Taboo Topics – 5. Gender Identity

Yeah I know I’m rushing through this set of posts. For some reason I feel like time is running out to get these down, not sure why. Maybe I just need to get some things off my chest quickly and move on.

So I hadn’t planned this one at all (I’m actually procrastinating over my planned post on parenting) but I was reading something about the link between autism and diverse gender identities and I thought: why not?

I know gender identity is hardly a taboo topic, in fact it seems to be a common point of discussion nowadays, but it’s not something I’ve ever talked or written about before. So it feels like I’m breaking a taboo, at least on a personal level. And I have the feeling people meeting me perhaps wonder exactly where I sit on the whole LGBTQI+etc spectrum, so now you get to find out.

So, I’ve heard that quite a few spectrumites, like me, feel that their autism has affected their gender identity. There’s even a word for it: autigender. Having said that, the exact way in which autigender presents itself can be anywhere under the sexuality-gender-matrix, so please don’t think that my experience covers those of others. This post is unashamedly all about me!

So… where to start?

Well, I suppose as a child/teenager, gender identity issues were not on my radar. Back then, society was only just starting to admit that homosexuals were, you know, humans too. And transgender wasn’t a thing. I was probably about 16 when I went to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show and discovered the meaning of the word transvestite. So yeah, I was quite an innocent in that way.

It’s kind of funny, actually, because in my teens it was probably obvious that I was not exactly 100% gender conforming. I had short hair and wore jeans and T-shirts instead of dresses (actually I still do). I used to get mistaken for a lesbian sometimes, which was ironic because I was actually a little bit homophobic back then. Not in a hateful way, just out of ignorance – fear of the unknown. I like to think I’m more accepting nowadays.

I believe what was going on with me was just the way my brain was developing, because of AS. Other teenage girls grew out of adventure stories and started reading Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte – they were learning the social nuances associated with an adult female identity. I moved to spy thrillers and sci fi novels, which were just other kinds of adventure story, and I was quite happy picturing myself in the role of the hero (whether male or female). It’s like I got stuck in a prolonged pre-teen gender ambiguity.

As I entered adulthood, this did not bother me or cause me much grief. It was not that I was suffering gender dysphoria and felt myself to be male; I knew myself to be female. It was more that my systemising Asperger brain was directing me towards the study of science and engineering and other pursuits that were traditionally considered within the male domain. Plus I never did get the hang of women’s clothes – they come in way too much variety, and all with a severe lack of pockets.

It was only quite recently that I seriously wondered if I might be transgender. I’d written a novel called The Empathy Key, in which a transgender cyborg struggles with the loss of her/his humanity, which on reflection was quite clearly a cry out from my subconscious for clarity in relation to my own identity – with respect to both neurology and gender. I also read the memoir “Danger Music” by the inspiring Eddie (formerly Emma) Ayres.

So I experimented a bit with wearing more overtly men’s clothes to see how I felt – and while I quite enjoyed that, the result was that no, I was not transgender. Not only did I feel no intense, driving need to take on a permanent male identity, but I felt that too much of myself had been formed from the experience of living in a female body to make such a radical change.

My view might have been different, though, if I’d still been a teenager, struggling to understand why I was so different from the other girls.

And that makes me wonder: is this happening with modern autistic teenagers? In some cases, could autigender be getting confused with transgender?

What I’m going to say here is hugely controversial, and I concede that I’m only looking at things from my own point of view, without having experienced significant body dysphoria, so I may be out of touch with the experiences of transgender folk. But I feel like we ought to be allowed at least to express an opinion in the spirit of open discussion. So here it is…

It concerns me that in the current zeitgeist, kids who are querying their gender identity are so readily presented with the possibility of changing biological sex by hormones and surgical procedures. It seems such a radical and permanent approach, and I worry that they may not have been provided with genuine alternatives. I wonder if some of them might be spared surgery and come to peace with their gender instead through the concept of the non-binary.

Could we not dispense with the black-and-white concept that if one does not feel female, one must therefore be male?

Maybe as a society we need to move away from dividing ourselves into those two distinct categories. Could we not be accepting of a biological female who wishes to dress and act in the manner of a male? Could we not learn to be OK with a biological male dressing as a female and joining in activities with the girls (as far as it is fair and safe to do so)? Or with someone who seems male on one day and female the next? Maybe, if we had better acceptance of non-binary genders within society, there would be less need for surgical and hormonal interventions.

So hopefully, in addition to giving you food for thought, the above explains my gender identity. Yes, I do believe I’ve just followed the prevailing trend and come out as somewhere in the range of the non-binary.

Just don’t start calling me “they”, as I have no inclination to join in the whole “don’t mis-gender me” thing. “She” is fine and, if you like, “he” is fine. Or in other words, I stand with Eddie Izzard.

4 thoughts on “Taboo Topics – 5. Gender Identity”

  1. Hi there –
    I just wanted to know that I got this into my inbox a while ago, and while given my biography I don’t share some of your opinions (and also to my knowledge, some facts are different), I still appreciated the piece because you tackled the topic in a nuanced / ambivalent way that is rare, I think (I think also because it’s risky and it’s easy to be misunderstood, given how charged these topics are and the differences in life experience and exposure between people (some don’t know what trans people are, while others spend their life struggling with the social rules of gender).

