Jeanette Purkis is an author, public speaker and advocate who has a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome and atypical schizophrenia. Jeanette has worked full-time in the Australian Public Service since 2007 and has a Masters degree in Fine Arts. She is the author of Finding a Different Kind of Normal (an autobiography), The Wonderful World of Work (an activity book to help teens on the Autism spectrum prepare for joining the workforce) and The Guide to Good Mental Health on the Autism Spectrum.
Last Saturday I reflected that I would be trolled as a result of the meme I had scheduled to post the next day but that I would post it anyway. The meme had the transgender Pride flag as the background and the text read: “Being trans and gender diverse is significantly more common among autistic people. This means whenever I am talking about autism, I am also talking about gender.”
Sadly I was correct and received a lot of trolling from several different people. One of the people I felt the need to block, due to their repeated online attacks, was someone I had once counted as a friend. It seems that transphobia is present even within the autism community and that fear and hate around gender diversity – for some people at least – is stronger than the ties of friendship.
So why did I post something which was always going to be contentious and ‘political’ and for which I knew I would receive criticism? There are a number of reasons. The most compelling reason became evident when several gender diverse autistic people thanked me for having the courage to post something affirming about trans and gender diverse experience. The other reason was that I simply don’t understand why gender diversity needs to be an issue. It upsets and irritates me that as a non-binary person to just be me and talk about my experience, I keep finding myself in the middle of arguments. I don’t think that this should be the case and I definitely don’t think it should be an issue within the autism or broader disability communities. I keep questioning why my gender is often seen as so very political when it is simply how I am.
The issue here is about how people see diversity. Some people seem to view diversity as only the diversity which relates to them. They can be, for example, a proud autistic person but then be transphobic, racist or homophobic…or whatever. This has never really been my approach. I like to think that if I expect people not to discriminate against me then I should be respectful to them as well. It makes sense as I see it but I sometimes feel quite lonely in this position.
Bigotry comes from a large variety of sources. We live in a society which can be very bigoted – fear-mongering about migrant groups, entrenched racism and sexism, attacks on anything which might be called ‘politically correct.’ As a member of quite a few diversity ‘groups’ I am often coming up against prejudice or bigotry of one kind or another. This is why bigotry within diverse communities baffles me so much. If a person doesn’t like being discriminated against because they belong to the ‘disability’ group for example, why then would they want to discriminate against someone else?
I think a lot of the issue relates to awareness and insight. A good deal of bigotry is the result of unconscious bias. This happens where people do not see their own privilege and do not realise that they are saying bigoted things or acting in bigoted ways. One way to address that is by building understanding of different experiences, which isn’t always easy but if it works it can be very effective.
One of the most important things is to raise the visibility of oppressed people’s reality and experiences. This can happen in a few ways. When I (or anyone else) posts about gender diversity within the context of the autistic community this is one way of doing that. I like the idea of perturbing people’s expectations and challenging them to see things differently and in a more inclusive way. I think another way of addressing this issue is by promoting a sense of pride in who we are and promoting an idea of our difference and diversity being a good thing. A lot of people don’t consciously identify with a diversity group so building their awareness and understanding of how their diversity fits within the world will hopefully get them thinking more broadly about the experiences of others.
I think the other key way of addressing this issue lies in humanising the experience of ‘Other’ groups. As an example, one of my relatives who is very strongly Christian used to be quite Islamophobic. It really bothered me but nothing I said could help them move past that thinking. This person was not a bigot in other areas but obviously had a sticking point with respecting Muslims. One day my relative had two asylum seekers staying with them as part of a program through their church and both were Muslim. The experience of spending time with those two young men did the trick for my relative and they see things differently now. I have not heard a whisper of Islamophobia from this person since. That might sound like a simplistic example but it can be a very effective means of addressing the bias. Humanising the ‘Other’ makes them less ‘Other’ and more ‘just a person like me.’
For all of these reasons I am delighted that I posted the meme on gender diversity. While the trolling was unpleasant, I felt justified in posting something ‘contentious’ as it added something affirming and positive to the discussion around intersectionality and in particular gender diversity and autism. It also gave strength to other trans and gender diverse autistic people who read it.
I long for the day when talking about my gender will not be considered a political act, I really do and I long for the day that I won’t get trolled from within my own community because of it. For now I will keep posting memes and writing on gender and try to bring people along with me and generate a sense of fellow feeling within different intersectional groups. I see this as a key issue, for if we want to overcome discrimination and disadvantage it makes sense to support others to do so as well. We are so much stronger united than we are divided.
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