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.

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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?

Sex And The Single Autist

In case the title wasn’t explicit enough, here’s your last chance to click away if you really don’t want to read a frank post about sex.

I’m not single now; haven’t been for nearly 20 years (except for a brief spell between marriages). But I was for the first 24 years of my life, so the title is partly relevant (I just liked the sound of it). I must confess to some feelings of trepidation about this subject since I acquired many inhibitions while growing up regarding discourse on sexual matters. Indeed, that’s as good a place as any to begin…

I grew up in a fairly typical middle-class family. My mother gave up work to care for me and my younger brother while my father held a professional/management job. A privileged upbringing: private education; safe, loving home; freedom to think freely. But there was one subject that was never mentioned at home: sex.

I don’t think I was even aware of sex until I accidentally discovered the pleasure of rubbing myself in a particular way: I’m sure many young people have independently discovered masturbation. I guess I was aware enough of the taboo nature of those body parts to keep my discovery to myself.

I believe if I had raised the subject with my parents they would have been far too embarrassed to respond positively: they had been raised Christian-fashion to think of this as something sinful rather than it being a harmless, pleasurable way to explore one’s own body and sexuality.

I remember having a single sex ed. class at school. It must have been when I was about 12 or 13 and it simply covered (using textbook-style illustrations) comparative anatomy and conception. It was too far removed from reality for me. I learned basic details: the male has a penis and testicles, the female has a vagina, uterus and ovaries. The penis is inserted into the vagina, the testicles produce sperm, the ovaries produce an egg, and one sperm somehow coincides with the egg in the uterus, fertilizing it and causing it to develop into a fetus (and thence into a baby). This was all the preparation we received for adult, sexual lives.

This was the 1980s: there was no internet as we know it and TV didn’t show anything more than kissing (at least before the time I had to go to bed). Playground “gossip” mostly passed me by but what I did glean about sex only taught me that it was a forbidden subject. Honestly, I wonder that we have continued as a species with these attitudes!

What I did learn about sex came from books such as the later Dune novels which described manual stimulation of the clitoris and labia. I formed the idea that that was a key means to provide pleasure, an idea that time and experience have done little to dispel.

My experiments with masturbation techniques also led me to discover anal stimulation. First it was simply stimulation of the anus itself, but I soon learned that I enjoyed the feeling of penetration as well. But the main focus was my imagination: I would picture myself having sex with a partner while I stimulated myself, usually by straddling and rubbing my genitals against something.

I would also lie on my back and imagine how it would feel to have a man atop me, entering my vagina, thrusting rhythmically, raising me to a pitch of ecstasy. Which was curious in a way because my sexual attraction has always been primarily towards women. Not to mention the fact that my anatomy was incongruously male. To explain: I am attracted to the female body but at the same time I picture myself as female when I imagine having sex. In fact I always picture myself as female-bodied: that’s the cause of my gender dysphoria and why I’m pursuing medical treatment for gender confirmation.

This didn’t confuse me: I just accepted it as the way I was (although I did enjoy seeing myself in the mirror dressed in clothes borrowed — without her knowledge — from my mother, and wished with all my heart that there was some way to step through and be the girl I saw in reflection). But that wasn’t possible and I didn’t feel able to talk about this to anybody so I kept all these feelings inside.

It did make me wonder for a time whether I had fetishized my cross-dressing, but I came to realize that there were two separate forces at work here: my identification as female, and the consequence that had on my sexual desires. I never found wearing female clothes to be sexually stimulating; rather it was that I was consistently female even within my sexual fantasies. When I would masturbate while dressed as female the clothing was an external confirmation of my internal identity rather than a source of sexual stimulation: it masked the discordant note introduced by my physical body.

As I grew into my late teenage years I became aware that several of my peers had boy- or girlfriends but my own understanding of relationships was very late in developing and I didn’t ever consider that sex could form part of the picture. I never had any relationship beyond friendship until the age of 23.

It all changed when I met the woman who would later become my first wife. We met socially and it was her who initiated every stage. I still don’t know what attracted her to me but we did, at least for a while, get along very well. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but one night shortly after we met she came back to my flat. We shared kisses and cuddled.

I really had little idea of what to do: she led the whole way. I basically had to be instructed what to do at every stage. It was several dates later (with things slowly progressing each time) that I was induced to have full, penetrative intercourse: penis in vagina. It was… intriguing. I reached orgasm (which was familiar from my experience with masturbation) but on the whole the experience was rather less than the earth-stopping event that I’d been led to expect.

With hindsight it’s clear that we were both young and inexperienced, and didn’t communicate effectively. I’d had years to discover what forms of stimulation worked best for me (and I assume the same was true for her) but we didn’t share this knowledge and simply applied what we had been taught was the “normal” way of doing things.

After the initial novelty wore off I began to lose interest in sex (although we do have a daughter from this brief period). I’ve since realized (many years later) that apart from the direct genital stimulation I do not find sex where I perform the male role either arousing or fulfilling. Using the penis in that way does not feel natural.

