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.

Feeling Good

This post is about coming off anti-depressant meds. Please don’t take it as being anti-medication or as a suggestion that anybody would be better off unmedicated. My meds helped me when I needed them most so I would be that last person to advise against taking them. It’s a decision that every person needs to make for themselves.

I stopped taking anti-depressant medication a month ago because the circumstances causing my depression had changed for the better, and because the side-effects had started to impact on my functioning. As I stated in an earlier post I had started on 10 mg Citalopram, soon upping the dosage to 20 mg. This had helped alleviate my symptoms of depression and I had been feeling more like my usual self.

But after a couple of months my circumstances had changed — I had transitioned to living full-time as female and my relationship with Anne had improved immeasurably. That was when I began to notice the negative aspects of SSRI medication. My mood was too stable: I didn’t get appreciable highs or lows. This caused problems: I discovered that not experiencing the highs prevented me from getting motivated. I didn’t even enjoy my work, my major special interest.

I spoke to my doctor about coming off the meds and began the process of reducing my dosage. But it wasn’t as effective as I’d hoped and after speaking to a doctor at the stage of alternating 20 mg and 10 mg daily I decided to try to stop altogether. It took a couple of weeks for my mind to adjust properly but after that I was feeling better than I had for months.

Well, that was over a month ago now and for the past four weeks I have been feeling like my old self. I’m enjoying life again, I’m enjoying my work (I’ve been more productive in the last month than I was for the entire time I was medicated). And that’s why I decided to link this video. It sums up how I’m feeling so well.

The Joy of Acceptance

I’ve written about acceptance before. About how widespread awareness of autism, gender variance and other ways of differing from the majority is a valuable first step but far from enough for us to achieve the kind of inclusive society where differences are visible but not used to judge a person as being “less than” anybody else.

But I have never written about how acceptance feels on the receiving end. I could write about privilege and society, and probably lose half my readers before getting to the end. But I’d rather try to explain in terms that don’t require a degree in social science to understand!

When somebody accepts me for who I am it is not accompanied by pomp and circumstance. There is no fanfare, no ponderous announcement extolling my virtues, no pageantry or bestowing of medals and honors.

The point of acceptance is that it can pass unremarked. That it does pass unremarked. I am just another person going about life in my own way. The way I act, the way I look harms nobody. Acceptance can be a passive act: it can simply mean that I am left to get on with my life without adverse comment.

As somebody who does stand out in public for a number of reasons (I’ve been laughed at by kids outside a local shop because of my physical appearance, and been described as weird because of my poor social skills) it is with a certain amount of trepidation that I step outside my front door. I am never quite sure whether I will face ridicule or even threats of harm.

When I presented as male I looked the part (even if I didn’t act it consistently). There is a power that derives from being male in much of the world, especially a large male. A threat implied by one’s very existence that serves to deflect confrontation. That makes others wary of offending you: a kind of “don’t f*ck with me” aura. It’s not a perfect protection: there are still plenty of people who feel strong enough to attack you with words if nothing else.

I frequently used to wear a leather biker jacket because it made me feel more secure. Even discounting its physical protection it suggested a particular character. As I donned it I took on a certain confidence: its padding emphasized the torso and arms and made me look bigger and stronger. I know it wasn’t real but I would try to project that strength and hint at potential aggression. To be honest, several of my friends secretly hated that jacket and thought it ugly.

But it did engender a sense of security that has diminished considerably since I transitioned. I did not realize beforehand that I would feel more exposed, more vulnerable as a woman than as a man. It is because I no longer have that protective camouflage: I am no longer hiding behind a costume. I am no longer acting a role: the person people see is the unvarnished reality of who I am.

Without that illusory shield I am more sensitive to potential threats around me. I view every stranger with suspicion, expecting to be insulted indirectly if not to my face.

My actual experience has been more positive. Most people I encounter don’t seem to notice me. The few who do speak tend to express either honest curiosity or positive support. Work has been especially good: people I’d not spoken to before have approached me to wish me well or otherwise offer support. Our neighbors have also been very accepting.

Acceptance makes me happy. It creates a sense of safety: it allows me to feel that I don’t need to hide behind masking behaviors. I don’t need to watch every single move I make, everything I say, in case I let my guard down and draw attention. I am free to act naturally, to truly be myself without fear of being mocked, criticized or otherwise made to feel that the way I am is somehow “wrong”. That is acceptance.

