Holding Out For A Hero

It’s really hard to be inspired by people. To find somebody you can look up to as a role model. A hero. Hey, I’m hard to satisfy but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop looking.

What am I looking for in a hero? I need somebody I can relate to. Someone whose life has enough parallels to my own that I can identify with them. And I’ve got to say that as an autistic trans woman that’s a hell of a tall order!

There are people I admire greatly. Lynn Conway and Sophie Wilson are both incredibly talented engineers who are also trans women. But the very fact of their exceptional contributions to electronic engineering and computing sets them too far above anything I could dream of achieving.

It seems everywhere I look my candidates for hero have talents I do not share. Fantastic autistic writers like Sparrow Rose Jones, M Kelter and Michael Monje Jr. Outspoken activists and advocates like Morénike Umoye, Fiona O’Leary and Lydia X. Z. Brown.

I dismiss myself as an average wordsmith, an armchair supporter of my own rights, somebody who would tentatively raise her hand but would never be the first to raise her voice.

No, I found my own hero closer to home. There is one person I have known, and known very well, that I continue to look up to and admire. Someone who set an example with her own life to the extent that when faced with a dilemma I can ask myself, “What would she do?”

It’s no big surprise. That person was my mother. Of all the people I have known she was the one I want to emulate. Such generosity and love towards others, and yet with an uncompromising strength at her core. Even at the end of her life, after years of suffering with a brain tumor that left her unable to care for herself at all, she had moments of snappiness but still managed to think of others before herself.

So I do have a hero. I do have someone to look up to. And every time I fall short of her example (which is more often that I’d like to admit) I think about her.

She didn’t give birth to me but I was her child. She loved me unconditionally, always believed in me and supported me. Nothing in her power was too much trouble for her if I needed it. If I was with her I would always be safe. And if I ever need to consider what would be the “right” thing to do I need only think, “What would mum do?”

Edge Cases, or Why Binary Categories Are Broken

People have a habit of putting everything they encounter into categories. It makes language-based communication possible. If I tell you about the tree at the end of the road you can imagine a scene: you know what a tree is, what a road is, and how the two fit in relation to each other. But you don’t imagine the same scene that I have in mind.

When I write about an older man with a deep, resonant voice, do you think of Orson Welles, James Earl Jones, Richard Burton, Morgan Freeman? They all fit the description, the category. Even though the terms I used are pretty vague: what does “older” mean? Older then you? Than me? Over 50? 60? Showing signs of age such as gray hair or lines on his face?

“Older” must be meaningful in this context or else why would I use it? You see, everybody knows what it means, but you’d not be able to find a consensus, a common definition. Where do you draw the line between older and not-older? It’s a simple binary choice after all.

For argument’s sake, let’s say that older means older than me. That’s easy, right? Oh, you want to know how old I am? Well, I’m not old: I’m middle-aged. So maybe someone who’s close to my age shouldn’t be referred to as older. Let’s change the definition of older to mean an age ten or more years greater than mine. Oh, you still want to know my age?

I guess this is more difficult than it first seemed. Welcome to the territory of the edge case, the point at which we cut from one category to another. The problem arises because our category, older, can’t be defined unambiguously. There is no clear boundary between older and not-older.

That’s not to say that older is useless: it works well as a convenient shorthand, a stereotype. It’s just that the degree to which it applies varies. Morgan Freeman is an older man; George Clooney is less so, Ryan Reynolds probably isn’t, and Daniel Radcliffe is almost certainly not.

And yet older seems such a simple concept. As simple as tree or road. Thinking about trees, you know what a tree is, right? As opposed to a shrub or a bush, or some other plant? And a road: it’s not a freeway, or a track. Right? Or not? There’s some overlap: these terms we use casually, that we understand the meaning of very well, nevertheless are fuzzy around the edges.

We learn the meanings through examples, archetypes. A collection of instances that we are told belong to the category. It’s not about definitions such as you find in a dictionary: those are mere simplified descriptions of what most of us mean when we use a word. When you think about trees you don’t give much, if any, thought to the definition: you just know what a tree is.

