The Woke Contrarian

I don't think I'm one of them either. I'm one of mine.

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Conversion therapy is bullshit

(These are old memories, once thought to be lost, but they’re back again. Trauma tends to do that to people.)

I’m a survivor of conversion therapy.

No, I wasn’t diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder, but I did have a childhood diagnosis of Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), otherwise known as atypical autism. And it was the PDD-NOS diagnosis that my family used to suppress anything that was “abnormal,” including my gender dysphoria. They used Applied Behavioural Analysis, which uses operant conditioning (aka the methods used in dog training) to get people to conform to a particular behaviour pattern. If I did anything that was “for boys,” I’d be punished with an aversive stimulus, like having water sprayed in my face or forcing my hands to touch glue. (I’m transmasculine.) The goal was to get me to act traditionally feminine, even though I’d been androgynous or masculine before then. I’d never really liked dolls or anything like that before ABA. But after that, I was showered with doll after doll after doll on Christmas and birthdays. I did end up liking dolls after a while, but they were mostly characters for me to enact stories with, not a thing to enjoy in themselves. (I kept getting into trouble for giving them weird haircuts and drawing tattoos on them anyway.) If it wasn’t normative, if it wasn’t prissy, if it wasn’t cutesy, it had to be stamped out.

Everything was treated like a symptom, and therefore invalid and in need of cure. Of course, every single bit of the conversion therapy washed out. I was still masculine. I still preferred to play with other boys, since girls were socialised to be dainty and refuse to blow things up or get dirty. I still preferred to run out and play in the mud instead of have tea parties. When Mattel came out with Flying Hero Barbie, I was disappointed that she was rescuing cats from trees instead of beating up supervillains. (Not long before that, I’d drafted a letter to Mattel asking to create a superhero Barbie who defeated gun-toting evildoers. My mom confiscated it for her own amusement.) And whenever I imitated voices on TV, they were virtually always those of deep-voiced men. Of course, tomboys exist, but I wasn’t a tomboy. When I was much younger, I could tell that I wanted to be like the deep-voiced, flat-chested adults who were called “he.” Everything else matched that.

But nobody affirmed my gender identity and expression, and the only thing that changed when the conversion therapy wore off and I came out at 20 was that they were blaming Satan instead of autism, thanks to years of right-wing evangelical radicalisation. Regardless of whether it was Satan or autism, they saw it as a matter of behaviour that could be changed, not something integral to me and who I was. (Anti-gay conversion therapists think the same way. Virtually all sexists see gender nonconformity as correctable behaviour, not anything connected with a true self.)

I wasn’t even a person to them, just a flesh robot to be programmed. That’s what happens when you have a weird kid and want them to look normal and be compliant instead of wanting them to be happy. This is what happens when J.K. Rowling is connecting autism with trans self-discovery among youth. Leelah Alcorn’s suicide is what happens when you refuse to acknowledge who a trans youth is. And it’s what’s happening when Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene make trans youth a political football in the run-up to this year’s elections.

But there is a word for parents who don’t care about their child’s happiness. And that word is “abuser.”

Conversion therapy is abuse.


On using the “latest and greatest” language

I understand wanting to avoid offence, but the best way to do that isn’t by using the most up-to-date terms if community members aren’t even using them. I see terms like Latinx and even Latine being thrown around, and these terms are not popular outside progressive and leftist organising. Latine is particularly rare. People still use Hispanic if they’re from a Spanish-speaking Latin American culture like Mexico or Argentina. Not to mention, the best thing to do is refer to a specific ethnicity, such as Puerto Rican, Mexican, or Costa Rican instead. Latinx? Rarely. Latine? Practically never. I understand why people want to use gender-neutral labels, but there are more elegant ways to do that, including “Latin American” or even “Latin.” (Seriously, why bother with Latinx and Latine when you can just drop the final vowel and make it “Latin”?)

Over the past several years, some mental health advocates have shifted toward “psychiatric disability” from “mental illness,” but some international nonprofit organisations have already moved on from this and are now saying “psychosocial disabilities,” a term that your average person with a psychiatric condition will not recognise. There are enough people and organisations still saying “mental illness” that a term like “psychosocial disabilities” will seem alien to them. Even “psychiatric disabilities,” my preference, is still novel to them. You can’t hit people with too many novel terms or you’ll confuse them. This is one of my biggest problems with the state of left-wing activism these days. You need to introduce ideas to them slowly, with simple language, and all this jargon isn’t helping anybody get closer to understanding neurological or ethnic minorities (yes, I still use the word “minorities,” despite all the pushback I get outside this blog).

There are some cases in which the common term should be changed—for example, most of the terminology referring to high weight should be scrapped, since the primary term is a pejorative masquerading as a neutral medical term. But in this case, the community has roundly rejected it. This is not the case for expressions like Hispanic, Latino, or psychiatric disability (or even mental illness). None of these are pejoratives, and all of them are used by community members in ways that Latine is not.

A random list of political bullshit I’m tired of

  • Promoting “decolonial” or “postcolonial” movements that are just racist, nationalist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, chauvinistic, fascist, religious fundamentalist, reactionary, intolerant tripe that merely mirrors former colonisers’ crimes. Or if they’re not regressive right-wing juntas, they’re capitalist, “reformist” states that sell the country out to the highest imperialist bidder, as long as that imperialist isn’t one that they were recently ruled by. And, of course, some countries can exemplify both these tendencies. (America, Burma, Jamaica, Ukraine, Nigeria, Israel and Palestine, I’m looking at all of you.)
  • Related to the earlier point, promoting a “decolonial” (I actually hate this expression) approach that comes primarily from highly educated, upper-middle-class or upper-class members of colonised cultures. (Uh, like me. Just the highly educated part, though—I grew up working class and am now part of the squeezed middle-middle class.)
  • Thinking that all social injustices can be solved by voting in the right politicians.
  • Refusing to vote when one candidate is a milquetoast liberal and the other one is a borderline fascist. I don’t like centrist Democrats either, but Donald Trump was and is more dangerous. This kind of voting is harm reduction. (Unfortunately, it’s practically impossible to do foreign-policy harm reduction in American electoral politics—this needs to be a long-term project—but at least you can do something about domestic policy.)
  • Stringing together a lot of jargonistic terms that cause people to shut down. It feels as though I’m being hit over the head with words like bourgeois, settler-colonialist, base and superstructure, decolonial, carceral, cisheteropatriarchy, kyriarchy. You shouldn’t need a master’s degree in women’s & gender studies or political science to get involved with activism. I hate cops as much as the next leftist, but you should be clearer.
  • Repeating terms like neoliberal and bourgeois as though it were self-evident what they meant. (Admittedly, I have referred to neoliberalism here, and I probably shouldn’t have, since it’s vague.)


What the hell is up with “Zelenskyy”?

It looks weird, but the stenographers at the Associated Press and every publication that uses its stylebook standardised on it a while back, thanks to the Ukrainian government’s ridiculousness. The English-speaking world has typically written similar Slavic names translated from Cyrillic with “-sky,” as in “Gorsky” or “Magnitsky.” “Zelenskyy” looks like a typo, and it makes me wince every time I see it. (I also read it as rhyming with “tie,” as in Skyy Vodka.) Other contemporary Ukrainian figures, like Andriy Biletsky, don’t get the extra “y.”

I don’t know why, but Ukraine coverage has brought out a wave of stupidity in the Western press. (Yes, yes, yes, I am still talking about Ukraine, but that’s because there are things going on other than Trump’s tomfoolery and the theocrats fighting in Gaza. Also, I didn’t have this blog when the war broke out two years ago.)

Arguing against transphobes

Fighting back against transphobes (as well as other sexists) is the right thing to do. But you need to do it strategically and make it clear for the average person to understand. Right now, the bigots have the upper hand because they can just raise common sense, even though the reality is more complicated for trans people. Unfortunately, a lot of trans people and allies are pulling out a bunch of 102-level postmodernist arguments that confuse Joe Schmo—and get conservatives, so-called rationalists, and TERFs to howl that because the pro-trans arguments are circuitous and incomprehensible, they must be right. And this leads to more bathroom bills, more athletics bans, and other attempts to enforce gender normativity by law or social custom.

Here are a few tips, for what they’re worth:

  • Transphobes are sexists. A sexist is anyone who uses one’s reproductive or chromosomal configuration to determine people’s social role. Sexists do not care what what you think, how you view the world, what matters to you. All they care about is your organs and chromosomes. They are dehumanising you by doing so. A sexist is equivalent to a racist in repugnance, and their arguments are little different. Whenever you argue against transphobia, tie it to all other sexisms, including misogyny and homophobia. (And when you examine this further, all sexisms are misogyny, since they are all centred on restricting the role of women, punishing people assigned male at birth for being too close to women, punishing people assigned female at birth for wanting to leave the restrictions enforced on women, punishing cis men for being too womanly if they show feelings… all of it, ALL of it, is about diminishing, policing, and controlling women.)
  • Referring to sex (however defined) as “socially constructed” will merely make transphobes double down, since their normative arguments are easier to understand to the average person. It goes over people’s heads. Instead, you’ll want to point out that people’s recognition of their gender precedes their perception of their reproductive organs. Like trans people, cis people learn their gender identity from observing same-gender adults and peers, but they never learn about a dissonance between their gender identity and assigned sex at birth. Everything is simple for them. Trans people, on the other hand, learn this as soon as they are taught about sex. For our social species, gender precedes sex. I repeat: Gender precedes sex. This is why trans people know who they are at a young age.
  • On the other hand, the TERF/conservative argument that “sex is real” or that being trans “denies biological sex” is sophistry. No trans person is denying what their reproductive organs are. That is the very definition of gender dysphoria. If trans people were actually “denying biology,” they’d say they were cis. They are questioning the idea that they have to fill a social role that aligns with their reproductive organs. TERFs and conservatives are pushing for gender conformity. Pronouns, documentation, clothing, bathrooms, and hairstyles are all gender, not sex. Enforcing gender roles based on biology is called sexism. Once you say that sex must determine gender roles, you are being a sexist, since nobody but a sexist would treat biology as destiny. And never fall for the canard of “sex-based rights.” (See the previous point.)
  • Transphobia, like all other sexisms, is the “radical idea that people don’t have brains.” (See the first bullet point.)
  • Avoid truisms and platitudes. Yes, trans women are women, but simply saying that won’t convince the other side. You need to tell a coherent story.
  • Acknowledge that trans people are a relatively small minority, but that oppressing that minority is still wrong, and there should be procedures in place to support trans people should you come across one. The same goes for other small minorities. There may be very few Jews and Muslims in the United States, but that doesn’t mean that you exclude Judaism and Islam on a census. Only about 1% of the population has an intellectual disability, but schools still offer special education classes for students who learn significantly slower than the average.

The Kievstone Kops strike again

It never takes too long to find the Ukrainian government doing something stupid in the name of knee-jerk wartime nationalism. Instead of showing their valiant resolve against Russia, they end up looking like the Keystone Kops.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (yes, the ones responsible for the silly #KyivNotKiev campaign) is trying to get MAC Cosmetics to discontinue its “Russian Red” shade. This makeup has nothing to do with the Russian government or Vladimir Putin.

The more I see from Kiev, the more convinced I am that they’re losing this conflict from sheer stupidity from the country’s leadership. They need to throw the entire lot of them out and replace them with competent leaders who know what the fuck they’re doing. This isn’t to victim-blame them—regardless of how dumb their leaders are, they don’t deserve what Russia is doing—but it is still fair to criticise government incompetence at a time like this. (Also, a state at war, even one that is being attacked, is not the same thing as an individual victim of interpersonal violence, and it’s disingenuous to claim that. But that’s a post for later.)

Stealth racism from white disability activists

White (and it’s ALWAYS white) disability activists: Intelligence is our species’ fucking calling card, and you want to tell my Black ass that it doesn’t exist? Y’all got me twisted. I’m not talking about what you get on one of those culturally biased IQ tests (and they all are, even the “culture-fair” ones*), because those are rigged against us anyway. (Considering the fact that all the major ones come from the United States, racial rigging is to be expected, sadly enough. Brown v. Board has been law for less than a century.) I’m talking about the raw ability itself, not proxy measures.

I know you do this to avoid racism. I know you want to respect people with intellectual disabilities. These are noble goals. But the way it comes across is, frankly, kind of racist. Because Black folks have wanted you to see our intelligence, our knowledge, our wisdom, our reason respected for centuries. Either intelligence has a big “White Only” sign on it, or you say it’s all made up by white people. You trying to sell me woof tickets? You are still making it all about yourselves—and continuing to look racist in the process. Either way, Black people never get to be intelligent. White people set the boundaries every goddamn time.

