When Phobias aren’t Phobias

It’s been awhile since I did an autism focussed post and recent conversations have made me think pretty hard about something. About my childhood phobias that weren’t and aren’t phobias at all.

As a child, I was afraid of animals. And insects. And people. And the vacuum cleaner.
As an adult, I am afraid of… most animals, most insects, new people. And, yes, the vacuum cleaner.
These aren’t phobias. Phobias are irrational fears of things which cannot hurt you. I have a phobia of heights but my fear of, say, chickens isn’t a phobia because it’s a rational aversion to something that can and has hurt me.
What’s this got to do with autism? The reason my fear and avoidance is rational but looks irrational is based in my neurology. What I am afraid that animals and insects and people will do to me is touch me. Some textures hurt – especially when I’m unprepared for them. What else I am afraid the vacuum cleaner, insects, animals and people will do? I’m afraid that they’ll make noises at me. Some noises hurt me. Noises and textures that don’t bother my neurotypical peers are EXTREMELY distressing and/or painful for me. 

Add to this that I took many, many years longer than my typically developing peers to get a basic grasp of human body language and have only very, very recently come up with working models for cat and dog body language. I essentially spent my childhood surrounded by things whose behaviour seemed inherently unpredictable which were prone to nonconsensuallly touching me, suddenly making noises at me and moving in and out of my limited range of vision at what genuinely appeared to me to be random. Avoiding any and all people and animals I did not know looks like a perfectly understandable reaction in hindsight.

I now have the vocabulary and knowledge to articulate to myself and others that I’m not scared of spiders so much as I’m afraid that they’ll walk on me, I’m not afraid of flies but will have a meltdown if a buzzing one is in the same room as me etc. I couldn’t articulate this as a child because I’ve had these sensory sensitivities since long before I could speak. They hadn’t yet developed into fears and aversions but what happened when I cried in pain from a noise or texture that wouldn’t hurt neurotypical people? The neurotypical adults around me understandably misinterpreted my cries as fear and reacted by trying to reassure me that “Flies / puppies / vacuum cleaners can’t hurt you. It’s okay. Don’t be scared”. So when I later was able to speak, how did I describe what was happening? I used their words back at them and said “I’m scared of flies”.

Flies can hurt me. They do. They have done my whole life. It hurts when they walk on my arms and when they buzz. It’s perfectly rational for me to be afraid of things that hurt me.

Through learning how to predict the behaviour of dogs, cats and other pets, I’m no longer scared of them. People, I can sort-of understand and at least they usually back off if I yell loudly at them for touching me. Insects I can live with if they’re quiet.

And vacuum cleaners? I still can’t be in the same room as one in use. And that’s okay.

Whose gender is it anyway?

I’ve deliberately chosen an amusing title because the topic I’m writing about isn’t remotely amusing for those of us caught up in it. Gender recognition is something I’ve blogged about on yetanotherlefty before and some of what I write here will be a repeat of things I already said in March. Once again, there is news that has prompted this post. This time the news is that Denmark is joining Argentina and becoming the second country to have gender recognition for trans people based on self-definition with no requirement for medical interventions, proof of social transition or any other criteria beyond a declaration of membership of another gender. From September 2014, people in Denmark will be able to have their gender recognised provided they are over 18. The system seems to involve filling in a form declaring the wish for gender recognition followed by a 6 month waiting period (in case people change their mind) after which the person’s gender is legally recognised in Denmark. This will make Denmark’s Gender Recognition process the best in the European Union and the second-best in the world. The only country to have a better Gender Recognition process is Argentina – there is no lower age limit, allowing transgender and/or intersex children to re-register themselves as an appropriate gender provided they are capable of understanding what they are doing and the process takes just one form, recognising each person as the only true authority on their gender without requiring the intervention of doctors or psychiatrists. Whilst Argentina and Denmark are world leader in gender recognition and their progressive and modern laws are advocated as examples of best practice by Amnesty International, there are still notable difficulties with both laws. Not least among these is that, so far as I am aware, neither country allows the choice of any gender other than “Male/Man/Boy” or “Female/Woman/Girl”. While there are countries that do offer legal recognition of other genders (India being the most notable example) many of those allow only for trans people to switch between being recognised as their incorrect birth gender to a third option (such as Transgender, Other or Indeterminate) which for many trans men and women is just as inaccurate.

