On last Saturday's Up With Chris Hayes, the panel discussed how the success of the gay rights movement might be imitated by other groups, focusing on Linda Hirshman's new book Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution. I think people who are interested in the autistic rights movement will find the conversation useful enough to watch for themselves-- it's embedded at the end of this post.
Hirshman focuses on four obstacles that gay people needed to overcome in order to improve their status in American society-- she calls them The Four Horsemen of the Gay Apocalypse: people thought homosexuals were sick (or crazy), sinful, criminal, and subversive.
One of the reasons it was important for people to reject the word "homosexual" was that it was a diagnosis from the time when being gay meant being sick. I don't think it's realistic or advisable for us to move completely away from seeing autism in a medical way, but I reject the idea that doctors and scientists know more about autism than autistic people. Autism is, and should be a diagnosis, but is also a difference which should be celebrated. We must never stop working to make autism less disabling, but we must also never stop working to create a world in which autism is not seen as a disease. What we want is a world where autistic people have the medical, educational, and therapeutic support we need in order to be happy, independent, equal autistic citizens.
Autistic people are in many ways considered sinful or criminal. Our meltdowns can result in the police being called and us being shot. People consider us such a burden on our families that they can be unsettlingly sympathetic when our parents murder us. We are seen as "free riders": we take more than we give.
This will change as more of the young autistic people who are considered an epidemic and a crisis today enter the workforce and make gigantic contributions to our economy. In twenty years, we will have multiple examples of a Mark Zuckerberg or a Bill Gates who actually grew up diagnosed. Everyone will know that Temple Grandin is not unique.
One place where I could not disagree more strongly with Dr. Grandin is that she is distressed by the extent to which young autistic people seem to have adopted autism as a special interest. I think she fails to recognize that autism is a growth industry-- effective treatments are more likely to be developed by autistic researchers and autistic people can work every effectively as teachers and therapists to our peers.
And we all need to learn how to support each other without getting paid for it, too. One of the ways that gay people lost our "immoral" label was by stepping up and helping each other during the AIDS crisis. Autistic adults have a similar opportunity now-- so long as autism is being framed by the media as an "epidemic" or a "crisis", we have everything to gain by showing that we are the kinds of people who step up to help families through it.
Parents learn to love Autism Speaks because it does provide real services for them. And they spend only 4% of their budget on services! It would not take a unrealistically massive amount of money for an autistic-run organization which did nothing else to outstrip what they do there. And the budget for an organization that offered real services and earned the love of the little diagnosed Einsteins, Grandins, Turings, and Zuckerbergs who will be among tomorrow's billionaires will eventually outstrip the budget of an organization like Autism Speaks, which ultimately derives much of its clout from its association with a dying television network. We're playing a long, long game here. Let's be smart about it.
Providing services like education, mentorships, and respite care could help gain us the moral high ground. Hirshman suggests that groups who want to emulate the success of the gay right movement must do that. She says we must also keep our focus narrow, with clear goals that we never lose sight of. And she says we need weekly meetings. I know that ASAN, GRASP, Meet Up, and other local organizations are filling that function for many people, but we need to have more choices and stronger networks.
So here's something weird that happened to me today.
I read this story on Towleroad.com about this high school principal who told gay kids they were going to hell.
From the letter by the ACLU regarding the situation:
Multiple students contacted the ACLU to express concerns about an assembly that took place on Feb. 9. At the assembly, Principal Bond reportedly said that gay people are “ruining their lives” and threatened to administer severe punishment – including 60-day suspensions, assignments to an alternative school or expulsion – to any students who were observed publicly displaying affection for members of the same sex. The school already has a policy on public displays of affection that is neutral regarding sexual orientation.
The incident appears to be part of a broader pattern of official anti-gay remarks and policies by the principal, and of incorporating prayers and proselytizing into school events. On one occasion, school officials scolded students who did not bow their heads in prayer and threatened them with discipline. On another occasion, the principal told a lesbian student that she would go to “hell” because of her sexual orientation.
So I called the school.
Because I do that.
I'm good on the phone. I had a nice talk with a parent yesterday and she found me so much less harsh than in my writing that it was hard to for her to reconcile in her mind the idea that I was the same person.
This was not surprising to me.
It's my voice. It's pretty, and it sounds like a normal person. I hate writing, it hurts-- I work around them and with them pretty well but I have communicative impairments that are less noticeable when I speak. I really need to figure out a way to talk to you. You'd like me better, and we'd have more fun.
Anyway, I call people A LOT. I also talked to Joan Graves of the MPAA for quite a while yesterday about the rating for Bully. It's all about the number of F-words to her, so no hope for change there. But we did have a good talk about the need for having parents with disabilities and gay parents on the ratings board. She was very respectful, although she did not agree with me that they needed to work harder on these issues. That's okay-- she listened, and we talked. It's a push in the right direction. If other people push a little too, we may see change.
