#WeAreNotConfused: Autism & Gender

I used to be so, so jealous of all of you who grew up reading Harry Potter.  I wasn’t allowed to read that until I was in high school because the existence of “magic” went against the teachings of the fundamentalist baptist church I had to attend with family growing up.  This story was once deemed “too radical” for me to engage with. Don’t get me wrong, I love Harry Potter, but also love the concept of “death of the author.”

I’m not going to reprint or link to what J.K. Rowling said in her most recent tirade against trans and autistic folks here – if it hasn’t yet graced your timeline, I’ll let you seek it out and then get back to this post.  Please grab a snack or some water while you’re up. 

How I spent most of the day, gathering the energy to process all my thoughts and feelings about this B.S., on top of the ongoing pandemic and radical revolution. Yes, it is Exciting Times and yes, that will be relevant later. [Image description: A tabby cat laying on a bed. A person is also laying in the bed, though their legs are only visible as a lump under the quilt. A book rests open where their lap would be. A white hand is holding a blue coffee mug.]

You Need to Learn About Gender Identity and Autism

Okay, so.  This author, who has racist and transphobic values, once again shows us that she doesn’t think trans women are women, and that autistic people who are trans have somehow fallen prey to social-political manipulation.  

Perhaps stated without thinking, and clearly without understanding autism and the statistics about autistic trans folks, JKR argues that autistic people can’t know ourselves; that we can’t decide for ourselves what our gender is, that we are confused about being or are manipulated into identifying as trans, non-binary, gender-queer, etc.  Ultimately, she asserts that we are too incompetent for independent thought. 

Most on the internet seem to agree JKR’s argument is transphobic, and that she is intentionally detracting and profiting off Black Lives Matter backlash.  Many have refuted JKR’s essay point-by-point, or made statements in support of trans folks, especially Black trans folks (who are really, really getting it from all sides these days and always).  JKR’s argument is also ableist, a fact which I’ve – personally, so far – only seen explored in the #ActuallyAutistic community (see #WeAreNotConfused on Twitter).  For instance, that autistic people are not “pawn[s} for your endorsement of some of the vilest hate against one of the most marginalized communities.”  She’s using us to prop up her transphobia; and, in doing so, harming our community and further perpetuating the myth that autistic people lack agency and self-awareness, in addition to harming trans people.

Also, surprise!  Trans autistic people exist!  Autistic BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) exist!  Trans autistic BIPOC exist!  And yes, our #ActuallyAutistic community needs to work on its anti-racism, too.  Autism isn’t an excuse for racism or transphobia.  Full stop. 

As I tweeted yesterday, I often don’t talk publicly about my gender identity because I find it difficult to explain with words.  I am not confused about my gender identity, but I suspect you all would be confused if I tried to talk about it.   I guess the words I feel most comfortable using are non-binary and gender-fluid or gender-queer.  I can tell you that today my gender is best expressed by “The Archer” by Taylor Swift, which is a lovely song we could absolutely do a queer reading of, but that isn’t exactly my focus right now. 

(I like they/them pronouns, but she/her are fine, too, thanks.)

I do see my gender identity through the lens of my autism, much like how Lydia X. Z. Brown wrote about here: “Being autistic doesn’t cause my gender identity, but it is inextricably related to how I understand and experience gender.”  Because my brain is autistic, and my gender exists in my brain (though can relate to my body! It depends! That’s why it’s called “fluid”!), my experience of gender seems inseparable from my autism.  Some people use the word “autigender” to describe this.  (I don’t personally identify as trans, but I know some people who share these identities do.)  My understanding of my gender is different and ever-changing; but, I am not confused about it. 

Ableism, Racism, & More

Anyway, what seals the deal with the frustration I’m dealing with right now is that responses to JKR’s post highlighted how, outside the autistic community, it seems like folks don’t realize that the ideas JKR perpetuates are both transphobic and ableist.  And all this makes me think about is how my colleagues, mentors, and even some friends and relatives can’t seem to bring themselves to say the word “autism” or get comfortable with my being on the spectrum.

For instance, here is novelist Jodi Picoult’s response to JKR’s insinuation that a) trans women are not women, and that b) autistic people who are trans have been manipulated into that identity by the fake-news Trans Industrial Complex:

[Image description: Embedded Tweet by Jodi Picoult. Tweet reads: “When someone tells you who they are, listen.
Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Non-binary folks are themselves. #BlackTransLivesMatter“]

I love seeing people with platforms like Jodi’s standing up for marginalized people. I am glad she said something – because let me tell you, here in white-lady New Hampshire, we love our Jodi Picoult novels. 

But this statement and others like it made me wonder, since she is so clearly tweeting this as part of the “backlash” to JKR’s statement, why aren’t people outside the autistic community responding to JKR’s insinuation that autistic people are confused about their gender identity?   And why, in general, is it so difficult to get non-autistics to not only understand autism, but also to use the word “autism” in conversation? 

Now, I love Jodi. I have read and reread many of her books, most of which deal with complex social & political issues from a 360 degree view.  One of her books, House Rules (2010), is about a white, young autistic man named Jacob, who is accused of murder.  The entire plot revolves around uncovering how Jacob’s autistic traits make him seem suspicious to police, which adds a layer of complexity to what might otherwise be a straight-forward whodunnit.  (I read this long before I knew I was autistic. It has major Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime vibes.)  This indicates to me, she at least did some research on autism (in 2009-10 at latest), and has profited off telling an autistic story. So, why not tweet “Trans women are women. Autistic trans women are women,” etc.? Why not both?

