be able to say “NO.” As in, “No, I don’t want to go to work today.” Or “No, I don’t want to eat that slop.” Neurotypicals get to do this. Sure, there are consequences (although often we get away with some of this – how many people use a sick day when they aren’t sick?). Heck, sometimes a neurotypical might wake up in the morning and decide – for better or worse – that going to work sucks, that there is more in life than their job, and that they really don’t want to go to their job. Ever again. Yep, that causes unemployment sometimes, but it’s something many neurotypicals have done sometime in their life. They were allowed to. Sure, there are consequences. But they weren’t prevented from making the choice in the first place.

So I guess that’s my theme: if people want us to speak, you need to let us speak. Even when we say shit you don’t like. We’re not pets, we’re not puppets. We’re human. And that means you won’t like every moral choice we make. Just like I won’t like every moral choice you make. That’s life.

 

Why the Trans Stuff?

This could also be titled, “Can you explain what Joel has been up to the last year?”  Or “Why is Joel glad Autreat moved from Johnstown.”

Some readers of this blog may wonder why there is the trans-advocacy stuff here.  It mostly started in 2012 with an issue involving Autreat.

In 2012, as a member of the planning committee, I discovered, by accident, that our Autreat venue at the time (University of Pittsburgh @ Johnstown) was discriminatory against trans people (and, most likely, still is).  Essentially, they decided to prohibit many trans people from using the correct facilities for their gender identity and expression (I.E. a transman should be able to use the men’s room; that said, depending on where he is in his transition and with his expression at the time, he may choose to use the women’s room for safety purposes, which should also be respected as this is an issue of safety from assault, not preference or comfort).  The change was made in 2011, despite a pretty good official non-discrimination policy (that includes, ironically, gender identity).  It was proclaimed semi-officially – it didn’t go through the typical rule making process, nor was it put on paper, but it absolutely was enforced and echoed by official statements made by the University.  In fact, it was enforced against a student at Johnstown who arrested for using the “wrong” facilities and charged with indecent exposure.

This was significant to Autreat because research shows that autistics are highly represented in the trans community (for instance, 6% of people with gender identity disorder are autistic according to one study – much higher than one would expect if there was no relationship).

There’s all sorts of commentary on U Pitt’s decision online and in print – most of it revolving around whether or not different advocacy organizations and trans people responded “right” to the discrimination or whether or not the trans person who was arrested was right or wrong. Unfortunately most of this commentary doesn’t actually question the discrimination, and most seems to imply “just wait it out” is the right response when you personally face discrimination – but that’s the typical response to anything that disturbs the status quo from people not personally bothered by the status quo. However, the root of the problem is not any specific case, but rather official statements from the University administration about how trans people would be treated. For instance, a spokesperson quoted by Think Progress said,

As this [policy] applies to use of facilities, a female who identifies as a male, or a male who identifies as a female, may use restrooms or locker rooms of his or her declared gender identity after he or she has obtained a birth certificate designating the declared gender. This practice applies to student athletes as well.

Many trans people, for many reasons, do not have birth certificates that agree with their gender.  Depending on where you are born, you may be able to change your birth certificate simply by filling out a form (no documentation or surgery requirement), by providing evidence that you are undergoing treatment for Gender Identity Disorder, by proof of certain surgical procedures, or, in some cases (such as if you are born in Ohio), not at all.  Thus, this can place people in not only bad, but dangerous situations of being forced to use a facility that doesn’t match one’s gender expression.

As a result of this discrimination by the venue, I wrote a long document near the end of July addressed to others on the Autreat planning committee (see this PDF: The Right to Pee) about my concerns.  I sent it after Autreat 2012 (we couldn’t move Autreat when this was discovered immediately prior to Autreat 2012, so I held off on the formal presentation of my concerns until after Autreat 2012).  The document includes documentation about the decision by the University, responses to questions I predicted people would have about the policy, and samples of good policies (such as the guidance issued by the NCAA, a group that knows a lot about single-gender activities and facilities usage, particularly in the context of college campuses).  I’m publishing it here primarily so that people can get ideas for their own advocacy and also to understand the problem surrounding the University’s statements (which are too numerous to go into here).  I’m also publishing it because Johnstown, Pennsylvania continues to be a hot spot for discrimination against trans people, unfortunately – I suspect in part due to the University of Pittsburgh normalizing discrimination.