So I call people a lot, especially schools, because I understand how lots of them work-- I taught in a mediocre public school in a city for ten years, a pretty bad rural public school for another five, and one of the best private schools on the West Coast for four more. So I know the language and the rules, and I can sometimes get people to look at things in a different way.
So I call people a lot. I talk to schools a lot.
And I have never had someone from a public school quote scripture at me on the phone before.
But that happened this morning when I called Haywood High School.
I talk to a lady named Margie who told me that the students were lying about the homophobic things that Principal Bond had said.
And when I argued, she told me, "You need to learn the truth and the truth will set you free."
And I said, "Oh my God, did you actually just quote SCRIPTURE at me?"
And she hung on me.
So I called the district office and left a message describing my talk with Margie.
And a couple of hours later I got a call back from an administrator, who told me that Dorothy Bond would no longer be principal at Haywood High School, and that he had advised Margie that her behavior was unacceptable.
And I was still mad, but I realized that he had taken me seriously and taken appropriate action with Margie. And that the important thing was that Bond was not going to be working with kids anymore.
So I said thank you.
And I hung up.
I wish you could see the harm that self-hatred does the way that I do.
Because it would scare you.
And you would change.
What can I say?
How can I convince you of the harm?
How can I make the pain, the damage real to you?
I don't know.
But I have to try.
Most of the gay men that I know hate themselves. I don't know enough lesbians well enough to generalize, and the trauma of AIDS, of course, deformed the gay male community in ways that it did not theirs. I think it is possible that gay women hate themselves less.
And I think it is possible that they do not.
Because the hurt of this has to be as palpable to them as it is to me:
There are people who have either killed or will kill themselves because of that ad.
I know this in my heart just as surely as I know people have died because of the hateful promotional material produced in the early days of Autism Speaks.
I know that I die a little whenever I see either one of them
And I know that I am not unique.
Yes, my parents taught me to hate myself-- but they did it because they wanted me to survive. Without extraordinary measures on their part, without them doing far more than any parent should have to do, I would be dead. I know this, too.
Most of autistic people I know hate themselves, too.
You cannot hate the sin and not hate the sinner.
You cannot hate homosexuality and not hate gay people.
You cannot hate autism and not hate autistic people.
Because without autistic people, autism would not exist.
It is not something separate from us.
And all the "fighting" "hating" "war" "Mama Grizzly" stuff is rhetoric-- it's just words, a way of talking about your situation that makes you feel all powerful and full of yourself.
It's a choice.
You don't have to hate autism to teach your kid to read.
In fact, the knowledge I have of child psychology from spending twenty years in the classroom and earning a Masters of Science in education tells me that hating your child's autism makes it infinitely harder for him to learn anything. This is an opinion, but it is the informed opinion of an experienced professional. You should pay attention to it.
It is because I know this matters that I care.
Believe me, there are easier and more effective ways to drive up traffic.
But, damn it, you have to stop teaching your kids to hate themselves.
Because it kills them.
Maybe watch this. Even if you've seen it before.
Because all it takes is a collar and a couple of hours to make kids hit each other and hate themselves.
What do years of your mom hating who you are do?
Telling this boy not to come out would not have kept him alive.
I would really like all of you who are parents to read this post from conservative blogger Kathleen McKinley. It's an amazingly well-intended piece of bigotry about the suicides of gay teenagers. And I think maybe if you can understand the bigotry in it, it will help you to understand what well-intended bigotry toward autistic people looks like.
Bigotry is the belief that certain people deserve to be treated better and others worse because of who they are. It is easy to see when it comes from a place of hatred. It is harder to see when it comes from a place of pity and contempt.
McKinley read about the suicide of Jamie Hubley, the boy singing in the video above, and other gay kids, and it made her angry:
Today, while waiting at the orthodontist’s office for my son, I read a People Magazine article on other teen suicides due to bullying, most of them gay. One was a 13 year old boy.
So, now I’m just mad.
Am I mad at the hateful mean kids who bully and tease these teens? You bet I am. But I am just as mad at the idiotic adults who force our adult views on kids, and pull them into our adult world long before they are mature enough to handle it. The 13 year old that killed himself told his Mom he was gay. She said she already knew and hugged him. She said she just assumed that everyone else would be as accepting as she was.
