You cannot see how invisible I am to you. Yet.
Dear Up with Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry (and Other Reasonable Neurotypical People),
I want to thank the hosts and all of the people who help to create your television programs for MSNBC each weekend. As someone who is too liberal to comfortably fit into today's Democratic party, I appreciate the fact that you include people who share my political beliefs and interests among your guests. You give a forum to people who are not often represented on television. I am writing to you today to ask you to consider doing the same for people, like me, who have autism and other developmental disabilities.
For the last couple of weeks, I have been writing about how angry and disappointed I am that the producers of the film Bully chose not to disclose to their audience the fact that Tyler Long and Alex Libby, two of the film's most compelling subjects, are on the autism spectrum. After I saw the film, I wrote that I was reminded of the experience that Diane McWhorter had when she saw To Kill a Mockingbird as a girl when it first came out, and realized that she was crying for a black man, and that, because of the prejudices she was raised with, she felt guilty about that. I said that I thought probably there were people who saw the movie and had a similar experience with gay people because of Kelby, another of the film's subjects.
I did not realize when I wrote that that Kelby now identifies as transgender, and that that fact was also kept from audiences. As a gay white man, I really appreciate anything that brings attention to bigotry against gay people, but, as the guests on Melissa Harris-Perry said yesterday, gays and lesbians have much more visibility, and much more political power, than transgender people do. I know that it makes the story more complicated to acknowledge that some people transition from thinking of themselves as gay to realizing they are transgender, but this was a movie. They had time to tell the complicated, messy, accurate stories. They did not have to wipe their subjects' identities away. As glad as I am that people may have their hearts opened to gay people because of the way Kelby's story is told in Bully, I would be much more glad if it opened their hearts to transgender people, both because the need is greater and because that is part of the truth of Kelby's life.
Because I was sad about that lost opportunity, I was especially happy about the MHP discussion around transgender issues. Seeing intelligent transgender people on television, being part of a serious and informed conversation, should not be an unusual event, but it is, and I am very grateful to the show.
Last Saturday, I saw the movie To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, and, as I often do after I see a really great film, I wanted to learn more about it. So I watched a documentary called Hey Boo: Harper Lee and 'To Kill a Mockingbird. In it, historian Diane McWhorter talks about going to see the movie with her fifth grade class:
In "Hey Boo," McWhorter recalled being upset that Atticus didn't get Tom Robinson off, because he was clearly innocent. But she noted that, because of her 1950s-1960s Deep South upbringing, she was "upset about being upset."
McWhorter thought that "by rooting for a black man, you were kind of betraying every principle that you had been raised to believe." McWhorter recalled thinking, "What would my father think if he saw me fighting back these tears when Tom Robinson gets shot?" because, at the time, "to be crying for a black man was so taboo." She recalled "confronting the difficulty that Southerners have in going against people that they love."
I would bet there are people who had a similar experience yesterday when the new documentary Bully moved to wide release in the United States. Kelby is such an appealing figure and the treatment she experienced so obviously unfair, that people who might never have empathized with a gay person before have very likely been forced into a new experience:
No invisibility. Download.
I have been saddened by the number of educators who have told me that I am wrong, that the producers of the film Bully were right to make no mention of autism.
Because it isn't just autistic kids who are bullied.
Here's producer Cynthia Lowen, quoted in the Education Week blog On Special Education:
"It felt like his autism was being couched in such a way as to blame him for being different," she said in an interview. "We didn't want to continue the idea that targets of bullying bring it on themselves. They should be safe and protected at school. That was really the point we were trying to make."
If Lowen and her colleagues could not make the point in a ninety minute film that autism is not an excuse to bully people, they should not have chosen autistic subjects.
You can only be okay with this decision if you see autistic people as inherently less than others. If you see the label "autism" not as an accurate and neutral thing for kids like Alex and Tyler but as a scarlet letter that says they somehow deserved to be treated worse.
The worst thing you can say about anyone is that what they are is so bad it can't even be said out loud.
I keep thinking of what Harvey Fierstein said in the documentary The Celluloid Closet:
All the reading I was given to do in school was always heterosexual, every movie I saw was heterosexual, and I had to do this translation. I had to translate it to my life rather than seeing my life. . .
Which is why when people say to me, "Your work is not really gay work, it's universal."
And I say, "Up yours. It's gay. And that you can take it, and translate it to your own life is very nice, but, at last, I don't have to do the translating. You do."
These are our stories.
We should not be made to translate them.
We should never be ashamed again.
And people who claim to be our friends should never think that labeling something as ours is labeling it as less.
One reason why it matters that autism is not mentioned in the movie Bully, despite the fact that two of its main subjects have it, is that leaving out the information can distort important debates in significant ways. This is a movie that wants to be cited by legislators and journalists. So it matters that it misinforms people like Bill Keller, who uses it to support his opposition to hate crimes legislation:
“Bully” does not explicitly touch on the subject of hate crimes, but I found the film relevant to the discussion. Of the teenagers targeted for abuse in the film, only one is victimized because of her sexual orientation. The others get mercilessly taunted and beaten for being a little goofy-looking, scrawny, introverted, uncoordinated or just plain vulnerable. Are the bullies who drove an unpopular teenager to hang himself in his closet LESS culpable because they were NOT motivated by homophobia? Are the kids who ceaselessly tormented a black girl on the school bus LESS to blame because their motives were presumably pure of racism? (The mean kids were also black.)
The kid who hanged himself in the closet was Tyler Long. He had Asperger's syndrome. He was protected by hate crimes legislation because of that fact. His disability is part of his parents' lawsuit against his school.
So, no, his bullies were not motivated by homophobia, but they were likely motivated by bias. By leaving out his diagnosis, the makers of the movie Bully led Keller to an inaccurate conclusion about an important issue.
And he is an intelligent and well-informed man who used to be the executive editor for The New York Times.
And it is wrong.
ASAN Statement on the Exclusion of Tyler Long’s Autism Spectrum Diagnosis from the Documentary BullySubmitted by Landon Bryce on Tue, 04/10/2012 - 07:43
Last Friday, I shared with you a brief statement that Autistic Self Advocacy Network President Ari Ne'eman gave me about the choice that the producers of the film Bully made to exclude Tyler Long's Asperger's syndrome from the film. Today, ASAN released a longer, very well-reasoned statement that explains why this choice is objectionable:
Of even greater concern is the implication that acknowledging Tyler’s disability would have served to diminish or mitigate his experience with bullying or the seriousness of his suicide. Although Autistic children and adults face a higher risk of suicide than non-Autistic peers, this risk is born out of the experiences with bullying, harassment, social exclusion, discrimination and other forms of prejudice faced by our community. These challenges should not be viewed as an inevitable result of autism itself, but as the consequence of broad-based and pervasive social prejudices against Autistic styles of communication and other aspects of the autism spectrum. Youth with disabilities are frequently bullied either as a direct result of a diagnosis or as a result of disability-related traits which are stigmatized by peers. Just as recognizing the sexual orientation of GLBTQ youth who committed suicide as a result of bullying helps us understand the prejudices driving our national bullying problem, acknowledging a disability diagnosis should do the same. Almost twenty-two years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the existence of disability as a persistently discriminated against class should no longer be in doubt.
I think you'll be interested in reading the whole thing.