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.

Group Homes Refuse to Let Couple Live Together

An AP article, via Denver Post about a married couple denied the ability to live together shows a trend that has been happening for years.

I’ve written about it before: here, here, and here. Disabled people aren’t supposed to be sexy. We gross (some) normal people out. (ironically the same reason gays are in the middle of a fight for their right to marry)

Here’s the essence of the story: two mentally disabled people got married. Her group home (run by Catholic Health Systems of Long Island) doesn’t believe she can consent to sex. His co-ed home (run by Independent Group Home Living) says they aren’t staffed to help them with aspects of their relationship, “sexual or otherwise.”

This isn’t new. As I wrote about before, group homes have for a long time felt the need to regulate intimate behavior in ways that a non-disabled person would consider a violation of human rights.

They get away with it for two reasons. First, is the idea that disabled people need protection from the world. Too often, this manifests as a set of dumb restrictions (such as “married people shouldn’t sleep with each other”) that don’t actually make anyone safe!

Second is the idea that disabled people having sex is gross, perverted, and just plain wrong. It’s the same reaction that a straight guy might have in his gut when he thinks of two gay guys having sex. For lots of people, it’s “icky” to think about having sex with someone with a disability. So, because some people can’t see how someone would enjoy being intimate and sharing life with someone, the target of their prejudice ends up being restricted.

It probably doesn’t help that Catholic Health Systems runs her home, either. The obvious outcome of sex is children – the only thing more scary to some than disabled people having sex is disabled people having kids. And it very well may be that the wife doesn’t want to have kids (she may want them – I really don’t know). But of course no Catholic-run group is going to provide comprehensive sex education, birth control training, or other basic sexual health care and educational programs. It’s supposed to be in God’s hands – well, unless they are disabled and then we’ll stop it.

As for the ability of her to consent, why couldn’t she? You have to do better than “she’s labeled mentally retarded.” Certainly a group home or really anyone else should be helping her if she ends up in a situation she doesn’t want. But she wants this and has asked for it. How much more consent can you get? I suspect it’s really codewords for “if they sleep together they’ll have sex, and then they’ll have a kid and we don’t want that.” And that’s a whole other problem disabled people face – their right to have children is routinely and too-easily challenged, even when they are plenty or more capable than other parents of raising a child (but I’ll add “having kids” doesn’t always follow from “sleeping in the same home”). And, no, I’m not interested in your story about your disabled aunt who couldn’t care for her kids so you took her child (I can give you stories about non-disabled people who can’t raise kids). I know there are people who are unfit parents, but there are also plenty of fit parents out there. And research agrees with me (go look it up yourself, and, yes, people have done a LOT of research on parents with mental retardation).

As for his home, which is arguing “married couples are too tough,” especially “sexually and otherwise” – get over it. You have a co-ed home (and I wouldn’t be surprised if sex and relationships are already happening there – do you not think disabled people seek these things?). Nobody is expecting you to physically assist with sex. Really.

I’m not going to get into too much of this, other than to say it’s a problem I’ve been shouting about to the mountain tops with pretty much no acknowledgement by any disability organization. Nobody wants to touch “people labeled mentally retarded should be able to get married.” When one of them does, they’ll get my support (hint: it’s probably good not to send me fund raising email until you acknowledge all our human rights). But until then, I will keep shouting.

Scandals and Appearance of Evil

Okay, not too much to do with autism in today’s post…or so it appears. Dr. Lovaas was the principle researcher that created both the Feminine Boys Project and ABA at UCLA. ABA, or Applied Behavioral Analysis, is a popular autism treatment that isn’t exactly appreciated by many of the autistics that went through it, based on the focus of ABA (particularly the flavor created by Lovaas) on indistinguishability of an autistic child from his non-autistic peers (that’s considered success). When Lovaas worked with the Feminine Boys Project, he shared the same goal – to make the “feminine boy” indistinguishable from his heterosexual, non-feminine peers. Similar methods are used in both – behavior that is desired is rewarded, while behavior that is not desired is given disapproval. So, non-feminine mannerisms are rewarded for the anti-gay therapy, while non-autistic mannerism are rewarded for the anti-autism therapy. In both cases, this is damaging to the child’s mental health when they are forced to deny who they are.

Now, I have to give a disclaimer here, because people will read more into my words than I write: I’m not saying all therapy is bad. But I am saying therapy that is aimed at making autistic children look like non-autistic children is bad. There’s a distinction – very important, and it should be very obvious – between therapies aimed at making someone appear non-autistic and therapies aimed at giving someone the tools to navigate the world. You don’t have to make a gay person act straight for the gay person to have a successful life (and trying to make them appear straight is harmful). Likewise, the same applies to autistic people.

