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.

Autistic Cliques

No, this is not an oxymoron.

Sometimes the online autistic community reminds me of junior high.

No, I’m not saying that autistic people are immature, so please wipe that from your mind right now.  I’m saying that the thing that makes junior high (and in fact the rest of society) difficult for many people (hardly just autistic people) is inside the autistic community too.

Cliques.

Now, I know we’re not robots, and I know that we too are going to have people we highly respect and like – and are more likely to take them seriously than other people.  We know these people, after all.  So I’m not saying this is a completely bad thing – it’s not.  But it’s also not a completely good thing.

Over the last several years at Autreat (maybe the last 3 or 4?), I’ve noticed a change from Autreats previously.  I didn’t go last year, so I don’t know if it changed last year or not.  What I noticed was two things, and I didn’t consider either particularly good, although both come from something that is good.  I suspect this is a wider community thing, and I think we need to look not just at Autreat but at our community as a whole. We need to shape up.

First, I noticed a lot less manners. No, not the typical social skills stuff we’re taught, but things like recognizing that other people might be impacted by your own behavior. Things like actually respecting people’s red badges. Things like trying to figure out how someone interacts at the start of an interaction because you care about their style of interaction, too, not just your own. Things like not doing things that you know will bother other people. Yes, autistic people can and should have manners. Having autism is not an excuse to be rude or inconsiderate. Yes, it means we might not recognize social cues, we might not realize that we’re bothering someone, or we might interact in ways that make others uncomfortable.  But there is a huge difference between doing it accidentally and doing it intentionally (and then using “I’m autistic” as cover). It seems like the autistic community has been slowly getting more and more selfish over the years (although I know that there are many, many exceptions to that).

Second, and I think related to the above, is the rise of more cliques. There have always been autistic cliques when autistic community exists, despite conventional wisdom that says we think logically and don’t blindly build groups or follow leaders. And I think there’s a reason for the rise of cliques: we are meeting each other a lot more often now.

In 2002, when I first attended Autreat and met autistic community, I knew nobody there. Not one person. I learned that others like me exist. And I learned how important it was to see that we exist. A bunch of people there were in the same boat and knew nobody. We spent the week together and enjoyed our time with each other. There certainly were cliques, even then, but there were a lot of people not in any cliques.

Fast forward to say 2011 or 2012. Today, most of the people who come to Autreat already know another autistic person. When I went to Autreat in 2002, I had never met another Autistic, nor had a lot of interaction online. Today, thanks to Facebook, blogs, local autistic get-togethers, advocacy movements, and other events (as well as Autreat being held in the same area for many, many years), the average attendee knows – and maybe even is friends with – other autistic people. And you’ll see even first time attendees often come with friends, either from their own region or met online. That’s a pretty dramatic shift in our community.  That didn’t really happen in 2002.

There’s good with this: it means more people want to come to Autreat and similar events, because they have another reason to attend: to meet the people they’ve met online. Of course you want to meet your friends! You want to spend time with them! This is particularly true if you don’t get a lot of real-life face-to-face communication and your social life is mostly online. So what do you do at Autreat? You hang out with your friends! It’s a wonderful time. But, to an outsider (that is, someone not in your group of friends), this is a clique.  It’s hard to break in, because they don’t share the bond that the others share among each other, at least not yet.

I also think having a chance to meet with other autistic people online interacts with our manners. We can build an online persona that is rough and tough, self-deprecating, or otherwise not all that pleasant of a person to be around. And, no matter how rude we may be, you can probably find validation online somewhere. That can be attractive – I can be “who I am” rather than having to be someone else. And there’s truth that this is a good thing, but it still has limits. It’s still important to think of other people and their feelings. I remember in 2002 being amazed at how concerned everyone was about everyone’s feelings. I saw that in 2012 too, certainly, but I also saw some seeds of difference on this point.

I also saw how, as more and more people at Autreat knew others, how it has become more difficult for people who aren’t “plugged in” to have positive social interactions. They might see someone that they think is really interesting, but they are surrounded by a large group of friends, clearly sharing a common bond. That’s not a great place for an outsider, even in an autistic community.

