A Safe Life

One of the comments I’ve received from friends, since coming out as a transwoman, is that they are concerned for my safety.

That’s a valid concern – trans people face more risk of attack than almost anyone else in our society. A autistic trans person is even more vulnerable, as are trans people of color, poor trans people, and people who are otherwise marginalized in our society, like sex workers.

But let me talk about safety. While presenting as a teenage boy or man, I’ve been kicked, punched, and burned. I’ve been urinated upon. I’ve been raped. I’ve had someone point a gun at me. I’ve had a disgruntled coworker that frightened me enough that I did what I tell everyone not to do – slept with a gun next to my bed. I’ve worried about people coming after me because I turned down their advances.

And most of these people probably thought I was a man. Yes, probably a gender non-conforming man, maybe a gay man, but most probably didn’t see me as a transwoman.

I grew up in a rough town – I didn’t realize how rough it was until I got to college, and the reaction of people I met there was along the lines of, “Well, you can take care of yourself then.” That wasn’t exactly true then – I was an autistic kid just old enough to leave home, without a lot of coping skills for the world. Heck, I went a week without eating because I couldn’t bring myself to ask anyone where the cafeteria was. Take care of myself?

I do know this, though: I survived.

Add to that a physical build and problems that basically mean I can’t make quick movements effectively – I have a ton of willpower and endurance, but that doesn’t help me kick, punch, or block. It doesn’t even help me run away. It would be hard to find someone that couldn’t beat me up, even today.

But I survived. I’m still here.

I grew up in a town where drinking and drugs were the norm, where a man wouldn’t do a “girly” job, where the real men were running oil drills and blasting the side off of hills to get the coal out. Meth was king. We had two suicides by gun at my school, and many others outside of school. My town, for far too many, chewed you up and spit you out. And it’s not like that type of thing stopped when I moved from that town – I’ve lived in slums and trailer courts, trying to figure out if I’ll be able to eat dinner tonight.

I am still here.

I didn’t fit the world – between being autistic and not fitting into the masculine world, there wasn’t a lot I understood or took joy in – but I found some things to somehow keep me alive, and the joys I did experience were precious. I spent decades trying to find ways to find my masculine center, to be in the world as a man, to learn to “be a man” as so many people told me to be growing up.

Well, I am still here. But I am no man.

Yes, I know the risks trans people face, particularly when they are part of other marginalized communities, such as being a disabled trans person. I know how many of us are murdered, attacked, and otherwise harmed by people who can’t deal with someone being their authentic self. And I don’t discount that. While I don’t present as a woman publicly yet (but will be doing so soon), I’ll take some precautions as I do.

But the biggest thing I can do for my safety is to be myself. Even when I present as a man, I face danger because of who I am. But worse than that danger is the larger killer among the transgender community: suicide and, when not suicide, the slower forms of self-hate. When you hate who you have to be, it’s hard to find reasons to carry on. Somehow, I did, and I pray that anyone else in my situation can find whatever small, seemingly dumb reason they can to stay alive, because just by being alive, you help me and I help you. Even if I didn’t kill myself, living a life where you can never be yourself is…well, even if your still breathing, it lacks the vibrancy life should have. It can turn into simply a slower way of killing yourself, when you lack the concern about your health and life. Maybe you don’t grab a gun or a knife or a bottle of pills, but maybe instead you simply ignore your health problems, take risks you shouldn’t, and put yourself in places where the end may come a bit sooner. None of that is safe, yet too often when we talk about safety for trans people we forget that being a closeted trans person isn’t really any safer – indeed may be a hell of a lot less safe – than the risk of being in the world.

Interestingly, I’m finding strength I never knew I had. I care about this body now, I care about my life, I care about being around. Not just for others, but for myself – because I have hope. For myself. I have dreams. I see the light of the possible. And that means, unlike so much of my life, I will fight for this life. That alone makes it more likely I’ll make it to tomorrow.

For me, I’ll take the risk of my very existence and expression provoking the bigots and assholes to harm. Because if I don’t do that, the bigots and assholes certainly harm me even more, keeping me from living, keeping me away from the vibrancy of life.