As an aside, the research linked above claimed that the victim of this treatment (the research subject, a 4 year old boy who later committed suicide, due in large part to this “treatment”), Lovaas and Rekers referred to the boy as “compulsive and ‘rigid’ in the extent he insisted on being a girl and in his refusal of all contact with masculine-like activities.” (I won’t comment on why they used the phrase “masculine-like activities” instead of simply “masculine activities” – perhaps an unintentional freudian slip?) Interestingly, when Lovaas describes “undesirable” autistic traits, (no, I’m not saying autism is all wonderful – just that I may disagree significantly with people like Lovaas on what the non-wonderful parts are!) he uses similar wordings with lots of phrases such as non-appropriate, rigid, etc.

This week, Rhode Island (USA) legalized same-sex marriage. In other words, the State did the logical thing: they let atheists, Muslims, and Jews marry – why should the State be bound by what some Christian sects think is religiously proper for marriage? Of course you’re probably asking, “How did you get from ABA to gay marriage? This is a stretch, even for you, Joel!” Just wait. There is a connection.

Obviously, the Catholic hierarchy disagrees with Rhode Island (as do the leadership of many other religions and denominations). Bishop Tobin, in a pastoral letter, told Rhode Island followers about his disagreement. It’s pretty offensive on several levels. For instance, the phrase “same-sex attraction” is used in the letter, not as you might expect “gay” or even “homosexual.” Same-sex attraction is a code-word for a belief that people experiencing this attraction need not act on it, and that they can live happy, heterosexual lives – it’s a belief that gays don’t exist, only people with “same sex attraction” and others who wrongly act on that attraction. In fact, the letter asks for prayers for families impacted by same-sex attraction, particularly for parents (another view of this crowd is that same-sex attraction is an immature sexual development during teenage years).

Don’t believe me? Read a same-sex-attracted individual talk about his same-sex attraction and why that’s different than being gay or homosexual. Among other things, he says:

I’m not very sensitive about the word “gay”, but some of us in the Gay Catholic business prefer the phrase “same-sex attraction,” or SSA. I find it more accurate than “gay” or “queer” or any of the others, just because it suggests that homosexuality is something I have rather than something I am. That’s the way I think of it. So the idea of gay culture, gay rights, gay marriage, gay anything really, is foreign to me. You might as well talk about gluten-intolerance culture, or musician’s rights.

Or, read about the definition uses, which provides this pseudo-warning (albeit one not based at all in research): “Whether or not sexual orientation (in the sense of an underlying same-sex, opposite-sex, dual-sex, or other spontaneous attraction) exists, and whether or not it can be changed is a matter of some controversy.” On this anti-gay website, which includes other sections like “How to resolve Same Sex Attraction”, their FAQ page says:

Some same-sex attracted people do have memories of early experiences of sexual abuse, reactions to breakdowns in family relationships, exclusion from same-sex peer groups, or early exposure to pornography. Others are not used to thinking about predisposing circumstances and have no idea how their homosexual orientation developed, just as most heterosexuals have no idea how they became heterosexual. There are many paths that could lead to homosexual attractions, each relatively minor in the overall picture, but in the aggregate very important to those individuals whom they affect.

But, beyond the de-gaying code words, the Bishop goes on to talk about how you may be causing “scandal” by attending a gay wedding. Scandal isn’t necessarily what you might think (the common definition would make the catholic hierarchy excellent at understanding the word scandal). Instead it refers to an act which, in and of itself, is not intrinsically evil, but someone less mature than you (isn’t that nice?) might see as encouraging or allowing sin. Thus, someone who sees you seemingly approving of or allowing sin may think you, the mature believer that you are, believe it okay. And because you believe it okay, now they will sin and not be perfect. Or something like that.

That’s the reason for the focus on outward sin instead of inward sin. Even Jesus was criticized for this idea of scandal – see Luke 7:33-35. Meanwhile, Jesus focused on inward sin. For example, in Luke 16:14-15, you can read:

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.”

Okay, enough Bible verses here. I’m not trying to preach to anyone or convince anyone of the Bible, Jesus, or my theology. But it’s relevant in the sense that the very idea of scandal would have condemned Jesus just as much as anyone attending a gay wedding – and it isn’t apparently what concerned Jesus most, at least according to a book the Catholic Hierarchy accepts.