It’s the same principle when it comes to gender. You learn about men and women as two mutually-exclusive categories, and you’re taught that everybody fits into one or the other. But just as with any other category, gender has edge cases. There is such a range of variation among humans that there is no characteristic, or set of features, that unambiguously assigns a person to either a male or female gender.

Yes, there are physical characteristics that apply to the majority: these are what are used at birth to decide whether to write M or F on a birth certificate. And for most people that’s fine. But there are edge cases. People who don’t have distinct physical gender characteristics, or people who look like they are male (or female), but are actually female (or male) or neither, or both.

These edge cases, intersex and transgender people, are a minority but not an insignificant one: reliable conservative estimates put the number of transgender people at around 1 in 500, meaning that we account for roughly 15 million people around the world. As a comparison, that’s about the same as the number of Jews worldwide, and more than the population of Greece, Belgium or Sweden.

That’s a lot of people for whom the gender categories don’t properly work. These people exist; gender is an invention. Which do you think might be “wrong”? The sad fact is that there are a lot of people who think of gender, male or female, as absolute binary options: each person has to fit one or the other. Reality doesn’t work that way. It’s not neat or convenient.

Believe me, as a woman myself I’ve tried long and hard to come up with some objective criteria to define womanhood. And for every single characteristic I thought of there are exceptions. It’s not a matter of definitions, it’s a matter of knowing. I have encountered many examples of women in my life and they have shaped my understanding of what a woman is. The same goes for every person who identifies as a woman. It’s an understanding that transcends words. So that is how I know I am a woman.

Changing Your Mind – Thoughts on TMS

Over the past year, and especially since the publication of Switched On by John Elder Robison, there has been a lot of attention around a therapy called TMS (or rTMS–Repetitive Transcranial Stimulation).

It’s something I have deep reservations about but others have written passionately and eloquently on the subject. What I want to consider is why somebody would choose to undergo such a therapy that literally changes their mind.

I’m no stranger to the negative feelings that arise when considering the gap between how I perceive myself and what I see when I look in the mirror: that’s a big factor in my gender dysphoria.

I also know first-hand how it feels to be teased and ridiculed for hand flapping, physical clumsiness, social awkwardness, unusual speech patterns and eclectic interests. I’ve had life-long difficulty making and maintaining interpersonal relationships, and I have times where I feel keenly the lack of people with whom I feel comfortable opening up about my problems and feelings.

I understand the drive to make physical changes to one’s body. After all, I’m in the process of seeking treatment to modify my own body, bringing it into closer alignment with what I see in my mind by erasing or concealing male characteristics and developing female ones.

There are two parts to my gender dysphoria. First there is my need to have other people respond to me as a woman, reinforcing my gender identity. Second there is my need to see my own body physically match the mental image I hold.

So as a trans woman I am actively seeking treatment to make changes to my body. This is in contrast to my feelings about my autism. Both my gender identity and my autistic identity go to the very heart of who I am.

The thing is, although I will happily modify the physical characteristics of my body I wouldn’t consider altering my mind. My neurology is inextricably tied to my identity: I feel that changing my mind would make me into a different person.

There’s a line there. I’ve put a foot over that line a few times, testing the water so to speak. I’ve experienced the effects of drugs that affect the workings of the brain: alcohol, marijuana, amphetamines, SSRIs (anti-depressant).

Some of them have positive aspects. For example, alcohol reduces my social anxiety. But there are negatives too: I make poor decisions under the influence of alcohol because it inhibits my self-control and risk-aversion: I’ve gotten myself into some dangerous situations as a result.

Speed (amphetamine) left me unable to concentrate, marijuana was relaxing but caused mild hallucinations and a degree of paranoia. The SSRIs reduced the intensity of my emotions, leaving me feeling numb: in the end I had trouble focusing and engaging with things in my life.

These were all temporary effects: my mind returned to its usual functioning state in time for which I was grateful. You see, I wasn’t myself when under the influence of any of these drugs.

I guess my point is that given the complexity of the human brain and the way its many regions interact it is not possible to adjust one aspect without affecting others. Just as a particular drug affects a small number of electro-chemical interactions in the brain with wider-reaching side-effects, so a therapy like rTMS that alters a small region must cause knock-on changes across the entire organ.