I get to be me now and I’ve got to be me. I have years of building scripts and trying to predict others, as an autistic, so I know that many people will think I’m out of my mind and see me with a mix of disgust and sadness. Some others will think it is awesome I’m living my life (you all are precious people!). And some will hate my guts, while a fraction of those will try to harm me – through bullying or through violence. But those same people have kept me from being me for my whole life – they’ve taken decades away from me, where I could have been who I am. That harm is done, it’s not a theoretical risk, it’s a certainty. But, finally, I’m at the point where I’m done living with that harm – and am choosing the path of light, the path where there is hope.

To my friends: Thanks for being concerned about me. I am too, for the first time in my life. I promise I’ll fight to be around – if I am harmed, it won’t be because I didn’t care if I was harmed, unlike so much of my life. I’ve found strength and confidence in who I am, and it’s going to be hard for people to take that away.

Staying in the closet…well, that’s what is really not safe for me. It’s taken so much from me to pretend to be a man. And it’s time that I stopped.

I am no man. I am alive.

A New Author for this Blog!

I want to introduce a new blogger who will be writing on this blog!  I’m going to let her introduce herself now:

(a shy girl peeks out from behind the living room couch, sees potential friends, and then jumps up, yells “Hi”, waves, and ducks back behind the couch)

(Joel says, “You can come out, these people aren’t that mean. No, really, they’re pretty decent folk)

Hi!

I’m looking forward to writing here – I’ve been involved in the autism advocacy community for nearly two decades, and frequently posted (under other names!) for years in mailing lists, newsgroups, and forums about my experience. I’ve somehow navigated work well enough to end up in a respectable technical job (yes, I’m that stereotypical autistic software development type). I’ve been lucky enough to find the love of my life, who I married – she’s also autistic, which is why our marriage works.

Oh, you sound like you have a similar background to Joel.

Uh, yes, I  know. Because I am Joel, or, rather, I used to be Joel.  I’ve begun my transition from male to female, which means a bunch of things are changing – like my name (Joelle now), my pronouns (she/her/hers), and how I dress, at least in certain circumstances (I’m not yet “full time” in my gender presentation).  I’ll also probably be writing about this experience of transition sometimes. But I’ll write about a lot of the things I wrote as Joel, too – after all, I’m the same person.

So I probably don’t need to introduce myself after all! Instead, Joelle will continue to write about the stuff she’s always written about – just with a more authentic byline and a more honest perspective.

 

Stereotypes and Advocacy

I’m sick of many of us in advocacy simply stereotyping people who are not part of our particular movement. Stereotypes and assumptions prevent us from communicating. Too often, rather than listening to what someone who is not one of us says, we simply assume that they believe what other people with a certain trait believe.

Parents, professionals, and therapists deserve to be treated with respect. As all people do.

Sure, a lot of time the people doing horrible things to autistics are parents, professionals, and therapists. So they don’t get a free pass just because they had a kid or have a professional job.  But, at the same time, before we pronounce someone guilty, we probably should make sure they really are guilty – not with accusatory questions, but by sincerely listening.

We don’t want to be tone policed in advocacy circles. If I need to express something happening to my people that is harming them, I shouldn’t be silenced unless I can say things politely. I agree with this.

That said, if I can say them politely, I probably should. I should at least try a decent interaction with people, with an assumption that the person may be a potential ally, not an enemy, who simply doesn’t know any better, who is doing something a certain way for a reason that negates my concern, or simply doesn’t know any better – but agrees that autistic people (or whatever other group) need to be treated decently. If they prove themselves otherwise, fine, be an ass. But let’s wait until they prove it, rather than having us assume it. There may be nuance that I don’t know about unless I ask.

I’ve had this in my own advocacy. Sometimes I see something in the advocacy world that I don’t think is particularly effective advocacy – so I speak up and say so. I try to do so respectfully, sometimes I do, sometimes I fail. Like all of us. But more often then not, the response isn’t to read my words or listen to my thoughts, getting clarifications when something is unclear. No, it’s to read one thing and then dismiss everything I’m about to say, on the basis of what stereotypes about people who say that one thing think.

