Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Gender terminology for those who mean well

I recently needed to get a doctor’s signature on some paperwork. People need doctor’s notes for lots of reasons and this one wasn’t particularly interesting. I sent in the request by postal mail, and someone who’s not a doctor wrote back to me after apparently looking at my file (where it says “transgender”) and told me how awesome my “gender journey” is or some such invasive thing. First of all, this is a violation patient confidentiality. Second, it’s just paperwork; it is not “exciting”.

This vignette is straight out of the scary new world of wannabe “enlightened” trans allies. This progressive subculture is in danger of becoming very straight as it grows crazy-fast. The thing is, I don’t want your support for what you think I’m doing. The new liberal consciousness is oppressive – maybe not as bad as some of the alternatives, but it is not the way forward. In this essay I will spell out what is misleading about the new bundle of vocabulary and consciousness, and provide some new vocabulary and maybe even some consciousness along the way.

Vocabulary: childhood

A quick review of sex and gender vocabulary in a timeline form: In the beginnning, we’re a bit of DNA, and that has chromosomal sex. Over the next few months, this leads to our primary sex or gonadal sex (XX to female and XY to male, with exeptions of course). Somewhere in that timeframe, the brain, the largest sex organ, develops the brain sex, which usually follows chromosomal sex, but not always, and it’s probably not as binary and certainly less open to inspection. Research on this doesn’t appear to be extensive. (“Biological” sex is a vague term that assumes all these are the same, which they often are, but not always.) Read the rest of this entry »

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On the concept-clash between native voices and western LGBT

How do north american native people (first-nations, indians) view gender and gay/lesbian orientations? I went to read what regular people had to say about this on web forums and the like, intentionally ignoring “accepted” historical facts and anthropological views. The “ndn” voices that I found interesting are at the end.

I started by finding the term “two-spirited” applies to the whole LGBT umbrella, or so it seemed, and wondered why there wasn’t a lot of differentiation or specificity. That led to getting an inclination of a whole lot of deeper things that are quite different between the western and indian ways of knowing and structuring knowledge. Different languages don’t just have different words for the same things; they have different things. I’m relying here on natives using English to say things that English historically doesn’t name, so I’m sure I’m just touching the very edge of the topic.

1. Honor

The indian voices communicated to me that a person is primarily a spiritual being with a (temporarily) physical form, and thus what you see of a person is just a glimpse into their wholeness; we see only the bit of the person that’s showing in our world, and we don’t see all the rest. Therefore there is never a sense of capturing the whole person in any sentiment; you can’t lasso a person and describe them. They have mysterious and unrevealed parts. This seems to be connected to a kind of honor or respect that I don’t see as much in western thinking.

If you look at western debates on education, the main voices have a functional worldview – asking what our children need to know and be able to do, and how to make them into what is needed. It’s highly invasive, functional and reductionist in the sense that it doesn’t see a child as a temporarily physical form of the infinite spirit. If we did see a child that way, we wouldn’t be focused on questions of curriculum and behavior goals.

What I’m used to in my culture is a sense of wanting to capture and define other people, especially children, make policy that assumes we know the whole person. This seems to be connected to seeing a person as a cog in the machine; maybe the person “has” a soul but they are essentially a physical being only with functions. What you can and can’t do is highly important in the culture. There’s a struggle to be honored at a basic level; it isn’t automatic by being alive.

The indian way appears less about naming and classifying what other people are. This is attractive to me, especially when other people routinely invalidate my experience of my own life.

2. The LGBT variables

In our progressive language, “orientation” is who you are attracted to. Straight people might often have an assumption that being gay is a choice (they may have been educated to understand that it is not a choice, but it remains a baseline assumption, one that people have to be educated out of). So, we can think of orientation as an isolated variable, and it is part of the public debate on marriage and other things; people use the variable of orientation to oppress the minority.

There are videos and pamphlets going around lately with the aim of decoupling all the variables relevant to the LGBT scene – sex, gender, and orientation being the main ones. So the logic of those videos is that everyone is unique in many different ways – a person can have a female body and present androgoynously while identifying as male, and be bisexual, all at the same time. Within each of those variables there is a norm and a degree of variance, so a person can be dissected and graded on scales, so even though it’s “progressive” to be inclusive of all these variables, it is still feels medicalized and made into an atheist worldview, one that is reductionist: people are composed of functional parts.

The variables about a person with respect to sex that seem to be important to indians are limited to their body type and their role. The body type is just there, not always perceived to be highly determining, but it is the shape taken by the clay that we have to work with in this lifetime. The role played by a person in the family and tribe is the more important part. I saw over and over that those variables were mentioned as relevant and the other ones were ignored or questioned as not relevant.

3. Private and public

In the indian voices, I frequently saw people saying that orientation is private and has no business being discussed publicly. I feel like they honor the public space (or to invent a word, publicy, as opposed to privacy), and they want non-public issues to stay out of it to keep it clean. We westerners respect privacy (or at least talk about it), but the indians seem to respect publicy more, and maybe aren’t really concerned with privacy for its own sake.

Western concepts of orientation and identity are perhaps too invasive to be brought into public words, where language might have a tendency to codify and dissect a person. So those variables are much less a part of how indians describe other people.

4. Making an issue

A thing related to publicy I noticed was the protection against making up issues. While westerners seem to love to invent distinctions to create walls between people, the indian voices resented when non-indians did this on their forums. I felt a sort of sigh and a “why did you bring this up”, meaning the thing in question was peacefully sleeping and the act of bringing it up makes it into an irritant, which now has to be dealt with. It’s disrespecting publicy.

On forums when people ask specifically about lesbian issues, the overwhelming response is that other native people don’t get what the problem is. The responses ask things like “why are you manufacturing this issue?”

5. Roles and spirit

When we say “role” we don’t just mean who fixes the roof and who changes the baby. They mean the spiritual role – how their invisible infiniteness manifests itself in things like ceremonial dances. I saw in indian voices that people talk about dances to describe a role that a person plays. People didn’t bring up dances as a mere example of role-taking the way we might describe gender roles at a square dance. It’s more than just an example; the dance is an actual manifestation of the spirit. It’s where the person acts their spiritual role on earth. (I don’t know these things from studying them; I’m just seeing this in the voices I read today.)

That’s so big that it makes me cry.

The person has a gift, they have a role in all their spirit dimensions that the rest of us cannot see, and the role they play in the dance brings their earth-gifts and spirit together; I think maybe the role someone plays day to day is the same thing, only in a less ceremonial way. So… the person chooses to dance, or they feel they must dance because of their role. I saw several places where people choose a different role than others expect. The elders don’t stop them from doing it. This is where LGBT comes in. They are two-spirited if they have more than one role. Roles are spirit.

I have the impression that what we westerers call a butch lesbian who takes a traditionally male role in her family (as an example) would be seen more as two-spirit, while a feminine lesbian who takes a female role in her family would not be. Because who she loves is not in the public realm, but her role is.

6. Morality

Westerners have a big connection between moral behavior and LGBT issues. But in the indian voices, I didn’t see any original notion or morality as a concept connected to LGBT things. They only responded to non-indians bringing in morality. It appears that morality of private behavior is private and therefore not worthy of public comment.


Now, here are excerpts of some of the indian voices I was reading. I’m adding my questions and observations about what some of them said.


1. “I have met a TS Mi’kmaq who identified a word and role that comes from within the culture. The challenge is to find linguists who can identify the words that have essentially been deleted from the contemporary version of the language and oral tradition. The problem is that today’s societies have adopted a western view of gender, i.e. male and female, which undermines and invalidates the recognition of third and fourth gender identities. If people accepted the pre-contact worldview which was inclusive of diversity, they would have to re-think everything else, so the status quo is maintained and tolerated.”

I’m reminded that being anthropological and reducing/naming in a western way in this essay. The western mind cannot reduce and name and at the same time be “inclusive of diversity” in the full spiritual sense.


2. [The way I can describe it is that] “Pow Wow Spirits [one-spirited] are more grounded to Mother Earth and their sacred pipes to Sweat Lodges and the Medicine Wheel. I think they are more closer to Mother Earth with thier dancing skills and more informative. Potlatches [two-spirited]? Well that’s my people. They seem to do more Super Natural dances. Like the Bukwas-Saushquatch. Or the Crooked Beak Of Heaven. I guess our people were more of a spirit beings individuals the way we perform our potlatches. We dance inside a building around a fire…”

This person loosely defines people by their dances – what role they take when acting the spirit on earth. I am not sure if they are talking about the same thing (what we would call LGBT).


3. I guess we can also see it this way as nightfalls into daybreak? …We that’s sort of a way to see what the world we live in the daylight surrounded by this endless blue sky. Out onesided thinking are in total awe isn’t? Sunrise to wake up to. The nightlight? Well that’s completely different performance now. Stars everywhere and the moon of course. We think differently at night then we do on day. It’s a bedtime story here. There’s a 2-spirited thinking for us all to ponder. Life is full of questions and we learn from them as we look into the sunset.