My opinion is that it is not like tuning an engine, a relatively simple system with a limited degree of interconnection and feedback between its components. It’s more like introducing a foreign species into an existing ecosystem. The effects can be slow to manifest, and predictions are error-prone due to the complexity and chaotic nature of the system.

There is no way to know what other effects rTMS would have. It might reduce my social anxiety, but even if that was all it did it would make me respond differently to people I interact with (like alcohol). And if my thoughts and behavior are changed then I’m no longer the same person.

I don’t want to change who I am: I’m comfortable with my identity as an autistic trans woman with all that entails. Changing my body doesn’t affect my personality, my thoughts: I remain me. Changing my mind makes me into somebody else. I would lose the essence of what makes me this particular unique individual, and the thought of that fills me with dread.

This leads me to suppose that for somebody to even contemplate such a thing they must not like who they are. Internalized self-hatred, blaming their neurology for what they see as their failings. It’s like body dysmorphia projected onto the ego, the sense of self. The antithesis of neurodiversity’s principles; an inability or refusal to accept one’s differences.

I see this as a result of thinking colored by the medical model of autism that sees it in terms of pathological deficits, as opposed to the social model which instead looks to society’s failures to provide suitable accommodations and acceptance as the causes of disability.

There’s nothing wrong with my mind: I have no reason to change it. I can’t say the same for the society I live in.

Lost in Translation

My language pains me.
I long for facility
To spin metaphor.

But I’m too literal.

Even when I write in terms of imagery my words on the page are simply descriptive of what is in my mind. I listen to songs like I am the Walrus with a strong sense of jealousy.

How I would love to be able to take that step beyond my literal translations to that fantastic realm where instead of painting what I see I am able to conjure whole new worlds.

It makes me feel that I have no imagination; that everything I think of is derivative. I am only able to assemble montages of what already exists, apply what others have invented.

My words disappoint me because they are such a pale imitation of the richness and depth of my thoughts. They are static, a snapshot of the mental maelstrom giving no clue as to the turbulence within.

Disengaged

My representative
Is a faceless man in a suit.
I didn’t vote for him,
I don’t support his party,
Or their policies.

So I sit here wondering
How can I feel represented?
How can my voice be heard?
Who looks out for my interests?
Who understands my life?

Every cross I mark on a ballot
Falls unseen
Into a bottomless pit.
No sound, no ripples
As if it never existed.

School Reports and My Past

I often look through my old school reports. It’s been difficult the last couple of years because they all talk about Ben and refer to that boy, someone who, although it used to be me I no longer recognize.

I recognize the words and know they refer to me, but whenever I read that name or those male pronouns I feel a cognitive dissonance. It was me, but at the same time (and strongly) it is not me. Not the person I am now.

And yet… I still open that old folder and read those words.

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IMAG0280IMAG0281The subjects (from top to bottom) were Chemistry, Design, English, French and Geography.

I can’t emphasize enough how hard it is to read “he” and “his”, or to see “B” or “Ben”. Imagine reading something about you that refers to you as someone else. Not only that, but someone of a different gender!

I know these reports are mine, I know they are referring to me, but I’m a woman called Alexandra; these reports about some boy called Benjamin feel emotionally like they’re about someone else although I know rationally that they refer to me.

I’ve had conflicted thoughts about my daughter. I know she has a mother and a father, but I am not comfortable describing  myself as her father. I’m one of her two parents, sure, but I can’t bring myself to think of myself in such male terms as a father.

She calls me Alex, not “Dad”, which I’m happy about: I feel very uncomfortable with the male implications of father but I also recognize that I am not her mother. There’s a word missing from English, one to describe a female parent who did not give birth to the child.

To say it hurts is such an understatement. It tears my heart to pieces, leaves me crushed and beaten. I tell people she’s my daughter but I feel inhibited from saying that I’m her “parent” because I can’t say I’m her mother and I don’t believe “father” is appropriate.

Technically speaking I am her father, but emotionally I can’t accept that label. I can’t accept anything that suggests a male identity I don’t identify with. It’s frustrating, but I can’t find an answer to my conundrum.

Brain Dancing

The Brain Dancing Festival, a celebration of creativity in autism, is a series of creative events in Oxford, organised by the charity Autism Family Support Oxfordshire. An important part of it is the art exhibition at The North Wall which continues until the 2nd of April.

