Monday, March 3, 2014

NeuroQueer: Voyeuristic Perspectives, by S. Rooster Canessa

NeuroQueer: Voyeuristic Perspectives
A Story Propelled by the Phenomenon of Curiosity

I. Introduction to Photo Series
My senior project is a photo series containing narrative. I am exploring the intersection between the Neurodiversity paradigm and the Queer studies, forming NeuroQueer. The origin of this dialogue began as I read the DSM-5 elaboration and definition of Gender Dysphoria. 

Gender Dysphoria is considered by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as a mental illness, continuing the stigmatization and pathology of illness/disease when it comes to not fitting in the very limiting personalization of Male or Female. In this photo series I am taking a voyeuristic positionality. This photo series is composed of individuals who do not follow the gender norms presented by society. They are creating their own definitions of individuality, in which the gender spectrum is transformed into a gender sphere. I am not claiming nor marking these individuals as gender non-conforming, third gender, nor NeuroQueer. I am simply presenting them as they see themselves, removing the labels and allowing for self-expression without the need to personalize what they mean.

Identity is a conundrum. My curiosity was manifested through a series of questions that I began to ask myself since a very young age, age 5. How is identity formed? What does it mean to be a cis-gendered girl and wanting to be a boy? What does intimacy look like? What does authentic self-expression embody? What is authenticity? What is the self? What are we in relationship to others? Who would we be identifying with if there where no others?

Based on my own experience, I realized that this question of identity is of great urgency. I see that there is a conditioned human need within me to define what this gender non-conforming spectrum looks like, or means. As I use the word NeuroQueer, I want to state that I am not looking for a definite definition. Yet I am looking for an umbrella that incorporates identities defined such as Third gender, but not limited to this one word. When the body does not reflect one’s core being, there is an urgent mean to find a place in which one can exist. A place in which self- acceptance and pride of who one is, is respected, embodied, and lived.

It has been my own quest of self acceptance and love that has lead me to see outside of myself, into the lenses of others to understand the complex dynamic of identity and how individuals choose to live in this world as themselves. I want to state that this photo series is an attempt to bring a more inclusive yet variant portrayal of identity and how being oneself looks like. I also want to state that this is the beginning of my own exploration as a portrait photographer and NeuroQueer scholar. I will make mistakes and might not include some individual’s perspective, but I am here with my heart open, clean ears and blurry eyes. I also am a white, Salvadorian, bipolar, middle-class, white passing, androgynous cis-gendered female, a NeuroQueer eccentric who connects more with those who are known as “gay men,” and my identity is something I am still exploring.

In this series I present a small sample of diversity within social-economical frames, color, race, neurodiversity, queer, culture, ethics, and self. I am aware of my privilege and want not to be brought up or down because of it, I simply want to observe and learn about this human existence, specifically identity.

II. The Story
This series started formulating about 11 months ago. I was very interested in looking into the phenomenon of curiosity. I wanted to understand what made a human being curious, and how this curiosity vibration was kept alive. Beata Bishop states (2003), “to my mind, curiosity is one of the greatest gifts of humankind; it is what drives creativity and inventiveness, art and science” (pg.16). Bishop states that it is our job to remain curious, and continue to ask “Why?” Bishop presents curiosity, inventiveness, and thus creativity, to understand more about the world. Through this we can keep an open mind and discover more authentic ways of being and healing. And so here I began, focusing on curiosity and leading myself to Neurodiversity.

This authentic expression was first presented to me through the Neurodiversity paradigm. In which autistic individuals challenged society and presented different neurological wiring as another category of the self, a different way of being.

I kept asking myself why I was so focused on autistic individuals; I found a kind of unconditioned essence I found refreshing. I see now that it was my own lack of authenticity, which held the “authentic” as topic of deep curiosity.

Why begin with autism in order to understand the paradigm of Neurodiversity? Because they are the pioneers! The Neurodiversity movement has been so far dominated by autistic individuals who believe and advocate that their condition is not something to be fixed or cured, but rather a human way of being that must be respected, like that of sex, gender, and race. Neurodiversity consists of the idea that there is more that one neurological and brain wiring structure amongst the human population. In this paradigm, autism and other neurological conditions are a natural variation among humans. As this paradigm allows for individuals to move away from seeing autism as a pathology, and moving towards the notion of a diversity within different human ways of thinking, knowing and expression. In this paradigm different ways of performing are seen as a natural variation of human development and expression. Within this paradigm we encounter two variations of brain wiring, those who are neurodiverse and those who are neurotypical. Neurodiversity embraces the perceptions provided by “abnormal” minds to understand and visualize how the brain assembles its parts.