I wonder if this person is using English in a parody of how poorly it is suited to what they are saying. Do not try to parse, grok, or systemetize this statement.


4. I think most tribes have their own views of “gay/lesbian” people, but I can only tell you what I know about “our” Winkte. These were men who did women’s work, and dressed and behaved like a woman. I know that a few of them would live together and keep house together, but as is EVERYONE’s right, their sexual life was never NEVER EVER a topic of discussion. That was between them, if they wanted to, just like any heterosexual person. But, since these Winkte were more women than men, I don’t image they would be intimate, like in a Homosexual way, but then again, who cares!!!!????!!! Gah, I can’t believe I’m talking about this…..Got the indian blush going on now…..

I don’t think that the European/Wasicu way of looking at people with different lifestyles can be directly applied to our cultures, regardless of what tribe you are from. Their was is very judgemental and full of fear. In my own tribe, men worry about men things, women worry about women things, and when they had to get together and worry about the tribe, I don’t think that anyone’s sexuality was a factor in who had a voice or rights, and who did not. The Winktes I know are extraordinarily gifted in beadwork, sewing, quillwork, or singing and dancing. They are also good horsemen (people??), and from my own experience, they make the best, the VERY best babysitters…..but oooooweeeee….the winktes I know sure can gossip….even more than ME!!

The person crossed the line into invading publicy and expressed shame for it. Noting fear goes with being judgmental and naming and classifying.


5. So we are talking about “two spirits” on this thread. Not a problem unless you have questions about your own sexuality. If you are comfortable with who and what you are, a two spirited person should not concern you at all. Yes there are two spirits in our native community. Every other community has them too. It’s just part of life. A two spirited person can usually see both sides male and female. That makes them good people to help exchange idea between the sexes. Role reversal was and still is common. Some just keep to themselves because of what the white society has taught them. It’s sad because a two spirit has so much to offer the community. I know this for a fact because I have learned much from a native two spirit who happens to be an employee and a good friend of mine. I didn’t hire her because she was a two spirit. I hired her because she was good at the job she does. She is also dedicated and reliable. Sky is one of my best audio engineers. That’s a fact!

I’m reading a focus on gifts and roles, and no discussion that invades or speculates about the other person’s “orientation”. Instead there is a plea for public role performance, not retreating.


6. When I was young and somewhat dumb…..Our NDN student association was having a powwow, so I attended a powwow meeting. Much to my suprise there were several people (non-Indians) who attended the meeting and offered support…..hey that was fine, no problem….BUT as we went around the room and introduced ourselves. A woman explained how she was a member of a group who encountered similar racist and ignorant “isms” that skins experienced….As she continued I sat there wondering where she was going with this? Eventually she said she was a Lesbian….well I said I was young and somewhat dumb…..I cut her right off and asked; “what does your sexuality have to do with me being Indian?” Mind you my delivery was by far not sugar coated…..Looking back I did not have to be so extreme, but again I was young and naive….

I’m wondering if she feels that being indian is a public matter while being lesbian is a private matter.


7. 500 years ago, two spirits in our culture were no different then they are today except for the influances taught by other invading cultures. Those teachings were stuffed down us by oppression. It caused a lot of us to be just like the cultures that show intollerence to others. Remember they all came here and attemted to distroy our culture. (there still trying) We didn’t invade them. In the old days each member of the community had a place and job. Everyone worked together. It didn’t matter who or what you were, you had a part. Because of invading cultures, the two spirit people have been forced to go underground so to speak. Is that fair to them? Is that fair to us as well? For hundreds of years out two spirited people have been forced to hide because of invading cultures that were out to distroy them. For all these years a part of our people and yes other cultures have been forced to hide. Look at all that a two spirit does for our culture. Look at all that was lost because of other cultures that have damaged ours. Every person has a purpose in this life!

More focus on roles and contributing gifts publicly over exposing the inner life.


8. When you love another person that means you love everything that makes them them. You can’t state that you love one part of a person and despise another part. That makes no sense, and it is not truly love. I have seen first hand what happens when a person is made to feel like they have to pretend they are something they are not, and when they are taught to hate something that is unchangeable about themselves. To do this to another person is a form of murder, it is completely destructive to that persons spirit, and no one who truly cared or loved that person would do that to them.



9. The western mind is taught to think in dichotomies (white/black, master/slave, NDN/non-NDN). And those of us who have experience being in-between in one way or another know the world is a much bigger place than that and we know the diversity of the human family is much wider in scope than most care to imagine. Traditionally, we Native people have always been good at being able to deal with and understand 2 or more seemingly opposing realities being true or not negating each other.



10. What is the purpose of even creating this debate? I have known Mr. Anderson since I was a young child. I have great respect for him. But why is he wasting his time with this issue, when many of our people need so much.

This comment refers to a forum comment made about someone’s sexual orientation. Indian voices on web forums feel remarkably calm to me at all times except when there is a sense of invasion of publicy – a sense of the forum itself being polluted.


11. I’m a woman and I get a lot of disrespect for dancing Men’s traditional. There are those that say it is not traditional for a woman to dance this way. I am saddened at the ignorance when it comes to the tradition of the Two-spirit. The Cherokee word is Ski-Gin (that way) in Lakota we are called the Winkte (two spirits) to be a two spirit is to be a person who bi, les, gay etc. What’s sad is most (not all) native cultures highly respected people like me who were two spirits. I guess I’m just nervous, I’m headed to a inter tribal pow wow tomorrow and its going to be so hard for me, I know that there will be looks and frowns people thinking I am not traditional or that perhaps I’m simply doing it for attention or to disrupt tradition. … Even though I’m Winkte and its tradition for me to dance either womens or men’s traditional I always ask permission before entering the circle. I don’t agree with switch dancing as its a mocking of heritage and culture. I dance men’s traditional because it is what I am supposed to do, it is not a laughing matter.


12. Two spirit is a modern term. You must be whatever your tribe/culture calls you. You cannot be a winkte, that term was used only for men who assumed the gender roles of women. There was no Lakota gender form of a woman who assumed the roles of men. Too many contemporary homosexual pick and choose terminology from tribes they are not a part of to justify a modern lifestyle that has no direct connection to an historic form. I am not trying to be negative, I am trying to be honest with you. If you are cherokee, then be cherokee.

This was a response to the previous excerpt.


13. [M]y understanding of two spitit is one of gender identity, not sexual orientation. two spirit equals transgender in my opinion. i know, im transgender. when i came out as it were, the native side of my family accepted me as is.the white side of my family chose to shun me, they still do. this has a lot to do with why i chose to live on the indian side of the road. i can easliy pass as white, i chose not to. people go where they are accepted. today i no longer have my fathers surname i have my mothers, legally. knowledge of the two spirit tradition helped me accept myself to cease all self harm behaviors, and love myself.


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newsflash: women are more relational

Circles of protection

The Little House on the Prairie enlightened me as to why women and men are different and what the difference is. In the book, the threat of not surviving the winters means that they must each do what they are best at. For example they can’t afford to divide the childcare equally, because it is more important that the father’s strength is used more productively on things that require strength; otherwise they may all perish. Likewise, if you imagine being in a modern precarious situation with your baby and its opposite sex parent (say, your car broke down in a storm), then the three of you would naturally divide up what needs to be done based on the best outcome (what you are each best suited for), not based on your preferences or sense of fairness.

The division of tasks in those situations can often follow the traditional circles of protection: the mother is the inner circle around the baby so she can nurse it, and the father is the outer circle so he can protect against external threats. In discussions on what makes the sexes different, the circles of protection theory seems to be the most natural and timeless to me. Even if you are coming from a position of fairness and equality and – like me – you resist believing in any difference at all, you can’t argue things like who has the milk and who’s usually bigger.

Whether by selection or culture, the circles idea seems to explain other differences. For example in Little House, the mother handles immediate daily needs of children and home, while the father does projects with a more singular long term focus – by necessity. Or the simple way to look at it is that her role is to put dinner on the table today, and his role is to put dinner on the table next winter. This can explain why women are usually more able to multitask about present-moment tasks and men are more able to plan the future, in the sense of architecting real changes from an abstract idea. In other words, differences like these are not necessarily just a product of cultural expectations. So in both time and space, the shortcut way of thinking about the difference is “inner vs outer.”