I’ve seen this in my arguments against the widespread usage of the word “cis-” to refer to people who are not trans (ex: cis-male is a person born with normal male genitals and treated as a boy/man throughout his life, and who identifies with that identity). The initial assumption is that my actions are formed by the same ignorance and arrogance that causes some to fight against the word – but my thoughts are quite a bit more nuanced than that. But it’s hard for me to express them, because the initial assumption is that I’m full of shit and saying this for the same reason they’ve seen others say this (and there is a lot of bullshit on the web about what is wrong with the cis- prefix, bullshit that is horrible and wrong and definitely anti-trans).

Yet, I make an argument like that, and people make assumptions, without really listening to what I want to say. And, often, these people are advocates for some cause. I probably agree with them far more than I disagree, but they immediately put me in the category of “hateful, anti-trans bigot”, assuming that I hold a bunch of other views (on things other than cis- prefixes) that I don’t hold, because I hold a view on the cis- prefix that is contrary to some of the louder advocacy right now (that said, I’m not the only person that holds this view for the reasons I hold it).

I’ve seen it in other areas of advocacy too. People are fine making assumptions about you if you don’t say exactly the right words, exactly the right way. I might say I don’t support food stamps, which is an accurate statement of my beliefs (for people outside the USA, food stamps aren’t stamps anymore, but are assistance given by the government that can only be used to buy food). Immediately, I can sense my readership getting angry, about to tell me a few pieces of their mind. Some people stopped reading and declared me a conservative asshole. Others assume that I must never have been without food, because if I had been, I could never say something like this. A lot of stereotypes.

Of course when I say I don’t support food stamps, I’m talking something else entirely. I agree with economists that food stamps are a wasteful, inefficient redistribution of income that doesn’t help the economy as much as it could, which doesn’t get people out of poverty, and which is inefficient for the person needing assistance. Oh, again, I’m in the conservative asshole category in the eyes of my readers! I also agree with the most progressive anti-poverty activists (who, ironically agree with the economists!) in that cash distribution is a much better way of helping poor people than earmarked funds are. Rather than giving a family $400 of food assistance, $600 of rent assistance, $350 of medical assistance, $200 of transportation assistance, why not give them the cash for these things? Maybe they can economically eat for less than $400 (I couldn’t if I had a family, but some people have resources I don’t have or abilities I lack). But to get that better job, they need $250 in transportation assistance. Why shouldn’t the people most connected with their needs make that decision? (hint on why people disagree with me: “What if they buy $1000 of lottery tickets?” And that’s a legitimate concern – what if someone runs out of money in the beginning of the month? We can’t let their kids starve. And I agree with that – I won’t get into details now, but there are solutions for that too that don’t involve kids starving; but that said, contrary to what most people seem think, most poor people aren’t poor because they are too stupid to spend their money on food and rent, but rather they are poor because they don’t have enough money – and will spend money they have wisely).  So my view isn’t “Cut support” but rather “Put people in charge of determining what they need, rather than us dictating.” This isn’t even a fringe view – most people who study this field (poverty) would agree with me, including people in government. But it is opposed from the right wing (“ABUSE!!! THINK OF THE ABUSE!!!”) and from other advocates who only read “get rid of food stamps” and immediately make some assumptions. So it probably will never happen.

When we listen to a parent speak, we need to be careful to not make any assumptions. Maybe the parent is an awful curebie who wants sympathy at any cost to their child’s privacy, so is fine posting exaggerated stories about shit smearing on their mommy blog. There certainly are plenty of parents in this category. But maybe they are talking about what they are talking about in a respectful, appropriate way that respects the child’s privacy.  Maybe the child is old enough to understand the implications of consent and has given it, but the mother didn’t know that she was going to be stereotyped as a “mother who wants sympathy” and thus needed to make it clear she didn’t fit the stereotype. But we should be listening, and asking non-accusatory questions, giving people not the benefit of the doubt, but simply recognizing “I don’t know here, but it’s important.”

