Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Contemplating the Crossroads II: Gender, Neurodiversity, and Religious Intersections

Months ago, I posted an article that explored my personal feelings about the intersection between my autistic tendencies and my atheist beliefs. It was really, really exploratory, and it got me some great responses. Those responses ranged from "me too" autistics who assured me that they had exactly the same processing problems that I had when it came to unsubstantiated claims to people who did have faith but who wrote to me to explain how they always felt their faith was a bit different than the NTs around them. I even got a note from a friend that I had not spoken to in years who wanted to explain to me that she felt all religious writing was just rhetoric, and that she chose to follow the rhetoric that made the most sense out of conflicts in her life.

In the months since that article, I've thought a lot about doing a follow-up to it. I've thought even more about branching out and posting more explicitly on atheist topics. I want to do that, but for a long time I've had trouble getting over the issues outlined in my Crossroads post. It seems stupid to blog about acceptance and neurodiversity and then to let my personal fears convince me that I can't make a contribution, but it happens sometimes. As much as I try to let go of worry and express myself, I am still continuously terrified that I will accidentally use others badly in the same ways I have been used before. That makes it difficult sometimes to post work that I know has the potential to create strong disagreement. To be honest, that's been a problem in my writing life for a long time.

That started to change last week, and I have a blogger named Natalie Reed to thank for it. She blogs over at about trans feminist issues, and her work is fascinating. I read it partially because I want to expose myself to a way of negotiating society that I have no personal experience or frame of reference for, and also partially because I think that neurodiversity needs to embrace trans and genderqueer issues as part of a "big tent" push. Having always had body dysphoria of a non-genital kind (part of my dyspraxia), as well as some disassociation from my senses during particularly problematic times, there is something fascinating to me about people who might (might, I realize some never do) have a way of modifying their bodies until they feel comfortable in them. I don't pretend to totally understand their needs, but I recognize a level on which our problems share features, and I want to learn more about them.*

Anyhow, Natalie Reed was making a point about the roles that trans persons have played at various times in various radical movements, especially in the formation of Occupy Wallstreet and the Stonewall riots, and she said this:
Our existence has always been oppositional to the system, and in almost all cases, the various actions that comprise and define a trans life as apart from a cisgender life are all, however small or personal, however necessary and beyond our real control, radical actions. We don’t choose to be trans, it’s simply something that just sort of happens to some people… but it pretty much always ends up putting us in the position of needing to choose self-determination, autonomy, and personal agency over the social values and systems around us… indeed usually in opposition to them. 

That resonated with me. Before I go further, I want to make this explicit: trans persons are on a completely other level in the way that their needs are always viewed as radical. The statements I'm about to make are not meant to appropriate their stories or actions, or to equate my own issues with the dire seriousness of their positions. As marginalized and mistreated as autistic adults are at times, very few of us ever live with the kind of abuse and opposition that trans persons must deal with daily.

The important parallel to draw, though, is the idea of existence being oppositional to the system. If we are to advocate for the right to act like ourselves, to be comfortable in our neurology, and to be able to contribute without being pressured to fit in, then we are existing in a way that must be oppositional to the neurotypical society around us. The accommodations we ask for, and the ways we have of expressing emotion will always be hard for NTs to grasp, and sometimes they might even be offensive to NTs (even after they know better). If our needs are truly needs, though, then we have to accept the fact that choosing to live an autistic life (openly, as opposed to passing) and to do what makes us comfortable is an inherently radical act. Not so radical as what the trans community faces, but still radical.

I'm not wading any deeper into parallels and philosophical comparisons--down that road lies madness (and the increasing likelihood that I'm just going to say something privileged and stupid). What I do want to say is that the idea that a mode of being is radical in and of itself is important, because much of my own struggle has been between the issues of assent and dissent. When I finally came to terms with my autism, I did not feel a real sense of loss, but more of a lightbulb moment of affirmation. I knew that it explained something that I had failed to understand, and that it also gave me an outside view of the differences between myself and others that I had lacked before. In a lot of ways, it was the first time I ever knew why the things I tried to do to imitate others never worked. It also marked a moment of real struggle for me, though.

Other people had always told me I was different, joked about how they didn't know if there was anything wrong with me, but they knew I had "something" that they couldn't deal with, etc. My own sister once congratulated my dad for "dealing with whatever Michael is" at his birthday party, as if it was one of the milestones of his life (this was about five years before my diagnosis, too). Even though other people always said I was different, they always phrased it in ways that made me think that I was just eccentric but trainable. When I proved to be untrainable in certain ways, I always viewed it as a failure. It didn't help that other people were happy to oblige and to help me see it as failure. Over the years, I started to consent to that treatment, too. I failed to see my problems as an issue of having different needs, and instead viewed them as my being incapable or talentless or downright stupid about certain things.

In short, I gave consent to my own mistreatment. Diagnosis did not end this--not overnight. I knew that autism was a developmental issue and not a mental illness, but there was still a strong sense that I should use my self-knowledge to compensate for my differences, not to enhance them. Training myself harder on social skills, concentrating on job interview skills, trying to learn to make small talk... all of these things felt so very important for a very long time, even after diagnosis. My attempts to fit into some kind of rehabilitation narrative eventually produced even more stress in my personal relationships than my ignorance ever had. Some of those stressors, like fighting with my mother, were a natural part of learning to express myself and they were unfortunate, but they are in the past. Some of them (like fighting with my father) were simply a long time coming, and any long-term changes to our relationship are probably better for me than the status quo was.