Neurodiversity can be thought of as brains dancing to different tunes, each of us with our own personal rhythm driving the pulse of our lives. It’s a celebration of the richness of difference, an acceptance of the value this adds to all our lives.

As an autistic woman myself I am committed to the goals of the neurodiversity movement, in particular the idea that everybody has something to offer, that our very differences are a source of creative potential.

So it was with a great sense of excitement that I accepted an invitation to attend the private viewing of Brain Dancing, an exhibition featuring works by artists either on the autism spectrum or having family connections to somebody autistic.

I’d never experienced a private viewing before so I had little idea what to expect. I’d seen several TV and movie scenes resembling cocktail parties that people attended to be seen but something told me reality would be somewhat different.

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I arrived a little late, a result of the combination of parking the wrong side of the city and the bus services being disrupted by a traffic accident-related road closure. Walking in through the door I was greeted by the welcome sight of man bearing a tray of drinks.

I looked around; I was glad to see that my decision to dress casually fit in with the relaxed atmosphere. There were probably between 40 and 50 people there, most of whom I didn’t know, but I found myself by happy accident standing next to someone familiar, Stu Allsopp. I said hello and we chatted easily for a few minutes between the introductory talk by Gita Lobo, manager of the exhibition’s organiser, local charity Autism Family Support Oxfordshire, before a video presentation started.

After a brief fight against the technology we were treated to a short film that described the work of the charity and showed a few of the children and families being helped. It was a strong, clear message of respect and acceptance, providing support to young autistic people and their families to help them fulfill their potential.

I had realised while watching the film that I was standing directly behind my good friend, participating artist and curator of the exhibition, the wonderful Sonia Boué who had tended the invitation to me.

She told me I had missed meeting her fellow artists from Magdalen Road Studio, Katie Taylor and Kate Hammersley, who had been looking forward to seeing me; it was lovely to hear that people had been keen to meet me but disappointing that I’d not got there early enough to see them. But as compensation I did receive an invitation to the private viewing of Kate Hammersley’s upcoming exhibition at Wolfson College.

And so to the exhibition itself, a varied sampling of artistic expression demonstrating the creative influence of autism. I decided to work my way around the exhibits starting by the door where I had come in. After all, having a structure to activities is reassuring.

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I began with Sonia’s works. First was the iconic handbag recalling Barcelona in a Bag above a painting titled Departure, a multi-layered and fascinatingly-textured painting: I spent some time examining it closely, becoming lost in the minute detail of its strata. I found myself wanting to touch it and experience the different textures more directly.

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As I moved on through her pieces I felt drawn into a narrative: the sense of depth and history left behind in Departure, through exodus and exile–destierro–via internment and subsistence living to a new beginning and new life in a new land.

Next were a selection of beautifully observed landscapes by Rosalyn Goh. I was especially attracted to one featuring a river flowing between tree-lined banks, the sun glittering off the disturbed water as it rounded a bend.

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She captures the essence of the water so well. There is something exquisitely tranquil about her paintings. They capture scenes that you can imagine yourself in, encountering such perfect moments during a walk through the countryside.

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The third artist, Janet Millikin, showed works in two very different styles: bold, abstract works alongside intricate geometrical drawings reminiscent of technical drawings. Looking closely at the abstract pieces it was apparent that the inked intricacy was common throughout.

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I found myself staring long at the picture above, enjoying the way that the shapes and colours inspired dragons and other fantastic beasts, emerging like cloud-beasts. There’s an intriguing contradiction between harmony and aggression; a softness with hard, sharp edges.

 

Continuing on my circuit of the room I next came to a set of photographic prints on canvas by Richard Maguire whose work I had encountered before online. He has a great eye for composition as well as a sympathy for his subjects that brings out unexpected impressions.

I am particularly drawn to water and the play of light in reflection and refraction; two of his photographs featured scenes with water and I was captivated by my exploration of the elemental nature of the scenes.

The next course in my feast was Tom Eyre and a varied set of works including an ocular pumpkin in a simple style of embellished line drawing, a sculpted wolf mask that evoked friendly play rather than ferocity, and an abstract swirl of colour.

