Responsible Freedom

I’m a great believer in freedom of speech, and not just in the sense of vocalization: I include all forms of self expression. It is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

This right, like all other rights, comes with an unspoken duty: the duty to ensure to the best of my ability that anything I do express does not harm others. That it does not curtail the right of those others to live free from fear, oppression and abuse.

That is where my own sense of morality comes into play. I must judge for myself whether my words and actions are appropriate and in alignment with what I believe to be right. I must put myself in the position of those people affected by what I say and do, using my sense of empathy to imagine how they might feel.

I have a very strong aversion to conflict and confrontation, and I’m sure this plays a role in shaping my behavior towards others. But there is also compassion which causes me to feel hurt by others’ pain and anguish. This suggests there might well be a degree of self-interest involved in what I refer to as my morality, but I’d argue that this is no bad thing. It gives me an honesty of purpose to understand my own motivations rather than simply label my behavior as intangible belief.

Freedom as a concept is both shockingly simple and overwhelmingly complex. Simple in that it may be expressed in very few words and applies equally to all. Complex in the effects and ramifications of that simplicity. Freedom is not a license to do whatever you want. It is a contract between an individual and the society she lives in, a tacit acceptance of a framework of rights and responsibilities.

I believe any society, any situation involving two or more people living together, requires some set of rules governing behavior. I’m not necessarily referring to formal laws and such like. But complete, unfettered individual freedom inevitably conflicts with the well-being of the group as a whole. If one member of a group hoards all the food then it hurts all the rest, so a rule gets developed for fair distribution of resources. Those who don’t conform, who don’t live within the societal restrictions on their individual freedoms, are cast out of the group. What in former times were called “outlaws”: those who are outside the the set of rules and protections offered by the group.

Some use the idea of individual freedom to justify bullying and oppression: if I’m stronger than you and physically able to take from you then I’m free to do so. I want your land so I’ll force you out and take it. Freedom becomes associated with strength and aggression, with a lack of restraint.

Human rights are not the same as freedom. Accepting universal rights requires accepting restrictions on individual freedom, accepting that some actions are not acceptable behavior since they deny those same rights to others. It’s not about strength but empathy, compassion and respect.

Craving Some Human Connection

Social media is both blessing and curse. Without it I’d have very little contact with people; I’d not have gotten to know some wonderful, supportive friends. I’d not have been contacted by my daughter. But unfortunately it can’t substitute for physical proximity, the joy of sharing some activity with another.

Sometimes when I’m feeling lonely, craving some human connection, I notice photos of people I know on Facebook out with their friends having a good time and it makes me melancholy, too aware of what I rarely experience. It’s not jealousy: I’m not envying their enjoyment. It just reminds me of the past.

There are only a couple of times in my life when I have had that kind of friendship. Hanging out together, going places and doing things–sometimes crazy things like running through Aldershot town center spraying silly string at each other, or driving halfway across the country just to see where a particular road would take us.

As I’ve written before friendship is something that I struggle with. I can talk to people and often enjoy socializing as long as the environment is something my senses can comfortably handle. But I’ve never understood how to progress from acquaintance to something more, to the point where I don’t feel the need to second-guess every interaction in case I say or do the wrong thing.

My experiences growing up taught me to be reserved and wary around others, to sit back and wait for them to initiate every interaction. Because when I tried I made mistake after mistake and suffered ridicule. I learned to hide how I felt in case it was used against me.

Another obstacle has always been the difficulty I have reading people. I never know how they feel about me which makes me tread carefully, unwilling to cause offense. By the time I feel I know someone well enough to feel confident opening up around them our relationship has settled into a routine casual acquaintance.

The number of people I’ve seen over the years, at university, in the workplace and in social settings, who have that magical self-confidence and the ability that allows them to rapidly construct friendships while I’m still stuck at the level of saying good morning and talking about the weather.

