Black or white, good or bad, right or wrong, light or dark, leave or remain, man or woman: our whole world is split in two. Is this a consequence of evolution giving us bi-fold symmetry, left versus right? Or is it more fundamental?Read more
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.
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.
I’m not a man but I am well-placed to write about toxic masculinity.
I know what it feels like to be surrounded by people expecting you to live up to their expectations of what a man ought to be. To be repeatedly shamed, teased, or bullied for allowing the mask to slip, revealing the person behind the act.
Forty-odd years ago in a hospital in Manchester I was born. I’m guessing some doctor took one look and decided I was male: that’s what went on my birth certificate. I’m still living with the consequences of their decision.
I might have been given the label but that’s all. It didn’t mean anything to a baby–why would it? But it influenced the way everybody around me interacted with me. How they spoke to me, how they dressed me, what toys they gave me, what future they imagined for me.
I wasn’t given a choice, not even made aware that alternatives existed. So as I grew older and became more self-aware I felt more and more that there was a gap between what was expected of me and how I felt inside.
I’m autistic: there are certain behaviors like hand flapping and toe walking that are natural expressions for me. An autistic body language. I was teased and bullied for them in school and worked hard to suppress them.
But not all the behaviors I had to suppress were related to autism. Others–mannerisms, speech patterns, responses–were shamed as being “girly” or “sissy”. I had to learn the rules to be seen as acceptably male, to conform.
That’s the essence of toxic masculinity: conform or be punished. You will be bullied. You will be abused. Until you fit in. Or you die.
You see, it doesn’t take long before you feel you’re being watched every minute of every day. You watch yourself, alert to every slip. The pressure to conform instills a deep and abiding fear and anxiety.
Living with that day in, day out wears you down. You learn to hate yourself, hate the fact that you must conceal your desires and feelings, that you must hide yourself. You go through every minute of every hour pulling levers behind the curtain of this fake persona to keep yourself from harm.
You become depressed. You wonder why you make the effort when you will never be free. You might self harm just to feel something real, to do something to reach down through all the layers of deadening armor between you and the world.
It’s easy to feel suicidal. It’s understandable. It takes away the crushing pressure of the trap you are caught in. I tried to kill myself a couple of times. It wasn’t like TV and the movies try to show it. There was no note, no plea to the world for understanding. Just utter, wordless despair on a lonely, dark night with a handful of pills and a load of alcohol.
Most of the people who made me feel this way had no malicious intent at all. They just projected their expectations onto me, expectations of masculinity. I’m not male, but even if I were I would have been subjected to the same pressure to conform.
That’s why it’s toxic: it poisons you, poisons your mind with its relentless drip, drip, drip. “Man up!” “Grow a pair!” “Sissy!” “You’ve got no balls!” “You talk like a girl!” “Poof!”
There is no single, right way to be male (or female). There is not a single characteristic that all people of a particular gender share except one: their own identity. Expecting people to conform to your idea of their gender is immoral, coercing them by shaming or violence is abuse.
Trying to prevent people from expressing who they are, even unconsciously by perpetuating gender stereotypes, harms them. It really is a matter of life and death. I’ve lived it, I nearly died. I know.
Like the overwhelming majority of people I was immersed from my earliest days in a world divided into two. It is so pervasive that it doesn’t seem at all strange; most people never have cause to even think about it.
In the blue corner we have everything male. Boys, men, anything electronic or mechanical, big or loud. Football. Beer.
And in the pink corner we have the supposed polar opposite, female. Soft, delicate, dainty, quiet. Embroidered cushions and flowers. Ballet. Prosecco.
Take a moment to think about how much of the world is seen in terms of masculine or feminine. It’s even ingrained in many languages such as Spanish, French, German, Russian.
Who do you see when you imagine people in various jobs? Flight attendant, nurse, engineer, bricklayer, plumber, mechanic, secretary, truck driver. Are the examples you think of primarily male or female?
How about when you see a person at the mall or in the street? Do you find yourself automatically thinking of them as she or he? Making an unconscious decision about their gender simply based on a quick glance, a fleeting impression?
It’s so deeply ingrained in our culture and society that it’s hard not to. And when somebody doesn’t seem to fit into either category we can find ourselves wondering, “Are they…?” Does that make you uncomfortable? How would you address them?
Good news: there’s a solution. It’s not easy because you have to make an effort and learn to see things differently. But you can teach yourself to look at people without the need to put them in a box labeled M or F.
Go on, try it. Watch the TV, scroll through Facebook, whatever, and deliberately keep an open mind about the gender of everyone you see there. Avoid “he” and “she” in your thoughts; use the neutral “they” by default.
After a while you find that it becomes easier, the conscious effort becomes an unconscious reflex. And you discover something unexpected: you still see aspects that suggest male or female, but your overall impression is a blend of the two. You see both simultaneously!
And it strikes you that the whole dyadic division is an illusion, a pernicious lie.
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.
A suggestion by Renee Salas in a recent conversation started me thinking about how my Autism and Gender Dysphoria affect each other. It seems obvious that they will interact because both have strong neurological dimensions. In fact there does appear to be a correlation between Autism and GD in female-to-male transsexuals; however I could not find any studies investigating Autism in male-to-female transsexuals.
The primary study appears to be one published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders in 2011. One of the researchers was the well-known Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen and it is therefore not surprising that this research focused on the “Extreme Male Brain” theory. None of which helps explain Autism in female-to-male transsexuals: I can’t reconcile my own experience with this theory because GD in FtM transsexuals has been linked to prenatal exposure to estrogen, and brain structures that exhibit sexual dimorphism show similarities to cis women rather than cis men.
