I Support @Sonnolenta

The story so far: this open letter on a friend’s blog calmly and rationally asked a number of the chefs from TV’s Iron Chef and Chopped to consider alternatives to Autism Speaks (AS) when supporting autism charities and autistic people. It sets out the well-publicized issues with AS’s repeated negative portrayals of autism and autistic people as tragic, broken and a burden on the rest of society. Portrayals that strongly suggest the lives of autistic children are defined by suffering; that carry the unspoken presumption that it would have been better if autistic people like me and many of my friends had never been born.

Please take the time to read Cristiana’s letter. It was written in response to her autistic son’s reaction to discovering that chef Michael Symon was to donate $50,000 to AS. She pleads from the heart as well as the head for autism organizations such as ASAN and AWN to receive the recognition they deserve. Let me be clear: she is not demanding that anybody cease their support for AS just on her say-so. Rather, she sets out the evidence to support her case, and asks that the reader makes an informed decision based on that.I’m posting this to signal boost because she could use all the support she can get in this. If you agree, please add your voice to hers and show that we are not just a few isolated individuals but an active community.

Thank you.

My Experience of Gender Transition

It’s over seven months now since I transitioned to living full-time as a woman and I think it’s a good time to review what has happened in that time and what I’ve learned.

My Work Transition

At work

Hard at work (soundtrack by Green Day)

The time has certainly flown. It doesn’t seem so long since I first turned up at work as Alex. Perhaps preparation was the key — I discussed it with HR beforehand — but it went without a hitch. I visited a local solicitor on a Friday evening to have my Statutory Declaration — my legal change of name — witnessed. I had printed several copies of my own document based on a template on the Citizens’ Advice Bureau web site. The solicitor checked the wording and I had four of them witnessed at £5 each. Quite a bargain! and I ended up with four original documents from which I made a number of photocopies. (Some organisations require an original when changing one’s name; most do not.)

The following Monday morning I arrived at work as a woman for the first time and sent a company-wide email in which I simply stated that I am a trans woman and I had changed my name. I included a brief description and links to information on the web as well as two of my own blog posts.

The reactions ranged from total indifference to active support, and sitting here months later I can say that I have not had a single negative experience at work. Understandably, since I had been in the job for seven years as a male, some people have slipped up occasionally with pronouns but they correct themselves and I just let it go as an honest mistake.

Changing my name on my employment records was straightforward with a copy of the declaration for my personnel file, and I had already contacted the Inland Revenue and my bank to inform them so that all my details would be in step. I was issued a pass in my new name with an updated photo, and my company login and email address were altered that same day.

What Happened Since

When I transitioned at work I was taking medication for depression that was caused by my gender dysphoria. I’ve written about that before, but I’ll just summarise: the SSRI pills (Citalopram) helped a lot initially with the low mood, loss of appetite and poor concentration, but I did suffer moderate side-effects including nausea and disturbed sleep. After I transitioned I increasingly felt that the negatives of the medication were outweighing the benefits, especially since transitioning improved the circumstances that were the main cause of my depression.

Now that I’ve been off the pills for several weeks I feel more myself. I’m better motivated, I’m sleeping well, my appetite is normal and I’m able to concentrate fully. I do still feel very low at times — the depression hasn’t been magically cured — but it’s manageable.

My relationship with my wife, Anne, continues to be strong even though her illness means we have not been out socially at all since New Year. Her support is another factor helping me cope with my depression.

What I’ve Learned

I went into my transition with an open mind and only the minimum of planning — not one of my strengths. All I have — all I need — to guide me is my self-image. I know who I am and the steps I take along the way are to bring me closer to that.

That’s not to say I didn’t learn all I could about transitioning, about the various options for medical treatment and about other trans people’s experiences through their writings. There are a number of things I’ve learned; some practical, some important and some trivial.