It can be painful sometimes when people I like move on and I regret that I never managed to build a degree of closeness with them, a platonic intimacy. When it hits me that I know so little about them. Ah, the mysterious arts of small talk and conversation about personal matters.

Out To Lunch

I went out for lunch yesterday. It struck me later that this was the first time I’d eaten out since before I began my transition, more than 18 months ago. But that didn’t even occur to me until hours afterwards: I was far too preoccupied. You see, I was meeting a young lady.

11742805_10203708980319697_4483407513116153502_nI wanted to make a good impression. It was a lovely, sunny day so I wore this new red dress (rather daring for me because it barely comes down to my knees) with a pair of red heels and spent nearly 30 minutes doing my face and hair. Excitement wrestled with nervousness as I drove into town.

I felt good; I felt confident as I walked from the car to the restaurant. It was five minutes of twelve: I was a little early which suited me. I would have time to get settled and make myself comfortable. It was early for lunch so the place wasn’t too busy and I could choose where to sit: I decided on a small two-seat table by the window where I would be able to watch for her arrival.

A waiter brought a menu; I explained I was waiting to meet someone and just ordered a sparkling water. I browsed Facebook to pass the time while keeping one eye on the passers-by. Nervousness crept in: what if she was late? What if she didn’t come at all? Would we get along face to face? We’d only chatted online before this.

I needn’t have worried. She arrived just a few minutes later and saw me through the window. She smiled and gave me a little wave; I reciprocated. She joined me at my table, ordered a water–still to my sparkling–and we started to talk. Somewhere during this we ordered food and ate but the meal was definitely a sideshow to the main event. Not that we didn’t enjoy it, it’s just that we were deep in conversation. Quite something for two people who are usually uncomfortable in social situations.

It was over too soon. She had to head off to work shortly before three, so after paying the bill we walked back to our cars. We hugged before parting and it felt wonderful. We will meet again.

I’m still working through my memories of yesterday: such a wealth of images, impressions and emotions. The pleasure of building a relationship with my daughter after so many years, the many ways in which she reminds me so much of myself. It’s difficult for me to connect the young woman I met with my memories of her as a baby and infant.

More than anything I feel so happy and grateful that she contacted me and that we are becoming friends. I feel a bond that I did not expect, a reawakening of the feelings that had languished, forgotten, in the dusty attic of my mind. I’ve missed so much of her life that I’m not sure I deserve to be invited back in with such welcoming acceptance. She is open, honest, caring and intelligent, and I am so proud to have her as my daughter.

On Race

They say race doesn’t exist
And this is true.
They say race is real
And this is also true.

There appears to be a contradiction here.

So what is going on? It is a matter of definitions. Humans as a species have a single place of origin in Africa. Adaptation to reduced levels of ultra-violet in sunlight has caused skin pigmentation to reduce in populations that have developed away from tropical regions, but humans remain a single species with these separate populations perfectly able to interbreed. On this basis, equating race with species, race does not exist.

I find it hard to believe that any person of color would agree. Race is a social construct similar to nationality, a shorthand to define a group based on shared heritage, shared culture. Those who deny that race exists might have good intentions but what they are doing is erasing peoples’ identities.

Many people, myself included, take pride in their identity and feel comfort and strength from belonging to groups who share that identity. This is true for me as an autistic person, it is true for me as a trans person, it is true for me as one who was born and raised in the North of England. That pride is a positive thing. It brings a sense of community, of belonging. It helps us feel that we are not alone in the world.

But there is a negative side to this, one that fuels the evils of hatred and oppression. One intrinsic attribute of any group is that it is exclusive: there are those who are a part of it, and then there are the others. Those who are not in. This leads to judgment of those others and illusions of supremacy.

It is a comfortable fiction to believe that whatever groups one belongs to must be superior simply because one is a member of them. Groups that are in positions of power are seen to abuse that power to maintain their status: they abuse their privilege to promote themselves at the expense of others.