Furthermore, now that I know what I know now about racism and policing in the United States, I can’t help but ask: How would House Rules read differently if Jacob were Black?  I think we all know the answer to that – Jacob likely wouldn’t have lived long enough, or gotten the legal support he needed, to tell his story.  He’d be doubly-marginalized if he were both Black and autistic.  For instance: please read about Matthew Rushkin – a Black, young autistic man who was arrested and is incarcerated still for less than Picoult’s character was accused of.  (You can sign the petition to release Matthew here, and donate to his legal fund here.)  There are other awful stories about Black autistic people’s interactions with the police in my feed often – like this one, and this one.  There are also beautiful examples of Black autistic joy, and important conversations both white autistics and allistics need to hear (without imposing on) – check out the tag #AutisticWhileBlack on twitter, and read All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism to start. For the record: Black autistic lives matter.

Museums and Autism: The Hill I Will Die On

The conversation about JKR, transphobia, and autism spurred a lot of conversation online that reminded me of interactions I’ve had with folks in the museum field who view autsitic people as helpless – certainly not as peers.  For instance, I strongly relate to this tweet by Naoise Dolan (Irish & autistic author of Exciting Times, which I am halfway-through reading and is providing a much-needed distraction from the internet right now; plus, bonus points because this is the first novel I’ve read in nearly two years. [Also hi, Naoise, if you read this, which you probably won’t, sorry that I probably like too many of your tweets and keep fan-girling in your replies; I’m aware how annoying I am and after I finish your book and add it to my Goodreads I promise I’ll stop bothering you]):

This not only encapsulates a sentiment I have felt but struggled to articulate about our culture in general, but especially applies to feelings I have about the museum field right now.  Why is it so difficult for my colleagues and mentors to not only include and uplift autistic people as museum staff and visitors, but also to just … say the word autism?  Do you, like JKR, see us as helpless? Lacking agency? Or want not to be reminded we are autistic – just a warm body in the door until we stim in a marble gallery, or open our mouths and info-dump about a special interest?

My pre-pandemic Twitter analytics tell a story – one that says, “If you tweet about Autism, if you talk about your autism, people in your field will ignore your tweets and unfollow you.”  My interactions at conferences tell a story that says, “We are happy to tell stories about sensory hours in museums.  But, we are not interested in talking with an autistic museum professional who may push us to question if sensory hours are enough to fully include this audience in our work.  We do not have autistic colleagues.”  

My interactions with so many colleagues and mentors tell a story that says “If you say you are autistic, I will slowly pull away from you; I won’t ask questions to understand, other than to ask if you are really autistic, because you don’t seem quite like Rain Man, or because you look like a woman, or because you speak, or because you have a graduate degree, and because you seem fine to me.  Or perhaps because we are so similar, and I have never been told I might be autistic, and I did just fine for myself, so why are you complaining?”  In my experience, most of my museum colleagues are happy to interact with me for as long as we don’t have to use the word “autism.”  (Those special few who understand and act as true allies are so close to my heart – you know who you are.)

I have to ask – if this is how the museum field responds to me, as a white female-presenting professional, when I talk about or disclose my autism, how do our racist and ableist institutions treat Black autistic museum professionals? (If you even want to work in the field at this point, which honestly between the racism and ableism, can we blame you? …and if y’all are out there and want to chat, please reach out.)

Autism is Not a Dirty Word

So, all this conversation about JKR’s transphobia, her ableism, and how she uses her platform to spread vitriol and misinformation, and the responses to it have just reminded me, tweet after tweet, how little people outside the autism community understand autism.  This is a big issue – yes, I relate to it personally in relation to my museum work, but it’s clearly much, much bigger than me, and much bigger than the museum field.

If “autism” makes you uncomfortable, or you don’t understand it, take this as a call to action.  It’s not a bad word.  Furthermore, if understanding the relationship between race and ableism is new to you, or makes you uncomfortable, spend time with that.  And then go learn.  Because maybe up until now you could claim ignorance as an excuse, and discomfort for only a few minutes. 

I’m so frustrated.  (That’s not a new feeling for me, and increasingly so; but, because of my autism it takes me longer to process intense thoughts and feelings and put them into words.)

I hope that my friends and colleagues – those in museums especially – will do their part to learn more about what autism means.  That when you advocate for Black lives, you include Black autistic ones as well.  When you do anti-racism work in your museum, that it is inclusive to Black autistic people.  That when you discuss gender identity, you trust that autistic people can make decisions about their identities themselves – that they aren’t confused.  When you talk LGBTQ+ issues in the museum field, you are inclusive of autistic people. 

We absolutely do understand ourselves, our genders, and what we want from the world.  And we are just getting started.

As a gift for making this post, I will leave you with my favorite take – which now seems incredibly prescient example of how our Autistic pattern-recognition superpowers can make us look like psychics:

[Image description: Still image from Hannah Gadsby’s comedy special, “Douglas.” Hannah is white, has short hair, is wearing thick glasses and a blazer jacket, and holding a microphone. The caption on the image reads: “What about Hermione?” She’s probably a terf. Fuck her.]

Everything may be fucked, but at least we have Hannah Gadsby.

Donate links:

Autistic POC Fund (via Autistic Women’s & Non-Binary Network)

Matthew Rushkin Legal Defense Fund

Solutions Not Punishment

The Okra Project

P.S.  I also recommend this incredible essay by Kacen Callender, who explains why it is so hurtful when our heroes turn out to be horrible human beings.  I’d also like to note that many autistic people see themselves in Harry Potter characters like Hermione Granger and Luna Lovegood, and the series is considered a special interest by many autistic peers (in addition to being beloved by my generation).

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