  • There are no “right” or “wrong” ways to transition, no particular order in which steps must be completed. Indeed, there are no compulsory steps at all. It’s important to find what works for you because your situation and individual needs will be particular to you.
  • It takes longer to get ready in the morning. Showering, dressing, applying make-up and styling my hair means that my morning routine is longer and more time-consuming than it used to be. Rather than get up earlier I now start work later. (I’ve never been a morning person!)
  • I am very self-conscious about my facial hair. I have not yet had any form of hair removal treatment so I rely on shaving my face and reducing the shadow using make-up. I am reluctant to go out the door, even into our back garden, without at least a shave and some foundation.
  • I hate shaving my face! I have sensitive skin and after shaving it is always reddened, dry and sore in places. I also, despite all my years of experience, still manage to cut myself with the razor more often than not.
  • Pretty much everybody I interact with at work and outside just treats me normally. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but I kind of expected to be regarded as a bit of a freak. This was one of my most pleasant surprises.
  • I feel more vulnerable when I’m out on my own than when I was presenting as male.
  • The NHS services for the treatment of gender dysphoria are seriously under funded and under resourced. It took over 6 months to even get a response from the Charing Cross clinic after my referral, and it is likely to take many more months before I get my first appointment for assessment. All this is required before any treatment such as HRT will be considered.
  • There is more variation in the sizing of women’s clothing than men’s. One item labelled size 20 (UK) could be equivalent to another labelled 16. Being able to judge a garment’s size by eye is a useful skill to develop.
  • Driving in heels doesn’t affect my control of the vehicle but can cause a lot of wear on the backs of the shoes. I now wear flat shoes for driving and change when I get where I’m going.
  • Having my ears pierced didn’t hurt much at all. I guess the earlobes are not very sensitive.
  • It’s not worth spending a lot on clothes when starting your wardrobe for your new gender role. It takes time to learn what colours and styles suit you, and what feels most comfortable.
  • It is worth having a reasonable budget for shoes, and taking your time when choosing them. Don’t forget that any shoes for work will be on your feet all day, so don’t sacrifice comfort for looks.
  • Sports bras that have built-in padding work great with breast enhancers (aka “chicken fillets”). They’re comfortable, keep things in place well, and the pads smooth out any “lumps” as well as adding a little extra size.
  • A lot of women’s clothes use softer fabrics than men’s, which is a bonus for someone like me who has above normal tactile sensitivity.
  • Fancy outfits are fun and great for going out (or to work), but don’t forget to include something casual for popping down to the shops, lounging around watching movies, and doing chores. As much as I love a dress and heels, I find a T-shirt and leggings or pyjamas are most comfortable and practical in and around the home.
  • Invest in a practical bag. Very few dresses or skirts have pockets, so you’ll need something to carry your wallet/purse, keys, phone, etc. while making sure you can actually find these items. It’s not good if retrieving your keys means emptying your bag every time you arrive at your front door!

Effing the Ineffable

Prose and verse have pros and cons.

Pros might con, but so might amateurs.

In sports, amateurs were “gentlemen”, but not the gentle sex.

Especially boxers. “Seconds out”; ten seconds and out for the count.

(Small ‘c’.) Not the Count. You can count on that.

Depend on it. Hang on my every pendulous word.

Listen up for the low down. It’s no good.

No good is bad, but some goods are bad.

Fair trade, free trade, don’t get betrayed.

Trays are innocuous, but what if you’re on the shelf?

Taking a back seat. Taking offence (not a fence).

Fencing? Verbal sparring. Words as weapons.

The pen mightier than the sword.

According to the pen…

(The cob declined to comment and swanned off.)

(He’s a nut if you ask me.)

Killing A Child Is Wrong

Much has been written about the case of Issy Stapleton, an autistic girl who survived the attempt by her mother to murder her during her failed suicide attempt. I’ll not repeat the details of the case here.

I’m adding my 2c because this case has been characterized by excuse after excuse for the mother’s actions. Caring for a disabled child is hard: there is no argument about that. Not everybody is able to cope with the day to day hardships involved. Again, no argument from me about that.

I believe it’s not only possible to sympathize with the difficulties faced by parents of disabled children, it’s natural. My own parents had some hard times raising me when they had to involve outside agencies. Yes, there is a lack of support out there and the children and their parents suffer because of that, especially when the cost of that support exceeds the means of the family.

My point is that none of that excuses trying to murder that child. Whether a person is disabled, whether they exhibit behavioral problems or violent outbursts, whether they are able to communicate their needs, whether a parent feels that the situation is more than they are able to cope with: none of this excuses murder, or its attempt.

A disabled person has exactly the same right to live as anybody else. Their life is worth no less. Only the person themselves can possibly judge whether their quality of life is acceptable: nobody else, no matter how close, has that insight or the right to make such a judgment call.

