Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Problems and Politics of Passing for a Proud, Autistic, Transgender Woman

What follows is part of what I wrote to someone today on facebook.  They were asking about some transgender issues, mainly about hormone treatments and surgery.  They weren't asking about "passing" though we'd mentioned it earlier in the conversation.  But I got sidetracked.  And when I get sidetracked into something that I'm passionate about then there's almost no stopping me, especially online (see the other sixty posts on this blog for evidence of that).  So here goes, some thoughts on passing, as written almost stream of consciousness in a facebook message but edited and tidied a little here.  And inevitably added to greatly in places.  There's also a section missed out because it mentions a friend whose life is nicely anonymous to a trusted friend in America but who doesn't need even a tiny part of their story plastered here for the world to see.


Passing in some ways is a toughie for transgender people. We know we shouldn't have to pass. And we know that we should just be able to be who we are. But we also know that it makes life easier - I used to get abuse pretty much every time I left the house, from idiots and now it's a very rare thing. So we get caught up in the politics and pros and cons and the fact that some people will NEVER "pass" no matter what they do. We talk of how not being invisible, not passing, speeds up the change in society. And recognise that you've got to be brave to be the one standing out. I've gone through all this with trans issues and many people have written eloquently of the issues and of their good and bad experiences of passing, not passing, and of not wanting to pass in the first place.

And then this year I've been forced, in bigger ways than expected, to consider autism. And then recently I've been starting to read wider into other disability areas, something that is probably going to take quite a lot of time and reading and talking with people to truly get to grips with in any deep sense. And what I find when I read is that there is EXACTLY the same language.  So many groups of people speak of passing - the need to pass as "normal", the different reasons why people would like to pass, the need to not pass if we want society to change at any pace, the dangers to oneself of passing, the dangers of not passing, the politics, the thought that it is not the place of people to conform to society merely because they are different, but the place of society to learn to accept those people.

It's exactly the same language.  However, I am beginning to work out that there is a big difference though between transgender passing and autistic passing.  A whopping, massive difference that means there are two forms of passing that mean very different things.

Passing in trans land is to fit in to society's picture of what you should look like if you're claiming to be who you are.  Society says that there is a certain picture of what a woman looks like, sounds like, walks like and so on, or what a man is like and if someone appears in public who doesn't fit either of those two boxes then there will be a reaction.  To seek to pass is, in some way, to seek to fit into one of the two societal boxes.  Which is understandable, given that it makes life easier.  Passing says, yes, I am a woman or man and am proud of this but for whatever reason I'm going to seek to fit in with what you say that woman or man should be.  I'm pretty lucky.  I don't have to do a lot to pass reasonably well.  At this stage it's almost not an issue for me - though I'll keep up the hair removal that's already paid for and still spend four minutes a day applying makeup.  At this stage I almost fit into one of the boxes naturally.  But other transgender people will not be able to "pass" whatever they do.  And many transgender people don't fit in one of those boxes anyway - because those boxes aren't the only options for a human being to inhabit.

Passing in autism land is to fit into the picture of someone who isn't you, passing as neuro-typical in order to gain the privileges and simple life of an NT person. There can be lots of reasons for this.  A negative reason is shame.  Many autistic people are told that the outward signs of their autism are bad and they come to believe it and end up spending their lives trying to cover up who they are in order to avoid rejection, from others and from themselves.  A positive one - though one that needs to change in the future as society changes - is that sometimes an autistic person has to pass in order to fulfill a dream or to be able to follow a particular career. Not passing as neurotypical means almost automatic exclusion.