Having laid out to the best of my understanding what the international situation is, I will now briefly discuss the current situation in the UK. Whilst a person can change their name instantly and for free in the UK, can (in theory if not always in practice) change the gender on their NHS record on request and (again, more in theory than in practice) change their gender on college/Uni records, bank accounts and at other organisations with just a letter and happily tick or not tick either, neither or both gender boxes on the census however best represents their identity, changing the gender recorded on a passport, birth certificate and/or as recorded with HMRC, starts to include requirements for medical evidence. To change the gender recorded on a passport, you need a letter from a Doctor saying that you have been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder, that you have begun living in your new gender and that you intend to continue to do so for the rest of your life. This letter can be from any doctor and may or may not cost money. A GP can write it but may not want to if they don’t feel like they know enough about transgender people (there really isn’t much to know but this still happens). Many people have to get to a gender specialist, either privately at some cost or via the NHS which is chronically beset by delays and unlawfully long waiting lists, before they find someone willing to write this letter, meaning months and even years living with a passport that cannot be used as ID.
Changing the gender recorded with HMRC involves getting an updated birth certificate. This requires a person to provide evidence of two or more years of social transition, including continuous use of a “gender appropriate” name in addition to TWO doctor’s reports, one from a gender specialist, detailing a diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder and details of any treatment undergone and/or explanation of why further treatment has not occurred. The implication here is that, while treatment is technically not necessary for Gender Recognition in the UK, not having had certain treatments will prejudice the Gender Recognition Panel against you. It is commonly (yet quietly) advised that at least one of the doctor’s reports state that you are “waiting for the standard of surgery to improve” or that you “intend to have x, y, z surgeries within the next few years but these have not yet been scheduled” whether you actually intend to have surgery or not. In addition of the “proof” that you changed your name permanently two years or more ago, the two doctor’s reports and the form itself, a statutory declaration that you are X, formerly Y, you are over 18, have been living in your gender for two or more years and intend to continue to do so for the rest of your life and that you are not currently married OR, if you are married, that you are married. In that case you also need a statutory declaration from your spouse that they consent to the marriage continuing. If you’ve spent off ALL OF THAT, plus an administration fee, then a panel of strangers will review your case and either accept or reject your application. After all of that, this panel of complete strangers can and sometimes DO reject your application – which you still have to pay for. Compared the UK, Denmark’s law sounds like paradise for trans people!

The hope is that the UK will follow or even expand on the example set by Denmark and Argentina, as they clearly show that the sheer amount of fuss, bureaucracy and intrusion of privacy required by the UK’s Gender Recognition act is simply unnecessary and, to put it as politely as I can, damn near inhumane.

I return to the question I titled this blog with: Whose gender is it anyway? The UK’s current system makes it incredibly clear that my gender does not belong to me, but to doctors, solicitors and to the state. The state can and will employ people purely to examine and judge the gender of its people. This is wrong and grossly unfair. My gender belongs to me and me alone, it is part of my identity and should not be decided or imposed upon me by anyone else. In my ideal world, no state* would even think to record the gender of its people, seeing this as just as ridiculous as recording whether people were “Black”, “White” or “Coloured” or registering every person’s religion from a state-approved list (yes I know these both are things that have happened and do happen). Why record everyone a gender from a state approved list and make them jump through hoops to change that registration? Yet whilst registering of genders is a thing, it is important to make it as easy as possible for a person to re-register as another gender, with many different options available to all and no requirements for “proof” of anything beyond that the person wishes to re-register and understands any consequences.

* Okay, I ideally wouldn’t want there to be any states at all but assuming there are states then…

The extending road to surgery (Guest Post)

I keep meaning to “retire” from trans activism. I even occasionally announce that I *have* retired. And then things like this happen and I remember why I will never be able to retire from trans activism until transphobia and cissexism are history.

