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?

Making the Privileged Feel Better

What kind of things do physically disabled or blind persons need?  It’s simple: access to society.  The specifics are different – the wheelchair user might want to be able to go to school or work without having to literally drag themself up a step.  And the blind person might desire websites that are usable with screen readers.

Of course, these aren’t the only things desired – there’s a lot of inaccessibility in society as a whole that needs to be cleared up.

So, what do social justice minded, but non-physically disabled, non-trans, and non-blind people come up with? We need to worry about our language. We need to avoid saying, “Let’s run out to the store,” because that erases the existence of someone who rolls out to the store. We need to avoid saying, “Did you see that movie?” because that’s abelist and erases the existence of people who experience movies without using sight.

And that sounds good.  It sounds good to say, “Did you experience that movie?” or “Let’s go to the store” rather than the abelist, yet common, alternatives.

Yet, I’m going to cry out and say, “ENOUGH!”  Not because I think these are bad things to think about, but because, too often, what is behind these suggested changes is a bit more sinister than it appears. Sure, it could be a sincere desire to think about others. But where it fails is in actually listening to others.

For instance, my (albeit limited) circle of friends includes a couple of blind people who “watch TV” (their words, not mine), and neither would notice (or care) if the TV picture was present or not.  My wheelchair using friends “run to the store” occasionally, in their words. It’s important to listen to their words.

Sure, there may be people who are blind or physically disabled who dislike words like “see” and “run.”  But most blind or physically use these words exactly like the rest of us: as something other than literally seeing or literally running.  Few non-physically disabled people literally run to the store: we hop in our cars and drive, or, if we don’t drive, walk or use transit.  But little actual running is involved. As for “seeing” TV or  a movie, a better word would likely be “experience” to reflect literally what is going on, but seeing, in context, basically means the same thing.

Now, I recognize I’m privileged, and could be an ablest pig now – and hope that people (particularly people who aren’t privileged in the same way) speak up and let me have it, if they believe it’s appropriate.  I can demonstrate my true character by listening to what is said.  But, at the same time, I do believe I’ve listened to disabled people and that this type of language is not viewed as insulting, as it seems to be used by the vast majority of people for whom it is supposed to be insulting.

It’s also – ironically – appropriated words like look, see, run, walk, etc, which have a general meaning, and made them into words that can be used only when referring to the privileged classes! In essence, privileged people have decided when these words are appropriate or not, rather than allowing the non-privileged people to tell us what they find offensive and how we should respond to that.  That’s both arrogant and dismissive, and the utter opposite of respect.

But it feels good.  It feels good to look at yourself and say, “I’m more progressive and social justice minded, because I know there are wheel chair users in the world, so I avoid using phrases like, ‘take the dog for a walk’ or ‘running to the store.'”  It’s the same old thing that always makes privileged people feel good: being better than someone else (in this case, it’s mostly the other privileged people who aren’t so liberally minded, but it is done by “walking” over the top of the very people for whom this language is supposedly changed for).

I’ve written about this in a different context – the use of the prefix “cis-” to refer to non-trans people.  While I can find some trans people who do feel people should use the cis- prefix to identify themselves, and it’s a lot harder to find wheelchair users or blind people who object to the language such as “run” or “watch”, I find a striking similarity. I don’t like the term cis- because I feel it erases the existence of binary-identified trans people, particularly post-op transsexuals, and their self-identity. But I get shit for that stand. Ironically, I’d say 99% of the people who have a problem with my word choice are binary-identified and passing as – and thus taking the role of – someone with binary, “cis-gender” privilege.

Now, I recognize the social implications and difficulties faced by minorities trying to express upset towards something the majority does.  So I recognize that even if I was being offensive to trans, blind, or physically disabled people (among others), it’s very likely they would say nothing to me about it. Thus it would be wrong to assume that I’m not wronging them. But it would be equally wrong to not listen to the people who are speaking and advocating from a minority group and to find out what their concerns are, rather than simply assuming that I know what their concerns are, and thus can tell people how to treat “those people” with respect.

It’s actually got a lot in common with the “autistic” vs. “person with autism” debate, which comes down to whether or not autistic people get to define their terms and decide what is or isn’t offensive to us (most of us have decided “autistic” is not offensive).  Yet, well-meaning, socially minded people will actually argue with us and tell us we’re wrong – that we should be offended by “autistic” and should be glad to be referred to with the much-more-respectful “person with autism” label. In other words, they know best about our lives and experience.

Well, they don’t.  No matter how good it makes them feel to think they do.

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.

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.