What does it require of other people for acceptance to happen? Not much — only that they allow me to live my life my own way. So long as it doesn’t harm them, what possible problem could they have with that? Unless they’re insecure, closed-minded, prejudiced bigots who see a threat in anything that is different from their own limited experiences. But there can’t be many people like that around, can there?

These posts brought to you by:
Add your post now!

Words For Sale

Words line the streets
Promising pleasures,
Alluring treats
And sinful treasures.

Words are one of the most prevalent signs of what it flatters us to call civilization, a consequence of near-universal literacy. We are able to encode our thoughts in such a way that others may decipher them: a real life example of mind-reading.

A walk through a town exposes one to countless words. There are utilitarian ones like “Stop” signs and “Walk/Don’t walk” on crossings. There are informative ones like street signs, and names on shops and other businesses. And there are the other ones…

The words that entice us, lure us, influence us. The ones that loiter along the sidewalk trying to gain the attention of passers by. The ones that sell themselves to be used for others’ purposes. Done up in their brightest, most colorful attire they compete with each other to bring in money for their employers.

These are the abused, trafficked, enslaved words, hostage to the whims of the advertisers. Used again and again until they begin to lose their individuality and become mere shadows of a brand. Soulless, emptied of independent meaning, these words live only to be bought and sold.

I Have a Choice?

A recent story shared by George Takei on Facebook about a 12 year old winning the right to have his birth certificate changed to reflect his correct gender attracted a lot of comments. This is not surprising, nor is the fact that so many were negative or transphobic. Not surprising, but very depressing.

Along with the usual equation of physical characteristics with gender (penis = male; vagina = female) there were many comments saying that 12 was too young to make this kind of choice.

Choice? Are they suggesting that somebody can choose their gender the same way they choose what to wear or eat?

Coming out, informing people around you that your gender is not the one you were assigned at birth, is not a lifestyle choice like being Vegan. It is a recognition of the true essence of one’s self.

If you asked a hundred random people of all ages what their gender is you would almost always get a hundred definite answers. Would you doubt that these people know what gender they really are? Would you insist on testing their chromosomes and genitalia? Would you even dare to ask a random stranger to confirm their gender?

So why is it that the element of doubt raises its head when the “transgender” label is present? Surely a transgender person has just as clear a view of their own gender identity as anybody else.

I didn’t choose to be a woman. I appeared to be male at birth and was raised as such. But from puberty onwards (about age 11) I knew that my body didn’t develop correctly. It didn’t (and still doesn’t) look like my internal self-image. I look in the mirror and if I’m lucky I will catch the occasional glimpse of myself, but more often I only see the out-of-place male characteristics. My brain developed as female, my body as male.

If you are not transgender yourself then imagine this: you are yourself, the same person you have been all your life, but every time you look at yourself you do not see what you expect to see. You see a face and body that is the opposite gender. Now also imagine that everybody else sees that too, and acts towards you as if that is your actual gender. But you know it’s wrong. Every day of your life you know, but you are stuck with it. Yes, it hurts to the point that it can be hard to carry on.

Unless you start to tell people that the way you look is not who you are. Unless you confront their disbelief, prejudice and mockery. Unless you fight to change your body so that it matches what you know inside to be your true self. The alternative is to try to pretend that you are somebody other than yourself, to live a lie. I tried to do that until it almost destroyed me. That is gender dysphoria.

So please try to be understanding when a transgender person comes out. Be accepting. It is hard enough living with the discomfort and distress of your body being of the wrong gender without also having to suffer prejudice and abuse.

Note: I have simplified things here for rhetorical purposes to mention only binary gender identities. These account for the majority of people but there is a significant minority for whom the categories of male/female do not fit. I’m not going to go into details here because there are many excellent articles about non-binary gender and I do not have the personal experience to add to what others have already written.

Twisting the Tale

I

They called the old woman a witch,
Drove her from her home.
She found a refuge
Deep in the forest.

Her family resented her:
Suspicion followed them,
Mutterings when they walked
Down the village streets.

Her grand-daughter blamed her
For the bullying she suffered.
She resolved to search
Until she found her.