Today, I am hosting a guest post written by Kay, about the recent changes to Gender Reassignment Surgery provision for women getting needed treatment on the National Health Service in England and Wales. Kay’s story is not unique to her, dozens of women are in similar circumstances. What she describes are the very human consequences of a broken and twisted system becoming more broken and twisted – NHS Gender Services for trans people have been beset with delays and gate-keeping and unreasonable demands for as long as anyone I know can remember. Now the service is in crisis and it is not the doctors, pyschs, surgeons or administrators who will be harmed by this crisis, those most harmed are the women (and also nonbinary people) who need surgery or at the very, very least need a clear fixed date when that surgery will be.

Kay in her own words below this line. (Note: Kay is a pseudonym, if you think you know who Kay is, please do not tell anyone or contact me or Kay to ask)


Going on WLMHT (also known as Charring cross) GIC’s ideal roadmap for surgical intervention at the time I got into the system (Febuary 2011) was after 2 years real life experience (RLE) one would be referred to surgery, in the case of me as a person assigned male at birth the surgical intervention I am interested in is vaginoplasty in particular a technique called penile inversion. Since starting at the clinic it has been nigh on 3 and a half years and I still haven’t got a surgery date and I am unlikely to do so for at least another year. The question stands why am I in this situation?

So by my own calculations I have so far lived 5 to 6 years in a gender that is not male, however the NHS in its erasure of non-binary identities only counted the time within which I was for all intents and purposes a woman having gotten round to formally changing my name, even though I had been going by a gender neutral name for years, this resulted in the NHS’ definition of RLE only reaching 2 years as of August last year, showing the absurdity of this situation. Then with the requirement of two psychologists to sign off on the surgery, one of my psychologists failed to turn up for an appointment, putting off my sign off date into November. From here it would normally be a 7-9 month wait for the actual surgery, which is in itself over the NHS’ 18-week waiting list rule. I want to make a point here that this section whilst sounding like a series of errors increasing the waiting time for my surgery it actually is a concerted attempt by the consultants to put one off having not to mention completely unnecessary and part of this idea that somehow a cis person might sneak through all these levels of ‘protection’ and end up having surgery and regret it at the expense of the extensive time, effort and psychological torture of having an incongruent body for the trans person.

So as it stands now, I’ve been referred and seen by Mr Bellringer one of the two surgeons capable of performing a vaginoplasty in the UK, whom I then find out has resigned due to disagreements over commissioning. Having been in contact with him and requested that my surgery be forwarded to Mr Bellringer’s private clinic at Parkside hospital, Imperial NHS trust have completely failed to get in contact with me to discuss what they intend to do to rectify this situation and I assume have rejected my request for private surgical intervention. This is frankly not good enough; the statement they issued gives us essentially no guarantees of surgery dates and shows how little the NHS values trans patients.

This overall has left me essentially in limbo, I was expecting for my surgery date to be this summer, in-between the final year of my undergraduate degree and going into my masters degree which would have fit incredibly well with my plans, however I am now looking towards September 2015 before I can even start thinking about surgery. This leaves me in a situation where I am dysphoric and will be for another year, something that has plagued me throughout my undergraduate degree and I feel has affected my marks as well as the uncertainty as to when I will have surgery as I might fall out of the system and have to re-apply again leaving me to the possible conclusion that I might cancel my masters and use the funding that my grandparents left in their will for me to do so and use it on self funded surgery as I can no longer tolerate constantly being messed around by the NHS.

This has to change, I could go on about how the NHS Gender Identity Services should be reformed, but that’s an argument for another day, frankly now all I want is my surgery and those others in the same situation as me to have some dignity afforded to them, rather than having to essentially beg for life saving surgical intervention.

Going forwards I implore you to share Jess Key’s open letter, read Mr Bellrigner’s side of it get in contact with your MPs, if you have media contacts link them to this situation so that the message gets out there!