It was this last painting that I felt the strongest reaction to. It could have been a Dante-inspired scene of souls carried within a storm of fire, or the noise, heat and raw emotion at the heart of battle: I sensed powerful turmoil in its chaos.

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Finally I came to two display cases containing jewelry crafted by Joanne Turner. I’m drawn magpie-like to anything shiny and these pieces were a delight. The delicate patterning of the surfaces of the links in her chains reflected from the spotlights as I moved my head, almost hypnotic.

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There was an organic feel to the various works, accentuated by the slate plinths and occasional simple wooden blocks. Deceptively simple in form, they held a depth of character in their surface textures; rather than being polished to a mirror finish they revealed subtle patterns hammered lightly into the metal.

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Overall it was a wonderful evening. Between the pleasure of meeting friends again, the stimulating conversation and my enjoyment of the artworks on show it was a most successful viewing, and I cannot thank Gita and the other organisers enough. I highly recommend this exhibition, and would urge you to visit the charity’s website (link at the top of this blog) to find out all about the work they do.

The Legacy of Empire

One hundred years ago, on Easter Monday, thousands of ordinary people rose up against the powers that had occupied their country for generations. The uprising was defeated within a week, opposed by overwhelming force.

Nearly three hundred civilians were left dead by the bombs and bullets of the Empire, and many of the rebel leaders were quickly convicted of treason and executed. Against the backdrop of global conflict this could easily have been just a footnote in history.

It wasn’t the first uprising, and it wouldn’t be the last. But the violence of the response, the lack of discrimination with which thousands–many of whom had no involvement–were taken prisoner and interned fostered growing resentment of the occupation and support for the rebel cause and its armed opposition to British rule.

The Easter Rising of 1916 was the turbulent birth of the modern Irish Republic. It saw the issuing of the Proclamation of the Republic, claiming independence from the United Kingdom, and the banner under which they fought was the tricolour that is today the flag of the Republic.

Unlike America’s Fourth of July, the Irish Easter Rising is rarely mentioned in mainland Britain. Irish independence was to take many more years to achieve, and even then the six counties of Northern Ireland were excluded, remaining under British rule: the country was partitioned.

The fallout from this continued to fuel conflict for decades, leading to the Troubles and the equation in mainland Britain of Republicanism with terrorism. However, the Good Friday agreement of 1998 signalled the willingness of most of the parties involved to end the armed conflict and pursue their aims by peaceful means.

That is not to forget all those who died on both sides of the fighting; rather it is to honour them by constructive actions, building a better future for all of us. Forgiveness and reconciliation are the way to achieve this, not the bitterness of resentment and blame.

In many ways for people in the UK, Ireland is our closest neighbour. We share a common language, and many Irish live and work in the UK. Because of this and the status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK, many mainland British hardly think of the Republic of Ireland as a distinct country. But of course that is exactly what it is.

It’s time the UK acknowledged the Easter Rising of 1916 in the same way we acknowledge the Fourth of July for Americans: as the moment when a nation threw off the shackles of Empire and took its first steps towards self-determination and independence. Surely that is something all people deserve the right to, and something to celebrate.

I’d like to thank Tric Kearney for her post Tomorrow we rightly celebrate as the inspiration for this.

Nightmare

She took her leave in dead of night
And silently slipped out the door,
Then by the silver full moon’s light
Retraced the path she took before.

The trees reached up so black and bare,
Frost crackled, glistened under foot.
From bloodless lips the misty air
Of breath hung still and dark as soot.

Deep in her eyes red sparks of light
Burned bright as embers in the ice
That formed her face. Her dreadful sight
Would still one’s heart, exact her price

From those who caught a fleeting glance
Beneath the veil she wore by day
While through the mortal world she’d dance
To watch unseen our artless play.

Raven-clad in cloak of sable
She craves the blood that brings relief.
Nightmare from an ancient fable
Long lost to memory and belief.

Time Capsule

Nine keys,
What locks will they open?
What secrets lie within
To tumble forth?

Stacked papers,
Old letters bound in ribbon
And a watch
Anchored to a past time.

Photographs
Hold frozen memories,
Fade more slowly
Than the pictures in my mind.