Finding My Voice

Finding My Voice

Looking back through my school reports recently prior to my autism assessment, I was reminded how seldom I used to speak to anybody. One of the earliest labels I acquired was shy, and my teachers in comment after comment expressed their belief that I could go far if only I would talk more. Or, indeed, at all in a lot of situations.

The contrast between that and my assessment report which mentions my tendency to talk too much and go into too much detail is remarkable. So what changed?

There isn’t one single factor that helped me develop my self-confidence. Rather, it has been a combination of changes in my life, the most obvious of which has been my gender transition. Since reaching the point where I’m comfortable with how I look, I’ve become less self-conscious which translates into a more confident presentation.

I’ve also, with help from my wonderful daughter in particular, got out of a toxic relationship where I’d been controlled. My new-found freedom has enabled me to get out and about, spending time with friends. Indeed, it has allowed me to develop close, supportive friendships, where before I wasn’t able to due to restrictions imposed by my former partner.

As my support base has grown, so has my confidence in my own ability. I’d been gaslighted for years, told that I was no good at certain things, that I could never manage on my own. I believed it, and so was trapped in that situation by my lack of self-esteem and self-belief.

It’s been hard to break away from that dependency, and I didn’t get out unharmed: the trauma of living in fear for my safety has left me with mental health problems. But even so, I am definitely better off than I was before getting out.

Most of all, I can be myself. It took a long time to get here, but I found out who I am. For years I tried to be the person I believed those around me wanted me to be. I wore a mask that had been designed by others, and it didn’t fit. When at last the chafing became unbearable, the woman who emerged from behind that mask into the light of day needed a little time to find her feet. To find her own voice.

And I have. A voice that draws from all my experiences, all that brought me to where I am today. My voice.

AIM for the Rainbow

AIM for the Rainbow

Many of you will know that I am on the board of Autistic Inclusive Meets, an organisation run by and for autistic and neurodivergent children and adults to provide services and support, as well as actively campaigning to improve lives.

Well, I have exciting news: we’re picking up an idea we had in the early days of AIM and launching AIM for the Rainbow, a part of AIM that will focus on the particular needs of autistic and neurodivergent LGBTQIA+ people of all ages.

I’m especially proud to be involved as an autistic bisexual trans woman. I intend to make this the kind of resource I wish I’d had when I was growing up. Information, support, and connecting with your peers are of the utmost importance when you’re discovering your own gender and sexuality, so we want this to be a safe space where people can do this without fear.

We’ll be collecting links to resources that we personally trust and endorse. We’ll share our stories, and those of others like us. And we’ll be working to improve the lives of all of us under the rainbow.

It’s going to be great. We’re aiming high: we’re aiming for the Rainbow!

Being #Trans in 2018

Being #Trans in 2018

Scary SceneI’m scared. I’m scared and I’m angry. Scared because I’m exposed to voices in the mainstream media who hate me and people like me. Angry because time and again those same voices are given a platform to spread their destructive message of prejudice and intolerance.

I’m one of the fortunate ones. I have a wonderful daughter, a job, my own home, a fabulous group of supportive friends. I don’t get misgendered in public. The only personal harassment I suffer is the everyday stuff any woman deals with: being asked to smile by strangers, facing presumptions about my (lack of) competence, being ignored and spoken over, never having decent pockets in clothes.

I should feel great about it. I did feel great about it. Until recently. There’s been a change: the attacks used to predictable, occasional occurrences. The usual suspects in the usual places. I could brush that off. But in the last year or so there has been such a huge increase in the media (mainstream and especially social media) in content that seeks to turn public opinion against trans people like me.

On the surface they seem so reasonable. They want a debate. They’re concerned about women, about women’s rights, about safeguarding children. That’s the thin end of the wedge, their foot in the door. That gets them an audience. And once they have people listening they start with the fearmongering.

They don’t want a debate: they want a platform. And they get it daily in newspapers, on the radio and TV. They cry about being silenced from every outlet imaginable. And they go about their strategy of sowing distrust and apprehension. FUD: Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.

They refuse to refer to trans women as women. After all, that might suggest we’re at risk too. They invent hypothetical situations based on little or no evidence and use these to suggest trans women pose a risk (it’s always trans women specifically, you’ll notice). Everything they say is calculated to portray us as a group separate from women, as other.