When the groups are defined along lines of race then the result of this is racism. How can race not be real when it has been used and continues to be used as a reason to disadvantage whole cultures, to restrict and deny their rights, to oppress and otherwise harm them simply because they are other?

The inequality that results harms those who lack privilege, but it also harms society as a whole. It creates deep divisions like festering wounds that unless treated will cause our society to sicken and die. Real equality is the only cure. This means not only the visible, vocal bigots but also the ones who are not even aware of how they perpetuate their privilege by subconsciously favoring their own group, their own race.

Become aware. Be conscious of your actions. Recognize your prejudices and fight to overcome them. Accept your mistakes and work to correct them. The road to equality has many steps and the journey starts with you. Start it right now.

I Don’t Know What To Say

My daughter turns 18 in a month’s time. I’ve not been part of her growing up, not been there as a parent to her. There are reasons of course but I’m not going to go into that now. What matters to me is that she recently chose to get in touch.

She sent me a message via Facebook which I didn’t see for nearly a week because it went into my Others folder. I have no idea what she thought as the days went past and I didn’t respond; I replied as soon as I read it. We established that we’d both like to keep in touch which makes me happy.

That was two weeks ago. I keep thinking about starting a conversation with her but I have no idea how to go about it. I realize I know next to nothing about her. I don’t know what her interests are, what she studied at college, places she likes to go, food she likes to eat. I don’t know how she feels about me.

The last time I saw her was at my mother’s funeral, a cathartic day on which I was finally able to move on from the pain I felt since my breakup with her mother. I think I’d like to see her again, face to face. I have some anxiety because I can’t predict how it would go.

Writing this has helped me gather my thoughts. I guess I could just start by asking about the kind of things I’ve mentioned here. This social interaction business sure is difficult — I’ve got so little experience and in this case it means so much to me that I’m terrified of getting it wrong.

Here goes… Wish me luck!

Not My Flag

There’s a flag you see a lot in these parts, one that has a lot of associations. With April 23rd, with sport, with nationalism. For me it triggers anxiety because I mostly associate it with loud, aggressive, racist, homo- and transphobic types. The kind of people who would unthinkingly react towards me and those like me with hatred and violence.

I see this flag and I feel unsafe. For all that it is used in contexts that have nothing directly to do with hatred, the fact that it is has corrupted it. It has been a national symbol for such a long time it is no surprise that it is also a nationalist symbol. For me it is difficult to distinguish the mobs of chanting white men draped in the flag whether they are in a soccer stadium or antagonizing some group that is culturally different.

For me this flag is a symbol of hatred and oppression. It is not my flag.

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Judging A Book By Its Cover

I’m lucky, I guess. When I am out and about I usually get gendered correctly. Shop staff call me madam, a dad called “Mind out for that lady” to his young children who were running about as I walked past, colleagues at work use the correct pronouns to refer to me. I still feel happy when I hear it although the degree of pleasure has diminished as it has become my normal experience.

I realize this experience is not typical for a trans woman. A big factor in my favor is that I don’t pay much attention to people around me: I have no idea if people are looking at me and rarely will I notice if they are talking about me. It’s a facet of my autism; I’ve never been particularly aware of other people unless I’m interacting with them and I can hardly begin to guess at how they perceive me. So I don’t think about it.

Many accounts from trans women that I’ve heard or read describe a catalog of negative reactions from people. Uncomfortable staring, misgendering, verbal and physical abuse. What causes such prejudice and hatred? It’s a fact that nobody is born with these feelings of hostility towards others: they are learned from parents, family, educators, peers and the media.

I’ve heard people in bars discuss whether another person there is male or female. Establishing gender, putting that person into one of two boxes seems important to them. It’s as if they can’t conceive of a world where everyone’s a unique person in their own right. They have to impose this binary on everyone they encounter. It’s that deeply ingrained. People who don’t obviously fit either category stand out: non-gender conforming individuals are viewed as dangerously other.

