THE DAMAGE PEERS CAN DO.
“Peter, you’re gay!” were the words an eleven year old girl in my class said to me when she heard that I enjoyed watching A Country Practice.
Earlier that year, a boy in my class asked me if I was homosexual. As a kid of ten, I typically associated the word gay with being happy, and I had no idea what homosexual meant. I remember, I heard the word on the news and asked my mother what it meant and she said, “It’s about men who would rather have other men for wives rather than women.”
I remember, in the summer of 1988–89, I went for a holiday with my family to the small NSW seaside town of Lennox Head, and I read anything I could get my hands on. I read an article about a transwoman called Judy Cousens, and her journey felt like something I secretly wanted to undertake, as I had been made to feel wrong about my masculinity all my life. School was a case of “boys played certain sports, girls played others,” and what they wanted the boys to do didn’t interest me. I assumed I was in the wrong sex and needed to have an operation to transition.
One of the most liberating things for me was to discover that, a) I’m autistic and b) it doesn’t matter if you don’t conform to a stereotype of what it is to be male or female. Sometimes, when I’m asked my gender, I tick, “Prefer not to say,” or, “Other,” as I don’t completely feel one or the other.
So, it was with a mixture of feelings that I read an article in which Tony Attwood featured about gender and autism. I felt betrayed that someone I respected as an authority on autism and the first to view autism as a difference could say the things he said about gender differences and autism. And I was equally dismayed that someone said that they referred people who questioned their gender for an autism assessment. There are three points that need to be made: 1) you can be transgender and not autistic; 2) you can be autistic and not transgender; 3) you can be transgender and autistic.
For a long time I have felt wrong about being Australian. Particularly the macho culture of football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars. I have no interest in football. I am gluten intolerant, so I can’t eat many meat pies. Kangaroos are okay. And I like Fords and Toyotas rather than Holden cars. Some boys I went to school with feminised Fords and claimed that real men drove Holden cars.
A macho culture can make a person believe that they are in the wrong gender, but gender assessments need to be made very carefully. People often talk of regret, and despite what people say, you can’t just rock up to your GP and say, “I’m in the wrong gender,” and have the GP say, “Okay, off to the clinic you go,” and you’re started on puberty blockers the following week. For me, with being made to feel wrong about my masculinity, what I needed were two autistic people (a male and a female) who could mentor me (if you don’t have autistic parents, nobody else can REALLY tell you what it’s like) and say, “Well, you don’t have to be macho to be a male,” and, in the medical field, say to my mother, “That doctor is not right for Peter. You may think he’s a good doctor, but just like you can’t use a Toyota Corolla to tow a 40-foot caravan, you cannot expect Peter to build a rapport with that doctor!” And I know you can’t rely upon a soap opera to express real life, but one of the doctors from A Country Practice got it bang on, when he said to another regular character, “You’re not my patient, so I can’t see you unless it’s an emergency, which, from the way you are rabbiting on, it clearly isn’t.” The receptionist shouldn’t have asked if we wanted to see another doctor unless it was an emergency and the doctor should have even said, “I see you’re more my colleague’s patient than mine, so I would prefer not to see you unless you either specifically ask for an appointment to see me, or, it’s an emergency, and in this case it isn’t.”
As an autistic, being raised in a macho culture that wasn’t right for me, I felt, once I started learning Japanese, that Japan was where I belonged. There are aspects of Japanese culture I love, and there are others that I don’t like so much. I remember, when I was eighteen, wanting to be around Japanese people, but was shunned by many. In some cases, it led to trouble, but what I really needed at the time, in one case involving an Australian, was an advocate who could have intervened with, “Stop, Press! You think that you are dealing with one thing. I would like you to hold off any action until after I have spoken with him!” And then, later on, the advocate said, “We concede a few things here. Firstly, you are not dealing with somebody who fully understands some aspects of communication. Secondly, he now appreciates that nobody has the right to demand of an unwilling person their time, but what you need to understand is this. He has been an outsider all of his life. He has been shunned by other people of his own kind, so he felt that the only way he could be accepted was to become like a Japanese. Even if it were possible for him to change his DNA (not just dye his hair black and have plastic surgery) he now understands that he will still be autistic. He is just not mixing with people who want to mix with him. A far, far lighter approach would be, “Okay, let him stay here, but he now understands not to talk to those particular people.” Mixing with people who he doesn’t fully understand is not grounds for heavy-handed actions.”
Autistic people are aware of their gender, just like any others. If an autistic person is transgender, they should be permitted to transition just like any other person. If an autistic person feels that they’re in the wrong ethnicity, they need to find the right people to mix with. They know what they need. In some cases, finding the right people may be all that’s needed, in other cases, it’s not. But one thing is for certain when it comes to autistic people who are not stereotypically gender conforming, and that is, forcing a male who has more typically feminine leanings to play football if he doesn’t want to, or be more stereotypically “male” will do far more psychological damage than allowing him to transition. And the same applies to a female to male transgender person.