In the absence of any scientific evidence, all I can do is relate my own experience.
#1 Female Presentation of Autism
I remember the first time I read an article about how Autism presents differently in women because I was struck by how much of it matched my own experience. I guess it makes sense because I am a woman even though I was raised as male.
My Autism is well-masked in many situations because I have learned to mimic behaviors I observe in others. This extends to copying mannerisms, phrases and speech patterns. I am also typically a social person but I’m not one to initiate things. I rely on having one or two “gateway” friends to get me started in social situations, but I also have trouble making and maintaining friendships.
I was a hyperlexic child, learning to read before the age of two and spending many hours alone immersed in books, mostly fiction but also factual books related to my interests. At school I was always the quiet, shy one: well-behaved and academically gifted.
On top of growing up in the 70s and 80s when Autism was much less recognized, like many Autistic women of my generation there was little that indicated to anybody that I was anything more than painfully shy. Most of us were good enough at pretending to be like others that we didn’t attract attention.
#2 Gender Query
I remember being unaware of gender until I hit puberty. Of course I knew that there were girls and boys, and that girls dressed one way and played netball while boys dressed differently and played football. But that was the extent of my knowledge: I was hopelessly naive.
With puberty I became aware that my body was changing, and it affected me badly. I felt confused and conflicted: I liked the fact that it meant I fit in better with the boys at school, but didn’t like that I was a boy. I didn’t want to be, I didn’t feel like I was one of the boys, but I didn’t know that there was any such thing as Gender Dysphoria. I didn’t realize that there was another option. And I would almost certainly have been too afraid to speak about it if I had known: I used to be too self-conscious to even say the word “sex” in front of my parents.
When I was growing up there were no visible alternatives to the cis-hetero picture of gender and sexuality. I didn’t even know what “gay” meant until I was in my mid-teens: it was just an insult used by boys at school. So I had no vocabulary, no concepts to describe how I felt. Nobody to relate to. No role models with whom I could identify. Just this feeling that I was not right. And any attempt to express myself in private felt shameful.
#3 Being Different
I have always felt different to the people around me, known that I was not like them. This is a common feeling in Autism and for me has the added dimension of knowing that my body is “wrong”. I know now: it has taken a long time for me to identify why I felt the way I did.
Passing takes on extra significance for an autistic woman trying to fit in as a neurotypical man. I have been on the receiving end of homophobic bullying from time to time because of failing to act in an “appropriately” masculine way. The problem has always been that my behavior has never fitted the stereotype of masculinity. Oh, I played rugby at school but could never exhibit the aggression that the coaches wanted. I’ve always been quiet and passive, afraid of confrontation despite my physical size.
Since I discovered I am Autistic I have been less concerned with always fitting in, hiding my natural traits by aping those around me. I’ve accepted that it’s how I am; this has proved to be less stressful for me, less tiring, and I have felt happier about myself.
This openness about being myself contributed to my decision to out myself as a trans woman. Yes, I still feel different — that goes with the Autistic territory — but I’m more confident since transitioning. I no longer worry about having to “act male”: I go to work in my male shirt but I have painted nails and occasional mascara or lipstick. Whatever makes me feel good. I have fewer inhibitions about expressing how I feel. I am happy to be different, and I have been accepted for who I am.
It’s no surprise I’m prone to depression since it is strongly associated with GD and is also common in Autistic people. It is something I have lived with for most of my life, causing a couple of breakdowns along the way. I am now on medication (Citalopram) and it helps but does not prevent me feeling down at times. What it does do is allow me to function, to get up in the morning and do a day’s work.
The simple fact is that I feel my body is too masculine. It does not match the way I see myself as a woman and this causes me distress. Sometimes I can look in the mirror and the face looking back at me is me, but most of the time I see a man’s face and this upsets me. One aspect of my Autism is that I focus on facial features in isolation. I look at my eyes or mouth and they are fine. But then I pay attention to the shadow of beard on my cheeks, upper lip, chin, and neck — no matter how close I shave — and it looks male. Yes, I could conceal it with makeup, but I’d still know it was there.
One thing I have found among so many Autistic people is an open-mindedness and willingness to accept people’s differences. I believe this derives in a large part from spending our lives feeling like outsiders. It gives us an insight and understanding of how it feels to be excluded, taunted, abused just for not fitting in.
This extends beyond autism to include all manner of differences including gender and sexuality. Not only have I found it easy to accept myself for who I am, but I have received a lot of support and acceptance from other Autistic people online. This helps so much.
To round this off I’ll summarize some key points:
- I am an Autistic trans woman. My Autistic symptoms are more similar to the typical presentation in women than in men.
- I am not a stereotypical woman. I’m not butch or femme. I still wear jeans most days; they’re just cut a bit different from the ones I used to wear, but I also wear skirts and dresses when I feel like it. I don’t have to exaggerate my behavior, I don’t have to conform to anybody else’s expectations, I’m not acting a role: I’m just being myself. I’m different, I’m an individual and I’m OK with that.
- I’m not OK with some of my masculine physical characteristics and this contributes in a big way to my bouts of depression.
- I don’t have a “male” brain: being a trans woman is demonstration of that. (So much for the Extreme Male Brain theory of Autism!)
- I believe that being Autistic has helped me come to terms with GD much more easily than would have been the case if I were neurotypical because I don’t have all that mental baggage that tells people how they ought to be.