They don’t need or even want evidence to back their wild claims. How much easier is it to raise fears of a modern day bogeyman such as the male rapist donning a dress to access women’s spaces if you’re not burdened by the necessity of finding elusive examples of it ever having happened? But even if it were a thing, what does it have to do with trans people? Surely if it’s a problem, it’s a problem whether or not trans women have access? In fact, wouldn’t trans women be at risk too, perhaps even greater risk?

These are the exact same tactics used against immigrants, Muslims and other groups by the far right. They are the same fears raised 30 years ago during the fight against Section 28 in support of gay rights. The dismaying thing is that it works, especially in the factionalised society we live in where we are encouraged by the media and many in the public eye to see everything in terms of us and them.

So I’m scared. Scared in case I encounter somebody who has been encouraged by such rhetoric to see me as a threat. Scared, more than ever, that I will be physically attacked. I get nervous being out on my own anyway: that’s par for the course as a lone woman. But these so-called feminists have made this woman doubly afraid to merely be visible in public.

And that’s why I’m also angry.

Dancing To My Own Tune

Dancing To My Own Tune

Masks

Although it’s only recently I’ve been hearing the term masking — the first time I can remember was in conversation with my very dear friend Patricia — I didn’t need to have it explained.

Putting on the metaphorical mask, adopting that persona, playing that role…

Oh yes, I know what that’s all about. Metaphors might be intangible but they are real. My whole life was an attempt to do what people around me wanted. To be who they wanted and expected me to be. The perfect child, the model student, the star employee, the ideal spouse.

In any human social group there is pressure to fit in, to conform so that you are accepted as one of the group. Most people adapt their behaviour depending on where they are or who they’re with, but these aren’t masks: they’re fine-tuning. It’s like adjusting the volume on the TV but keeping it tuned to the same channel.

Masking isn’t like that. Masking is attempting to put on a whole new persona. It’s method acting where you become the part you’re playing. Your character is authored by the people around you, it’s not your own creation. You’re dancing to somebody else’s tune.

While it can be very convincing — some autistic people are talented professional actors — when you’re filtering every word, every gesture, every reaction through that mask it becomes exhausting. And you don’t get to exit stage left and nip backstage for a breather. You’re in character almost every waking moment.

One danger of adopting a character so completely is that you can lose touch with yourself. You become so accustomed to acting the part that you blur the boundaries between real and pretend as you strive to become the mask. It’s a long road back from that place.

Being something, someone, that you’re not carries a price. It causes mental stress as you work to suppress your instinctive behaviours and reactions in favour of the ones that allow you to fit in. The threats and fear that drive the process — fear of failure, of ridicule or abusive harm — are very real and cause harm in the medium to long term.

This driving force is powerful: it has to be to push us so hard and so far. And the result — fitting in, appearing to be like our peers — might sound like a reasonable goal. It’s the aim of interventions like ABA and other behaviourism-based therapies. But regardless of whether it’s driven by a practitioner or by peer pressure it can cause deep, lasting trauma.

I didn’t only grow up autistic (even if I wasn’t aware of the fact): I also grew up transgender. To me, the parallels with masking as an autistic person are very clear: I, an autistic female, was expected to appear to be a neurotypical male.

I can’t easily separate the two aspects of my being: my gender and my neurotype. The teasing and bullying I went through was because I didn’t act NT enough or male enough to match peer expectations. I tried. I watched people around me, studied them, tried to copy how they acted. Constructed my mask to hide behind.

Being autistic isn’t about the list of symptoms in DSM or ICD – that’s just the medical establishment’s way of drawing neat lines around a bunch of us and sticking a label on the resulting box.

Being autistic is how I experience the world and react to it. That might cause certain observable effects that get written down and turned into a diagnosis, but living it is something that can’t be captured in words because an autistic frame of reference is different from a neurotypical one.

Autistic people can often recognise each other. We pick up on signs and cues that exist below the level of conscious awareness: we feel that pull of recognition when we see ourselves reflected in others. Because we can relate to each other through shared experiences, our similar responses to situations, we often feel more comfortable and at ease in each other’s company.

Recognising my own reflection, seeing myself in others and having them see themselves in me, is very familiar to me from meeting other autistics. But it’s equally applicable to my gender.

For about as long as I can remember it was other girls and women I saw as mirrors of myself. I could never relate strongly to male peers: I was never able to see myself as belonging there.