For my community, I beg all of us to consider each other’s feelings and personhood. Being yourself doesn’t mean “not changing anything about how I want to interact, I can be as selfish as I want.” No, it means, “I can stand firm on my convictions and my identity. And so can other people. I have a part in making that happen.” It involves us taking a less selfish route sometimes. Selfishness is not the same as “being yourself,” even if you can get away with it online.

I also beg all of us to consider that person who isn’t plugged in.  Not everyone is on social media.  Not everyone on social media is popular on social medial. It’s a pretty miserable experience sitting alone at an event filled with people who supposedly know what it is like to sit alone. And, back to manners, if you want to sit alone, that’s cool, but be nice to someone who asks if you want company – sure, you can still let them know you want to be alone (and they should respect that), but no need to be nasty! Taking time to get to involve others is particularly helpful if you know you’re comfortable with your friends. Take time to get to know someone and bring them into your circle. Don’t do what happened to you and me in junior high, and stick to a tight group! Invite (not just allow) others to participate with you! Yes, it’s hard – that’s why it is so comfortable to stay in a tight group, and why NTs in junior high didn’t include us so often! And maybe you do need time just in a familiar group once in a while (particularly if you don’t get it in “real life”). But empathy – which autistics certainly have – also means you notice the autistic doing what you do in real life, staring at a potted plant trying not to look lonely.

All of this involves effort. Community is work. Community is not easy. Community involves conflict, personalities, hurt feelings, and sometimes hurt in other ways. Hurt happens. It happens a lot in community. But so should love, nurturing, respect, consideration, politeness, and generosity. And we shouldn’t ignore those things, either, either if everyone can’t do all of this at once.

We also need to do this online and in other community spaces. We need to start thinking that we’re all really in this together. We need to, when conflict occurs, take a step back or two, breathe, and not demand 100% orthodoxy. We need to be careful about how quickly we run to the defense of our friends, and remember that this “circling of the wagons” was exactly the same behaviors we despised in junior high and onward into adulthood. We need to listen first before we immediately defend the person we know or like. We need to be an open and welcoming community that deals with conflict well.

And we need to recognize our own privilege. Not just things like white, male, privilege. No, also the, “I have influence” privilege. It should scare you when you see it. I know when I have talked about community issues that affect me in abstract terms or anonymously, and see them ignored. Yet when I attach my name and personal experience, now the issue is serious. That’s not cool – the issue is or isn’t serious no matter who is bringing it up. This is something we have to be on-guard about. The leader or blogger or researcher or whoever else shouldn’t be granted more consideration than the yet-unknown autistic person who wants to find out if others exist like themself.

Again, that takes effort. Sometimes a lot of effort. That’s the price to pay for community.  Community is hard. But, community is good and important, particularly for people who have never experienced it.

I’m not writing this in regard to any specific incident. I know people will try to say that I am, but, truly, I’m not. Autreat 2013, which I didn’t attend, had problems. For the record, yes, I do think there were many things wrong in 2013. I hope whatever rises from the ashes is better. I do think this type of concept is important. And I want to see it rise. Yes, we’ll have different leadership next year and fixes for some accessibility issues. And I hope we build a community that is more inclusive – not just eliminating barriers to access, but also actively inviting people into our space. Why get together if we don’t want other people around?

That said, I don’t have a solution other than asking people to be inclusive. I’m certainly interested in thoughts about how we can fix this.

People Pleasing and Self-Respect

I like people around me to be happy.  And I’m in the middle of a bunch of conflict right now.  And I don’t like it.  As part of trying to explain why I’m reacting certain ways and doing certain things, I’m writing this post.  But I’m writing in a general sense, because I think it might affect others and it consolidates a whole swirl in my head.

Sometimes however, it’s easy to do what people want rather than what I want.  Now, sometimes I do what others want and push aside my wants, and that’s good because I consciously make the choice, “This person is more important to me than my own desire in this area.”  For instance, I might not want to help a friend move, but the friend’s happiness and ability to manage life is more important to me than this particular want.

But it’s not always like that.  Sometimes the want is more important.  In some cases, the want is for time and space to think through things.  In other cases, the want is to not see people hurt by others and, if I have the power to stop it, I should, even if it doesn’t please people.  Of course that’s hard to do and it’s why so many of us (including myself too often) fail at it.  But that doesn’t change that it’s the right thing to do.