McKinley has apparently never listened to gay people when we talk about ourselves. I knew when I six, probably sooner, that I was romantically interested in boys rather than girls. But she thinks a 13-year-old just can't be old enough to know that he is gay:
Kids that age are just discovering who they are. They really have no idea yet. The adults tell you to “come out,” when what we should be telling them is that sex is for adults, and there is plenty of time for figuring out that later. Figure out yourself first. Focus on the kind of person you want to be, not the kind of person you want to sleep with. A 13 year old should not be building his life around his sexual orientation. He should be being A KID. The show Glee thinks that if we just show how mean it is to tease gays, then the bullies will just stop. It’s so stupid I can’t even stand it. I think shows like Glee make it WORSE for gays teens.
Being gay is not mostly about sex. It's mostly about love. Max and I spend a lot more time walking the dog and making dinner together than we do having sex. We take care of each other. We fight. Our relationship is not really about sex, but McKinley writes as though it were.
McKinley thinks gay kids are safer in a world that pretends they don't exist. Those of us who grew up in that world could tell her that she is wrong, but she is not interested in listening.
The "It Gets Better Campaign" is not about coming out. It's about toughing it out.
Here's the first video:
I wonder if McKinley watched the video before she wrote this:
These kids were sold a bill of goods by people who thought they were being kind. The “It will get better” campaign just didn’t think it through. They didn’t think about the fact that kids are different from adults. They handle things differently. They react differently. Why? BECAUSE THEY ARE KIDS. You can grumble all day long how unfair it is that straight teens can be straight in high school, and gay kids can’t, but life is unfair. Isn’t the price they are paying too high?? Is it so much to ask them to stand at the door of adulthood before they “come out” publically? Because it may save their life.
Dan and Terry aren't telling kids to be openly gay in high school or middle school. They are telling them that they know what it is like to be in an environment where it is not safe to be open. And they were harassed, even when they weren't open about their sexuality. The "It Gets Better" campaign is saying kids should do what Jamie Hubley says he couldn't do: hang on for three more years, or five, if they live in a place where being open about who they are isn't safe. It is not telling them to be foolhardy or unrealistic.
Let's talk autism.
And let's start with making assumptions about what adults advocates are saying without really listening to them. Like McKinley does with the "It Gets Better" campaign, many times parents fail to listen to what autistic people are actually saying before rejecting our opinions.
I am regularly accused of saying I don't want to be cured from autism, because a lot of other adults have said that. What I have said repeatedly is the concept of curing autism is absurd because you can't undo the development of the brain. There is a huge difference between saying a cure is undesirable and saying a cure is impossible.
Take a little time and think about this quote from McKinley:
Why in the world would you give teenagers a REASON to tease you? Oh, yes, because the adults tell you to embrace who you are.
She could be talking about eye contact, or stimming, or any other observably autistic behavior.
And I'm not saying that we should pretend that kids aren't going to be cruel about any difference they notice. They are.
But McKinley is saying, however many times she pretends she isn't, that there is something shameful about being gay. That it should be hidden away, at least for as long as possible.
And I'd like us all to acknowledge that we send kids everyday the message that autism is shameful, that it is something to be hidden. And I'd like us to try to stop that.
First, I want to thank you for the work you have done on behalf of Larry King, and all kids who are different. The well-reasoned lament you wrote is noteworthy not only for its quality, but for the fact that you are one of the very few heterosexual writers to grasp the significance of the Brandon McInerney mistrial:
Here is what isn’t in dispute: Brandon McInerney took his father’s Saturday Night Special from wherever it was stashed in the house. He loaded it with hollow-point bullets. He put it in his backpack and went to school. The day before he put the gun in his backpack he said he was going to bring his gun to school. When he got to school, he went to the computer lab, pulled out the gun, and shot Larry King in the back of the head.
That is not in dispute. All sides agree.
You would think, with that fact set, a jury could come to a verdict. And yet, they didn’t. Today the judge declared a mistrial after the jury deliberated 15 hours because 7 jurors wanted to convict him on voluntary manslaughter and 5 wanted to convict him of 1st or 2nd degree murder.
I want to thank you even more for doing more than any other writer I am aware of to try to keep the injustice this week from happening, as in this open letter to McInerney's then attorney:
Memo to William Quest: Do NOT make excuses for Brandon McInerney. And whatever you do, do NOT blame the school or place the responsibility for Lawrence King’s shooting on their heads.
I do not know that Larry has had a better or more compassionate advocate than you since his death. And I thank you from the bottom of my heart for that.
But if there is one thing that is clear from Larry King's behavior in the weeks before his death, it is that it was important to him to be recognized for what he was: attracted to boys. Whether that would ultimately have resulted in him identifying as gay or as transgender is certainly unknowable, but I think it would bother Larry that the person who has stood up for him the most would write this about him:
The sly implication is that King had it coming. That the victim, the one cold in his grave, deserved what he got because, well, he was gay. Or looked gay. Or acted gay. I’m not sure any of us really know whether he was or wasn’t.
I don't think that's how he would like to be remembered.