I think that's a big, big difference even though the language used about it is the same. Passing in trans land is hard physical work at times - not that I'm a hard worker.  Unless you are non-binary - which brings up a whole load of new passing issues - you don't pass by saying that your brain and soul are anything other than you know them to be.  You just change the physical. Whereas passing in autism land or in most mental health lands is a mental and emotional thing. And that's stupendously harder. Passing in trans land says "I am a woman (or whatever else) and proud". Passing in autism land says "I am autistic but for some reason I don't want to let you know, or know that I can't let you know because then you won't let me do what I want to do so I am forced into a pretence in order to have anything like the life I want."  Passing in (the binary bits of) trans land is thus all about externals, fitting how you present externally into society's picture of who you already are internally.  Passing in autism land is quite the opposite.  It's all about externals, true, but it's about fitting how you present externally into society's picture of who you are NOT internally.  Which is massively exhausting.  I'm only now realising that as I watch others who have to pass and as I let go of all the defences I'd built up against allowing myself to be me.

I think of those people who pass for neurotypical in their day to day lives because they have to.  At this point they have no real choice.  It's either pass as "normal" or do something very different with their lives.  Of course that's wrong, in many ways it is abhorrent, but just at the moment it's how things are. Hence the calls from many autistic people for autism acceptance rather than autism awareness. I hear the cry and see a local group say "It's autism awareness month, hey let's all wear blue." Except, I say, and my friends say, and those I've been reading online who are autistic and proud, "Hey let's don't because the organisation telling us to wear blue is one that we really, really want to stay clear of if we want to be proud as autistic people rather than thinking of ourselves as deformed."  There are lots of posts online about autism acceptance, such as this one by Amy Sequenzia, whose writing I quite adore.  The organisation mentioned about is called Autism Speaks and almost the first advice people have given me when I've asked is "avoid Autism Speaks."  There's loads of reasons for that - and if you look online you can find a ton of good autistic people who will tell you the many shortcomings of that organisation.  I am fortunate to have people around me who give me good advice and probably that single phrase "avoid Autism Speaks" set up the foundation of the ethos for so much I believe about autism and about wider issues.  Here's Amythest Schader again about that avoidance - I watched this with child earlier today, alongside a lot more of her videos.

So it's only really when dealing with the ASD things, letting the defences down and seeing what happens that I've been able to see just how hard I've been working, every day, to be what I'm not and appear as what I'm not. And it's only when that's happened that I've been able to turn around and say "Fuck Passing!" and believe it. This feels SO good. Physically it feels wonderful to let go and start to learn to be myself - to learn to be autistic as a wonderful blog post put it. Emotionally and mentally, it is a new freedom. Calling myself Clare brought great freedom - without which I wouldn't have been able to take this step. But this brings even more freedom. (By the way, I don't ever swear!  But Fuck Passing!)  Amythest Schader in one of her youtube videos puts forth the idea of "guerilla stimming."  Basically, to stim everywhere whenever you need to and not hide it.  Because society will not change while autistic people are invisible.  Just as the pace of change for transgender people has increased almost directly proportionally to the visibility of trans people in the last few years - and the conservative counter-reaction and shouting has increased too in its death throes - so the pace of change for autistic people and for people from a wide variety of excluded groups will increase with visibility.  To stim publicly and with pride and just to present yourself  as completely normal in your stimming is to change society.  If you don't know what stimming is, here's one of those Amythest youtube videos on the subject.

There was a point in all this that I could have taken the neurotypical blue pill and continued to deny what I'd always half known. I've taken it for years. But thanks to my friend, deep thanks to her, I've been able to find the strength, courage, and curiosity to take the red pill. Staying in Wonderland with all its challenges. Rejecting the false living. And what I'm finding is that this particular rabbit hole is far deeper than expected.

And this rabbit hole doesn't allow me to pass as normal. Because everything adds to everything and words like authenticity have to win. Yep. As you say, be yourself. Be proud. Be free. And so on.

Hmm. Sidetracked a little there and the whole Autism Speaks section was rather a sidetrack within a sidetrack. Kind of foresee that once I get myself a little more sorted I'll have no option but to be some kind of activist in a bigger way than tweeting and retweeting about it all. Actually this whole ramble about passing is a sidetrack and wasn't meant to happen.

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