There are two reasons I try to please people rather than listening to my inner voice.  First, in my past, there are times when I was unable to defend myself against bullies and abusers.  When the bullies and abusers were unhappy, so was I.  That’s probably a pretty common reaction to abuse – to sort of internalize it and think, “Well, I could have prevented it if I only made sure my abuser was happy.”  Of course that doesn’t work, but it’s a maladaptive pattern that is pretty ingrained in me.  It was an attempt to survive, which is exceptionally rational.  So partially, it’s an survival mechanism that can be triggered.

Second, I may try to please people instead of listening to myself because I am sensitive to other people’s emotions, although not in the same way as a non-autistic might be.  They affect me very deeply and very strongly.  I don’t like being around unhappy people.  It can easily pull me into a spiral, something I’ve learned I need to avoid.  I can’t deal with these emotions when they enter my mind, overwhelming me.  I’ll get swept away.  So to avoid getting to that state, sometimes I’ll just go along with what people want.  I’m okay being happy.  I don’t want anger or sadness or whatever else in my head though.  This isn’t a good way of dealing with things, and I’m learning and growing in other ways.

Now, I debated writing this – someone reading this will know how to manipulate or abuse me right now.  But I’m, despite being wronged in the past by some in my community, still of the opinion that most people are decent people who don’t want to do me wrong (and even that some of the people who wronged me didn’t intend to wrong me, and are good people overall).  Not everyone shares my optimism, but my optimism has kept me alive. So, I’m going to hang onto it. I’m writing this to explain what affects me, knowing it probably affects others.

It’s hard to learn to listen to your voice.  It’s hard to step back and say, “I want person X to like me.  But I need to do what is right.”  It’s so much easier to give in to the coping mechanisms and just do what person X wants me to do. My abusers taught me well. And it’s not like most autistic people have tons of spare friends. I still live with lots of fear, whether that’s going into strange buildings, approaching people, or this. And unlike what may be said by outsiders, this fear has nothing to do with autism. It was taught.  And I learned that lesson well.  As do, I fear, lots of autistic people. Someone who hasn’t felt this fear has no idea.

So, not only do I respond to pressure to act certain ways, but I actively look for, “What can I do to make this person happy?” What I’m not doing is what is good for me.  I’m trying to do what is good for them.

Now, this isn’t the fault of the person who is unhappy or that wants my help.  They don’t know they are doing this most likely.  I’ve got to eventually stop things and say, “Hey, I need a bit to process this, get words around it, and maybe even figure out what my brain is trying to tell me.”  But of course that’s part of the abuse training too – I don’t do that often.  But I’m really proud of myself when I do.

How can people help? I don’t really know. I don’t have good strategies for this. I guess, people who know me and know this about me could realize I have a tendency to do this and give me time to process and think, and not take it as a personal insult if I don’t immediately do what they would like to see me do. What they want may also be what I want. But it might not be, too. And I would ask that you listen to me when I hint that I’m at the end of my rope.  If I even hint at it, it probably means the end of the rope is now five feet above my head and I’m dropping down a 500 foot drop. I don’t ask for help much. But I might occasionally hint at it.  That hint is real, it’s not like someone who might yell and scream over something not quite going their way – and, yes, people do that. But my hinting at a problem gets mistaken for not being a serious need while someone else’s yelling gets taken seriously. That sucks. Loudness or forcefulness is not the same as seriousness.

This is why we aren’t believed in the hospital. We go in and say, “Somethings hurting, but not bad enough for me to want to die.” That gets translated to, “It doesn’t hurt bad.”  Meanwhile someone two doors down is yelling and screaming about a minor injury – so they at least get some treatment. If we were worse off then them, we’d yell louder, too, right? Not quite. (ironically, if I say it does make me want to die, then I’m probably “suicidal” and a threat to myself, and, thus, not actually “really” sick and in need of having a physical problem treated)

It’s also a problem with the way a lot of us grew up, both from informal teaching (like my bullies) and formal teaching (where we’re taught don’t question people, quiet is better than loud, keep your voice level down, don’t make other people’s lives hard).  Autistic people get this type of teaching. A lot. Combine that with the typical responses that autistic people have to problems (tell the autistic how they could make people like them, rather than addressing the bully, for instance) and no wonder we often have problems with this. That’s why I don’t think it’s unique to Joel.