And that is why I will never accept any excuse for the actions of Issy’s mother. I believe her actions in planning to murder her daughter and kill herself were selfish and completely failed to recognize her daughter as an individual with her own feelings and rights. More than that, she betrayed the trust of her daughter by making such a choice on her behalf. Issy had no idea that the so-called camping trip was really meant to result in their deaths. And that is unforgivable.

Getting To Know Me

I read this post by Tric Kearney this morning and thought it was a great idea, so here’s my list of random facts about myself.

  1. I was adopted a few weeks after birth by the couple who raised me. I know next to nothing about my natal parents except that my mother was 15. I have never been interested in discovering more.
  2. I never drink tea or coffee. I find tea insipid and dislike the smell of coffee. But my wife says that I make the best cups of tea — better than hers.
  3. In every place I’ve lived I have been able to see trees from my bedroom window. I love trees!
  4. I was in my mid-20s before I ever watched a game of soccer. This is unusual in England.
  5. I have two scars on my right elbow where my younger brother bit me aged 4.
  6. When I changed my name I chose my mother’s name, Maureen, to replace my former middle name, James. That is my father’s name.
  7. In 1990 I was entered by my school into the British Physics Olympiad, a national competition. I made the finals which were held at Harrow School and placed in the top 10, but not high enough to be selected for the national team.
  8. My brother and I, along with a friend, once babysat the young son of former England rugby captain Bill Beaumont during a match at Waterloo Rugby Club.
  9. I had a letter published in the Sunday Telegraph when I was aged 12. (It was a response to a letter about blasphemy laws by a bishop in the previous week’s paper.)
  10. I own 8 dresses, which is 8 more than my wife.
  11. I do not own a single item of clothing that features a visible brand name. (I can’t stand that!)
  12. My all time favourite food is spaghetti bolognese, and Italian is my favourite type of food.
  13. I am ambivalent towards Marmite.
  14. Despite working as a programmer I do not own a computer, and in fact have never even bought one. (I’m not counting my smartphone as a computer although it is one. My list, my rules!)
  15. I first used the internet before the World Wide Web existed. (usenet)
  16. I have not had a passport since my last one expired several years ago.

It was fun putting this list together and I hope you, my readers, find it interesting.

Standing Out From The Crowd

After so many days of reading about the shooting of Mike Brown by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, after so many days of feeling unqualified to speak about the killing of a young black man by a predominantly white police dept., I finally feel that I am able to contribute.

I am white in a predominantly white community. I do not know the feeling of fear when confronted by the police. I have not suffered that prejudice. The closest I ever came was as a student when I was stopped in the street and searched because allegedly there had been a nearby burglary.

The luxury of my white privilege gave me the confidence to believe that I would emerge from that confrontation unharmed because I knew I was innocent. But there was another incident in my life where I felt much less secure.

I didn’t know at the time, but I am autistic with problems in social interaction. At the age of 14 I was flying home alone from Orlando, FL to Manchester, UK. I suffered a nose bleed on the flight from Orlando to NY JFK, and on landing with blood on my hands and face I was terrifyingly aware of the presence of cops with firearms all through the airport.

It is hard to describe the fear of that time. The fear that because of the way I looked to other people I would be targeted. That I would be pulled from the line and asked to step aside. The thing is,… even then I did not fear for my life. I cannot imagine how it might feel to know that there was a chance that I might be killed for being different.

To imagine that I might comply with police instructions, raise my hands, show that I hold no weapon and pose no threat… and still face the threat of being killed. How can anybody argue that what happened that day in Missouri did not contravene the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution: “nor shall any person [...] be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”.

Mike Brown was an unarmed man shot dead by the police. I have seen no convincing excuse as to why the police officer discharged his firearm in this case. Except that as a white man he felt threatened by the fact that the victim was black. He was afraid of the color of his skin.

As an English woman I cannot claim that my own country is any better. There is widespread, casual equation of Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani people with Islamic terrorism, despite the fact that many of them are not Muslim but Hindu or Sikh, and the vast majority of Muslims are as opposed to terrorism as the majority of Christians or any other religious group.

The unpalatable fact remains that a significant number of white people feel uneasy in the presence of non-whites. They feel threatened. They feel afraid because non-whites are different. Fear causes irrational responses such as drawing a weapon on an unarmed teenager and shooting him dead.

