Or, why autists should join the debate about laws based on gender identity.

Suddenly, everyone’s talking about gender issues. There are lots of articles and websites busy teaching us all the new vocabulary we need to use to catch up with it. In some ways, learning new words is a great aid to learning new things but in this case, I think most of us will need to step back and check what we think we mean by the words we already have.

‘Sex’ and ‘gender’

If you’re not a sociologist or similar, you probably haven’t given much attention to the distinction between the two. I have generally seen it as a divide between the biological (most people can tell what sex they are by looking at the kit they were born with) and the cultural (by and large, men and women have different ways of walking, talking, thinking, dressing…). Like most neat definitions, that leaves a lot of people tripping over the edges and feeling that they don’t quite fit.

Everything in between

When I started learning German at school, I noted that everything in German is construed as ‘masc’ ‘fem’ and ‘neut’ and that that is about gender, not sex. Nevertheless, I was quite taken with the pronoun ‘en’ (for ‘neut’ nouns). It seemed to have more life in it than the English ‘it’, and I cooked up an idea that we should adopt it for things that were not without life (or sex, or gender) when we didn’t want to commit to, or draw attention to, a particular sex or gender status. Turned out people had been poring over such ideas for decades but my interest in ‘en’ came back to me again when I heard that some native American tribes had a place for a third gender which, as far as I could see, was the home for the ‘everyone in between’ who until recently were generally ignored by European culture.

We’re specialists

As a member of a family threaded through with spectrum conditions, I took it as read that some people would have sat in the ‘everyone in between’ category feeling full of doubt and wondering if the sorting hat had got it wrong. I spent most of my growing years thinking social and cultural life was very hard work, and gradually learning that it was a lot easier for some than for others. I was called a tomboy sometimes, dabbled in gender variations in my teens, and felt rather a fraud being called a lesbian when I happened to have a female partner. I understand now (because I’ve read the books) that borderline autistic people feel that way because gender roles, like all social rules, are something they have to painfully, consciously, learn, rather than just grow into subconsciously, as most people apparently do. My reaction to that is ‘thank heavens I’m an autist!’ – The lousy, damaging assumptions some people imbibe along with their cultural and gender ‘identities’ look utterly crippling to me.

Breaking out all over

I can understand the people who are baffled by the sudden profusion of gender varieties, particularly trans women, at the moment but I won’t fall into the trap of assuming people are suddenly doing it because it’s fashionable. I remember that there was a sudden profusion of disabled people when we started making the effort to make our towns and buildings accessible. I remember the rush of guilt when I realised they’d all existed all along, invisible shut out. Similarly, borderline autists are looking around now and saying ‘oh, looks like I’m one of these’ and ‘oh, looks like it’s safe to say so now, too’ so numbers and visibility bears no relation to how many such people as there are.

On the other hand, if the current trend leads to more parents taking ‘misfit’ kids to the doctors for puberty-inhibitors I can see a future where an awful lot of autistic kids end up with severe gender confusion. I did not appreciate being called a ‘tomboy’ because I didn’t think I was being any kind of boy but the kind of behaviours that led to that term being applied could now be identified as gender mis-assignment, and lead to (I think) totally unnecessary treatments and labels – before anyone panics, I’m not applying this to everyone, I’m just saying it could happen. Casual mis-diagnosis is horribly common around spectrum conditions.

Hot topic

What I cannot understand is the rush by the govt to pass laws about gender diversity, and by Labour to produce policy about it. I think it’s very dangerous to do so at this point, when most people are still struggling to understand the vocabulary, and haven’t really started working out the consequences of the proposed changes. There are many more opinions we have yet to hear and, as the ‘hot topic’ heats up, it’s very hard to do the necessary learning. I remember the first time I ventured out to ask the questions on social media, I got answers like, ‘for ****sake, we’re past that point.’ And, ‘that’s a binary question’ suggesting, ‘how dare you’, but not telling me what was wrong with it.

From my standpoint, because of the way I am, I’m baffled by, and suspicious of, some people’s certainty. Those who have already adopted unshakable positions seem to me to be doing so with the ferocity of flat-earthers, climate-change-deniers and born-again religious types – all classic stiflers of debate and learning.

This is where it gets personal

And anyway, how can anyone ever be certain about sex-and-gender issues? We are not all born with one of two varieties of kit, and gender – well in some senses, it has always been fluid for everyone – Jung demonstrated that long ago. A complete, successful person is someone who’s recognised the whole range of human potentialities in themselves. That kind of person will not shout down another for taking a stance they themselves don’t feel satisfied with, so I am trying to understand how someone can be so sure that although they were born with one kind of body and hormones, they ought to have had another, and will be much happier when they get that kind, and attach what they see as all the cultural accessories to go with it. I am also trying not to be offended by the fact that so far, almost every trans woman I’ve met has ignored my very visible lifestyle choice and assumed that because I’m a woman, I want to hear all about their adventures in dresses, make up and hair products. I begin to wonder if the inability to understand other people’s social ‘signals’ leads people to feeling dissatisfied with their gender-identities from a very young age (see misfit kids, in the ‘Breaking out all over’ paragraph above – gender is a cultural artifact, and autists are not good at interpreting cultural rules).

Unite Community

I love going to Trades Union events because I’m a member of Unite, and Unite Community in particular seems to be pretty good at inclusion. You get such a wide range of people, and you can’t scan a room and spot the chair of the coming meeting by any hidebound cultural rules. A UC event is a meeting place for all the elements of society, and most come away having learned a lot about humanity. But recently, a minor niggle has become a standard. I have a lovely time all day, and then as evening approaches, some trans woman will ask me what I’m wearing for dinner. I’ll look down at myself (usually seeing a pair of old jeans) and immediately revert to an anxious twelve year old, and I’m thinking ‘do they think I’m going to dress for dinner? What do they think I have to wear? S****m!’ … and I go down to dinner all angry (still in my jeans) and I find only a minority (including the trans women) have dressed for dinner, and nobody minds, so I calm down and think ‘thank goodness for Unite Community’ – but I’m in danger of building up a prejudicial resentment that trans women are dragging the women’s movement backwards at an alarming speed.

Over to you

There are much more urgent issues than me not knowing what to wear for dinner which need to be understood and sorted out before the government starts making laws. Most of us confuse sex and gender, most of us misunderstand a lot of trans’ issues, most autists get diagnosed as 101 different things before anyone plumps for ‘autistic traits’. Hasty legislation is going to make all this worse, and create terrible problems for women’s groups, sports clubs and many other institutions where gender is important, some of which impact on extremely vulnerable people. For all those reasons, I hope and I beg that everyone tries to calm down, do some research, have some conversations, and help each other get their heads round the issues. Comments welcome, especially if they help me learn things, but not if they attempt to tell anyone else they’re not allowed to think or feel what they happen to be thinking or feeling.

Here are some resources and conversation starters…

Megan Murphy on the dangers of legislating on a false premise


Catherine Drury on the ‘cotton ceiling’…


A case of pronoun overload…


A complaint about appropriation…


Can blacks be racist (there’s lots on this, and on the clash between ‘national security’ and personal privacy online. Both debates make interesting contrasts to the women’s rights v trans and gender-fluid rights issues) …


Puberty blockers (the health and psychology issues are discussed here, but not much about a question I was asked this morning – “Who is profiting from all this?”


A tragedy of smoke and mirrors…


…and a clash with one of the many organisations with an alarming tendency to silence anything that threatens to become controversial….