There’s more genetic variation among men because, at least in part, some of their genes are unpaired, while all female genes are in pairs. A mutation in an unpaired gene is more consequential, so more variation is expressed in the male genome. Males are a lot less viable as fetuses – perhaps because of more expressed mutations. Also males have a wider variation in height and other physical features than females. We can observe that the most extreme people are men, and women tend to be a bit more similar to each other. For example the cruelest despots and criminals are nearly all men, and the most brilliant scientists and composer are also nearly all men. There’s some idea that an equal number of women would have risen to fame and success if they had been allowed, but I think that is only partly true, because the genetic spread would predict a wider spread in men’s abilities. So if you look at the way people vary, you get the same inner/outer idea from a different angle: women are collectively more on the inner circle of variance (more alike) and men on the outer.

All versus each

The inner/outer split also extends to what it feels like for me to be around women and men. I can’t prove anything here, but it always feels like women have the shared feeling that we’re all in it together, while men are more “every man for himself”. It’s not necessarily a difference in independence or being more/less controlling, but just a recognition that there’s all women and then there’s each man. In crowds, women inch toward each other like grazing animals, in a way that is protective, but if men did the same thing, it would feel predatory. (Not always, just a general pattern.) Since I present ambiguous gender, one of the ways that I can tell how I’m being gendered is feeling how other women occupy space around me: if the tension in their aura goes down as they get closer, then I know I’m being femaled and we’re in that inner circle. If I have the inclination to do the same thing back but I’m being gendered as male, then I become aware of the predatory vibe being reflected back and I stop doing it.

That kind of nonverbal social control is part of maintaining that box of shame that I’ve spent my life living in. When a chick breaks free of its shell, people are overcome with with how darn cute the thing is and they get very encouraging, but when I’ve tentatively tried to peck my way out of my shell, it feels like the reception I get is more like “get that hideous thing back in its shell!”. So as a young transgender child, when I felt that a fundamental aspect of me was not acceptable, I learned to live in the closet, and I didn’t really know that people can safely be themselves in public.

A very short shortcut way of naming the inner/outer concept is by saying women are more relational. This is easily misunderstood, as I don’t think women want relationships more or that they are better at it; it is just another way of saying we are in that inner circle, or saying we feel the all over the each.

Emulating models

I took a voice class recently. I had been wanting to do this for years because when I talk, unlike E.F. Hutton, people too often either don’t hear me or assume I’m wrong, so I wanted to project more confidence. I found a class that was geared toward finding your feminine voice, so part of the class was about enumerating differences in speech between women and men at all different levels.

There are cheap and easy ways to talk about the differences, and in the class, the conversations could easily drift toward saying men are insensitive jerks or going along with the “men are always wrong” idea, although that kind of judgment was veiled in less direct (more feminine) language. Yes, we’ve probably all experienced men doing really dumb things when no woman was around to stop them, but I think and hope that’s a product of cultural conditioning and isn’t really the root of the differences. So I found myself trying to consciously lock in on a mental image of enlightened strong men. This particular mental task doesn’t come naturally to me, and I found my images to be mainly either tending to the jerks, or the churchy “nice” men who act like women but without the strengths of women. So the image of Laura Ingalls’s father was a nice third way to break that false duality of weakness – a man putting dinner on the table next winter, and being strong from a center of love.

I also had the opposite trouble during that class of being unable to lock in on the image of a woman worth emulating. She would not be that hopelessly weak woman who infringes her own movement with skirts too tight around the knees and who raises her voice at the end of every sentence to alleviate any threat by signaling universal incompetence. There’s a lot of easily observed differences in patterns of speech and manners along these lines that are related to submission. It helped to notice that other strong feminists, other autistic women – and in general people that I would want to be more like – do not tend to follow those submission patterns.

In the process of trying to tease apart what is a real difference and what is a self-imposed limitation from the culture, I practiced things in a theatrical way, and through that, discovered tendencies that had been buried. One difference is that women gesture during speech with the forearm and hands only, while men use their whole arms more – they control a bigger piece of space. When this was brought to my attention (I had not thought about it like that before), I realized that I went through phases in life of changing the way I do this one thing. I didn’t think about how I gestured until Junior High, when people would tell me that if I continued to gesture certain ways, I would get beaten up or teased. I adopted a strategy of consciously suppressing movements and walking and carrying things certain ways. People didn’t have backpacks then: boys carried books at their sides while girls carried them protectively cradled in front. I carried them the girl way until I was told it was wrong, and then I made myself remember to carry them the boy way. This and many other unnatural things were forced on me and have been stuck there for so long, that it feels like it will take a long time to release them.

Coming out should never be about imitating, but doing some practice acting can loosen up things and help a person to be more free to be themselves. In the long list of behavioral differences discussed in that class, I considered where I fall in each one. Few individual people, whether trans or not, fall naturally completely on one side for all the differences. They are general patterns, and people usually have some of both. Yet a lot of people seem to put a lot of energy into conforming themselves, like those Junior High gender enforcers I encountered. They want to purge any aspect of themselves that doesn’t match their concept of their gender. That same thing seems to go on with trans people, and a person can get too caught up with imitation.


Now I’m going to change focus a little to the actual ways of analyzing speech, and what the male/female differences are. The core reason why all these things are different seems to be the way women are more relational (understanding the limitation on what I mean by that word), which ultimately comes from the circles of protection. In the list below, I’m mostly listing differences that have been observed by academics, so these are real (averages not absolutes!), and not just my own generalizations.

(1) Choice of topic. Men talk about things, and particularly things that may be abstracted away from themselves in space and time, while women talk more about experiences and current feelings. I think this is a direct fallout of the roles that we end up in, as Little House explains. To get dinner served today, you have to stay focused on current needs of the people present – relational! To get dinner served next winter, you have to stay focused on future needs.

(2) Motivation to communicate. Men like to demonstrate competence, which highlights the difference between themselves and others (the each), while women like to feel bonded and protected, thus highlight similarities (the all – relational!).

(3) Conversational shape. Women take turns and confirm each other’s statements with continuous feedback (relational!) while men are more likely to interrupt and not provide listening feedback. Women connect the topic with the other person much more (relational!) – such as if I say I’m tired, I would also comment on whether the other person looked tired too, or relate it in some way.

(4) Choice of sentences. Men make more objective, judging statements (something is or does something) and give advice more. Women ask questions, make more empathic or emotional remarks, give compliments, expose their own weakness, and apologize more – relational! Appearing uninformed is a no-no for men but is more ok for women.

(5) Sentence construction. Women more often join phrases into longer sentences, use more words, more pauses, and append more indirect tags such as disclaimers and other softeners. (“So… I’m afraid we might be running a bit late, do you think?”) Men don’t. (“We are late.”) I think what’s going on here is that women are padding out the ideas to make it a two-way communication (relational!) even while the other person is not talking – they are watching and listening for vibes while talking.

(6) Word choice. Women use inclusive pronouns (“we”) more (relational!), a larger variety of descriptive adjectives, and more terms of affection (relational!). Men swear a lot more often, speak in the first person more, and have a smaller descriptive vocabulary.

(7) Phoneme voicing. Women rest longer on vowels than men (soooo, instead of so) particularly as stress. Men use volume or staccato as a form of stress punctuation. I think this is extremely relevant to the idea of being relational because women are being receptive during the voicing of the vowel so it has to take more time. It’s not so much a higher thought process but not exactly unconscious either. Imagine a woman saying “soooo?” when she really means “what happened last night?” and think of all the expressions on the other person’s face she can read if she draws it out long enough. She could get a vibe and change the way the sound is intoned a couple times during the same vowel.

(8) Intonation and pitch. Intonation is the change in pitch over a word or words, beyond what is necessary to distinguish the words themselves. Women have higher pitch and intone (or sing) sentences more – a bigger range of pitch. Men have a greater physical pitch range (including falsetto) but use less of that range in speech. Interestingly, women use a higher pitch when speaking to men than they do when speaking to other women – the submissive aspect perhaps. I don’t have a great idea why the up-and-down pattern is feminine, but perhaps women are communicating more relational layers and thus need more aspects to inflect to get those layers across.

(9) Resonance. Resonance is the wave shape, influenced by which body cavities the sound travels through – like how the resonating chamber of different instruments produces different sounds. An identical pitch sung by a man and woman sound different enough to usually identify the sex of the singer because the shape of the instrument is different.

Grazing while female

In all of these 9 layers, a person could just use the information to adopt techniques like an actor learning to express a new role. But to me it is more powerful to use this to discover the real me whether it conforms or not. The idea that women are more relational may be obvious to anyone reading this but it was a newsflash to me, and here’s the flash part: People are out in public. What I mean by that is: my natural inclination to act relationally, which is a source of fear for me, is the same inclination that other people express shamelessly. I have PTSD symptoms from simply acting and speaking according to my natural inclinations and getting threats in return. It feels like there is a prohibition against grazing while female, but learning that other people routinely express themselves in that relational way shows me that other people are not subject to that law.

I would like to get a radio signal from my home planet saying “permission to be self granted” and have this permission be magically authoritative. But self-imposed laws don’t melt away so easily.