A few months after I wrote about U. Pitt’s discrimination to the committee, the University of Pittsburgh in Johnstown still had not made an offer that accommodated Autreat’s dates and other needs to host Autreat, so the gender identity discrimination issue became somewhat moot at that point (the end of November) and a venue search was then begun.  Unfortunately my document and/or it’s presentation to the committee was insufficient by themselves to persuade the committee to begin the search immediately (it did trigger the creation of an ad-hoc committee, which over a year later still hasn’t produced any recommendations and is probably moot now with the Autreat re-organization), so the search was started at the end of November rather than earlier.  That’s a common problem – it’s hard to convince people that discrimination exists, and it’s even harder for even good people to challenge the status quo in areas that don’t fit with their own personal experience.

It was obviously a relief that a different venue was chosen for Autreat 2013.  AFAIK, California University of Pennsylvania does not have any official policy (or interpretation) that would lend itself towards discrimination.  Nor do I know of any trans discrimination issues recently in California, PA.

The PDF document linked above (as “The Right to Pee”) still basically applies to the University of Pittsburgh (all campuses), with a couple of caveats due to changing circumstances.  First, trans students are now supposedly allowed to use bathrooms corresponding to their identity, on the basis of statements made on a “Student Life” page on the U Pitt website:

“The University has agreed, prior to the finding, to allow people to use the bathrooms with which they identify,” Frietsche said, citing a statement posted May 21 on the Pitt web site’s “single use restrooms on campus” page (www.studentaffairs.pitt.edu/lgbtqa/singleuserestrooms) that lists the locations of non-gender-specific restrooms on campus.

It states, in part: “The University trusts that members of the campus community and their guests will exercise sound judgment and discretion when accessing and using the restrooms.”

Frietsche, quoted above, is a lawyer for the Women’s Law Project, a group helping represent the campus LGBT group in a complaint against the school over the problematic policy (the above quote was from a University Times article).  However, it’s unclear whether or not “sound judgement and discretion” is the same thing as “allowed to use the bathroom that corresponds to your gender expression.”  The terse and strangely worded statement also leaves many questions unanswered – can a transwoman take a PE class offered to women?  Which locker room is she supposed to use?  Which dorm?  And since this new “policy” is listed only on a site that is specific to one campus, on a page that lists where single-occupancy bathrooms are located on the main Pittsburgh campus, does it apply to other campuses, like Johnstown?

The bathroom policy changed to the current “sound judgement and discretion” standard only in response to a legal complaint by the Pittsburgh campus LGBT group. The University seems to be losing in this (thus far, their motions to dismiss the complaint on have been denied, and the parties were ordered into the current phase). However, that complaint was made to the City of Pittsburgh (which has strong non-discrimination law), and it’s unclear how much influence the City of Pittsburgh would have on a campus located in, say, Johnstown, PA.  After all, unlike most places in the US northeast, there are no protections in Johnstown (or most Pennsylvania communities) for trans people – for instance, it is perfectly legal to refuse a trans person service in a restaurant simply because you don’t like their gender identity or you think it’s a sin and you don’t want to “enable sin.”

The complaint is currently in a reconciliation phase where the two parties are to try to come to an agreement that is mutually satisfying, according to the process for complaints made to Pittsburgh’s Human Relations Commission.  If the parties can’t agree (likely), it will go back to the City of Pittsburgh (and, likely, be appealed to state court by whichever side loses).

Other than this, the situation essentially remains as described in the document.  Trans people still don’t have real rights on the U Pitt campuses, with the possible exception of being allowed to use bathrooms (if the school agrees it was sound judgement) and even then possibly only in Pittsburgh.