 

 

To my fellow men with love

This post has been a long time coming. I was working on it in my head for weeks before some guy decided to go on a killing spree because “hot girls” didn’t fancy him. In the wake of that, it didn’t feel appropriate to publish a post like this, not while people were still mourning, not while every woman I know was feeling terrified that any of the men in their lives might secretly think like that guy… women were hurting and their needs ultimately came first. Yet the aftermath of that tragedy showed me that this post had to be written, that men and boys had to be presented with another, better, truer view of the women and girls in their lives. The post below draws on stuff that I already tweeted about on the #AllMenCan hashtag and it’s stuff that men and boys need to hear.

So, here it is. From man to man, I want to teach you some things that you maybe already know or half-know or maybe never learned before at all. If you didn’t already know this stuff, that’s not your fault but it doesn’t mean you’re excused from learning it now. Every man, whether heterosexual, gay, bi, queer or asexual, cis or trans, young or old, needs to learn these things and practice them until they are as natural to him as breathing.
Why? Because every single one of us knows at least one woman or girl and every woman and girl deserves to be surrounded by people who treat her with respect and dignity. Why? Because all people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and it seems that men, as a group, have been taught that we don’t have to respect women. We can and must change this for the better – not just for the women and girls in our lives but also for ourselves.

Here are the lessons you need to learn:

1. Women are people.

Not only if you find them attractive or only if you find them unattractive. Each and every woman you meet in your life is an individual with her own desires and her own goals and her own life. This likely doesn’t surprise you but I want you to really, really keep it in mind whenever you interact with a woman – from the barista to the cute woman on the bus to your girlfriend to your mother. Every woman is unique and has her own independent life going on. The extent to which her life is going to involve *you* cannot be decided by you alone, only by you and her together.

2. Women are all unique and different from each other.
Because women are all different and unique, anyone trying to teach you tricks or skills for interacting with women (particularly for dating women or initiating sexual relationships with women) is selling you snake oil. To be blunt, they either don’t know what they are talking about or they know they’re telling you bullshit and are hoping to gain something by getting you to fall for it. Treat ANY dating advice that claims to work on all or most people of one gender only with extreme SUSPICION. While there are some very general skills for interacting with *people* you can learn, skills that are gender-specific and dating-specific are few and far between. If you think you may need help (and indeed even if you don’t think you do) I recommend Dr Nerdlove, Captain Awkward and Real Social Skills as good places to start looking.

3. Sometimes women don’t fancy you and you’ve got to be okay with that
If a woman (or any other person) doesn’t like you or isn’t interested in you in the way you’d like her to be, there is likely nothing you can do to change that and you shouldn’t try. I know this is hard to hear but it has to be said. No matter how much you like her, she doesn’t have to like you back or date you or give you “a chance”. You remember how she’s got her own independent life and goals? If she doesn’t want to spend time with you, she doesn’t have to. If you’ve ever been assigned a “friend” by a parent or teacher who you didn’t actually like, you’ll see why. Hanging out with someone you don’t want to hang out with is no fun – can you imagine dating someone you don’t like? That doesn’t sound fun either and if you insist someone give you “a chance” that’s what you’re asking them to do.

4. Nobody owes you.

Friendship, love, romance, sex, dates and social time are all great and I hope you experience lots of these throughout your life. However, nobody owes you them. You can ask people if they’d like to share them with you but you can’t demand them from anyone or take them without asking. These things can only really exist if everyone involved wants to be there, with those people, sharing that experience, at that time. It’s mutual and consensual and that means that it stops the second someone involved wants it to stop – even if you’d rather continue. This applies to every person you ever meet, whatever their gender or relationship to you. And it applies to you too! If you’re not feeling it any more, sex or a date or a friendship or a relationship can stop. You don’t owe it to anyone to continue and they don’t owe that to you either.