But where is the danger? I’ve encountered a handful of people — almost exclusively cis men — who felt somehow threatened by my existence as a trans person and I’m struggling to understand their reaction. I genuinely cannot fathom how anybody could see me as frightening (even without my makeup!). Is it insecurity on their part? Are they so firmly invested in the binary myth that they feel their own identity is inseparable from it?

Certainly their reaction can be shockingly visceral. It’s akin to confronting and challenging a deeply-held belief: the strength of their feeling is equivalent to how they might respond to, say, desecration of a Bible. In their cisgender, heterosexual world view there exist two distinct genders and there is no overlap between them. Anybody who doesn’t fit into either category, who disturbs this comfortable fiction, is a dangerous freak.

What might happen if we break down the doors of their perception and force them to confront reality? How could they cope with people in all their nuanced variety? They’d have to make more effort in their thoughts, no longer able to rely on simple stereotypes of male and female. No longer able to make snap judgments based on how a person looks, judging the book by its cover.

I do suspect that they fear losing their feeling of certainty about their own identity. They identify so strongly with a cultural model of man or woman that anything which blurs the lines between them causes them to question who they are. The security of their self-image is a house built on sand and the tide is coming in. Every encounter with somebody like me who doesn’t fit the model is another wave washing away the foundations of their belief.

In their irrational fear they attack, desperately struggling to maintain the integrity of their delusion. By subjecting us to ridicule or hatred they seek to diminish our importance, remove our influence over them. They have been conditioned so strongly to believe we are inferior that any suggestion they might share something in common with us makes them feel self-loathing. The very idea of somebody stepping outside one of their gender boxes raises questions they are ill-equipped to handle.

I don’t need people like that in my life. I have people who accept me and other gender variant people, and that works for me. As Strother Martin’s character says in Cool Hand Luke, “Some men you just can’t reach.” Well, I don’t waste my effort on them because I know who I am and that doesn’t depend on approval or even recognition by others. All the affirmative reactions I experience are effects of my identity, not its cause. This book is defined by its contents, not its cover.

White Shame

My culture is one
Where people
Who look like me
Can stand fearlessly
And express hatred
Of people who look different.

My culture is one
Where terrorists
Are always “them”
And never “us”.

My culture is one
Where freedom
Means the freedom
To oppress and abuse
Anyone different.

My culture is one
Where laws pay lip service
To illusory equality
While turning a blind eye
To casual prejudice.

My culture is one
Where my membership
By virtue of my skin
Brings me shame
Of association.

Me and Caitlyn Jenner

OK. I’m late to the party as far as commenting on Caitlyn Jenner’s debut goes. But in my defense I need to take the time to analyze and comprehend my own feelings before committing my virtual pen to equally virtual paper. Here, then, is my small contribution.

I’ve often said, only half in jest, that I spend much of my time in my own little world. This is why I can honestly say that up until that Diane Sawyer interview I had never heard of this former Olympic athlete. I’ve not seen more than a few highlights of the whole interview; just read thousands of words that were written in response.

I know very little about the Kardashian family: just that they have some reality TV show and get mentioned in the entertainment sections of the media with some regularity, and that they have an affinity for alliterative first names. These people are very much not a factor in my life.

Perhaps it’s because I had no prior knowledge of her that I approached the subject of Caitlyn Jenner with an open mind. (Or maybe it’s just how I am?) I’ve read so many blog posts and articles about her Vanity Fair cover, and the majority discuss what it means to the authors of the pieces. What has been lacking is discussion of what it means to her.

I would love to have the means to mask — even temporarily — those physical attributes of my appearance that trigger my gender dysphoria. But I don’t begrudge Ms. Jenner her indulgence. Heck, if I had an equivalent photo of myself it would be so validating: an image of myself as I exist inside my own mind would be immensely gratifying. It would boost my self confidence no end.