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In which the political is personal

The story of the friend

This is the story of a short term friend and my thoughts about our interpersonal drama, justice, pain and oppression. This friend could be triggered by almost anything related to intimacy and sexuality. The topic evoked memories of abuse and maybe boundaries got unglued, and there was fear and anxiety. The unexpected thing is when he got triggered, his response was to talk about the subject even more. He sent email on the subject, and took the initiative to change the topic to tell me all the bad stuff, but also asked me not to talk about it. When someone confides all that personal trauma to me, it makes me feel that I’m safe to them, and that I’m not a triggery person for them. I was not careful enough about those topic boundaries. One time, probably only our second meeting, I said what I thought was interesting about the kink scene (that power relationships are codified instead of coercive as with the culture at large) (not a good topic choice!) and he said he “would like to try that”. That surprised me to hear. I later learned the under stress he might say the opposite of what he believed, because he had been conditioned to never go against anyone. His response to a thing so terrifying was to put on the most convincing act to cover it up, sending the most intensely mixed messages I’ve ever experienced.

Our demons keep hurting us from the inside and they are attention seeking. When boundaries are broken, maybe we can’t tell if we’re looking at our demons in a mirror or if we’re seeing the outside world. It’s not like burning your hand and pulling it away; it’s more like burning your hand and leaving it there. The ongoing pain must have a source, and we’re always looking for it, and we see the demons in other people while feeling the pain.

Meanwhile I was fine with personal topics; it is easy for me to go there when someone feels safe to me, which he did. So we had a landmine of a friendship waiting for someone to set it off. Post-detonation, the narrative was that I was supposed to admit that I was wrong, wrong for doing something aggressive against him. The exact crime is a mystery but is possibly in the neighborhood of luring someone into a false friendship with bad intent, manipulating them to become vulnerable. (Now that I wrote that idea, it does seem likely that very thing happened to him in the past.)

Being elusive

I wonder about my role in relationship messes of course – sometimes it feels like I have no role, but nothing like this is manufactured entirely on one side. I was a simplistic and passive observer, didn’t take a stand, didn’t characterize our friendship any way, put no limits or expectations on it. If he said something I just took it at face value and didn’t consider much that he may have meant something else. I can’t usually see the build up of interpersonal problems, so unless you say otherwise, I assume that nothing is hidden and everything is fine. I didn’t have him in a “friendzone” or any other zone, just open. Some people hate about me that I can be so reflective and so much like an insubstantial breeze, not even quite there.

I’m the sort of person who tends to take the least comfortable chair in a room, because anyone else who comes in will automatically deserve the better chair. I have no business being pretty or having pretty things. I can’t possibly need anything special. “Don’t mind me.” It’s a struggle to believe I deserve the same as others or to put my needs or boundaries into language.

When there’s conflicts involving me, I usually don’t participate directly (I don’t even feel conflicts) but the person having the issue puts energy into pinning me down, labeling, characterizing me. It’s hard to strike at the breeze; the wind is like those inner demons, not really there; you can’t strike until you pin it down. My feelings are never a thing to talk about; I’m just the invisible force acting on their feelings.

Being superpowered

My triggers are hard to put into language, but there are many things that give me anxiety spikes and make me shut down and feel sick, and they shorten my life. So yes I have feelings. Some things that trigger me are being told who I am or what I am, being told I’m worthy or unworthy, being put on a pedestal, and judgments of my intent. It’s all about being defined and pinned down when I’m not that way. I get to define myself, or choose not to define myself (who needs an identity after all?). Other triggers are hearing about sexual promiscuity or seduction (power imbalance!), indirect small talk, empty social gestures, and being told I’m responsible for magical destruction. That last one is what I think of as being superpowered – by which I mean people overestimate my actual power; they project magic abilities on me. My aunt would treat me as if I could ruin something by looking at it and my touch would infect an object permanently. When something goes sour, it must have been my fault or I must be the ringleader. When someone superpowers me, it’s a big anxiety trigger even now.

Here’s how I think about the superpower: Let’s say there was an aggression – I might have tripped you or struck you or insulted you, but could I have hurted you? Saying it like makes “hurt” an action, as if it is a specific intentional thing distinct from other actions. But really, hurting is an effect of doing actual things, so saying that someone “hurted me” is superpowering the aggressor. A real action is something the aggressor could either continue doing or stop doing; they have the power. Realizing that a hurt is an effect and not an action empowers the person who is hurt: it isn’t just up to the aggressor whether hurt happens. We all participate in our own oppression.

One of the arguments with my friend went something like this: “You hurt me / I didn’t mean to / It doesn’t matter what the intent was, only the fact that it happened matters.” Deconstruction: In law, intent does matter but also negligence without intent matters. If someone’s actions were legal and they had good intent and they were not responsible for others (such as a child), then any hurt that ensues is considered the victim’s own fault, for good reason. It’s the difference between blaming the victim and empowering the victim. Blaming the victim is when responsibility for an actual bad action is assigned to the victim, such as “if she wasn’t wearing ___, that wouldn’t have happened to her”. But if the action is magical (no crime was committed) then assigning responsibility to the victim is empowering. If I’m hurt by magic (by superpowering someone else), then I can say “If I can stop being triggered (or otherwise strengthen my thoughts), I will stop being hurt” and that gives me a way out that doesn’t rely on anyone else.

But in the interpersonal sphere, we can’t normally make the choice to stop being triggered (we can’t heal instantly) and so we rely on others to not only not hurt us, but to protect us. When we are vulnerable we give away that power.

Dominance and submission

When there is an interpersonal conflict, the dominant person’s feelings are at stake and the submissive person’s actions are at stake. The conversation between the mob boss and the underlings is about whether the underlings’ actions were in service of the boss’s feelings; no one expects the boss to do anything but sit there, and no one cares what the underling is feeling. Married people seem to get into this kind of debate – “you didn’t do the right thing to serve my feelings” and we forget that there’s my actions and your feelings too. To get back to my parenthetical remark about the kink scene, that’s exactly what they claim to do better: they make the dom/sub roles explicit and purposeful, while the rest of us pretend we’re being equal when we’re not.

I often feel I’m submissive, but at the same time I don’t like relationships with dominant people, so I also think of myself as thriving on equality. If I can’t have equality I go vacant. It is hard to take a different role. With my ex friend, he lost communication once while we were ordering food (he’s autistic too) and things were really lagging with the restaurant people until I finally came to terms with the fact that I had to decide for him what kind of salad to get, or else we weren’t going to get a salad. That’s terrifying for me to control people, even about a salad.

It’s also hard for me to find anger. My friend recounted my abuse of him as if some stranger had done that same thing to my child, thinking that might “bring it home” and make me feel the anger. But it felt like the same story since I have as much compassion for him as for my child. I get that he was terribly hurt, but I don’t link that to anger or the existence of an enemy.

Working for justice

I thought of our friendship as political, as if we were allies with each other in a larger struggle. I’ve never been part of a movement although I’ve spent decades wanting to be a person who heroically works for justice. In truth my life is utterly gray and has been filled with desperation. I have the disability without inspiring any of the pity, no one lowers the bar a little or accommodates. I’m neither pitiful enough nor radical enough. I’m not anything enough, not a cute kid or an amazing artist, so ignorable, so inherently noncompetitive.

I’ve always been in a valley between worlds of people who have coalesced into an oppressed-group identity on one side, and the elite of the dominant culture on the other side (my family). From the oppressed side, I don’t get to be included because I’m not perceived to be disadvantaged enough, but from the other side I don’t get many of the alleged privileges. I have some – for example, my father got me a summer job once just by talking to a business owner and appearing erudite and established and valid, in a way that likely would not have worked for a black family (for example); but I can’t do those things myself.

The quakers can get so self-aware about privilege that it spills into a learned helplessness, and people will overly defer to anyone who appears oppressed. I might have a lot to say about the economy, but if some brown woman named Estrella walks in the room, she’s automatically more qualified to speak, and I feel queasy because the quakers are still using we/they language and Estrella is never really seen as one of them, while Star is. I’m always jealous of those Estrellas – they have more oppression points. It’s the “weaker person is automatically right” syndrome.

I’m actually part of more than one oppressed group, but I don’t feel I have a lot of oppression points – ironically it is the act of buying in to ones own oppression that can make one feel unworthy of it. Remembering that the Christians colonized my Celtic ancestor’s land puts me in a better place to work for justice than if I think of my ancestors as those Christians who later colonized North America. Both stories are true but the first gives me more points and more energy. We get into our oppressed space to be powerful.

Despite being gray, marginal, submissive, and lacking in points, I can be threatening and destabilizing. Sometimes I can tell when I am doing something right because people start to get defensive, and they start counseling me to not do what I’m doing, or they start insulting me or using words like “prudent”. For example when I say I should be accepted as an equal or have an equal voice as others, and that angers them, then I know I’m out of line and I should keep going in that direction. If a vulnerable person gives protective power to a breeze like me, I might blow a door open somewhere.