In the pastoral letter, Bishop Tobin says,

Our respect and pastoral care, however, does not mean that we are free to endorse or ignore immoral or destructive behavior, whenever or however it occurs. Indeed, as St. Paul urges us, we are required to “speak the truth in love.” (Eph 4:15)

This is the essence of the issue. In the conservative Church I used to attend, rather than referring to this as scandal (endorsing or ignoring immoral or destructive behavior), it was referred to as “giving the appearance of evil.” That was taken not necessarily from Eph 4:15 (although that verse certainly was used), but also from 1 Thessalonians 5:22, which was poorly translated in some translation, namely the King James Version, to say “Abstain from the appearance of evil.” Most other translations used instead something along the lines of “abstain from all evil” (NRSV), but that didn’t stop some from believing that avoiding the “appearance of evil” was almost more important than actually not doing evil. This was used to justify all sorts of craziness, such as throwing away secular music (“Nothing wrong with it, but someone might think you don’t just listen to praise music all day and then think they can listen to it when it’s not okay for them!”), not being in the same car as someone of the opposite sex (you might not be one of those sex-starved Christian guys who will rape the nice Christian girl in the ankle-to-chin covering, but someone might think you are), or other craziness (I’ve seen more than a few children’s ministries who are more concerned that someone might accuse them of child molestation, and thus they take all sorts of precautions to avoid being accused but don’t spend nearly as much time actually making sure kids are safe).

And this appearance of evil thing is exactly what gets us back to Dr. Lovaas and both his Feminine Boys Project and his UCLA Young Autism Project. It’s not about appearance. It’s about being true to who you are. Whether you are gay or autistic (or both). It’s not so much about gays not getting married as it is about gays acting as if they aren’t gay. A wedding puts it too much “in-your-face” for the Bishop, thus it’s important to protest it somehow. I’m sure telling the couple they look lovely or that you are happy for them would be an even bigger sin than attending. You have to apply good, old behaviorism: make sure the joyful couple knows you disapprove of their actions. That’s apparently called love by some.

Yes, everyone needs to learn how to work in the world, including autistic people. But true success doesn’t come from avoiding appearances of autism, homosexuality, or (gasp!) attending gay weddings! As for me, I’ll avoid the appearance of avoiding the appearance of evil any chance I get, particularly should any gay friends or family get married.

Rights for the Worst of Us

Sometimes, when people are fighting for their rights, someone is able to make a case in court that their constitutional rights were violated and change must happen. Too often, the response – even from people who believe in the right at the middle of the challenge – is that the person making the challenge is not the right person to make the challenge. You see this in non-court proceedings too, with “non-respectable” people being shunned by the very movements they are fighting on behalf of.

Let me tell a story (this will be US-centric, since that’s what I know) about a man arrested for the rape of a teenage girl in Arizona. After he was arrested, a confession was sought. The police did have a lot of evidence that this man did the crime, but of course they wanted to build a stronger case. So, during their interrogation, they managed to get the suspect to confess to the crime. With this and other evidence, he was tried and found guilty – and received two sentences of 20 to 30 years each, one for kidnapping and one for rape.

This man – Ernesto Miranda – challenged the ruling, saying that while he did write the confession and did sign a statement that he was aware of his rights, he never was told that he had the right to an attorney during questioning. This case of course became famous – the Supreme Court of the US decided that the confession was wrongfully obtained and could not be used. This created the important “Miranda Warning” protections we have in the US today (well, for some people). It also wiped out the trial court’s verdict, so a new trial was held.

During this new trial of Ernesto for the rape and kidnapping of the teenager, he was again found guilty, this time without his confession being introduced as evidence. He was sentenced to 20 to 30 years, but ultimately released in 1972 on parole. Ironically, when he was murdered in 1976 during a bar fight, his suspected murderer, after being advised of his Miranda rights, chose to remain silent, the case against the suspect ended up dismissed due to a lack of evidence.

Miranda was guilty of his crime, with or without his police confession. Rape and kidnapping are pretty disgusting crimes. Yet, this very non-respectable person managed to get the rest of us some rights.

We saw the same thing in Lawrence v. Texas, where sodomy laws were challenged. Lawrence and Eugene were charged with sodomy (actually, “deviant sex”). There is a lot of debate about whether or not we was having sex (two of the four officers responding did not report seeing any sex, the third officer said he saw oral sex, and the final officer said he saw anal sex), but at the end of the day his legal team fought the charges on the basis of equal protection under the law, not lack of evidence that the crime was being committed, in a desire to change the law. What isn’t as commonly known is that Lawrence was with not one man, but two. The man he was accused of committing sodomy with was a roommate of the third man at Lawrence’s apartment. Both Garnet (the man Lawrence was accused of having sex with) and Eubanks (the roommate of Garnet) had criminal histories. After an drunken argument broke out (with loud shouting and threats, that were heard by neighbors), the third man, insulted that the other two were flirting with each other, called police and reported “a black male going crazy with a gun” in the apartment where all three were. Police responded, although what happened following this differs in the police version vs. Lawrence’s versions of events and isn’t really relevant, other than the fact that in the various reports, Lawrence was quite angry and upset about police busting into his apartment without a warrant – and made that clear to them.