    I wanted to initially write you a longer comment, but then today I ended up writing an article on my own blog that makes reference to yours and also links to it, from here:

    https://sensitivityisstrength.wordpress.com/why-i-dont-want-to-have-a-gender-identity-and-languages-without-gendered-pronouns/

    I talk about myself there more than about your material, so just to clarify: what I liked about your post is that it admits that things are not black and white, you go into stuff like life experience, context – stuff that I have also been thinking about for a long time in the context of my own thinking about what the heck gender and trans-ness is. (See my super-long post if this interests you.)

    What I didn’t like was the impression that this texts suggests transition is immediately and easily “pushed on” gender-questioning youth (or adults), that it’s easily accessible, and that people access it without long and hard processes of reflection on alternatives. The trans people I know who actually transitioned did try many alternatives. I don’t have any ultimate knowledge on this, but I think it’s safer (and more respectful) to assume that trans people do think, reflect, and try various alternative solutions before going down what is really not an easy route.

    On the other hand, just based on reading articles etc. (as opposed to talking to trans people I know personally), I did actually have a similar thought – it can *look* like people instantaneously “jump” from realising they don’t perfectly fit the stereotype to surgery, without considering the social context and how most limitations may be social and not biological (which is really hard to see without engaging in a lot of social criticism and deconstruction – and which is also probably not always the case).

    Because the thing is, our life span may be shorter than what it takes to see the social change (though actually it would be super cool if the whole binary thing died before my generation does :D), and again, trans folk I’ve talked to really weigh these two things against each other. It’s a complex topic.

    The phrase that bothered me was “I wonder if some of them might be spared surgery and come to peace with their gender instead through the concept of the non-binary.” As I re-read it now, it bothers me less – maybe I read it on a bad day the first time around. The thing is, I have *only* ever heard the phrase “come to peace with your gender” in the context of people trying to basically say “just accept what society projects on you based on your genitals” (i.e. your assigned gender with all its cliches – because frankly, sometimes I ask myself what “gender” is made up of apart from cliches?). So I’ve only ever heard that in the context of psychological violence (“overwrite your sense of self and accept my conventional perception of who you are as the reality”). Now I think what you mean to say is probably “find a way to navigate the social gender pressure with inner peace”, not “submit to their assigned gender based on social pressure”, at least I hope so.

    I guess if in your case, you didn’t go through years or decades of war with family and others who tried to police you and make you “make peace with your gender”, the phrase might not light up in red, but I think for trans people who did, it can.

    Ok, I hope you take this as a constructive comment and it’s not too long. I figured if you link to your article, I’d also comment directly on the points I find problematic; the parts I agree on are in my own post. What I agree on is mostly that social alternatives to transition totally deserve more publicity, space, push, advocacy – because yes, the cost of physical transition is high, and yes, some trans people really do it because of the social pressure (and are fully aware of that, but can’t just hibernate until society shifts far enough to let them be themselves, and include them in the bodies they got).

    And honestly, it’s really hard (impossible?) to disentangle the body from social ideas about the body, and even if you do, you don’t control the fact that other people don’t and may respond to you accordingly. I think this is clearer for people who really “cross the line” to passing (or esp. for trans women who don’t pass, dress in a clearly feminine way), or use pronouns and names that don’t conventionally go with their assigned gender – this is really where the social penalties come in, unfortunately.

    Ok, enough said ! 😀

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    1. I’m so glad you took the trouble to write that response (and I wish I could express myself even half as well as you do).
      I haven’t read your post yet, but your comments on mine are spot on. I was so afraid that people would think I was generalising about trans people and coming to the wrong conclusions, when I was actually trying to express some of the complexities around gender identity and my own experience with how autism affected my own. I know I could never speak on behalf of trans people and I tried to express that, albeit clumsily. In hindsight I can see the phrasing of coming to peace with ones gender could be triggering, if taken to mean “learning to live as the gender denoted by your biological sex”, which you correctly surmised was not my intent.
      I’m just really grateful that your response was not the reflexive attack-as-defense that I feared I might be dealing with, but was understanding of my intent, even if some of my experiences and views are different from your own. Many thanks.
      Am going to look at your own post…

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  2. Haha ok, I was wondering if my comment might actually come across as attacking (I didn’t put THAT much effort into “softening” it). Good it didn’t, I was also afraid to get backlash.

    I have lots more thoughts on the whole topic, including the part of your writing that I *do* directly identify with, but I seem unable to comment without bringing in my whole life story with all its details, and that’s maybe too much making my comments longer than your post 😀

    I actually wrote two versions, but took them off and saved them elsewhere, as they’re super long and I think the bottom line is that it’s complex and I see a variety of valid trajectories in this territory (frankly could have taken several myself).

    I wonder if I should perhaps also make separate posts for that, or shift it to private conversation. Dunno.

    But I do think this is a useful conversation – kind of a “third” space of reflection in between the political trans movement (validly focused on rights/access) and mainstream trans erasure.

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