Personal politics of oppression

I believe fighting from the base of solidarity against all oppression is the true way, but it’s easily twisted. I have more disability so I win. It makes it an incentive to be weak and say “look at all my oppression.” Anyone with a privilege is “blind” to everything. I think all the twisting is a side effect of trying to be genuine and overcome our oppressions, but we’re not always clear where the demons are. Then we’re back to the saying oppressors hurted us, they did something magical, and they have all the power.

When we make politics interpersonal, a fight between friends, I think it can really twist it more. We might try to classify some interpersonal hurt as an instance of a global oppression, then we’re building walls instead of alliances. When I say I thought of my friendship as political, I think maybe it went to the level of playing out a bigger battle between us. Because the politics of oppression is inherently about internal psychological growth, specifically overcoming false narratives, it’s more important that in these struggles we hit barriers and learn from friends, than it is that we win. Winning doesn’t necessarily free us from our existing narrative if that’s the narrative that oppresses us. Winning doesn’t keep friendships intact.

Going irl

I think it is easy to stay black and white and do your justice work on line and not get into trouble. By that I mean you can avoid growth. I worry that the whole realm of “active listening” and all sorts of community building and conflict resolution techniques that I’ve been exposed to a lot has been lost in today’s on line justice scene. When we talk to people off line, hurt happens but there is not a clear line between the good and bad people. I had this thought in relation to my friend who probably found it easier to fight in more clearly delineated camps on line, and maybe didn’t have much experience working through an actual conflict experience in person.

In person you can’t be perfect; you have much less control over how you appear and the energy you send out. You may think you’re being genuine on line but it’s too easy to craft an image. You can fabricate your membership in disadvantaged groups and award yourself all kinds of oppression points.

There’s an idea I keep seeing lately: We didn’t win rights in the past by being nice, so if someone tells me to “be nice”, that’s in itself an oppressive act. If being nice means being marginalized, then yes – telling people to be nice can be a way of ignoring their message. But there’s a related aspect that is critical to working together which is listening and working through conflict. Ultimately when we win the “fight” for universal justice, it won’t be a fight against anyone; everyone will have won.

I don’t expect to hear from my friend again but I’m pretty sure he will bounce back and do great things.

A random link

Today’s thoughts remind me of this stream of consciousness story I wrote 21 years ago, also about being triggered an about being “not there”.

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Culture clustering

People have often splained me that I’m nothing like people on the “other end of the autism spectrum” – I’m practically normal (oh yay). Yet I feel closer to those “other” nonverbal can’t-hold-a-job types a lot more than I feel normal. It feels like a sharp divide, as if a single gene drives the trait and people either have it or they don’t. Rationally I know that it isn’t a single gene, and that nearly all mental traits are allocated to us in a normal distribution, with one mode (one hump in a distribution graph). How could we be a smooth continuum when it feels so bi-modal?

I offer the following as a possible explanation.

In a storm it is safer to be out on clear sea, or up on land, than to be near the beach between land and sea; as conditions worsen, people flee from the beach. Likewise when a slow train rolls through a village being evacuated, with its giant gravity, people run towards it hoping to grab hold, but it is safer to be either fully in the train or far away from it; the most dangerous place is the in-between where you might get hit by it or be dragged as you partly hold on and partly fall off. Viewed from far above, as the train heads out of the village, you would see a line of people spreading out, the faster ones gaining on the train and the slower ones losing ground. Then there would come a sharp point in time where a fissure develops; those who are ever going to reach the train split off from those who are never going to reach the train, and they coalesce into two distinct groups – the evers and the nevers.

Likewise in culture there tends to be a danger zone between being with it and being out of it, and the same phenomenon holds: the beach, the edge, is deserted; there is a gap and we migrate to camps. Those on the culture train or who are gaining on it are the evers and the others are the nevers. There may be a certain natural distance from the train (the genes, the normal distribution), but then there is the choice – do I run for it or not? People close to it are overcome by its gravity and run for it as if they have no choice. People far away may notice the train and don’t presume to have the choice; or they are so far that they don’t notice the train. Those in the intermediate zone feel the gravity but it is not consuming; we have to choose to run for it or run away, and thus there is a vacant area between the two groups of people.


In which queer

I had three periods of life that I was more out as a girl, while I spent the in between times hiding. The first of those out times was from birth through early elementary school. I could see gender in others but didn’t feel that any rules about it applied to me. I knew that girls were my people and boys were inexplicable. I didn’t know I was being dressed “as a boy” because I didn’t really notice clothing (except those godforsaken sailor suits which were just effervescing with boy and I still hate them). My parents made assumptions but didn’t force it too much (like, they didn’t make me live in a room with football wallpaper); generally I was allowed to be me.

Then, gradually any female expression was extinguished through a conspiracy of peers and adults. If you wear that again, you will be beaten up. If you walk like that, you will be beaten up. You can’t go there. And so on. So that’s how I learned how to carry books, to cut my nails short, to avoid drawing certain things, and all the hundreds of other ways that I was supposed to show gender. I did it to escape being beaten. It was only fear, and I hated doing it. The problem with that technique is that they extinguished most of me, not just a few isolated girlish traits. If I loved anyone, it was dangerous. Adults thought that my efforts to connect to other girls in first grade was prototype romantic behavior, and they teased me, so I learned to keep feelings hidden. It wasn’t just the other kids doing the damage.

The rest of my school years, I was a stiff person who hardly ever talked and couldn’t make friends. If I was asked what I was (like how when someone has a baby, they tragically ask what is it?) I would close up and not be able to talk at all and I’d eventually squeak out that I was a boy, hoping no one else would hear my lie, not knowing any other escape. I’d come home on hot days and run to change out of conformity clothing into something nice, sometimes dresses until that was teased out of me. The rigidity at school was so oppressive and I was lucky to be able to decompress at home.

Bathrooms. After an accident in first grade, they showed me the bathroom designated for me, which I had not known about before. I was actually observant but had probably dismissed bathroom related information because the teachers likely tied it up with gender which didn’t make sense to me. Then for the next nine years, I didn’t use a bathroom at school, not even once – too dangerous. I didn’t ride a bus or go on the playground after third grade, because I could be beaten and no one would see. I developed a radar for where safe adults were at all times, and what my escape routes were. This took up a big chunk of my mental energy all those years and I never relaxed. There were danger zones though, such as the first 30 feet out the back door of the middle school, which was unpatrolled, and I had to cross that to get to a street to the gas station where I parked my bike.

Although I got the occasional kick or punch, and was harassed a lot, I never was full-out beaten up, and I attribute this to my unerring vigilance, and also to some ironic privileges of being trans. Boys target other boys to establish rank, but I was spared that because – as I guess – that kind of bully tends to have a lot of social intuition and they never took me for a boy. Adolescent boys then start attacking girls for different reasons, but I wasn’t seen as a sex object so I escaped that too.

When it came to checkboxes and other gender binary features of adult life, I had been so crushed that I didn’t feel there was any way out. I didn’t know a single other lesbian, trans, or queer person; I had no words for any of it. So I’d check male and then I got put in an all male dorm at college. That was the closest I came to not surviving.

The thing about having a female kind of sexuality while looking like a boy… well, the result was no action on the dating front. My inclination in high school was to wait and hope someone would ask me out, but I had no clue about making myself pretty or locating anyone like me or being assertive. Everyone I wanted to be with was looking for a boyfriend, so all those attempts got nowhere. My only two relationships that worked didn’t happen until age 33.

The second period of being more out was around ages 20-24. I found places to live with all women and was a little less isolated, and even had friends sometimes and some almost-romantic relationships that failed before they really started. My attempt to be out was really pretty weak compared to the first time, but I got some clothes I liked and was optimistic about the idea of being free outside of institutions.

Then this period ended because people would throw bottles and things out of car windows at me, and yell threats, and I was unwelcome to wear certain clothes at Quaker meeting, and perhaps most importantly, money. Work places did not seem OK with people like me, so I felt I had to act like someone else to survive. So I spent 20 years doing that. The stress of it kept going up and my income kept going down as the economy changed and required more conformity. I only recently realized that the fear of losing income was overpowering everything else in life. People might say just be yourself, saying there are openly gay people who manage to keep jobs, but they account for 10% of the population and we aren’t even on the map.

The third period of being out is now. Being somewhat part of an autistic community has given me vocabulary and the opportunity to meet other queer and trans people. That gives me some basic psychic permission to be out. I’m feeling that showing some surface things outwards (like clothes) could get me over some barrier to also be out in spirit. Finding the way out is still a fight against all those hiding tricks that I adopted when I was little out of the fear of being beaten, and a fight against those who go ballistic about any trans person anywhere because it threatens their gender scheme. Even some autistic-run internet groups for women still don’t allow trans women, so getting support is not always so easy.