Michael Fitzgerald (2011) states that, “This link between genius and psychiatric disorder has been made for thousands of years. Indeed, there has been almost equal interest in the relationship between genius and madness, and between genius and creativity” (p. 213).  Neurodiversity presents a paradigm in which mental illness are not considered as such, but are instead a result of a specific neurological wiring. The first person to claim the term Neurodiversity was Judy Singer, an autistic activist and sociologist diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. Singer argued that being differently wired deserved to be an addiction to the political categories that society holds such as those of class, gender and race (Singer, 1999). The paradigm of Neurodiversity defines all the non-typical neurological development as a human imprint that should be recognized. Instead of fighting and creating fear towards varieties, this paradigm provides an opportunity to understand what it is to be uniquely human and the limitless creativity that can be encountered.

Later on, curiosity led me into queer studies, specifically within the transgender spectrum in which I focused on a lot of photography as a medium for documentation and exploration. So here I was, with a feeling of great interest yet total disappointment. I hated myself for not being autistic, or “normal.” What was this about? As I paced, faster and fasted I finally hit a Stop sign that read, INDIVIDUALIZE. As a bipolar gender non-happy person I felt like I did not fit anywhere. I did not understand nor identified with the transgender umbrella either, and I did not fit in the Neurodiversity paradigm because I felt that being bipolar did not necessarily identified and included my entire self.

I felt I had given up, but by inertia, I continued exploring my curiosity digesting two books that have shaped this photo series and allowed me to further explore the gender sphere. These also allowed me to understand solidarity and inclusion, understanding that if this work is just for me it has no power, and I do not do this to only find a place for myself, but to liberate human beings from the personality definitions that are established by a society that wants to dominate people and control. This is work is for all individuals wanting to explore their authentic self.

Leslie Feinberg’s Trans Liberation presented me with very interesting perspectives, in which I found great solidarity between trans people and non-trans people uniting in order to demystify, decolonize and mobilize. Feinberg’s book begins like this, “The sight of pink-blue gender-coded infant outfits may grate your nerves. Or you may be a woman or a man who feels at home in those categories. Trans liberation defends you both.” The healing aspect of conferences, gatherings, coming together to share stories and experiences provided solid ground and strength for individuals all over the U. S to explore and represent their identity. I appreciated how Feinberg allowed the individuals to express themselves and tell their own stories.

Mariette Pathy Allen’s The Gender Frontier allowed me to see the importance and raw essence of the documentation of the trans movement through photography. The way time is held and moments are kept seemed so essential to me, specially as a visual learner. I was so moved by the narrative and inclusion of the subjects, that I see this work as radical documentation. Allen is not transgender herself, and I admire her humility, respect and desire to observe as an ally and human in this world.  Allen’s work brings us face-to-face with just how much gender roles define who and what we are and can be, and what kinds of personhood are allowed on the grid of social viability. Her latest interest has been in youth, and I also see the freshness of this. The youth is revolutionary in many ways, you can see it now with how non-conforming they are even within the trans umbrella. Allen states in her introduction, “ Sometimes, when I am with transgender people, I am afraid: I lose track of who I am or what attracts me. That fear usually turns into exhilaration when I see the old stereotypes rebuffed and outdated conventions overturned.” I appreciate this awareness of human conditioning and challenging it as it inevitable happens.  

Since I can remember, I have had a fascination with madness, probably due to the fact that I have always felt insane, and sometimes even mentally ill. I believe it has not been insanity which has lead me the darkest moments and most self-loathing aspects of the self, but it has been the times I have claimed myself as mentally ill that I feel no hope. I now see a connection between my curiosity in distortion, surrealism, dada and futurism, are my avenues to understand and live the human collective experience of madness. But I realize that my environment, specially the medical/APA part of my existence has used the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM I-V) as a way to explore this concept of human “insanity/identity.”

Thomas Szasz wrote a book in 1987 by the title of Insanity. It begins with a quote by Charles S. Piece, reciting, “ What a thing means is simple what habits it involves… there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice.” The idea of insanity pervades every aspect of our daily lives. Instead of any mental illness being like any other illness, Szasz contends that the term actually functions as a euphemism for problems in living, as an excuse for crime and misbehavior, as a stigma for invalidating adversaries and, as a metaphor and legal fiction.