I like to imagine that this photo shows Caitlyn Jenner as she sees herself, that all the skilled artifice that went into its creation adds up to an impressionist portrait: this is how she feels she really is. And I’m sure that the end result must have brought her a great deal of happiness.

Ultimately that is the reason that any trans person goes through transition; for their own happiness and well-being. For all her money and influence I do not believe Caitlyn Jenner is any different in this regard: she transitioned for herself. None of that was for the benefit of you, me or anybody else.

Separate from that is the public revelation of her transition. Being somebody who has spent years in the public eye, she was never going to be able to keep it private, whatever she might have wanted. I can understand her desire to present her story on her own terms, to explain and hopefully to gain acceptance.

Of all I have read about Caitlyn Jenner this one post by somebody who knows her stands out as presenting the most human picture of her. And I think that is key to understanding my own reaction: forget all the celebrity and media opinions because the most important thing to keep in mind is that she is a person.

A person who had the same dysphoric feelings I did, who denied and hid her real gender identity for many years — as I did. Who must have felt a similar fear on opening up for the first time; fear of being rejected by those she loved. Being a rich, white celebrity doesn’t improve your odds when you risk being disowned by your family for being transgender.

I find it difficult to identify with Caitlyn Jenner. There are so many aspects of our lives that are different. But I am able to empathize. In the end I don’t judge her: she has made the choices for herself, not me, and it is their effect on her own life that matters. I simply hope she achieves the happiness and acceptance that we all need.

Resisting Erasure

There are some strong parallels between being autistic and being trans. Both derive from the way our brains are set up; both set us apart from the majority of people; both are largely misunderstood and even feared. And both have seen an increase in media coverage over recent years.

Celebrities including Susan Boyle, Daryl Hannah and Paddy Considine have publicly stated that they are on the autism spectrum. But coverage of autism has paled beside that devoted to transgender people: I wouldn’t be surprised if there have been more TV minutes and column inches solely about Caitlyn Jenner’s recent gender transition than there have ever been about autism.

The biggest difference is that autism is an invisible condition; there are no physical characteristics to identify somebody on the spectrum. Being transgender is all too visible, affecting one’s outward presentation. It’s perfectly suited for the show-and-tell of TV and photographic media: no need to burden the audience with detail, just give them before and after shots.

For both conditions the media is a mixed blessing. Increasing awareness is a good start but without detail, without providing a deep insight into the minds of those with either condition, there can be no understanding. Awareness alone doesn’t help us.

Such insights are elusive; they must build on a foundation of experiences that are familiar, laying course after course of analogy and asking the audience to incrementally build a picture of something that is foreign to them. No wonder the media so often takes the easy path of simply repeating the same old stereotypes.

But these stereotypes are often harmful, feeding prejudices and serving to portray us as broken, defective people. Autistic people are painted as emotionless and unsociable, unable to form or maintain relationships, objects of pity and ridicule who act in strange, frightening ways. Trans people are often shown as freaks, objects of revulsion indulging in a twisted sexual fantasy. We’re objectified, erased as people.

This is what we need to overcome to gain acceptance: we just want to be seen as people. We don’t want to be pitied or feared, laughed at or persecuted. But mainstream media continues to fail us by rarely if ever educating its audience. I don’t want tales of inspiration, I don’t want the shock-factor of graphic surgery. I want to see our everyday realities, our unexceptional — dare I say normal — existence as we simply live our lives. But who’s going to pitch a TV show about that?

I don’t know how best to raise understanding beyond awareness. I fear that our experiences are simply too far removed from those of the non-trans, non-autistic majority for them to ever gain more than an intellectual knowledge of our lives. How can they learn what it feels like to need to stim to regulate sensory input? How can we convey the strength and depth of the pain when your mind knows a reality of existence at odds with your physical body?

How else will we be accepted and not excluded, othered, erased?