Now, a good ally won’t be bothered by someone confronting them over a stereotype the self-advocate has about the group the ally is part of. Even if it’s done somewhat aggressively and rudely. They’ll recognize that a minority community has to put up with a lot of shit, and sometimes that is expressed in direct, up-front ways. They’ll see where the pain and anger is coming from. Or maybe the ally is wrong, and does need to be corrected, and is willing to be corrected (if they are an ally, they will listen; note that I don’t believe an ally to autistics has to agree with any one autistic on anything, either – and that’s where things get complicated and messy).

But at the same time, I think sometimes we get a bit too aggressive in our advocacy, seeing enemies that aren’t there. Advocacy is very nuanced much of the time, and not about just the big major things. It’s not just about whether JRC is giving electric shocks to their prisoners (they are, and, yes, it’s wrong). It’s about an assumption that “more intensive” treatment is the right answer for “more severe” behavior. And that “more intensive” treatment works better and quicker for all types of behavior than less intensive. It’s the assumption that the more effort put into therapy, the more positive results. It’s the assumption that behavior X and Y are maladjusted and need therapy. Sometimes they do, but sometimes that “behavior” is just odd but okay.

I’ve also seen the reverse – I’ve seen it assumed that an autistic who speaks on advocacy is anti-parent, angry, and even militant. I’ve had all these things used against me, and while I can’t speak for their accuracy in an unbiased way, I work very hard at channeling my anger appropriately and recognizing the importance of good parents. I certainly don’t see “parents” as the enemy, nor am I trying to wage a war. I’m trying to help people understand and trying to make sure my people can fully participate in and enjoy society – nothing more. So this isn’t exactly a one-way set of stereotypes.

So, when you hear something you disagree with today, I’ll give my thought on what your response should be: Consider whether there may be nuances you aren’t aware of. When someone says they want to get rid of food stamps, are they saying, “I want the poor to starve” or are they saying, “I think the poor know where this money should go better than I do?” When a parent says their 18 year old son wears a diaper, is it possible their 18 year old son has agreed to share that for a shared advocacy reason? Let’s not assume that’s not the case. No, I’m not saying to assume it is the case either. But we should listen and ask true questions, not just jump to accusations.

My AACC Presentation – And Some Survey Results

I’m not going to go into great detail about the survey I asked for help with (although if you’re willing to participate still – and you don’t have to be autistic – please do!), but I will give some general findings so far:

  • Most of us (autistics) have been abused. This aligns with research, and, as expected.
  • About half of us (autistics) who have had an intimate relationship have been abused by someone in an intimate relationship. I’m not yet aware of research on this.
  • Non-autistics also have seen a lot of abuse, although it’s not as common – their numbers are about half of that of the autistic population.  This aligns with research.
  • A substantial portion of us identify as having a non-binary gender identity. This aligns with research.
  • A substantial portion of women identify as bi, asexual, or other non-heterosexual.  Substantial enough that heterosexual is a minority among autistic women. This is a somewhat surprising finding, although it was expected that non-straight people were more common among autistics, particularly autistic women.  It’s a bit inconclusive for the men so far. There’s some research on this, but it’s also inconclusive (for both men and women).

I’ll put some more results out in a while – I’m still hoping for more responses to the survey.  I really appreciate people taking the time to take the survey and leave comments on it – the comments in particular have been helpful as I prepare the talk. The more people that comment, the more interesting the results will be for the entire community!

At AACC 2014, I’m going to be presenting, “Dont touch me there: Intimacy for Autistic Abuse Survivors.” This will talk about both sexual and non-sexual intimate relationships (obviously for people who want an intimate relationship – not everyone needs to want this), with a focus on techniques, tips, and ways of managing intimacy for people who have faced abuse that may make intimacy difficult. We’ll also talk about our rights in relationships – what things can we expect to have in a relationship with a non-abusive partner. I’m also going to talk about some partner issues for people with abuse – such as the common fear in partners that they’ll do something that reminds the survivor of past abuse, which is certainly not what any loving partner wants to do. I’m also going to include topics on autistic differences, as for autistic abuse survivors, both autism and abuse impact what makes an intimate relationship enjoyable to us. I hope to be respectful of differences people have in religious background, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

I’m really looking forward to this because I feel this is a topic that’s critical for us. We have a lot of hurt people who want to have intimacy (sexual or non-sexual) with other people, but find it difficult because of what has been done to them in the past.