But now, regardless, you know something about me. I’m trying to stand up for myself too, to not be carried around with every wind of desire. My friends will accept that. Even when I disagree over things. They want me to have self-respect.

(and, for reference, no, I’m not directing this at one party or another in the Autreat thing, just in general to how demands for “do something now!” can be very triggering, so please don’t read this that way)

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.

Hiring Autistic Employees

It’s all the rage for companies such as SAP to seek out autistic employees for software development or testing positions. But, when I read about this trend, I have mixed feelings. It’s an improvement from the charity model where we’re hired for, in general, only low paying jobs (link via NFB) or to do jobs that only exist as a form of adult day-care.

And I do think autistics can be good software people! I’ve worked in computers since I first started working and I do think my autism makes me a good worker – I think it gives me a different insight into how things work, a different point of view. I think it’s good for employers to recognize that.

So, people being paid good wages for software development or testing is a good thing. That said, I do get a bit nervous anytime a company starts seeking to specifically hire a minority group – often wages are less than the prevailing wage, a charge that has been leveled against the US software industry’s usage of foreign workers on H1B visas. After all, someone might be willing to take a less-than-fair wage if it is either more than they make in their home country or if it is in a location want to be at, but couldn’t normally achieve. In other words, the competitive wage market pays people less if they have a harder time getting employment (after all, not every company is is interested in H1B visa holders). Do you know who else has a harder time getting employment? Oh, yes, autistic people!

Now I’m not saying that SAP or others are paying autistic people less – I really don’t know. But it’s certainly something ASAN and similar organizations should closely monitor. We should not become a cheap form of highly productive labor (albeit cheap for SAP is nothing like cheap for Goodwill). So let’s keep the pressure on to make sure we’re treated right, not as a new low-cost employee class. But this is not the main thing that bothers me with the autistic employment programs.

There are other things that bother me more. First, most of these programs are “trials”. Rather than creating employment situations where employees with disabilities can succeed (often required under today’s laws for all jobs), the companies feel the need to prove that we’re not only productive, but that we’re more productive than other employees. What happens if we’re not? What happens to the autistic person who isn’t? Certainly, we have some extremely talented people in our community. But at the same time, not every autistic is going to be better than the average NT at software testing or any other random job.

That’s the second thing that bothers me. It substitutes the old “we can’t do anything” myth about autistics with one of “but there are geniuses among autistics” idea. While, absolutely, there are geniuses among autistic people, I suspect that we have tons of people who can work but probably won’t quite be considered a genius. They might not have a skill that closely aligns with a highly commercially valuable occupation, like software testing. They may be like anyone else walking down the street. They might be the greatest garbage truck driver in some sanitation company’s employ, but they might also be an average garbage truck driver! That’s not a bad thing – my guess is that most of the sanitation company’s drivers are average – and that’s plenty good to make good money for the company.

So I don’t like the idea we have to be geniuses. We shouldn’t have to be.

I also don’t like the idea that we can employee autistics as software engineers, but positions as garbage truck drivers are ignored.

But, finally, more than the above, I want to see all companies examine their culture and practices to see how they are excluding people from employment for reasons other than job skills. I don’t know if SAP’s internal culture is good or not (I hope it is), but plenty of software companies could expand their doors to women, LBGT people, older people (meaning “older than 25” in some cases!), and, yes, autistic people, by simply getting rid of some of the cultural garbage – as others have written. I imagine other industries could do similar things.