My gender transition has been positive because it’s allowed me to overcome some of the inhibitions I had regarding talking about sexual matters. I didn’t even realize just how deep those inhibitions ran, how much baggage I had picked up from my childhood, until that moment of release.

The secrets to successful sex are self-knowledge and communication. You have to be familiar enough with your body to know what forms of stimulation work for you, and — equally as important — you have to be able to communicate that to your partner. And vice versa: they have to be able to tell you what works for them.

Openness is vital: you need to explore each other’s bodies and provide the feedback that guides and informs that exploration. Be open to experimentation but always in a consensual manner: state your boundaries and respect the other person’s. But above all have fun: ultimately it’s all about the pleasure.

Taking “Ought” Out Of Autism

Ought is a word I’ve heard too often in my life. If I had a penny for every time I’ve been told what I ought to be doing, how I ought to be behaving, I’d have enough for a nice new pair of shoes! Maybe not Jimmy Choo or Christian Louboutin but you know what I mean.

Ought is a word that does violence, imposing the speaker’s values on the recipient. It says that the person being addressed is in the wrong, that they must change to satisfy the speaker. It’s an insidious word, couching the statement in the guise of suggestion.

Being told what you ought to do can be harmful for autistic people like me who formalize sets of rules to govern our actions. It denies us the right to behave and express ourselves naturally: I’ve acquired a motley collection of inhibitions over the years as I have internalized the expressed preferences of those I’ve spent time around.

I realized a few years ago that all this was compelling me to try to pass as allistic, to mimic the behavior of those non-autistic people around me. I reduced my stims to barely noticeable actions, I’d push myself to stay when the environment was hostile — too crowded, loud or bright — and I neglected my self-care.

The result was that I’d melt down far too frequently, I would drink most evenings to try to shut off and relax. It was largely self-destructive; the way out for me was to learn to be more self-aware and to recognize my feelings, my mental and physical states. That led me to understand that I was trying to live up to other people’s expectations: what I ought to be like.

Discarding years of internalized guilt and shame about all the ways I’d been doing things “wrong” isn’t easy and I’m still some way from working through it all, putting it behind me. There’s a huge amount of anxiety involved in consciously facing the inhibitions and going against them.

Things like hand flapping, walking away to find peace and quiet, asking for accommodations; for example, moving to another desk at work away from distractions. All this goes against the grain of what I’ve been conditioned to believe, but it all has positive benefits for my well-being. And I’m learning to trust my own judgment about what is right for me.

Children Don’t Need Gendering

There was a child who grew up with two brothers. This child would knock about in denim dungarees, build karts from old fruit boxes and pram wheels, climb trees. Closer to their father than their mother, they would watch avidly while he tinkered under the hood of his car, eager to get involved and often ending up covered in grease.

And there was another child, painfully shy, who would spend hours with only their toys as company in their bedroom while their brother and his friends would pretend to be cowboys, or Tarzan swinging on ropes from trees. This child hated to get dirty; would borrow their mother’s clothes and play dress-up, loved to help mother in the kitchen.

That first child was Anne, my wife, and the second was me. So much for gender stereotypes.

There is an argument used to invalidate the experiences of trans people which says that we are somehow not authentic because we didn’t experience growing up as our real gender. But there are as many different childhood experiences as there are different people. Sure, we are the product of our upbringing to a degree but playing with dolls as opposed to a football does not define one’s gender experience one way or another.

The real myth is that there is such a thing as a definitive childhood experience that all girls (or boys) go through, and that their gendered experiences are completely separate and unrelated. At the end of the lane where I grew up was a farm; there were four children: two girls, two boys. Apart from the boys having their hair cut short they were almost indistinguishable. Dressed alike in jeans and shirts they all helped with jobs on the farm: driving tractors, hand-feeding new-born lambs, rounding up the cattle for milking, shooting rats in the barns. Only a few hundred yards but a whole world away from my own experience.

What I have learned is that my childhood experiences have more in common with those of other autistic people than they do with any arbitrary collection of women or men. I can’t even see any relevance or practical use to gendering children, and yet Western society in particular is moving more and more towards a total binary division: just look at children’s clothing and toys. There is this prevalent meme that colors, styles, activities and more are gendered: that everything in a child’s environment is either masculine or feminine and the two sets must remain disjoint.

Even where there is an overlap society plays tricks with language, Nineteen Eighty-Four style, so that girls have dolls while boys have action figures; kilts are not referred to as skirts. It all reinforces the notion that there is but a single “correct” way to be a particular gender, and also that each one of us must be identifiable as either one or the other. Individuality is out, conformity is in.

But conformity is death to self-expression, death to the personal freedom to look and act naturally. Enforced through bullying and oppression, conformity harms. Instead we need to promote acceptance, to allow each person to be themselves, to let their personality be shown however they want, to let them enhance our world with their individual creativity. I believe we would all be richer for it.