One main reason I can even think about this now is that I’m in a program for disabled people to work on contracts for state government, and I think they would not find me guilty of working while trans. Therefore for the first time I have a sense that I would not lose all income by coming out. I might lose some of the other clients though. Also there is a lot more acceptance now than when I was 20 and it has been a really long time to be in hiding.

All this has been just a plot line of what’s happened to me, but now I want to say more about what it means to be a gender.

People say “why do you want to change”, and the question shows a misunderstanding of what it really is. It is not about changing me. It is a change of how people see me. It is more a question of acceptance by others than a question self-acceptance.

People also say “why do you want to be a woman”, and the short answer is that I didn’t sign up for either side; it is not about my preferences. The identification with gender is part of a psychic structure formed early, that probably has a nature side and a nurture side, and may be affected by the rigidity of the society that one is in, but it isn’t a choice. The main choice is whether and how to come out or suppress it. Not coming out would be an option too, but regardless of what choice is made on the surface, the inner me is still the same.

I have some traits that are traditionally masculine (like an engineering way of thinking, and liking wood tools), and some that are feminine (homemaking type things); and most people have some duality at that level, which is not the significant thing. It is about a deeper level of identity. For example, in my college house, having a man visiting was very different than a woman visiting; our private space would recede so he could be in the house but not in our psychic space, whereas a woman would be more admitted into the fold. There’s a deep way that females and males set up opposite camps and have certain barriers and openings to each other, and that’s the level that I’m talking about. Another way to look at it is on the level of the dream life and developmental stages.

I also have a point to make about intersectionality (the phenomenon of being part of multiple minority groups). I’m autistic, trans, and lesbian. The autistic interaction here is very interesting, because it makes it appear that I don’t fit the more usual trans pattern. Some transwomen seem to get more into the makeup and other feminine trappings than most women do. Some might even believe that gender duality is real in a scientific sense and that they are changing themselves by changing their appearance. As autistic people can more easily avoid that kind of fallacy, I don’t really believe that gender exists in that way, and therefore when I say I’m female, I’m mainly saying I fit certain archetypes, not that I’m a thing that actually exists or that the whole topic is black and white. Since I don’t really care about clothes and make up that much (an autism-related trait, at least for me), being trans doesn’t make me pretend to care about it more. I could never project much of any intentional appearance about anything; projecting in general just isn’t one of my skills (a lot of people totally misinterpret me as conservative or some other kind of enemy of progress because of that). Therefore it could happen that I will never figure out how to reliably project. But I don’t owe anyone that in the first place. Like I said, it isn’t about change.


On awareness, support, memory failure, and going back in the closet


In Flowers for Algernon, Charly is not very aware of the world around, and an experimental drug makes him more aware, and smarter. He gets more attractive to others and more successful; life flows more for him. I’ve also been getting more aware gradually, but with different results. I see other auties at a different stage of life than me, and I think “I used to be like that” (in relation to them not being aware of social facts or conventions). But my awareness hasn’t made me any more desirable or fun. I just cower under the weight of knowing the kind of appropriateness-crap that matters to people, when I didn’t know before. The more I solve old stress issues, I become aware of more things to stress about, so the cycle never ends and I never settle into a nice pattern of ignorance. I feel more disabled, the more I find out. My friend said she would twirl and dance in the aisles at the store, until one day she realized people were watching and judging; then she stopped. Awareness is crushing that way. I used to work in the garden and paint in any clothes I was wearing, so I always wore ragged clothes. Now I wear “nicer” clothes and now I try not to get dirty; I’m so careful that I’m no fun. This business of acting like an adult is a lot like going back into the closet and hiding.

Awareness of convention is not necessarily an improvement, and may take away from awareness of self.

coming out

So I desperately want to come out of the closet. I feel like I have so much potential and I can’t wait to find out who I am. I have only the slightest inkling of what I could be. It feels possible that I’d be nurturing, maybe even fun or generous. I wonder if I’d be desirable to be around, and wonder if no one including me has ever known who I am, and maybe that’s why bonds between me and the other humans are so fleeting and tenuous.

On the day I discovered autism, I went out to the patio and walking, almost floating in spirals of thought I said to myself: I have autism… no, I am autism!… no, I am someone! The shame had been so deep that I didn’t consider myself to be anything much prior to then, and the experience of finding out there were other people like me gave me permission to be something more definite.


In autism circles there is talk of “support” all the time. Sometimes it means having an assistant for a certain task and other other times it means having a more general kind of encouragement that one is OK. I know in theory that a supportive environment heals and strengthens a person gradually. For example, one of my high schools was more supportive than the other. In one I went down hill and became a scared depressed empty person, and in the other I regained part of the loss. But what would support look like now? I think with support I’d be able to come out of the closet, and I wouldn’t sacrifice awareness of myself.

I can more easily say what anti-support looks like: when I get othered. For example if I do something in the autism “community”, and I’m the token disabled person, there’s a subtle assumption that I’m automatically wrong. That experience eats away at me and makes me weak.


I have a memory problem that is related to awareness and support. I can often remember to pay attention to other people, or to drink water, or to expose myself to new ideas, or to set my boundaries and remember that I can have my own preferences. But I cannot remember all of those things at the same time. If I start to keep one aspect of life close by, the others slide away. If I remember to feel, I forget to give, and so on; thus I’m always at the threshold of existence, never finding my way out of the closet. The memory issue gets worse with greater awareness of convention and with trying to be something. As I learn and expand in social awareness, I seem to forget more easily who people are. For example there are four sisters who I have known since I was little, but when I saw them last summer, there was only a vague recognition, and the stress of not being able to tell them apart from each other was very stressful. Earlier in life when I wasn’t as aware, I would have not known or cared about that problem, but also I used to be able to tell them apart without as much effort.

I was recently reminded that I haven’t had the giggles in years and had forgotten all about laughing. So I added laughing to my list – the list I’ve been accumulating of things to remember. When I add things to the list, the mental sequence is like this: “Oh right, exploring! I used to explore, but I forgot all about it. I better add that to the list.” The things on that list are general things like exploring, feeling, meditating, following inspiration, making my environment pretty, and taking control.

As Yoda says, “Do or do not. There is no try.” The forgetting comes from trying – trying to be something (awareness) and maybe this leads to my consciousness not even inhabiting my psychic circle – I’m somewhere else.


Sometimes I see someone and I think “she’s one of me”. I’ve come to see that the concept of “other people” really doesn’t exist – if there is to be no othering, there are no “others”. People say someone is “one of my people” or “in my tribe” – but I suppose I don’t say that because I don’t mean to say there is some division between my people and other people. So I say “one of me” to mean that with that person, I can feel the oneness and the accepting of each other without reservation.

I find the kind of compassion I know about mentally is hard to manifest outside the rare people who I can feel are one of me. My dream of being supported is having a continuous link to enough allies so that I’m not going through life in protection mode, and I’d be outwardly compassionate.


Balloons drifting over a hill

An ideology is not just any collection of ideas; it’s a meme or packaged collection of ideas that more than one person subscribes to as a unit; furthermore, the adherents coalesce due to their power relationships, not due to independently coming to similar conclusions. I’ll get back to this.

I’m in a Partners in Policymaking class, testing my patience and compassion, and I’m also alternately reading lectures of Foucault. The overlap between the P in P lectures and those of Foucault is notable: postulating categories of disability, assigning words to them, the shifting fashions of language-creating-thought-creating-character, yet always unconscious of power-creating-language.


Speaker Kathie Snow has a deconstructionist (her word) message, the social model, the anti-labeling “words matter” message, the making disability irrelevant message. Listening to the expansive forewarnings of her show (“She’s going to blow your mind” – over and over) brought into focus the unity with which the non-disabled disability community thinks about itself. I’m already aware that allistic people do that as a rule – create an ideology that is grounded only by historical accident, and cling to it – but was less aware of the exact bounds of that ideology. Kathie has a gift of putting that into tactile relief: the vocabulary and belief system – we could call it “1970” to indicate the decade when the belief started shifting into entrenched – is the one that says we’re broken but we should be fixed instead of institutionalized. Now she makes a new one, let’s call it “1990”, and I’m seeing these as balloons drifting by a decades-slow breeze over a hill. 1970 is obsolete, 1990 is in. The new one says we’re OK, we’re people first, the attitudes matter more than the disability, etc. – no need to repeat all of its pillars here.

What really caught my attention about this lecture was all the forewarnings about minds being blown, and even reports of people saying they were still struggling with her message a year after hearing one of her speeches. When I listened to the points made, they all seemed reasonable and clearly she had even listened to disabled people and gone through a lot of personal growth to get to that point. But it was not clear at first where the depth or challenge was that they were reacting to. I concluded that the challenge consisted of hopping from one balloon to the next, and that can be hard for people who were deeply adhered to 1970 to deconstruct and learn the new way. It still remains a bit unclear whether the hop really moves a person out of the box, or whether it just reconstructs them in another box. 1990 is supposedly more advanced than the 1970 ideology. I hedge because there are always hidden losses in cultural hops, though I accept it is an improvement overall.