That fear is wrong. It is unjustified. It is also at the heart of the problem. One cause of that fear is lack of integration between groups in society. In a community where whites go to one church (or synagogue, or mosque) and black folk go to another, how are they ever going to get to know one another? How can they move beyond that fear of the unknown?

I believe so strongly that the only way to an inclusive society where we all know and trust each other, where we recognize that everybody else is just a person (as are we), is to find ways that we can all participate in shared activities. Let us reach out and find our common ground.

It might be a shared love of craft beer, collecting Kenyan wood carving, or being a fan of Doctor Who. IT DOESN’T MATTER! At the heart of it all we are all human. We are all different, but each of us has something in common with somebody else. It might not be our beliefs — I know I’ve got close friends whose beliefs differ from mine — but that doesn’t stop us being friends. We connect on a level that owes nothing to religion. We are of the same species, sharing the same planet, and we found that we are more alike than different.

Does Mental Illness Scare You?

The brain is a mysterious organ. Unlike the heart, lungs or kidneys, its workings are shrouded in a veil of complexity. For all that we know about the chemical and electrical activity it exhibits, for all our mathematical models of neurons and synapses we simply cannot fathom how its activity gives rise to self-awareness and consciousness.

Throughout history most people have viewed this consciousness as a uniquely human trait. Yes, we are learning that this is not the case and other animals also have consciousness, but the idea that the human mind is special persists.

Many people cherish the idea that we are set apart from the rest of life on earth, that we are more important as a result of the functioning of our brains. And perhaps this is one reason why mental illness carries such stigma.

When other organs malfunction modern medicine can often repair the damage, or even replace the damaged part (heart valve replacement, pacemakers, kidney dialysis, transplants). There is confidence in these treatments: we can understand a surgeon replacing a worn out valve in the same way that we understand an auto mechanic swapping out a fouled spark plug.

When it is the brain that suffers damage or illness things become much less certain. Because we do not understand its inner workings and how consciousness arises from them there is a deep fear that mental illness will corrupt who we are. That we would no longer be ourselves. We fear the unknown.

Most mental illnesses are also invisible. There are no outward physical signs that somebody has depression, schizophrenia or Bi-polar disorder. You never know. And that not knowing triggers fear, compounded by a general ignorance about mental illnesses.

The media doesn’t help (surprise, surprise!) by actively seeking to explain many violent acts as the result of mental illnesses, and often describing the antagonist in thrillers and horror movies as mentally ill. Schizophrenia in particular has a long history of being unfairly linked to violent behavior. I’m not saying that schizophrenics are never violent, but the reality is far, far removed from the picture painted in popular culture.

One statistic relating to mental illness and violence does stand out, however. A person who suffers from a mental illness is far more likely to harm or kill themselves. The misplaced fear of the mentally ill person needs to be replaced by a fear for them.

Because you can help by fighting the stigma, by being there when somebody you know is affected — because it’s more likely than not that somebody among your family and friends will suffer from a mental illness at some point.
Mentally ill people are often afraid to disclose their illness because of the stigma. It can be a sure-fire way to lose friends overnight. It might lose them their employment. How would that feel? Not only are you ill but now you’re on your own with no job. “Good luck with that!” Can you understand why that would push some people to kill themselves?So yes, disclosing mental illness can carry a sizable risk. But not disclosing means that there’s no chance to get the necessary support. It’s a catch-22 situation, and all because of the stigma. You wouldn’t shun somebody because they had asthma, would you? So why do it when an illness affects their brain?It’s not a difficult concept. Here’s a person who is ill. Support them. Simple.

Being True

My journey through life has been a series of roles. I fell into routines, habits of behavior that became so ingrained that I could barely think of myself in any other terms. Life reduced to drifting on the currents as I was drawn along by others’ influences, the powerful need to conform, to be accepted.

There is a dangerous attraction to this kind of submission, suppressing one’s own desires and impulses in the service of others. Fulfilling the strongest desire of all: my compulsion to seek the approval of my peers. Measuring my worth by the praise I received.

For a long time it felt like the perfect existence. I didn’t have to worry about my decisions causing change because my path had been mapped out for me in advance, other people’s suggestions crystallizing into a solid picture of the future.

And like crystal it was brittle.

The problem with trying to become other people’s versions of myself was that I lost myself in the process. I had willingly entered the cage and made my home there, and in the process my ability to identify my own aspirations and dreams atrophied.