We don’t need companies to seek out autistic people to work. We’re not being denied jobs generally because we’re diagnosed autistic or we have “autist” stamped on our forehead, so we don’t need that targeted. We need the things that keep us from getting work targeted. Why not have jobs for people who have trouble working the 9-to-5 schedule, rather than calling that an “autistic” job (some autistics might need that change, others don’t, and certainly plenty of unemployed non-autistics would work if there was more flexibility in scheduling for positions). We’re being denied jobs because we come across badly in interviews, don’t fit the normal environment, are too much trouble to deal with, or we don’t fit the “culture.” We need the companies we already have, with jobs unfilled, to take a good hard look at their culture and learn to be a bit flexible with everyone. We need companies to quit forcing people into a certain mold (which typically has nothing to do with what they do – what does having a brightly lit office have to do with writing computer code, for instance?) and fight their employees over stupid stuff (like an employee that finds light painful). We need companies to look at their managers and figure out, “Are these people treating our employees good? Even employees that don’t socialize and interact the same way? Even employees that might need an occasional workplace adjustment?” We need companies to quit violating the ADA (in the USA; substitute your local law outside the USA) and other laws, and instead embrace not only the law but also the spirit of the law. We need companies recognizing that not everyone is cut out to work a 40 hour-per-week job, but that person that can work 20 hours is still worth hiring and not just outright excluding.

If you want to make work good for autistic people, and encourage autistic employment, here’s some things to start on:

  • Do you accommodate people who ride public transit and are thus sometimes late? Is your company close to a public transit hub? Do you have accommodations to help me get home if I stay late or work shifts?
  • How about medical care? Does it start on day one? Does it exclude any pre-existing conditions (thank you Obama for fixing most of that)?
  • Once a disabled person starts making money, they often will lose government benefits. If they lose their job, it may be a while before they can convince agencies that they are still in need. How can you reassure the disabled person that the risk of working for your company is worth it, that their life (literally) is not at risk?
  • Can I call in sick because I’m overloaded? Can I go home early for that reason?
  • Speaking of health, what if I’m not perfectly healthy? What if I need more than the typical amount of time-off?
  • How am I going to manage my home, personal needs, and work? A neurotypical person might struggle with this, but an autistic person exhausted from work may go home and straight to bed – without dinner – because of the stress. You might say it’s not your problem, but it is what keeps some of us from working!
  • How about communication and meetings. Is your culture meeting-centric? Can it handle someone that needs space and quiet? Do I really have to go to 6 hours of meetings a day (like many technology people, for instance)?
  • Is it okay for me to skip the company social events? Or do I get pressured to come lest I not be a “team player”
  • What buzzwords are you into? (For software shops, I’ll give a hint: agile isn’t necessarily enjoyable for anyone, but particularly not for many of us)
  • If I complain about noise, light, or smells that don’t bother any other employees, will you believe me and do something about it? Or will you tell me that you don’t have any way of fixing it? What if I end up needing a private office (you know, that mythical thing with a door)?
  • How does your training work? What if I don’t learn the same way that the other 99% of your employees learn? What if I need to you to train differently?
  • If I am getting bullied by coworkers or a boss, will you do anything? Will you do it before I have to go to HR? Will I get penalized when I do go to HR?
  • Do you expect me to do the job just like everyone else, even if one part of the job is something I’m really good at and another part is something I’m really bad at? Or can I be put in the position where I’m doing what I’m good at without failing at the stuff I’m bad at?
  • Can you assign me work in a clear way? If you expect me to use “common sense” meaning “figure out what I should have told you,” I might not do great.
  • If I’m overloaded or provoked, and do something unusual but not dangerous, are you going to react in fear and consider it a safety risk, or are you going to actually figure out what I need to succeed?

I’m sure there are other things. But these things do matter. And, yes, they are complex. It’s hard to do this.

But let’s focus on that. Instead of finding the autistics that fit well into your culture and advertising the “autistic friendly” jobs, let’s find ways to make the culture inclusive of as many people as possible – including the autistics that have the skills and desire to work, but can’t get in the door anywhere. These aren’t the easy-to-hire autistics who can fit into a standard 9-to-5 office environment (sorry, we have an 8-to-5 environment in most places) but also the people that can’t find for all sorts of other reasons – not because the word “autistic” is on their resume, but because they interact differently socially, have sensory differences, don’t typically multitask great, and may have skill patterns with a different set of peaks and valleys than typical employees.

Hopefully SAP and others are doing that (and if so, I am thrilled!). Let’s hold them accountable to make sure.