One of these stressors was accepting my atheism. Long before I ever started the conversation with my family about autism and dyspraxia and my other issues, I made it clear that I'm an atheist. I've always been an atheist. I always will be an atheist. The idea that an infinite being is both perfect and having attributes that contradict each other (omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence) is never going to fit into my head. For the longest time, I'd been living this life quietly and putting up with family members telling me it was a phase, or that I would find value in religion later in life "once my oats were sown". Once, I even apologized for laughing at my step-grandfather when he predicted that the end of the world was only months away because evangelical radio told him so. I felt dirty when I did it, but I did it because my father was adamant that I respect his views because they were "honest beliefs" and deserved respect.

Well, shortly after my diagnosis, I decided that I didn't want to respect honest beliefs that were self-deluded, and also that anyone who expected me to pray with them in violation of my own honest beliefs was an asshole.** And I started saying so. Atheism became a safe way for me to begin to articulate dissent. So I did.

It was about two years after I became vocal about my unbelief before I discussed autism issues with anyone outside of my partner and my one or two closest friends. It took me that long to get to the point where I was willing to accept that it was not just my belief system that was in opposition to mainstream society, it was the very core of my being. Getting there was not an easy journey, but now that I am there I am starting to understand social justice issues, and particularly the issue of privilege, in new lights. Having come to terms with my "otherness", both from what I expected to be and what others expect me to be, I am starting to find it easier to talk about my privileges as well (especially the whiteness and cis-maleness), and to acknowledge the ways that they have kept me from seeing and understanding problems faced by others.

There's a lot of talk in the atheism & skepticism communities about sexism, about how feminism fits into the conversation, and about why the community at large is so slow to adopt reasonable policies to deal with issues like sexual harassment. A good deal of the discussion, especially from the explicitly feminist and transfeminist authors, points out the inherent privileges of many vocal atheists as blind spots. I'm not citing because I can't count how many people I've heard articulate the basic argument that atheism is the thing that allows white, straight, heterosexual, neurotypical, able-bodied cis men to still feel persecuted. There's a lot of truth to that argument, but there's another side to it as well.

Atheism can be a training ground for speaking dissent. It can be a safer way to start to articulate the differences you feel before you become strong enough to articulate the differences that you embody. It can be a masturbatory cesspool for self-congratulatory old men, or it can be a breeding ground for the kind of self-assertive skepticism that is necessary for true identity to flourish. It can ready us for other important battles--battles about our political future, our civil liberties, and our bodies--if it is willing to be big enough. If atheism remains small, though, it will continue to be a bunch of old men suing to keep nativities off the courthouse lawn. That's important work, but it doesn't, ultimately, address the systemic abuses of religion (such as child sex abuse, domestic violence, entrenched ethnocentrism, etc.) that intersect with social justice issues.***

For my part, open atheism allowed me to eventually acknowledge the needs I have that can not possibly be met without accommodation. It made me comfortable admitting when people I am talking to just plain confuse me, and it made it possible for me to express discomfort at social touching and other expected behaviors that most people would not object to. It opened the door with (half) my family for conversations about my differences, and also about past injuries that I needed to come to terms with and achieve closure about. It has been a tool for growth, to assert first that I was choosing to be something other than what they were, and then to assert that I always had been. It's not an end, though. Other than a few vocal objections to prayer obligations and to UFO conspiracy theories, I don't talk about atheism with my family much any more. We've had that conversation, and I'm not an evangelist. Instead, we talk about autism and learning disabilities. We talk about the history of disorder that goes back at least four generations. We interrogate past diagnoses, attempting to discover whether some of the people we tranquilized and labeled insane were in fact, simply differently wired.

And we make plans for the next generation. I have at least one cousin on the spectrum, and two with ADHD. I speak now to make sure that they are not policed into silence before they are even adults. It's not easy, but telling my family things that they don't really want to hear has become natural now. It would be more uncomfortable to sit in uncomfortable silence, drinking my beer and waiting for the chance to politely excuse myself from their presence.

Maybe I'm still being a sexist (or at least privilege-blinded) white guy. Maybe. But maybe, I'm an only-semi-able-bodied, autistic bisexual who is finally getting comfortable with the fact that a lot of other white guys make me uncomfortable because they think they can say things around me that strike at the core of my being, and they police my behavior when I want to step outside of their expectations.

*Yes, I know there is a relationship between the two issues that may go deeper than just my surface-level comparisons. I've noticed anecdotally that many autistic people have (or had) gender dysphoria at some point in their lives, and the negotiation of gender roles does not go smoothly for us. I think this is important, and it probably explains why I feel drawn to read voices from the trans and genderqueer community, but I'm making no claims about links because I don't have enough to go on. This is interesting, though.

**Weird side note to this story: My mother, who is an uber-Catholic of the kind that serves as a prayer guardian for the host at the cathedral for her diocese, respects my abstaining from prayer at family gatherings and my right to reject her faith more than my father's entire family does. No one in my father's family except my uncle, who married a religious woman, ever goes to church. I don't know how to feel about that, except to feel grateful that my mother is more interested in having a good relationship than in brow-beating me. (My grandmother, on the other hand...)

***I'm explicitly not labeling this post "atheism plus". Not because I don't agree with the original idea, but because the A+ thing is looking too much like a good-guy badge right now. I don't buy it. Confront your bullsh*t first, and advocate for others second.

Final thought: I desperately want this not to read as an appropriation or as disrespect toward the trans community's unique struggles, but as a way of drawing parallels between two separate issues that share a common thread: they are matters of existential difference that may be invisible for some or all of one's existence. If I've stepped on any toes, feel free to let me know in the comments. Loudly if necessary.