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Review | 'Spectrums: Autistic Transgender People in their Own Words': A good book to learn something new about a more gender-fluid, non-neurotypical world

The contributors to Sparrow’s book write in the first person, about coming out, transitioning, sex, cats, music, cycling, past lives, their nerdy interests, and dysphoria.

June 26, 2021 / 10:59 AM IST
(Image by Grace.Mahony via Wikimedia Commons CC by SA 4.0)

(Image by Grace.Mahony via Wikimedia Commons CC by SA 4.0)

The month of June holds a special place in the annual calendar for people who identify as LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual) and their allies. It is Pride Month, observed to commemorate the Stonewall Riots that took place in June 1969 when members of the community fought back against police brutality in New York City.

While the culture of protest and the spirit of festivity seem quieter due to the pandemic, this is the best time to pick up a book and learn something new about this diverse community. Maxfield Sparrow’s edited volume Spectrums: Autistic Transgender People in their Own Words (2020), published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, would make an excellent choice.

Sparrow, based in Colorado, US, is a transmasculine author and speaker on the autism spectrum. Their book focuses on the stories of people who identify as both transgender and autistic. They feel that both identities are so tightly woven into their “core being” that labels such as “person with autism” and “person with transgenderism” sound detached and jarring to them – a bit like calling someone a “person with femaleness” or “person with maleness”.

“Not all people on the autism spectrum feel that way and not all gender variant and gender-nonconforming people feel that way, either. But for so many of us, these identities are deeply rooted in our being,” writes Sparrow, in the introduction, setting the tone for a book that consistently emphasizes lived realities over theoretical frameworks and generalizations. The stories here are from Argentina, England, Wales, Canada, USA, Australia.

This book points to an uncomfortable fact that both social justice movements and corporate inclusion programmes struggle to address. People who experience one form of marginalization are not automatically sensitive to the needs and concerns of those experiencing another form of marginalization. They will have to be sensitized.

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There is transphobia in the disability rights sector, and ableism in LGBTQIA+ networks. It is common to find gay rights activists who do not centre trans rights in their work, and people focusing on physical disabilities who choose not to engage with issues faced by neuro-diverse people. The essays, letters and poems in Sparrow’s book show how damaging these silos are.

Joelle Smith opens up about having a hard time in her childhood because of kindergarten teachers who insisted on a rigid demarcation between boys’ toys and girls’ toys. They did not – and she did not know either – that she was an autistic trans girl.

Ben James shares his frustration about not being taken seriously as an autistic trans man because he does not fit trans people’s notions about autistic people or autistic people’s ideas regarding trans people.

Devin S. Turk, who is autistic and non-binary, talks about using a social adaptation technique known as masking. He writes, “Like a chameleon that changes colour in the hope of hiding from predators, an autistic person such as myself may stifle or cover up their natural body language and other ways of expressing themselves so that they might be perceived as more neurotypical…I am aware that this is simply not a reality for every autistic person.”

Since the contributions to this anthology have been written in the first person, their tone is quite different from narratives which are authored by people trying to give a voice to the so-called voiceless. That kind of project often fails because it fetishizes people’s suffering. It does not present them in their wholeness. Sparrow’s contributors write about coming out, transitioning, sex, cats, music, cycling, past lives, their nerdy interests, and dysphoria.

In addition to this, the professional lives of the contributors are quite distinct from each other. Kevvie Vida is a drag queen. Drake Keeper is an aspiring screenwriter. Nathaniel Glanzman is a high school English teacher. Jan is a student pursuing a PhD in computer science. Baden Gaeke Franz is an academic and founding board member of Autistics United Canada. Elie B. is an author who writes thrillers. Noor Pervez is a community organizer.

HDG, one of the contributors to Sparrow’s book, writes, “There are many types of trans narratives, many different trans journeys. The public, when aware of trans people at all, seems to see the story as a binary switch, a movement from man to woman, woman to man.” She adds, “For some people this may indeed be the case, while for others things are much more blended, vague, fluid, or simply different from binary expectations.”

The wide range of accounts in Sparrow’s book can help employers create an affirming environment for autistic trans people. The contributors are experts in their own right. Many of them run support groups, conduct trainings, and advocate for their access needs.

These people need to be heard because, as Megan Talbot – one of the contributors – points out, “it is not reasonable to assume that everyone who is disadvantaged due to disability or discrimination should have to be an activist to protect themselves from institutional structures that cause them harm.” They are not asking for any favours. They merely want the barriers to be removed so that they too can have opportunities to flourish.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect)
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