It also occurs to me that Parters in Policymaking is at root a vehicle for ideological influence. I noticed the application materials asked questions ascertaining the ideological position of the applicant, which suggests that one way to look at what they are doing is to encourage people to hop forward one balloon. And it is an expensive long-term battle of words to make it happen; those profiting from the old way will fight change to the end. The role of P in P was further underscored by my experience being selected from among all the participants to be escorted to the director’s office (the director of the managing agency) to be ‘splained to about the ideological basis, with all the warnings and expectations (as if saying “thou shalt have thy mind blown”). While I suspect the program is helpful to the disability rights movement, it was weird that they sensed I might not be compliant or might need the extra ‘splainin.

I wonder if society is condemned to an endless series of ideological balloons like the karmic cycle of rebirth into the same old world, or if there is an escape to truth. Let’s investigate that by popping the 1990 balloon, starting with language. Specifically with “person with disability”, the “new” term. Did anyone decide what a disability is? Is it a thing like a fork? Why do 20% of people have it and 80% don’t? Who decided where to draw the line? Obviously these questions have no answers; ideology is faith, and doesn’t depend on the measurable world. I feel this term is equally non-descriptive as the terms it replaced. The 1990 balloon has an overly neat (false) parallelism across disabilities; the vocabulary chart outlining what to call “those people” exposes that the moral judgment that still exists. The difference is possibly only that in 1970 the whole person is broken (demented, a cripple, retard, etc), while in 1990 the person is divided into a healthy part and a broken part, so we’re now “with” bad things (with dementia, etc). My hedging about this being any real advancement has to do with the new vocabulary of being broken into two things, a person and a disability. Why do we have to be seen as broken at all?

Any ideology implies othering. The power dynamics that create an ideology also create group membership; once you’re in a group (hanging on a balloon), it becomes possible to think about “those people” – others not in the same group. So I wonder if it is even possible to fight for and emplace a new ideology that doesn’t create a “those people”. The concept of civil rights extending to a disabled class is perhaps activated when you first change from the attitude that we are non-people to the attitude that we are people “with” some terrible baggage – that is, going from “disability first” to “people first”. What’s the next way of thinking about us after that? I’d like it to go from “people first” to “people, period” because my thought about where disability fits in the sequence is that it should neither be first nor second. But the comeback is “without labels, what should we call those people, then?” and I say “which people?” and they circularly respond, “the people that the labels identify”. Sigh.

I’d also like to be able to see the 2010 balloon in clear focus, but it is not that clear to me yet. As much as I hope it will approximate truth, but I actually think it will just twist another way to serve another interest. I think it has identity politics in it and that the conflict between this ideology and the prior one creates the conflict between “those people” and the those-people wannabes, and the twisted social logic that everyone will want to get in on the benefits of being oppressed, watering down “real” disability. Before you cringe at what I just said, remember I’m just tossing out the kind of arguments that are happening over the clash of ideologies and how those conversations defy logic. Human variation continues to exist in the measurable world fairly consistently; the way it is re-seen through ideology is what changes.

For most people I think the balloons are as clear as they are in the picture above, but for me and other autists, it takes study to find them. Until recently I didn’t really understand “people first” from the perspective that it is a reaction to “people second”; the two options just looked like equally strange restrictions of thinking. Not being able to notice or follow these things is itself a disability or a disadvantage when working with ideologically based groups. I seem to irritate them a lot.

There’s a lot that the culture warriors do not get, that we get. At least the autistic people seem to get, because we’re not there participating in culture as much in that way and have a view from afar. We get that disability is not medical (it being owned by the medical system doesn’t change what it is). We get that the old and new terms equally define you by your disability when you use those words with that meaning. (Try this: redefine “book” to mean apple, then parse this: I’m going to eat a book for lunch. Exactly zero semantic shift occurred. Get it?) We get that “disability” (whatever that is) should be relevant, not irrelevant, because it is part of identity; there are real permanent differences fueling discrimination; it is not erasable. We get being actively disabled by systems (therefore you can say “disabled” if that’s what you mean). All this built-in understanding doesn’t get us a place in the conversation though. For me, I’m scarred from trying to engage.

But they were never my enemies and I am not a fighter. Seeing the culture war as a balloons drifting in the distance is actually a compassion technique. The culture warriors drawing all the attention to the drifting things are not in swinging distance of me; I can see more clearly from a distance where I don’t have to be protective. Those who were in 1970 may be having a tumultuous time in that box seeing their allies jump and shatter alliances – the mind blowing experience? I’m just sitting here observing the hill from my particular angle. I’m neither better nor worse; I’m just not in that battle. What feels important to me as a person who cannot participate in battles of ideology is that I have compassion for other people’s growth as they battle it out. They often mistake my words as representing an opposing ideology; from where they are, they may not be able to hear what I’m trying to actually say. I will continue to speak the truth that I can; I will no doubt continue to irritate them.

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Micro-interactions are just interactions, looked at in small scale. A main interaction might be that we are eating dinner. A mciro-interaction might be that I reach for a napkin and you move the ketchup out of the way, while you continue to talk. That might seem too little to bother talking about – people might say it is random or trivial. But I want to talk about it anyway because this level of interaction feels really important to me lately. It highlights our neurological connections and differences, more than when you look at it on a larger scale. Sometimes the micro-interactions are very supportive and sometimes they are repressive. If you moved the ketchup, it means you cared and noticed what I was doing.

Micro-interaction experiences

The most recent example that brings this to life is: I had a friend from Autreat visit last week and she brought her partner, and the three of us went out to eat. After that we wandered on the college campus, only because we didn’t know what else to do and it was very windy. We explored art exhibits and theaters in the fine arts complex. When something caught the attention of one of us, we’d stop and allow the thing to make an impression on the others. As we got to a door or intersection, or some other choice in where to go, there was no effort to control the other two people; we were all attentive to the others and would stop and wait for the direction to become a three-way decision. We stood there until the direction took shape, without looking at each other or even always explicitly saying “let’s go this way.” I saw much more in the signs and murals and other objects than I would have without my friend. Little things became bigger.

On another day I was with my wife and noticed that walking in the snow on a hill would send little snowballs down the hill, for a long way. Sometimes they went 200 feet before stopping, and they formed wheels that made different tracks – dotted lines or wavy lines. If you went out to make snowball tracks on purpose, you would probably find it was impossible because the conditions have to be very precise for that to happen. But we weren’t looking for that; we were just open to anything. I remarked that this kind of stopping to notice small things rarely happens with more than two people. Most social conditions are loaded with power differences that make me shut down and incapable of noticing these small things. But it does happen with intimate partners.

A few years ago I was putting a set of board games into a big canvas bag and my autistic friend helped. She alternated with me, putting the next box that would fit properly, all without words. We were equal agents in a larger goal of cleaning up, and seeing this happen was a surge of happiness. Others might use the games-in-a-bag situation to try to win, force me to do it a different way, try to get ego points for “helping”, or some other competitive reason. We just flowed, so flowingly that no words or eye contact was needed, no putting oneself out there, no propping oneself up, no polite gesturing, so much that someone watching might think we weren’t interacting at all. If they thought that, they would be missing the micro-interaction. We were under the radar.

At another time I was at a table with an autistic person and a neurotypical one. The NT was trying to get us to be “social” and was failing. Her questions were dull to me. When she had to leave she apologized and said something revealing that she thought she was the necessary link that made it possible for us two autistics to talk. But in reality she had been the barrier. As soon as she left, the two of us moved closer and looked very intently into each other and quietly shared much more important things than the NT was trying to pry out. This intimacy was there; it is always there and is similar to kind of intimacy you build in a partner relationship, but it wasn’t that; we weren’t even really friends and didn’t touch. All the professionals don’t seem to know about this; why can’t they see it?

At a dinner table with six autistic people another year, it was so memorable because the silences were so supportive of the real. One person would share a feeling, another would share a mental puzzle, another would share her vision of sacredness. It was unbounded by anything, as if no ego was present, and so intimate.

Another year a dinner table of all autistics and one NT really burned into my memory because the two levels of communication were so blatantly separated from each other. The NT carried forth as if she felt no one else was doing anything. She may have felt she had to make the conversation go on all by herself, so it felt like she was all the traffic going over a bridge – loud and visible. Yet the rest of us with higher perceptive sensitivity could interject lots of other things at the same time and carry on another level under the bridge. It was as if we were kids secretly kissing under the table while the adults provided a cover of noise above.