Just as being autistic isn’t a list of symptoms from the diagnostic manual, so being a woman isn’t a list of attributes either. There are such things as gender roles and traits, but they are a consequence of gender, not its cause or essence.

I’m not autistic because I struggle in social situations or because I was echolalic and frustratingly literal as a child: that is inverting cause and effect. I am autistic whether or not the signs are visible to others. I’m just as autistic when I’m chatting to a colleague at work as when I dance and flap.

Likewise, I’m not a woman because I have breasts and hips, or because I cry over emotional movies, or because I wear dresses sometimes. Those don’t define my gender, they are simply an expression of it. I was just as female before my body started to develop, I’m just as female in jeans and tee-shirt toting a toolbox.

Neither my neurotype nor my gender are things I had any choice about: they’re just the way I am. Trying to force me to be something or someone I’m not — conversion therapy by any other name — doesn’t work and causes me harm. I can act out a role under duress with a certain degree of success, but it takes a toll on me.

Ultimately I had to take off the mask. The strain of performing constantly broke me. Not all the damage it did can ever be healed: there is some baggage I will always carry with me.

But my burden is small compared to what it used to be, my steps are light. And the tune I dance to is my own.

How Real Is Your Woman?

How Real Is Your Woman?

I wouldn’t be me if I could leave yesterday’s transphobic Sunday Times piece by Jenni Murry alone. For those who don’t know, Jenni presents the long-running Woman’s Hour magazine programme on BBC Radio 4. So you’d kind of expect her to support women.

Except that it appears she doesn’t. She gets her credentials in early: she’s not transphobic, she assures her readers. That’s good. If she hadn’t told me I’d have had to work out her opinion of women like me based solely on how she writes about us.

I’ll save you the torment of quoting bits and pieces of her article. Instead I’ll summarise it: trans women are not “real” women because Jenni doesn’t want them to be. For whatever reasons–and she doesn’t delve into the roots of her prejudices–she doesn’t want her idea of what a woman is to include people like me.

Her objections as stated in the article are thin and unconvincing. We haven’t had the same experiences as she did growing up? A cherry-picked selection of trans women have expressed superficial stereotypical thoughts? Come on Jenni, you can do better than this!

Why not be honest with your readers? Why not admit that you’ve got a nice, cosy, simplistic concept of what a woman is, and it’s basically people who are like you. Preferably middle class and white, no doubt, although it would be career suicide to voice those thoughts these days.

But trans women? Well, they’re fair game. Or so you think. It’s not that long since gay men were openly criticised as not being “real” men. A lot of people used to agree with that sentiment. But opinions change. Try publishing that one today and you’ll not get past the paper’s legal department.

More and more people, especially younger people, have no hesitation including trans women in their concept of women. The landscape is shifting under the feet of people like Jenni Murray, and her views that were once comfortably mainstream are looking increasingly extreme.

It’s not only trans women like me who cringe these days when we encounter these old-fashioned, outdated prejudices. People like Jenni are the minority now: it’s only their public profile that gets them a few column inches to keep reflecting the echo of their intolerance.

What makes a woman real isn’t any physical trait. It’s not how she looks or acts. It’s that the majority of society accepts her identity as a woman. Most women will never face this questioning, will not have people publicly reject their claim to be women. Some who don’t look conventionally female will know exactly what I am describing.

This isn’t about appearance though. It isn’t even about trans versus cis. It’s about who gets to decide what a woman is in our society. The large majority of people can reliably and consistently agree that most women are definitely women. This is about the rest, the edge cases. The ones who don’t exactly fit the usual, common definitions.

So how can we decide? An increasing number of people are realising that the simplest, fairest, most obvious way is to just ask the people themselves. A woman is someone who identifies as a woman. After all, they ought to know better than anybody else!

Some people, like Jenni Murray, feel threatened by this. They cling to the illusions of certainty that sprang forth from second wave feminism with its promise of a unified concept of womanhood (as long as you fit the ideals it was based on). They could never see that their perfect vision was as deeply rooted in stereotypes as the ones they now criticise some trans women for holding to.

There are no perfect, fact-based criteria to define who is and who is not a woman. There are some traits that apply to most women. For the rest, take their word for it. Most of us encounter people who leave us scratching our heads as we try to decide what gender they are. We need to stop worrying about it and just trust that they themselves know the answer much better than we do. That’s certainly real enough for me.