5. “No” means “No” not “I secretly hate you” or “You are objectively undateable”
This one follows one from lesson 4. Remember how you can ask people to share experiences with you (like a date or a friendship or a sex act or even to get married) but not *demand* those things? The difference between asking and demanding is that you have to be able to hear and accept a “No”.
A “No” to, say, “Would you like to go on a date with me?” can be upsetting to hear and it’s okay to be upset. The slightly more difficult lesson to learn here is not to read loads of things into that “No” that aren’t there. If someone doesn’t want to go on a date with you, that means she doesn’t want to date you. It does NOT mean that she also secretly hates you or she thinks you’re ugly or undateable. If she later says “Yes” to an offer of a date from another man, that doesn’t mean she thinks he’s better than you objectively, just that *right now* she individually is interested in going on a date with him. As a unique person with her own tastes and her own life, she gets to make her own choices – even if you don’t like those choices or can’t understand them. She is not a stand-in for “all women” so her not wanting to date you tells you absolutely nothing about whether *other* women might want to date you.

6. “No” means “No” not “Talk me into it”

If you ask for something from someone or offer someone something and they say “No”, respect that. No matter what your genders or your relationship or their age. You cannot argue someone into wanting something they don’t want and it’s inappropriate to abusive to try. If someone doesn’t want to come to your houseparty, accept that. If someone doesn’t reply to your message on a dating site or replies saying she doesn’t want to talk to you, accept that. Read Captain Awkward’s Guide To Dating for more on this. Where this links with the previous lesson is so important I’m going to make it into its own lesson.

7. YOU CANNOT PERSUADE SOMEONE INTO BEING ATTRACTED TO YOU.

Sorry for the allcaps but this is important. Attraction, whether romantic or sexual or both, is a feeling. Feelings are not things you can talk someone into or out of. Trying to persuade someone to feel a certain way about you or to persuade someone that you know how they feel about you better than they do is wrong and abusive. I can see why it’s tempting (like, I am gorgeous and awesome so why wouldn’t people be attracted to me?… because they are individuals with their own separate independent thoughts and feelings that’s why) but please never do this. And if anyone ever tries to do it to you and you notice it, please run. Either they are a bit clueless and going to learn the hard way that you can’t make people feel things they don’t feel or they don’t have your interests at heart. Please don’t wait around trying to work out whether they’re clueless or harmful – you don’t owe them a second of your time either way.
If you’re inclined to believe that feelings are things that people can be argued into and out of, please read these three links on Geek Social Fallacies for more information on difficult situations this mistaken idea can cause and ways out of them.

8. Being single and/or not having partnered sex for some time won’t hurt you
There is nothing wrong with being single, even if you’d prefer not to be. It doesn’t really say anything about you as a person or reflect on you. If your friends are taking the piss about you being single, tell them to knock it off and even get new friends if they don’t. The world doesn’t owe you a partner and no particular person owes it to you to become (or indeed, remain) your partner. Being someone’s partner is a wonderful experience to share with someone – doing so out of a sense of obligation is awful for all involved.
Being a virgin or having been without partnered sex for any length of time is not a bad thing. It doesn’t mean you’re not attractive or that no one will ever want to have sex with you – all it means is that the people you’ve asked have said no and you’ve said no to any people who’ve asked you. If you haven’t *asked* anyone if they’d like to have sex with you, that is probably part of the reason it isn’t happening. Remember that everyone (including any women!) who you ask could say “No” and you have to respect that and not argue. You’re going to hear a lot of “no”s. We all do. Remember that “No” isn’t an indication of how attractive or manly or awesome or whatever *you* are, it’s about the other persons feelings, desires and choices not lining up with yours right now.

9. Women are not all the same. Neither are men.

We’ve all heard sentences that start with “Women like…” “Women don’t like…” “Women want…” but beyond “respectful, equal treatment as a human being with her own interests capable of making her own choices” there is *absolutely nothing* that all women want. There’s a lot of people very invested in getting you to believe that women want things like flowers and teddy bears and diamond engagement rings.. and some women do want those things! And some women don’t want those things and they aren’t being a woman “incorrectly”. There are as many different ways of being a woman as there are women. So, if you’re a friend, boyfriend, husband, son, brother or colleague of a woman, you’ve got to learn to recognise that she is not just “a woman” she is one particular woman with her own likes, dislikes, goals and desires that may or may not be similar to those of other women you meet. How will you find out what she likes, dislikes, wants etc? The only way is to ask her. Ask her and take her words at face value even (especially) if they aren’t what you expected or wanted to hear. This applies equally to other men – don’t assume, ask and then accept and respect the answer.