Another time I picked up an autistic person from her house, neither one of us having seen the other before. She skipped everything that would normally be called “social” and said “which one is your car?” It took us about three seconds to get beyond what most people need 15 minutes to do, and it was a relief. A minute later we were talking about childhood memories.

I met another friend last summer, which went so deep so fast, without many words. I wrote about that already.


All of these experiences among autistic people share some features: They are intense, empathic, non-verbal, and under the radar. There is no agenda or ego. There is tremendous space and openness. There is intense reciprocity – watching each other and being responsive. According to theory, we do not do these things. And we don’t normally do them when being watched by people who make these theories. Sometimes we do them in plain sight and are still not noticed, but normally we cower and just wait until no one is watching to be that way.

I experience this a tiny fraction of my life. Is this available to all autistics? To everyone? Do others experience this a lot more often than me? I don’t know.

I want to set up environments where this happens more. In the retreat center (that I’m planning) I hope that there will be enough autistic leadership that even though non-autistic people may be frequently in the majority, we will be able to keep this going without cowering. Maybe we can be open enough that other people will notice; maybe they will open up to it at times.

I want to capture it on video too. It isn’t one of those paranormal things that defies being recorded. But it may be hard to capture because it is fleeting. I want to capture all kinds of micro-interactions, not only these energizing ones that I describe here, but also any interaction – painful, neutral, or otherwise – that reveals neurological affinity and style. I think that having people know about this in general would be a great thing.

NT’s seem to connect power with language. Is all symbolic communication a power game? It all seems intentional and premeditated, and that is a form of wielding power. But at the emotional level, there is no hiding and no winning and that’s what feels so great about it.


Perhaps our best communication is less based in language, more sub-linguistic, somehow under the radar of the NT’s understanding. I’m not making a distinction between verbal and non-verbal, but more of a distinction between symbolic and emotional. Typical communication is said to be mostly non-verbal, but the non-verbal parts are still symbolic and intentional. Autistics tend to be better at catching the verbal than the non-verbal, but at the same time we seem to be better at the emotional than the symbolic.

I had started this line of thought with the idea that spoken words were somehow the highest or most evolved form of communication, but now I’m seeing it more like this diagram. Like any diagram, it isn’t true; it is forcing a mental concept onto reality. It puts the spoken language in the middle and suggests that the NTs shift towards the upper levels which are power-wielding, while autists (when in the flow?) tend to focus more at the lower levels which are more equalizing and direct.


I’m not sure any interaction is “macro”, except a belief that the little interactions add up to more than the sum of the parts. When I fall for that belief, it tends to be more scripted and I don’t feel I’m participating in any interaction at all. Somehow when the interaction is tiny, it feels more authentic and I’m part of it. Has this happened to you? Why do you think it is related? Maybe the more direct interactions are just faster because words and power plays don’t slow them down.


Treatment as bargaining

As for many people, reading “Don’t Mourn For Us” for the first time was a deep experience, and I hope you will read it if you haven’t. I had the related idea this morning that much of the therapy that is done to autistic children represents people being stuck in the “bargaining” stage of the ever-popular 5 stages of loss. And the problem with the apparent or actual effectiveness of some of that therapy is that it might prevent those parents from moving forward into depression and then to acceptance. In the list of stages below, the quotes are from a wikipedia contributor, and I’ve added in parentheses what autism parents seem to be doing while in those phases.

  • Denial – “This can’t be happening, not to me.” (Doubt the diagnosis is correct.)
  • Anger – “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “Who is to blame?” (Crusade-like search for causes, such as vaccines.)
  • Bargaining – “I’ll do anything/give my life savings if…” (Behavioral therapy.)
  • Depression – “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?” (Nothing.)
  • Acceptance – “It’s going to be okay.” (Support the offspring in their own path!)

In the bargaining stage for some autism parents, they actually do spend their life savings as a way to try to buy back the child that never existed. If the actual child learns to act like that never-existed ghost-child, the false wish-induced memory sparked by that charade may feed the parents “hopes” and they could stay in that phase of grief for a very long time.

An insightful wiki editor also posted on that same page: “‘All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.’ said Arthur Schopenhauer of the learning process, which corresponds to the five stages of grief with denial being ridicule, opposition being anger and bargaining, and acceptance being depression and acceptance.” For me, the truth of autism is that people are different, and that enlightenment comes from walking in our own path no matter how unusual that is, not from conforming. Every prophet and major philosopher agrees with me on that point (I mean, I agree with them). Yet some people are violently opposed to that idea, which again tells me that they are very very stuck in the bargaining phase of their grief.

I suspected some parents have used the 5 stages of loss as a self-help tool, and sure enough, a quick web search reveals lots of stories. But in the first 4 that I read, I found only pseudo-acceptance, not real acceptance. Here are some excerpts:

Story #1, explaining a mom’s “acceptance” of a daughter’s autism: “I have my moments of sadness that Natasha is autistic – but I’m realizing more and more that being autistic isn’t the end of the world. It felt like it in the beginning but, through listening to Natasha’s therapists and seeing Natasha making progress in things Tom and I questioned whether she would ever do, I’m learning that it’s not [the end of the world]. It’s still hard. I still have problems when I talk to mothers of children who are around the same age and they tell me their child never stops talking. They inevitably always ask if Natasha does the same thing. Part of me knows it’s just making conversation, small talk – but it doesn’t stop a little pain going through my heart.” To me this story is about denial (maybe she’ll eventually turn out normal), shame, and depression.

Story #2, admitting she doesn’t accept autism at all: “The acceptance stage is the one that makes me the most worried and the least confident. … That stage won’t be complete until I stop wishing I had known more, or stop wanting to turn back the clocks or stop being so determined to tell others that they could have a better chance than I. I have accepted a lot of things in life, much too many to list, but I will never accept that what happened to my child and what started his potentially life-long, debilitating, devastating developmental issues are allowed to be acceptable for the greater good. Never.”

Story #3, using the word “acceptance” to mean resignation? “And it has lead into this Acceptance stage. Accepting his physical problems, and continuing to work toward better management and treatment, but not being overly crazy about it. Accepting his skill levels and working with his whole team to improve his learning without being crazy about it…and also showing them how much I really appreciate all that they do for Levi. Accepting that the future is unknown, and that in itself is scary, but it is okay to be scared…and just doing the best we can now, and planning for the future as best we can.”

Story #4, denying the value of acceptance altogether: “One of my goals … is to present an alternative to these ‘default’ stages that treat an autism diagnosis as a devastating loss, [by presenting] a series of steps that parents can take to fully understand their situation and go beyond mere acceptance.”

All this mourning, treatments of defects, “hope”, and “progress” are a mental cycle of the parents stuck in their grief. Becoming un-stuck hinges on spiritual depth of the kind that contradicts the cycle.

If you have any kind of spiritual life, you know there is an inside, a soul, or some place where seeds of future growth germinate. You know that great artists have immeasurable gifts that do not come from any school or book, but they are of a deeper sort. If you have ever loved, you have been moved to protect the fragile gifts of someone else, because you wanted those gifts to come out. You believed that there was much more to a person than meets the eye.

Any authentic greatness that a person achieves, whether in the arts or in virtues or in competition, starts deep on the inside, and only the final result is seen on the outside. If a comedian says five words and a million people laugh, how did he do it? The external behavior can easily be copied but the much more significant internal process is unique and not reducible to elements.

When I think of myself, I think of fundamentals and the things that are built on top of the fundamentals, like this:It may not be the same map for everyone – you could argue that non-autistic people base their knowledge on language, so language might be lower down for them. But in any case, there is depth which drives the surface.

The bargainer’s way out may be to remember their innate knowledge that there is an inside. Everyone knows intuitively that it is there, and even the system of mental health clearly acknowledges this. If you go to find a therapist for yourself, you run across lots of professionals who focus on deep mindfulness and the cognitive and emotional levels, and stress the therapeutic relationship. When the customer is paying the bill, they don’t offer behavior therapy; they focus on the base levels of the pyramid.

But when the parent or the insurance company or government is paying the bill to fix some powerless child who is said to be broken, the ethics suddenly change and the treatment providers are all about the upper, visible parts of the pyramid: the behavior. Even though that is not where the answer lies, the systems of education and “behavioral health” churn at that level. It is as if there is nothing inside. Or, perhaps the systems suspect something is in there, but they focus only on what they can conquer, and they know they can’t conquer the inside. Or they exist to feed off the bargaining stage of parents’ grief, and there is more money to be made that way. Or, perhaps these institutions are actually encroaching on the soul – where my worst fear begins.

I suspect that people mired in the bargaining phase are often not aware of what it would look like to release that and move on. It would look like you are raising a non-broken child, because that is the truth. Like any other child, you would nurture their strengths and challenge them to the next level. And like any child, you would teach and demand some manners and other behavioral standards. But you would not throw away the soul as a Faustian bargain in exchange for the surface behavior.