I also recognize that this is only one piece of the puzzle – finding someone for a relationship is another key piece of the puzzle, but I’m not going to spend much time on that, since I don’t have many tips of things you can do (other than being yourself and finding completeness in yourself).

So, if you end up at AACC 2014, I’d love to see you at this presentation. And I certainly would love to know what types of things you’ve found helpful in intimate relationships if you’ve been abused (or even if you just have autism). What techniques or tips or advice do you have for others who might have difficulty in a relationship because of abuse or autism?

Don’t Mourn For Us. Even as a phase.

In 1993, Jim Sinclair wrote what has become a key foundational writing of the autism movement – Don’t Mourn for Us.  It is time to move past this as a community however.

In 1993, Jim’s words were revolutionary – you may need to mourn for the imaginary child you didn’t have on the path to accepting the child you actually have. That the child you mourn for never existed.  That you need to go through that phase and move on. That you may need to mourn for the loss of your dreams and expectations, the realization that you never had what you thought you had (a neurotypical child).

That’s powerful and I won’t detract from Jim’s words here.

But it’s time to move past that. It’s time to move past the expectation that it is normal and okay to be upset when you find out your child is autistic. Even if that normal and okay upset isn’t directed at the autistic child, but directed at this mythical non-existent child you thought you had.

The gay community has went through this. 25 years ago, a child telling their parent, “I’m gay” would cause grief, denial, anger, etc. If the parent was a good parent, they would move past this phase and embrace their child. That was considered a great thing – that the child only had to watch mom and dad mourn for a bit, and that mom and dad got past it.

Today, we see story after story of a different reality – that of mom and dad saying, “That’s awesome, let’s celebrate!” There is now, in many families, joy that their child is living their life in a way that makes the child happy and complete.  Not sadness for loss of expectations or an imagined child, but joy.

Near the end of Don’t Mourn for Us, Jim says:

After you’ve started that letting go, come back and look at your autistic child again, and say to yourself: “This is not my child that I expected and planned for. This is an alien child who landed in my life by accident. I don’t know who this child is or what it will become. But I know it’s a child, stranded in an alien world, without parents of its own kind to care for it. It needs someone to care for it, to teach it, to interpret and to advocate for it. And because this alien child happened to drop into my life, that job is mine if I want it.”

I say parent’s can do this without letting go.  And where they can’t, we’ve failed as advocates to express what it means to be autistic.  Just as it took the LGB community years to get to the point where many parents no longer have to go through a -1-2morning process, it can take us years to get there.  But make no mistake – that is where we need to go.

We need to go to a world that finding out your child is autistic is no more tramatic or horrible or scary than finding out your child is gay (yes, I realize some people don’t have parents that can accept LGBT people – but that’s changing and the next generation will have an easier time, until one day no child is rejected on the basis of LGBT identity). Yes, your child may be disabled. Yes, your child may need to be raised differently than non-autistic children. Yes, your child may not be able to do some things (what child can do all things?). But I’m waiting and looking forward to the day when we don’t talk about how you need to love the child you have, this new-to-you creature, but rather that you just keep loving the child you’ve always known. Sure, you have a new label, but you knew your child before and you will still know your child.

THAT is what I want to see for the autistic community. Maybe that’s radical, but I don’t think it is. I think it is possible, even today, and should be the expectation. Sure, we should recognize the reality that some parents will have to grieve over the child they never had. But that doesn’t mean we should normalize this process or assume that everyone has to go through it. They don’t. It’s okay to not mourn. It’s okay to not mourn for any child, imaginary or real. And that should be the expectation for normalcy of parenting, with compassion (but not normalization) extended to parents that might not quite be here yet.