Intersecting Selfhood: Trans Identity, Autism and Mental Health Disability

Here are the notes for the presentation I gave at the Disability & Intersectionality Summit yesterday, ‘Intersecting Selfhood: Trans Identity, Autism and Mental Health Disability’. They’re a bit long, so I’ve put them all under a Read More tag so you’re not faced with Massive Wall of Text. I’ll also link to the PowerPoint (well, really Keynote) slides later. 🙂

(Content warning for racism, transphobia, religious abuse, brief mention of police violence, disablism)

Definitions

Let’s start with some definitions so we’re all on the same page. Autism is a developmental disability that affects social interaction, sensory perception and language. Cisgender describes people who identify with the gender that they were designated with at birth. Gender-variant people are people whose gender identities or expressions are different from society’s strict definitions of male or female. Non-binary people are people who don’t identify as male or female. People of colour or indigenous people are people who don’t benefit from white supremacy in western society (examples would be Black, East/South Asian people or indigenous North Americans or Australians). Indigenous people are people whose ancestors were native to countries that were later settled by Europeans.

Gender Identity and Race

Let’s start by talking about gender identity and race. It’s hard enough being trans or gender-variant if you’re white, but it’s compounded even more if you’re a person of colour or indigenous. Society’s oppression is written on us, both as trans people and as people of colour or indigenous people. We are constantly devalued because of how we came to know our gender, and because of where our ancestors came from or looked like. When we come into our own by recognising our gender identities, we are not just gendered people, we are also racialised people. For example, after I transitioned and started being perceived as male by the general public, things changed. I wasn’t just being seen as a man. I was starting to be seen as a Black man.

While I benefit from male privilege in ways I didn’t before I transitioned, this is tempered by this maleness being Black maleness. Women snatching their purses away from me on the bus. Having the cops called on me in a Walgreens in San Francisco because I was browsing the vitamin section and reading the labels while waiting to pick up a prescription. There is a deep-set, toxic cultural mythology that links black men with violence, with criminality, with brutality, not with intelligence, sensitivity or gentleness, no matter what an individual person might be like. To be honest, I worry a lot about becoming the next Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Philando Castile or Mike Brown, but with the added complication of being trans on top of that. Other Black trans men or masculine-presenting non-binary people might find themselves in my place, learning lessons that they may not have been taught directly before they transitioned.

Not to mention, Black and Latina trans women are more likely to experience physical violence than are white trans women. That’s not to say that white trans women don’t experience discrimination or hostility, but that those problems are magnified if you also experience racial oppression.

Gender Identity and Autism

Growing up autistic may impact how people perceive their own gender, or how others perceive their gender. It took me a while to recognise my own gender identity – I was 11 – and even longer to realise that I needed to transition for my own mental health—indeed, my own survival. I was kind of a rule-bound person, so I thought that I had to be a cis girl because that was the only information I was receiving from the adults around me, despite having some subconscious gender variance. It took me finding out about trans people later on to put a name to what I was feeling. I also didn’t really feel I had the ability to really define myself outside what adults were saying I was, mostly because I had my selfhood and identity pathologised from such a young age. When I realised that I might be trans as a kid, I continued to shelve it because I thought it would ‘go away as I got older’. It didn’t. The dysphoria just got worse and worse, especially in my late teens and early 20s. It didn’t help that I was surrounded by evangelical conservative culture (HALLELUUUUUUJAH JEEEEEZUS) that rewarded gender conformity. It probably also took longer because my maleness wasn’t—isn’t—macho or butch.

Some autistic people may not internalise gendered social roles in the same way that non-autistic people do. Some of us may not perceive things as being ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ in the way that others do. Of course, that’s not the case for everyone; I definitely bought into restrictive gender roles from about the age of 4 to about 10 or 11.

Interestingly, it’s actually been theorised that autistic people are more likely to be trans or gender-variant than the general population. That definitely matches what I’ve seen within my own social circle. But that doesn’t mean that people should treat an autistic person’s gender identity as a symptom. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean that it should be treated as a pathology.

Gender Identity and Mental Health

I’ve been diagnosed with depression and Generalised Anxiety Disorder as an adult, but I struggled with them as a teenager too. I’ve experienced a lot of trauma that’s contributed to those mental health disabilities, including bullying, verbal abuse and teaching methods that were focussed on suppressing my autistic presentation instead of being empathetic.

Gender dysphoria – that feeling of not-right-ness, an asynchrony, about your body or how you’re perceived by other people or your gender expression – can be really harmful to trans people’s mental health. It can contribute to depression and anxiety. The cure for gender dysphoria isn’t forcing us to live as the gender we were designated with when we were born. It’s letting us live healthy, authentic, self-defined lives. Before I was able to transition, my depression and anxiety were much worse than it is now. I was barely able to leave the house for a while. Transitioning and getting treatment for the depression and anxiety was a godsend. I have anxiety and depression independent of my gender dysphoria, but treating much of the dysphoria made it possible for me to function.

It’s also important to mention that trans people’s mental health may be hurt by toxic messages from society and the people who around them who repeat those messages. Look at the kerfuffle over ‘bathroom bills’ this year, and right-wing politicians like Governor Pat McCrory in North Carolina and pundits demonising us and acting as though we’re the next coming of Satan. I’ve been estranged from my religious conservative, Republican parents for ten years because they believed that my gender identity was ‘lies from Satan’, bombarding me with Bible verses and evangelical talking points. All these things hurt and can add up, whether they’re from family or talking heads on TV.

Takeaways

Intersecting identities can make being trans or gender-variant more complicated than it already is.
In order to foster acceptance for trans people in general, it’s absolutely vital to look at intersecting issues, like those of race or disability.

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