So, back to why I care – a significant number of autistic people are trans, and it’s simply not possible to have an autistic event without considering the venue’s attitude towards trans people (or, put another way, whether they have simple respect for people). Learning about this also opened my eyes to how easy it is to unknowingly participate in furthering discrimination against trans people (Autreat certainly didn’t know Johnstown was discriminatory when we signed the contract to have Autreat there, and a lack of prior preparation through policy and procedure caused significant delays when trying to figure out what to do about it).  So it’s importance to be careful and do research, and for those of us who have learned about this to speak up when we see gender identity or expression discrimination.  It’s also important to think through these issues so you aren’t learning after there is a problem, but you learn and prepare ahead of time (that said, this shouldn’t be hard: people leaving others alone in the bathroom should also be left alone – duh – how hard is this to figure out?). As I researched this particular issue, it was pretty clear that trans people routinely face discrimination in all areas of their lives and that the fight for trans rights is – as Vice President Joe Biden phrased it – the civil rights issue of our times.  I’d like to be on the right side of history and to be able to tell the next generation, “I did my part.”

That’s why I care.

An Anniversary

Yesterday was my wife and I’s forth wedding anniversary. It’s been a wonderful time. We have one of many autistic marriages we know of – it’s clear we can form relationships just fine, thank you very much. I also think the basis of our marriage – honesty and communication – would help out a lot of other relationships among people who aren’t necessarily autistic.

I’m also thankful that in the USA, my federal government is recognizing same-sex marriages. That removes some of the taint of unequal treatment of others from my marriage, and thus makes my marriage more beautiful. Others are for the first time experiencing what straight couples have experienced for years – being treated like people.

Yet others still have trouble getting married – group homes deny people the ability to live together, people may live in states our countries that refuse to recognize gay marriage, or there may be any number of any reasons. My wife and I spent some time yesterday thinking of this.

We also spent some time thinking about the people who are single, either through choice or because they have not yet met their future spouse. There’s a ton of discrimination against single people – society assumes we should be married, even when we aren’t (and may or may not want to be). So we also remembered those people.

Our desire should be everyone’s desire: we want to see people happy (obviously without harming others). Whatever that ends up meaning.

DOMA…and what Changed

I’ve seen some bad reporting on the US Supreme Court DOMA and Prop 8 decisions. Here’s what I know.

First, nothing changes for 30 days (there’s a 30 day “waiting period” after Supreme Court decisions). In 30 days, the decisions go into effect.

The Prop 8 decision doesn’t affect anyone who is already married (sort of…as a person pointed out to me, it affects married gays or gays not wanting to get married in the same ways Brown v. Board of Education affected blacks who weren’t in school – so there certainly is a huge impact here, even if no new rights are granted to already-married and don’t-want-to-get-married people).

It does affect people in California. After the inevitable requests for stays and procedural arguments, gay people will most likely be able to get married in California. But it’s not quite done yet. Close, but not quite. The ruling that matters right now is Judge Walker’s ruling which has a stay right now that has to be lifted (it should be soon, but not until all the courts do whatever they need to do, which takes time).

The Prop 8 decision has no effect on someone who gets married or wants to get married outside of California. However, if you want to get married in California to a same-sex spouse, you’ll be able to do that soon.

The DOMA decision is more interesting. The Federal government has to now (after the 30 day wait, anyhow) treat married couples the same, gay or straight. This means things like married soldier housing, immigration decisions, federal conflict of interest laws, federal taxes, federal employee benefits, etc, all apply to same-sex married couples.

What doesn’t change is the other ugly part of DOMA. Today, the only marriage a state can decide not to recognize is a gay marriage. So if you were married in say Toronto or Iowa, both of which will marry a non-resident, and go back to your home state of Georgia, that state will treat you as unmarried. Thus, you have to file state tax returns as single people, your spouse might not be your next-of-kin if you die, your spouse won’t automatically inherit the house he shared with you (but you owned), etc. You’re still unrelated in Georgia, from the State’s eyes. Now it gets interesting because the Feds however will recognize your marriage, so you file joint Federal (but single person State) tax returns, can get Federal married employee benefits (if your spouse works for the Fed’s of course), etc. So it’s really a huge mess.

You wouldn’t have this problem if you got married to your first cousin in Georgia (legal there), but actually lived in West Virginia (where first cousin marriage is illegal). West Virginia is required by the constitution (full faith clause of the Constitution) to recognize that marriage. The only marriages they can choose to ignore are marriages that involve people other than “one man and one woman.” Clearly this is not right, and the part of DOMA that allows states to ignore gay marriages is not constitutional, but that hasn’t yet been decided by the courts. So in the meantime, Georgia will ignore gay marriages while West Virginia recognizes cousin marriages (that are performed out of state).