II

The girl prepared carefully,
Packing a basket of food
And wearing a woolen cloak
Against the elements.

The trees loomed dark
As she ventured forth,
Following forest trails
For mile after mile,

Until tired and footsore
She finally spied smoke
Rising from a clearing
In which stood a crude hut.

III

Timidly she approached.
A barking dog announced her
And the door was opened,
Revealing a filthy crone.

“Grandmother?” she called,
“Can that really be you?”
She knew the answer
Even as she spoke the words.

Her rage at her grandmother,
The reason for her torment,
Took hold and the girl
Grabbed an ax from the woodpile.

IV

Incoherent screams sent birds
Flying from the surrounding trees.
The red mist cleared.
The old woman lay dead.

Leaving the body there
To attract the forest predators,
The girl made her way home,
Designing a sad tale.

Sobbing as she returned,
She told of the wolf’s attack.
Relief that the witch was dead
Blinded people to her lies.

V

Tales were told of the girl
Risking the wild forest
To bring food to Grandmother.
Her cloak was blood red.

#My Writing Process Blog Hop

A couple of weeks ago I received a message from my lovely friend Renee Salas inviting me to take part in this blog hop. I was very interested and not a little flattered to be invited to add my piece alongside such writers as Cynthia Kim, Michael Monje Jr., Sparrow Rose Jones and many others whom I hold in high regard. Renee reassured me that I was worthy of inclusion, so here is my description of my writing process.

What Am I Working On?

The main things that occupy my time are my day job as a software developer and caring for my wife, Anne. Unfortunately there are too few hours in the day for me to devote as much time as I would like to other pursuits.

I am likely unusual in that I do not have writing projects that stretch over much time: I believe a few days is the longest I have ever worked on a single piece. That said, I do have a couple of pieces scheduled over the coming months. One is for an anthology about the impact of the internet on being trans. The other is user documentation for an application I developed. Quite a contrast, I know.

I am also starting to work on expressing myself visually through drawing and painting as a way to complement the images I set down in words.

How Does My Work Differ From Others in the Genre?

I am far from the only person writing about personal experiences, but my combination of autism and gender dysphoria does give me an unusual perspective. I write both prose and poetry; my prose is often poetic in its imagery, which is a consequence of being visually-oriented in my thinking. I like to think I have my own style of expression, a fingerprint that identifies my written voice.

One thing that has struck me since I first began to read others’ writings about autism is how much we have in common in the way we experience the world. Surely this is the source of the strength in our community.

Why Do I Write What I Do?

I had been writing for many years before I ever started publishing my words on a blog. It began as a form of therapy, a way to express and release the thoughts that swirled around my mind, distracting me from everyday functions. I progressed from handwritten journals to typing, and from there to here was but a short step.

It wasn’t long after I began blogging before I started to receive comments from autistic readers who drew parallels between my accounts and their own experiences. I realized that simply by documenting events from my own life I was helping others feel that there was somebody else with whom they had things in common: the same response I felt myself on reading what other autistic authors had written.

I made a decision that I would try to promote understanding of autism through my writing. My goal is acceptance of neurodiversity, and recently I have added gender variance as well.

As for choosing my subjects, well that is difficult to explain. I have no tactical plan, no list of topics that I intend to cover. Which leads to…

How Does Your Writing Process Work?

I write, so I guess whatever my process is it works. For the most part I find I am inspired by a particular event in my life that highlights an aspect of autism or gender non-conformity. Or else I might draw inspiration from a conversation with a friend, or reading others’ writing.

Whatever the source I will find myself with a concept crystallizing from the solution of thoughts and feelings within my mind. Once that happens it is just a matter of shaping words into a facsimile of my mental construct. Sometimes this feels more natural in the form of poetry.

Ideas crystallize,
The shapeless given form,
Nebulae collapsing
As bright stars come to life.

End of Line

I’m afraid that this particular branch of this Blog Hop must end here. No excuses. I simply put off contacting potential contributors until events in my life conspired to distract me from the task, until the deadline loomed too close to avoid.

Instead I will simply point you in the direction of the writers I linked to in my opening paragraph. All of them are writers I hold in high regard and I hope that if you are not familiar with their works you will take this opportunity to introduce yourself.