Saturday, August 24, 2013

Guest Post by DYMPHNA: NeuroQueer: A Perspective on Queerness, Transgenderness, and Ableism from a Queer, Nonbinary Autistic with Severe Clinical Depression [1]

NeuroQueer: A Perspective on Queerness, Transgenderness, and Ableism from a Queer, Nonbinary Autistic with Severe Clinical Depression [1]


In the wake of Private First Class Chelsea Manning coming out as a trans* woman, many people in trying to be an ally to trans* women have posted things that people should do or avoid doing to ensure that they are not reinforcing anti-trans* bigotry and transmisogyny in particular.  This is, as we like to say in the Business, a Good Thing.  I am glad that people are getting on top of fighting anti-trans* bigotry as a person who falls under the trans* umbrella.

However, there is one thing that I find somewhat disturbing.  One thing that people keep writing is that we should not conflate Pfc. Manning’s trans*ness with mental illness.  I understand what they are trying to say.  They are trying to say that we should recognize that Pfc. Manning’s gender identity and not use the label of “mental illness” to invalidate her identity.  Pfc. Manning knows who she is and knows that she is a woman and saying that she only feels that way because she is “mentally ill” is dismissive of her gender.
Does anyone know who made this? Please help me credit the artist. -Ib

However, here is where the problem comes in.  The way that people assert this is to say, “Chelsea Manning is not mentally ill; she’s perfectly fine; there’s nothing wrong with her.”  That statement, which I am sure some people have read without a second glance, is really telling.  Pfc. Manning’s prospective mental illness is contrasted with normality, health, and, most importantly, clear thinking.  Does that mean that, if she did have a mental illness, that her gender identity would be invalid?  Is my feeling non-binary a result of my being Autistic or having severe depression?  Is my friend who has Borderline Personality Disorder only a trans* woman because of her diagnosis?  Do my many Autistic trans* friends (I can only think of one trans* friend who I am convinced is allistic) owe their diagnosis to their neurology?  Now some of you are thinking, “Of course not!  Who would say that?”  Unfortunately, the truth is that a lot of people say that.  It’s actually a very common dismissal technique.  So by insisting that queer or trans* people are not mentally ill, I wonder if you are really helping those of us who are queer/trans* and have mental health disabilities.

Moreover, I question whether that characterization is, strictly speaking, accurate.  Now, before everyone gets all worked up, I’m not saying that queerness or trans*ness are invalid; I’m examining what we really mean when we say “queer”, “trans*”, and “mentally ill”.  I have been fighting my instinct since the beginning of this blog post: I almost never say “mentally ill”, preferring rather to say “mental health disability”.  “Mental illness” is a disability by nearly every definition and societal test.  “Mental illnesses” or mental health disabilities are (theoretically) covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  People with mental health disabilities can receive Social Security Disability Income if their mental health disability is such that they cannot be gainfully employed.  However, the most important test is what fancy pants people who write fancy pants papers call “the Social Model of Disability” [1].

The social model was created in contrast to the medical model of disability.  The medical model claims that people with disabilities have “incorrect” or “inferior” bodies or brains which must be “corrected” so that they can live a “full” life.  In contrast to this, the social model claims that a disability is the non-congruence between society’s accommodations and an individual.  The difference here is that both the individual and society are things that can be altered.  In a truly accessible world, the individual would not be disabled; likewise, in a world wherein most people have different sets of abilities, those who are typical and abled in this world might not be in the other world.

“Okay, so that’s all nice and cerebral, but in the real world people obviously have deficits, unless you mean to tell me that blind people would be able to see if everyone were blind.”

Of course that’s not what I mean; that would be asinine.  However, in a world where everyone was blind, there would be no need for transparent windows or interior lights.  Most blind people have exceptional auditory processing, tactile processing, and spatial intelligence because the areas of the cerebrum that were concerned with processing this constant stream of visible light are reallocated to other processes.  Blind people also have a higher incidence of absolute pitch than the general population.  So a sighted person visiting this Blind World would have a great deal of difficulty as the society would be equipped for blind people.