Suppressed, reduced and weak but not dead. I slowly — very slowly — began to awaken from my state of comfortable numbness and grew to realize that I had become trapped. I had become a stranger to myself, a mindless automaton.

The realization that I was nothing more than a set of roles, a set of made-to-measure costumes in which to act out scripts penned by other people, was shattering. For a while my mind was broken, in pieces, struggling to reassemble itself into its native form.

My need to be accepted had led me to impose so much pressure on myself, driving myself so hard to meet the targets of others, that in the end my strength failed and I was overwhelmed by depression.

I’m getting better. I’ve made changes and will continue to do so. The depression is not beaten: it lurks and reminds me of its presence every now and again. But change has become a positive for me. As I evolve I put distance between myself and the shackles of those old roles.

I do have a destination in mind — a goal, a dream — and while I know I may never fully achieve it and completely become the person I feel inside, it helps that my life is now taking me in the right direction.

My Favorite Doctor

The Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler in front of the Tardis

Every Whovian has a favorite Doctor and I’m no exception. I first watched Doctor Who in the late 70’s when the incumbent was Jon Pertwee, but unlike many my first Doctor did not become my life-long number one. Instead it was my second Doctor, Tom Baker, who earned that special place in my feelings.

There’s no one thing that sealed his place in my affections. He had that wonderful scarf, was always ready with a bag of jelly babies in his pocket, and — like every other Doctor incarnation — emerged triumphant from his many perilous adventures. But it was his mellifluous voice that did it for me more than anything else. To this day I will make time to catch a show that features him (although none have lived up to Doctor Who, even the remake of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)).

Your favorite Doctor is somebody who makes you feel that the vast universe is being watched over by somebody you can trust to keep the monsters in check. He might be a bit of a rebel, out of favor with the powers that be, but that all adds to his appeal: he’s one of us at heart. Making his way through life with his bag of jelly babies in one hand while flipping the bird at eternity with the other.

I really ought to come clean at this point: even though I watched all the Peter Davison episodes (Tegan was wonderful, and I was upset when Adric died) I never got into the Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, and gradually stopped watching. Until that lovely man Russell Davies got the series restarted in 2005. Fantastic!

That was when I acquired another favorite Doctor (although he in no way diminished my love for the Fourth Doctor) in the person of Christopher Eccleston. I remembered watching him in Cracker acting opposite Robbie Coltrane and there was just something about his character that engaged me in a way that Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy (and not forgetting the brief Paul McGann) had failed to.

I recently watched his episodes again on Netflix (regrettably he only starred in one season) and was every bit as enthralled by his performance as I had been the first time I saw it. He brought a refreshing directness to the character with an understated approach that ignored costume quirks in favor of a simple T-shirt, jeans and leather jacket. The depth of the Doctor’s character was enhanced by this low-key approach: the emphasis was on the performance which I felt was nothing short of awesome.

Assisted most ably by Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler, the Ninth Doctor faced Daleks and living mannequins alike with a dry humor and a strong compassion that served to hint at the pain of being the sole survivor of a war between two entire races.

It is ironic that a powerful, near-immortal alien should be one of the most human characters to appear in the entire series, but for me Christopher Eccleston achieved this to a remarkable degree. Much more than previous incarnations he displayed a complexity in the combination of hardness and vulnerability: he showed compassion while avoiding sentimentality.

It is difficult to take on such a well-established role and make it your own. Especially with a character as long-running as the Doctor there must be a degree of continuity with what previous actors have brought to the part as well as enough individuality to set your performance apart from the rest. I believe Christopher Eccleston achieved this most successfully and deserves a lot of credit for the success of the relaunch of the series.

He made the character much more dark and threatening:  here was somebody who could destroy whole worlds — and had. And yet he displayed a sense of fun and playfulness at times that contrasted sharply with the guilt of his instrumental role in the destruction of his race and their world. For me that is such strongly human behavior — to hold the pain inside and carry on fighting to survive even against impossible odds.

And the number one thing I take from Doctor Who? That one person can take a stand for what is right in the face of apparently insurmountable opposition and make a meaningful difference. It’s not about being a hero and receiving the grateful adulation of the saved, it’s not about being recognized as the savior. Watching from the sidelines while everything goes to hell in a hand-basket is not an option: allowing evil to continue without challenging it is the same as being a willing accomplice. And the Doctor has never been one to step aside from a righteous fight.