10. Set an example to other men and teach any boys you know

Whether these lessons are new to you or just a refresher of stuff you already know, just knowing this stuff isn’t enough. You have to practise it in real life, treat every woman (and man, and nonbinary person and child) you come across as a unique person with goals capable of making her own choices. You have to ask people for things you want and be able to hear and accept “No” as the answer. You have to ask the people you know what they want and like and accept their answers even if they go against gendered norms. If other men try to tell you that women owe you “a chance”, tell them why no woman owes any man any such thing. If they try to tell you “tricks” to “making” women like you or insist that “women don’t know what they want”, tell them they are wrong. It may not be their fault if they were never taught this but all men (and people of other genders but primarily men) need to learn how to treat everyone with respect and dignity. Teach your sons and nephews and cousins and godsons and students that girls are not strange alien creatures totally different from boys, but just as much people as they are. Teach them to ask for things and to accept and respect “No”. Teach them now so they can teach the next generation of boys when they are men.

We didn’t ask to be born men in a patriarchy. We didn’t ask to become so alienated from women as to need reminding that they too, are people. We can change things now so the men of the future will never so much as question the humanity and equality of women.

The world can be freed from patriarchy, piece by piece and you and I and every man and boy we know can help by learning to treat women as our equals from today.

Anti-Homelessness

There’s been a fair amount of talk recently about how various architectural features are “anti-homelessness”. This has lead on to discussion of various laws and practices in the UK and beyond that are “anti-homelessness” and how awful this is and how the world should just be less shit already. This is good and worthy discussion BUT one important thing to remember: these architectural design features, laws and practices are NOT “anti-homelessness”. What they are is anti- homeless PEOPLE. Ridding the public sphere of safe-ish, dry-ish places to lie down and sleep outside will not getting rid of homelessness. Making begging illegal does not get rid of homelessness. Tying most social security, employment opportunities, bank accounts, GPs, forms of ID and other vital services to “having a permanent address” does not get rid of homelessness. All this does is make being homeless less visible, less safe, less escapable and, to be quite blunt, less SURVIVABLE. All this does is condemn people who are vulnerable and have already suffered great misfortune to more suffering – and force them to take their suffering elsewhere so those of us fortunate enough to currently have somewhere warm, dry and relatively safe to live can go about our days without seeing people who are homeless.

So, what would it actually mean to be “Anti-Homelessness”?

I am against homelessness. I believe that safe, warm, dry homes should be available to *everyone* who needs them. I do not think it should even be possible for a person to find themself without somewhere to sleep, eat and socialise. Everyone should have a home.

There is only one long-term solution to homelessness that has any chance of actually working. It’s breathtakingly simple and obvious – and could realistically be implemented in the UK within the year if people wanted it enough.

GIVE PEOPLE HOMES.

There are enough empty buildings to house everyone. If everyone had somewhere to live, some space that was theirs where they could sleep and eat and work and play, no one would be homeless.
Note that I have not said “Sell people homes” or “Let people homes” or mentioned the word “affordable” even once. If we really took the idea that shelter, safety, privacy and family life are human rights seriously, people would be given somewhere safe to live for free. No rents, no mortgages, no “but do you have a local connection and also do you really need a home?”, no “but why can’t you just live with your parents well into your thirties?”.
I know a lot of people would find this unfair and claim that the years they spent renting / paying a mortgage / buying and letting houses / inheriting multiple houses from their Dad means that they somehow “deserve” a place to live more than other people who didn’t or couldn’t do that. I see why they might feel cheated but ultimately I disagree. Somewhere safe and stable to live and a bit of space for yourself is not a luxury that you can “deserve” any more or less than anyone else and it shouldn’t be something you have to buy – it shouldn’t be something you can lose in the first place. There should be homes for all. We all deserve somewhere to live.

That is how you end homelessness. Until the only condition required for safe, decent housing is “be a person” there will be people who cannot meet the required conditions and find themselves homeless through misfortune.