Relating this back to queerness and trans*ness, both can be framed in the concept of a social model disability.  The distress the queer and trans* people face largely comes from a world that is unaccepting of our sexualities or gender identities/expressions.  Even gender dysphoria can be attributed to the fact that there are not available, affordable, or satisfactory surgeries and treatments to allow people to bring their bodies into consonance with their self-conception.  While we should not use the label of mental health disabilities to be cissexist and heterosexist and dismiss someone’s sexuality and gender identity/expression, we should likewise not conflate mental health disabilities with the inability to accurately assess oneself and we should examine the ways in which queerness and trans*ness both operate like disabilities, as that will enable us to fully understand the mechanism by which these oppressive structures work.

That’s why I call myself NeuroQueer.  To me, being neurologically atypical and being queer are one in the same.  They share many similar tropes and their oppressions operate on many similar channels.

[1] For those wanting my queer, trans*, and disabled credentials, I identify as androgynosexual, Kinsey Scale 1.5, demisexual grey-asexual, Androgynous/Genderqueer, Autistic, and depressed.

[2] Although I have written fancy pant papers, I’m presently wearing gym shorts.


  1. Yes, I've been wondering about the intersection of neurodiversity and queer- and trans*ness.

    I was wondering this when people brought up the mental health angle ... As a person with legal training, I thought that people were bringing up mental illness to say that Pfc Manning cannot use trans*ness as a legal justification for her actions (since some mental illnesses or a legal defense). So they were bringing up "not a mental illness" to say trans*ness has nothing to do with her court case or appeal.

    Does that make sense?

  2. I am not a legal person but I do believe people say this kind of thing from two polar edges of reasoning. I learned to notice people's actions of saying the same thing for opposite political or ethical sets of reasons from James Trent's book Inventing the Feeble Mind, which changed my life. (Needless to say, I think everyone should read it as soon as possible.)

    In the time of Trent's book you see people who would never agree on anything else agreeing that "morons" should be locked up. They come from opposite angles: either they're protecting society from the scary disabled people, or protecting the poor disabled people from... you get the picture.

    It happens again when you see Not Dead Yet and The Catholic Hierarchy in agreement. Again, if you get them to go into graphic detail about why they are agree with each other and themselves, especially if you look at the rest of what they say and do, it's almost impossible to believe they can live in the same world.

    Now I think you, Brenda, have hit on another one. Some people are probably saying, "This person is mentally OK so there is no defense, string 'em up." Some people are trying, on the other hand, to say, "This person is mentally OK, as opposed to crazy people, who, you know, bless their cotton socks, are not, no offense to crazy people or whatever, we love them too, love the sinner, hate the sin." Or something... something like, "Chelsea Manning is not crazy, because I too am trans* and let's throw the crazies under the bus." You see what I am trying to characterize is completely opposing views in reasoning coming out with the same outcome. I think you have nailed a potential one here.

    As with the Trent outcomes of "Lock up the 'morons'," I also hold, and I think DYMPHNA would too, that no matter for what reason the speaker is saying "Bradley may be trans* but that is not crazy," it's not a great thing to say. It's a non sequitur.

    1. DYMPHNA! APB on you... do feel free to weigh in... you'll note there's a feature on here by which you can comment as "Anonymous" and then just sign your name in the box by text as saying that you are you, right after you write. :) Love, Ib

    2. I don't how well I articulated the thing that was worrying me about trans* and the legal defense? I'm worried people will say trans* are obviously non compos mentis. When it doesn't have anything to do with the other. But there are people who are non compos mentis.

      But yes, I can see what you're saying as far as the danger from both ends. Yes.

  3. You are right! Trans* people may or may not be compos mentis! Just like anyone else! Non sequitur. I think there should be a country called Non Sequitur and people who do it too much should be banished there for a while, to listen to each other make no sense, passionately, and often for bigoted reasons. And there are many mosquitoes on that island nation, even though the food is good and plentiful, because I am not merciless.