Now, in the year 2013 Sam Kriss wrote an article called Book of Lamentations. In this article he presents the DSM as a dystopian novel, in a classic mode in which the DSM takes form as a dictionary of madness. Kriss describes how some of the best dystopian literature, such as Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, manages to show us a hideous and contorted future while resisting the temptation to point fingers and invent villains. Kriss also uses Jose Luis Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge as a comparison, stating, “just as Borges’s system groups animals by seemingly aleatory characteristics entirely divorced from their actual biological attributes, DSM-5 arranges its various strains of madness solely in terms of the behaviors exhibited. This is a recurring theme in the novel, while any consideration of the mind itself is entirely absent. In its place we’re given diagnoses such as “frotteurism,” “oppositional defiant disorder,” and “caffeine intoxication disorder.” That said, these classifications aren’t arranged at random; rather, they follow a stately progression comparable to that of Dante’s Divine Comedy, rising from the infernal pit of the body and its weaknesses (intellectual disabilities, motor tics) through our purgatorial interactions with the outside world (tobacco use, erectile dysfunction, kleptomania) and finally arriving in the limpid-blue heavens of our libidinal selves (delirium, personality disorders, sexual fetishism). It’s unusual, and at times frustrating in its postmodern knowingness, but what is being told is first and foremost a story.”

III. The Wrap Up
As neurotransmitters find connections, shooting information from neuron to neuron, I have connected this research and found and umbrella known as NeuroQueer. Neuroqueerness is a term originally coined and developed by Nick Walker, Elizabeth J. Grace of National Louis University and Autistic author Michael Scott Monje, Jr. This paradigm allows for the extraction of Gender Dysphoria out of the DSM-5, away from the umbrella of mental illness into a liberatory theology for all beings. Why should anyone be conditioned to follow a gender role? I want to state that this has nothing to do with sexual preference or sexuality; it has to do with self- expression and individuality. In this pursuit of creating and living in a world where many worlds exist, I present this photo series as a first stepping stone of my work and interested in neuro-anatomy, self and gender.

I am to use this project as a portfolio and research skeleton. My upcoming plans include travelling to Pucallpa, Peru to study and work next to an indigenous community known as the Shipibo. The Shipibo see identity and individuals as patterns, and their gender sphere expands the modern world. This project has shown me how to begin to look at people as they see themselves, and also to take the time to listen. I am also considering pursuing an MFA in photo documentation.

From a neurominority and neuroqueerness perspective, I present myself to you today as an animal, a rooster, and I thank you kindly for your time and attention.

[Here is the link to the photo series.] 

[Here is a pic of the author, young, strawberry blond, at a classically set table, complete with white cloth, where the gilt-framed art behind reflects a chandelier. The original caption said "Extranando a la Betty" ("Missing Betty") and Rooster's pensive expression illustrates this feeling in a way that calls to the heart.]


-S. Rooster Canessa


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of     Mental Disorders (5th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.
Allen, M.P. (2001.) The Gender Frontier. Germany: Kehrerver.
Bishop, B. (2003, November). A Glimpse of the Psyche. Positive Health, 82, 13.

Feinberg, L. (1998.) TransLiberation. Boston: Beacon Press.
Fitzgerald, M. (2011). Creativity Psychosis Autism and the Social Brain. In M. R.
    Mohammadi (Ed.), A Comprehensive Book on Autism Spectrum Disorders (pp.
    213-224). Croatia: InTech Europe.

Kriss, S. (2013, October). Book of Lamentations. Retrieved from           
Singer, J. (1999). Why can’t you be normal for once in your life? From a ‘problem with     no name’ to the emergence of a new category of difference. In M. Corker, & S.     French (Eds), Disability discourse (pp. 59–67). Buckingham: Open UP.
Szasz, T. (1987.) Insanity. Canada: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


  1. I think Nick Walker and Michael Scott Monje Jr. probably also feel as I do, that it is a wonderful thing to see neuroqueer providing a philosophical home for such important, creative and life-affirming work!

  2. Hello, Rooster! :) (smilie) I have enjoyed reading this post. I wonder if you are familiar with the work of Elle Perez who did a photo documentary project about genderqueer people. Their website is and the genderqueer project is here: