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Dis/appears (2016)

Permanent marker and chest binders on clothesline


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Words of transgender, genderqueer, non-binary, gender fluid, and gender nonconforming individuals with autism, included in piece:

“Mama, I think that I am half boy and half girl.”

“I need clothes in every color.”

“It makes me want to scream sometimes.”

“I’m not meant to be squeezed in that box. I’m beside it. I’m in-between and I’m comfortable being in-between.”

“I think there’s a lot of overlap between autistic people and trans people. I am probably friends with more autistic trans people than just trans people.”

“In middle school, I had no friends. In freshman year of high school, I spent every lunch period in the library, reading. I was bullied and picked on.”

“Gender feels.”

“I was able to formulate it as more of an intellectual thing. Like ‘what is gender, really?’”

“I was very, very afraid. The narratives about trans women scared me. I always basically understood that it would kill me, that I would be a pariah, sick and diseased, and I would lose everyone that cared about me. So I pushed it down deep inside me.”

“It’s impossible for me to separate my transness and my autism from my issues with depression and anxiety.”

“I used to feel very, very shameful about it and tried to hide it from other people.”

“Remove all the shame and stigma and embrace the fact that I have autism.”

“Autistic people’s gender identities are real and must be respected.”

“The entire system is complicit in their deaths.”

“It felt like time is running out, my body is destroying itself and you are not letting me fix it.”

“It does feel to me like if I had started sooner, I would be more me. But now, since I started so late, it’s harder to physically become as I should be. I’m more half-formed than I should be physically.”

“I felt like I wasn’t a guy. But it wasn’t until middle school that I started feeling super distressed about it.”

“I don’t want to be handsome, I want to be pretty.”

“We need to create an understanding of the validity of trans experience and autistic experience.”

“You are fighting for your own existence.”

“They need reinforcements. This is the last squad of troops, and they are trying to survive.”

“I am trans and disabled and I feel we are made invisible when trans people talk about how we are viewed as disabled. I want to look at ways of uniting trans people and disabled people to win social justice.”

“Lots of trans people say disabled people are treated badly. This is why they think trans people shouldn’t be called disabled.”

“When people say that trans is natural they make it seem like disability isn’t natural — it can be.”

“We have to work together so everyone has what they need, not only rich white trans people.”

“For myself, as puberty hit, I didn’t like being treated differently than the boys. I didn’t welcome the changes happening in my body. I especially didn’t like my new growing breasts.”

“In one of the psychology books i read about Pavlov dogs. I used conditioning techniques to stop my breasts from bouncing. I scratched my face to remind me to stop bouncing. The marks after hurt like razors and I couldn’t hide them. Learning not to scratch my face in a meltdown was very high on my list of priorities.”

“In one of the psychology books I read it pointed out differences in male and female thinking and strengths. I realized I had a lot of male areas of talent strengths. I began to wonder if I had a male mind.”

“I felt more like the boys than the girls. I was okay with that, although I’ve watched other girls get very stressed out and worry they might be transgender; trapped inside a female body.”

“You should love yourself as you are and be yourself.”

“I wished I was a boy, especially when I was younger. As I got older I decided it was alright to be a girl who liked guy things. That’s when I made peace with my gender. I’m just a Tom Boy and that’s okay.”

“Some of the typically female parts of my brain just didn’t get wired up. It doesn’t make me male.”

“I’m not a man trapped in a woman’s body. I just don’t want to spend hours talking on the phone or shopping for make up.”

“Be yourself and don’t be in a hurry to fit into a label or a box.”

“Everyone is unique and it’s okay to take your time to figure out where you fit in.”

“Some of us are not as certain. We might feel more like boys.”

“If you are a Tom Boy go ahead and be one. You don’t have to act like the girls. You can just be yourself.”

“I’ve recently been making exciting and very daunting discoveries about my gender. As a result, I currently identify as ‘30% ‘George Clooney’ and 70% ‘Georgina Clueless.’’”

“I’m frantically researching all the posh names for where I’m at and I’m guessing that I’m non-binary/gender-queer with a degree of gender fluidity. Essentially, I live on Planet Drew, which has an erratic rotation around the Gender System. We’re currently quite close to Venus.”

“I’ve also discovered that I can ‘do’ liquid eyeliner, which is nice!”

“Whatever the choice, we need respect and support, either way.”

“I am sharing some aspects of my journey to date in the hope this will contribute to understanding, acceptance and support.”

“I am an aspie female and am comfortable as such, however I do not see myself in the many layers and specifics that society thinks females should be. I am one who knows that I was born female, I am female and I am feminine, but it’s my own brand of femininity that I exude.”

“I am not one to conform to that which society or parental units require. I don’t believe that I have to dress a certain way…sit a certain way…eat a certain way…play a certain way or with specific kinds of toys. I played with toys that I liked.”

“I think society’s greatest flaw is the encouragement of being like minded. That is a great downfall.”

“I realized I definitely didn’t feel like a girl. So…that must’ve meant I was a boy, right?”

“Eventually I had an epiphany: I didn’t feel like a girl. But I also didn’t feel like a boy. I just felt…in the middle. A bit of both.”

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CW: Use of the “r-word” in context of a quotation from an outside source.

As I researched the rich intersection between transgender identities and autism, I was struck (though unfortunately unsurprised) by the lack of resources written by individuals who themselves shared these identities. As I lie in my bed, recovering from top surgery and no longer needing to bind my chest, I think of those who do not yet have access to such medical interventions, for whom binding remains a painful and constant reality. These are voices that need to be heard, unique narratives that are often abandoned by the mainstream in favor of the digestible, neurotypical transgender narrative of the person who has “always known” that they were “born in the wrong body.” Dis/appears displays three of my chest binders, in various states of wear and tear, covered in these words. In processing this work, I uncover several themes, threads that are woven through these disabled and transgender identities, including in/visibility, claiming identity, diagnosis, cure, community, pride, accessibility, and search for “logical” explanation.



The title Dis/appears refers both to disappearance of the text as the gaze shifts from binder to binder (marking the erasure of trans/aspie narratives), but also the dis/appearance of both autism as an “invisible” disability and transness through binding (an under-the-clothes act that is thus not directly seen, and yet is rendered remarkably and often dangerously visible in cisnormative spaces). I have worn each of these binders to class--before surgery I wore a binder every day, whenever I was in public--and yet binders, by their very nature, are simultaneously visible and invisible, hiding my female form and marking my gender visibly deviant. The language itself is borrowed from theorist Margaret Price’s work. In her piece “Defining Mental Disability,” Price asserts:

Although it’s common to describe psychosocial disabilities as ‘invisible,’ or ‘hidden,’ this is a misnomer. In fact, such disabilities may become vividly manifest in forms ranging from ‘odd’ remarks to lack of eye contact to repetitious stimming. Like queerness, psychosocial disability is not so much invisible as it is apparitional, and its ‘disclosure’ has everything to do with the environment in which it dis/appears” (Price 304).



Working throughout this semester on unearthing similar intersections, I developed a new approach to both disability studies and gender studies, born both from an exploration of personal blogs and online communities, and from Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States. Notably, what is illustrated throughout the history of the United States is that society has repeatedly defined disability through an inability to meet the rigid and binary gendered expectations of the time; in other words, “gender failure” produced disability.

Though this pattern has persisted across time, its exact ramifications differ depending on historical period and physical sex. For example, while fertile female bodies were considered “appropriately able-bodied for [the] colonial hopes of settlers” to the Chesapeake Bay region, women’s bodies and minds were also deemed unfit even centuries later for participation in education, voting, or property ownership (Nielsen 20). Continuing into the 20th century, many women were considered to have “failed” at gender by transgressing expectations related to women’s sexuality. Nielsen writes:

In essence, women who sexually desired other women, women who lived as gender nonconformists, and the mother ‘quick with children who spends her mornings at the club, discussing ‘social statistics,’ embodied different but related forms of a gender disability caused by a degenerating body and mind” (Nielsen 116).

In other words, any failure to enact gendered societal expectations could only have been explained by some unnatural phenomenon or “birth defect”--something must have been wrong with women’s bodies and minds in order for them to act in such a way. When women attempted to enter higher education alongside their male counterparts, “experts” used two disability-related excuses in order to refuse their request: first, that women were too physically and intellectually disabled already in order to participate in such higher-level though, and second, that the attempt would only further disable them, as it was too much for their frail bodies and minds to handle (Nielsen 94).

Professor and historian Douglas C. Baynton analyzes this use of disability on the part of these oppressors, explaining, “Not only has it been considered justifiable to treat disabled people unequally, but the concept of disability has been used to justify discrimination against other groups by attributing disability to them” (Baynton 17). Applying this historical perspective to modern conceptions of gender and disability, it is interesting to consider the impact a wider acceptance for gender nonconformity and trans identities has had on constructing disability. In an article quite recently featured in Curve Magazine, Rudacille cites a child psychologist who speaks on the not-uncommon conflation of autism and gender nonconformity:

“‘So much of the experience of being trans can look like the spectrum experience,’ she says. People who don’t want to socialize in their birth genders may seem to have poor social skills, for example; they may also feel so uncomfortable with their bodies that they neglect their appearance. ‘That can sometimes be greatly alleviated if you give that person appropriate gender support,’ she says” (Rudacille 2016).

But what would a world look like in which “failing gender” was not a possibility at all? While a world void of gendered expectations (if even possible) might eliminate the use of disability as a justification for oppression, Baynton reminds us of the harm done to disabled communities as gender minorities sought to rise up by rejecting disability. As he explains:

Disability figured not just in arguments for inequality of women and minorities but also in arguments against those inequalities. Suffragists rarely challenged the notion that disability justified political inequality and instead disputed the claim that women suffered from these disabilities” (Baynton 24).

Though we should undoubtedly move toward a world of greater freedom around gender identity and expression--even one where there are no gender expectations to be failed or broken at all--the reason for this should not be to identify out of disability due to shame or stigma; rather, a fight against cissexism inherently must incorporate a fight against ableism, bettering conditions for not only transgender and gender nonconforming people, but also for disabled people, and for people who fall into the intersecting categories.


Claiming Identity

In Dis/appears, I aimed to centralize the experiences of individuals who identified as non-binary, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming in particular (as opposed to binary trans identities), because many people wrote about their experiences of feeling pressured to “feel like a girl” if they did not identify with being assigned male at birth, or vice versa. Being non-binary is already a remarkable barrier in terms of access to hormone therapy and gender affirmation surgeries, and this barrier is often only compounded when the individual seeking treatment has autism.

Because people with autism are thought not to possess Theory of Mind (ToM), or the ability to conceptualize or theorize others’ humanity in relation to their own, they are also not considered to have the capacity to conceptualize or theorize their own. As I argue in my 2016 piece entitled “Neuroqueer and Proud: Claiming Identity and Community Despite and Through Theories of Theory of Mind,” the notion that people with autism lack ToM has two, diverging consequences on an individual’s process of identifying as transgender: they are either considered unable to “know themselves” well enough to really claim an identity, or their ability to be their most authentic selves is explained by their supposed inability to understand gendered social conventions. Both theories ultimately seem to remove the agency from the individual, but these ideas are often reproduced in parents’ attempts to understand their children’s journeys with gender. As Rudacille writes:

Audrey didn’t think autism was causing Ollie to like the color pink or want to wear dresses, but she did wonder whether her extremely logical child might reason that the fact that he liked those things meant he wasn’t a real boy -- ‘like, ‘these are the rules of society,’ she says. Her husband, who serves in the U.S. military, thought that because of Ollie’s autism, the child might not understand that a boy dressing in girls’ clothes was not socially acceptable” (Rudacille 2016).

Here, Audrey’s symptoms of autism are used to “explain” her gender nonconformity in vastly different ways--while in her mother’s mind, it is because she is so logical that she would force a connection between her interests and female gender, in her father’s mind, her nonconformity arises because she has no grasp of societal rules and gendered expectations. [We see these attempts at explanation present in most current literature regarding the intersections of transgender identities and autism--in fact, with the exception of the Curve Magazine article and a number of personal blog posts, everything available on the internet centralizes a search for a scientific explanation of higher rates of transgenderism among people with autism. While science can be empowering even for those holding these identities, it is often all too easy for representations of identity to mimic and reinforce a medical model of disability, one which reduces the experiences of disabled people to the physical/psychological realities of their impairments and ignores the socially disabling factors at play. In other words, the responsibility is removed from nondisabled society to improve conditions for marginalized people.]

In the process of removing the agency to identify from the individual, this agency can also be transferred into “responsibility,” held by caregivers, who hold the unspoken job of regulating the expression of those in their care. As Sophia Wong writes in her piece entitled “At Home with Down Syndrome and Gender,” an account of her experience growing up with a brother with down syndrome, “It is usually taken for granted that retarded people will conform to their gender roles if they have been properly socialized by their caregivers, so a retarded man in drag implies a negligent caregiver” (Wong 112). This notion that caregivers have the ability to regulate and normalize another person’s gender expression expresses intersecting prejudices--both the ableist notion that someone with an intellectual disability is dependent to the point that they cannot develop their own identity, and the cissexist assumption that to be gender conforming is the default.

Eli Clare, a transgender and disabled author, poet, and activist, shares a different perspective on the experience of his intersecting disabled identities--for Clare, the experience of presenting more androgynously was quite acceptable, as he was automatically desexualized and rendered gender-less by a world that could not imagine him “properly” enacting feminine gender norms (Clare was assigned female at birth). As he explains, “The same lies that cast me as genderless, asexual, and undesirable also framed a space in which I was left alone to be my quiet, bookish, tomboy self, neither girl nor boy. Even then, I was grateful” (Clare 151).

How could these stories--one of hesitant gratitude for the enabling side effects of prejudice, the other of struggle to reconcile unnecessarily conflicting identities--be re-written in a world shaped by activist efforts born out of the intersection of trans and disabled identities?

For many, such intersectional activism is still a dream. Ableism permeates transgender communities, and beyond simply pushing away a diagnosis in the DSM, many transgender communities also actively exclude disabled participants. I argue that as long as such exclusion exists, so will cissexism. Transgender identities and activism and disabled identities and activism need one another, because throughout history and to this day, they constitute one another in a multiplicity of ways. Trans communities, in understanding and reconciling dysphoria and internalized transphobia, have so much to gain from a social model of disability, which views society’s inaccessibility and prejudice as the ultimate disabling factors--and in the transgender movement, disabled individuals can see a model of a world not so constrained by gender roles to be “failed” or binaries to be confined to.

It should also be noted that for others, beyond Audrey and Clare, this intersection between disability and gender identity is even more than coincidence--for those who identify as autismgender, or autigender (terms coined by wiki users autismgender and esperancegirl), for whom autism is “part of whole of gender identity,” in other words, their gender “can only be understood in context of being autistic” ("Neurogender" 2016). It is important to note that the connection between autism and a deviant gender identity has been made by the individual--a stark contrast to the example of Audrey, whose parents wrote narratives of connection onto her identities, effectively removing her agency in identification. If a world where neurogender can exist as an identity to be claimed and not forced onto people, we need such intersectional activist efforts more than ever.



As I argue in my 2014 piece “‘Crips and Trannies Need to Pee Too!’: The Intersectionality of Trans and Disabled Identities,” the transgender community’s resistance to a DSM diagnosis is offensive for many people who identify as both trans and disabled, working in direct opposition to those who have spent years becoming proud of their diagnoses as disabled. Also implicit in this resistance, transgender and disabled blogger A.J. Withers argues, is a refusal to identify into a group that has historically been treated so poorly, and stigmatized so deeply. As Withers argues: “Some trans people think that surgeries should be paid for but that trans should be thought of as a physical disability not a mental disability. They say that they don’t want to be treated like people with mental illnesses. They want to be treated better than that” (Withers 2015). Here, Withers notes the unique stigma attached to mental illness, and calls for transgender individuals to identify proudly into mental disability, both to avoid undermining the efforts of those who have worked their whole lives to rally pride around such identities, and to stand in solidarity. As he notes, “When trans people only try to have trans people taken out of the DSM, it is important to ask who gets left behind” (Withers 2015).

My own diagnosis of gender dysphoria was a welcome one--based on my “gender narrative” and resulting quickly in a letter allowing my procedure to take place, this diagnosis was not so pathologizing and reductive as it was gate-opening, inherently telling a story of my life and experiences coping with a society, and leading directly to much-needed treatment. And yet, a feeling lingers within me that there is something inherently pathologizing about being able to look my experiences up in a book.

In his own grappling with such issues, Clare offers an alternative--one that recognizes the desire (shared by both transgender and disabled people) to escape the pathologizing effects of diagnosis while still allowing those who have been diagnosed to find empowerment through these processes. As he explains:

Of course, there is another important strand of naming at work in our communities--a strand that declares trans-ness not a disease, gender nonconformity not a pathology, and bodily uniqueness not an illness. A strand that turns the word dysphoria inside out, claiming that we are not the ones dysphoric about our genders, but rather dysphoria lives in the world’s response to us” (Clare 460).

***I would like to note, here, that while my intention had been to cover all three binders in writing, I couldn’t engage my arm and chest muscles enough to do so. Though symptoms of my DSM diagnosis may lessen as my surgical intervention alleviates my dysphoria, I move consequently into a temporary space of physical disability. In an effort to align body and mind/soul, will I forever be juggling the two? I question further, now, the desire of many in the trans community to reject disability labels, when the effort appears to be, beyond offensive, also ultimately futile.***



While such attempts to incorporate disability rights work into transgender activism and vice versa may seem like long-term goals, the proof of their necessity is current and pressing. Referencing a recent law passed by North Carolina legislators, barring transgender individuals from using any bathroom that does align with the sex written on their birth certificate, Rudacille writes: “For trans people with autism, who are often socially naive and unaware of how they are perceived by others, such laws present a very real threat of the kind of confrontation they are ill-equipped to manage” (Rudacille 2016). Rudacille’s use of such condescending language as “socially naive” is problematic; however, her point should not be ignored: people with intersecting marginalized identities, including transgender people with autism, experience heightened and even compounded consequences of oppressive acts like North Carolina’s “bathroom bill.” The call for intersectional activism could not be more pressing.

There is simply so much to be gained from an intermingling of communities, when both have worked tirelessly for years to promote self-love. As Rudacille writes, on the experiences of Grobman, a young transgender person with autism:

It wasn’t until she began exploring her trans identity and building relationships with others in the community that Grobman was finally able to ‘remove all the same and stigma and embrace the fact that I have autism,’ she says. She attributes this to the confidence she developed by talking to people about being trans and being accepted for who she is without having to hide any aspect of her identity” (Rudacille 2016).

Works Cited

Baynton, Douglas C. "Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History." The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. Fourth ed. London: Taylor and Francis, 2013. 17-33. Print.

Clare, Eli. "Resisting Shame: Making Our Bodies Home." Seattle Journal for Social Justice 8.2 (2010): 455-65. Print.

Clare, Eli. "Stones in My Pockets, Stones in My Heart." Exile & Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation. Cambridge: South End, 2009. 143-60. Print.

Griffin, April. "Gender Identity Issues and Females on the Spectrum." The Art of Autism. N.p., 27 Oct. 2015. Web. 10 May 2016.

Marshall, Tania. "Gender Dysphoria." Tania Marshall. Sunshine Coast Centre for Autism and Psychological Services, 26 May 2015. Web. 10 May 2016.

"Neurogender." Wikipedia, 8 Jan. 2016. Web. 11 May 2016.

Nielsen, Kim E. A Disability History of the United States. Boston: Beacon, 2012. Print.

Price, Margaret. "Defining Mental Disability." The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. Fourth ed. London: Taylor and Francis, 2013. 298-307. Print.

Rudacille, Deborah. "Living Between Genders." Curve. Avalon Media, 27 Apr. 2016. Web. 10 May 2016.

Withers, A. J. "Disabling Trans: Political Implications and Possibilities of Constructions of Trans as a Disability." Web log post. If I Can’t Dance Is It Still My Revolution. Wordpress, 11 Aug. 2015. Web. 10 May 2016.

Wong, Sophia Isako. "At Home with Down Syndrome and Gender." Hypatia Feminism and Disability 17.3 (Summer 2002): 89-117. Print.