I have had white disability activists jumping down my throat because I don’t subscribe to the “intelligence doesn’t exist/is all socially constructed” view. I don’t even talk about it much these days because of it. But I am sick to death of this “antiracist” racism.

*Yes, I meant that. In Cross-cultural neuropsychological assessment: theory and practice, V. Nell (2000) encountered a Black South African woman in his practice whose eager, intelligent behaviour didn’t match her performance on the pattern-matching test, which would have reflected an intellectual disability if it were accurate. It turns out that she thought the ‘official’ method for solving the problems was too obvious, and actually thought what the tester wanted was more complex.

Facilitated communication is mostly bullshit

I say “mostly,” since there are practices associated with FC that appear to be legit. Also, I know that this is a mainstream opinion outside the autistic community, but it’s still contrarian for these circles.

The unqualified belief in facilitated communication is a form of ableism, since the parents and practitioners who believe in it refuse to accept the fact that their child may have a severe or profound intellectual disability. They are desperate to unlock their child’s hidden intelligence to prove that they have value, rather than valuing their children for who they are, ID or no ID.

A lot of facilitators are simply naïve and truly believe they’re unlocking the hidden abilities of the people they’re supporting. The same goes for disability activists who loudly defend FC, thinking that it’s a legitimate way to help autistic people communicate with others. They confuse the ideomotor effect (aka the Ouija board effect or the Clever Hans effect) with actual communication, probably out of a form of wishful thinking.

But other FC defenders are clearly trying to take advantage of people with severe and profound ID, including Anna Stubblefield, a former Rutgers professor of ethics (!) who sexually abused a Black man whom she “mentored” as a facilitator. Her mother, Sandi McClennen, is the head of the Autism National Committee, an organisation that actively promotes FC. (I was at an AutCom conference several years back. I was more than a little disturbed. While there, I heard McClennen positively refer to her daughter as “Anna Stubblefield” without saying that she was Stubblefield’s mother, and defended the relationship between Stubblefield and her victim. I don’t know whether McClennen was being naïve or unscrupulous, but I don’t give a shit. That poor man was being taken advantage of.)

On top of that, autistic writers may be accused of using FC if they write “too well” to match the autistic stereotype. This, too, is a kind of ableism engendered by FC. It discredits the entire community.

But I’m willing to believe that some forms of supported typing are real, especially if they take pains to make sure the ideomotor effect isn’t confused with independent typing. Credible forms of supported typing or communication prove themselves to be legitimate when the person graduates to independent typing later on, which does happen. Classic facilitated communication, on the other hand, takes advantage of vulnerable people and their families. I am often critical of the medical establishment and its discrediting of disabled people, but this is not one of those cases. Facilitated communication is discredited for good fucking reason.

Racism and sexism are the radical idea that people don’t have brains

And for that reason, these prejudices are the height of stupidity. To be racist or sexist* is to dehumanise oneself, not just your victim. It is to pretend that penises and dark skin, or vulvas and light skin (none of which are the seat of cognition) trump (or Trump) the content of one’s thinking.

(*As always, “sexism” refers not just to misogyny, but homophobia and transphobia as well.)

Human intelligence isn’t distributed equally, but equitably

People vary in intellectual ability. This is, or should be, common sense. (Some tend to acknowledge this with intellectual disability, but they are less comfortable acknowledging the existence of people on the other side of the normal distribution.) But this is an uncomfortable truth, mostly because people are rightly sensitive to the systematic mistreatment and devaluation of people with intellectual disabilities.

But this does a great disservice to people with ID. The entire human race is interdependent, and we need people who can figure out the theory of relativity, mop floors, care for the sick and elderly, write sonnets, and teach children how to read and write. People who think more slowly have an advantage in certain jobs, especially those that are more concrete, sequential, rote, and routine. Quicker-thinking people with more abstract thinking styles would probably flounder in such jobs, just as their slower or more concrete counterparts would be bewildered by work that involved a lot of conceptualisation or analysis. The only right thing to do is pay these people a living wage—they do work that so many others can’t. The more abstract and conceptual your thinking becomes, the more difficult concrete and routine work becomes. It is the opposite of the situation for more concrete, sequential thinkers.

For everyone who can discover the structure of DNA, there is someone who will make sure there’s food on the table by picking the crops. We can’t survive without one another. We may not learn equally fast, but our abilities are distributed equitably. And because of this, we should be paid equitably, too.

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