So, one of the pivotal cases in gay rights revolves around a possible love triangle involving three drunk men arguing, two of which had prior criminal histories. Not quite the message HRC wants to put out about who gays are (nor is it an accurate reflection of who they are). Yet, at the same time, they did have rights – and those rights, as recognized by the courts, included the right to consensual sexual relations within a private home – an important right for all of us, gay or straight.

These are hardly the only cases where rights were recognized as a result of less-than-presentable people bringing challenges to the law. So the next time you see an autistic person who isn’t as presentable as you might like, remember they might win the battle that you’re also wanting.

Marriage Equality for Autistic Folk

Today, the US Supreme Court is deciding on whether or not gays have a right to get married. I’m embarrassed that this isn’t self-evident to a country that claims to be based on the idea that there are fundamental freedoms that all people have intrinsically, just for being human. Of course this is hardly the first time that we’ve had problems understanding that.

Of course gays aren’t the only people that have trouble with society and society’s views on marriage.

Autistics are typically viewed by people as uninterested in others (so no need to worry about marriage or dating), non-sexual beings. Heck, there are several sexual orientations in many people’s eyes – straight, gay, bi, disabled. Of course some more progressive people realize physically disabled people (or, rather, some physically disabled people) might be gay, straight, or bi. But mentally disabled people…well, that’s just sick to think of sex.

And of course people can’t think of marriage without thinking of sex.

I have news for people: autistic people like sex! Sure, some of us don’t want to have sex with anyone (just like some non-autistic people don’t want to have sex). But plenty of us do want to have sex. Our sexual desires are no different than any other group. We have people into strange stuff and “normal” stuff and no stuff. Go figure.

I have other news, though: it’s not just sex. I love having intimate physical times with my wife (don’t worry, I’m not going to go TMI) – but that’s a special case for me. I never really desired that with anyone else. You see, the emotional connection I have for my wife brings a level of enjoyment and excitement to the bedroom that nobody else could bring. I suspect plenty of non-autistic people would say the same thing – that there is a component to intimacy that isn’t about physical sex.

Autistic people desire connections with others, too. We don’t want to be lonely (we may want to be alone sometimes, but that’s different from being lonely). Being lonely sucks. Before I met my wife, I still had a need to be with people – I had (and have) deep friendships with people that understand and know me. These friendships aren’t romantic or intimate, like my relationship with my wife, but they are deep and contain a form of love. These relationships give meaning to my life.

Too often, it’s assumed that we don’t want that. We do. We might not want what looks like a typical relationship or friendship, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want a relationship or friendship at all.

This is true not just for those of us adults who can tell you about it. It’s true from the beginning of my memories. I remember before I spoke how I connected and desired the presence of certain people, how I wanted a connection to humanity. That spark isn’t missing from us! Even if we don’t always go the right way about it.

But in addition to being seen as people who aren’t sexual, don’t want/need a relationship, and don’t seek connections with others, there are other problems. We have problems with money and transportation. We have barriers when it comes to group homes and institutions (I’ll note that many of which are run by religious organizations who can legally prohibit same-sex relationships – and nobody, including every single autistic advocacy organization I know of, seems to care). Competency and our own desires are questioned. We have a lot of problems.

Then there is just the practical. How does someone different find someone else in the world? It’s not easy. It’s a wonderful thing when an autistic person finds someone who connects to their soul and heart – but it happens far too infrequently. It’s a huge issue in the lives of many autistic adults, yet very, very few of us had any real education on relationships other than “don’t touch people inappropriately” (or, sadly, “don’t touch people sexually at all”). This one huge area of determining happiness is completely ignored.

It’s funny – social skills are a huge concern to people when they see us and educate us. But what they mean by social skills typically aren’t the same things that we might desire. For instance, what’s the first social skill example used on a sample IEP site? It’s simple “will raise their hand and wait to be called on before talking aloud in group settings 4/5 opportunities to do so.” Sure, this might be important (or not – I don’t know what the last time I raised my hand for permission to speak, but it was quite some time ago), but it is more about meeting other people’s needs than meeting my own.

We need to get past the “don’t touch girls” type of social training. And certainly we need to get past the “don’t make the staff’s job hard” type of training. We need to recognize the desire people have for connections. Yes, I realize everyone is different and that not everyone wants a spouse. That’s fine. But nobody wants to be lonely.