Saturday, March 30, 2013

Equality = All, Not Some

I fully intended to start discussing something I've been meaning to post about for a while now - Sherlock and how his character is read as autistic. But unfortunately, life decided to continue its trend with my faith in the world being tested against humanitarian organizations I support. This week's was the Human Rights Campaign, otherwise known as the HRC. So I'm going to make one more post on humanitarian organizations that break my heart, focusing on the HRC and on Autism Speaks, which will lead segue into the Sherlock post I've been meaning to write. Also, I know I'm approaching controversial topics so if I say anything you think is wrong, ill-phrased, or you disagree with, please politely let me know and I'll fix it/talk about it with you.
First, the HRC. This is an organization I (until recently) wholehearted supported. I've donated money, I'm an HRC member, I've got three of their bumper stickers. They are a pretty mainstream organization (as mainstream as a group supporting gay marriage and equality for GLBT members can be in the US, I suppose) so I'm not surprised there is criticism of them - large organizations are bound to have that. However, the criticism I came across online after seeing allegations on Tumblr that the HRC is anti-trans makes me embarrassed to have given money now and upset that once again it's necessary to do research before supporting an organization that seemed really plainspeaking and sincere.

The criticism is pretty straight forward. For a group that's supposed to be for all GLBT members, they've drawn divisions between GLB members and trans members and have been accused of being transphobic, as well as failing to support homeless GLBT youth. You can read about these claims here and here and here and here and here. (Okay, so that looked far less bombastic when I was piecing all those "heres" together. Now that just looks said). I think that is more than sufficient enough evidence for me to feel guilty for supporting the HRC.

Not that I should blame myself, really. It's not my fault that I'm trying to support equality and I chose a well-known organization that's generally well-regarded but has some spectacular flaws not often discussed by those affiliated with the organization. What really bothers me about this is how, in the efforts of tolerance and equality, more intolerance and inequality is created. Why do we keep pitting one group against the other? All it does is keep real change from happening.

I'm not a member of the GLBTQA community (or whichever your preferred acronym is; I think QUILTBAG is actually the full one) and I can't speak for the people that are. It's time for people like me to stop talking and let other voices be heard - the ones who belong to these communities and no when the organizations like the HRC is not representing them. I'd hate to say that one reason the HRC has issues is because it's so mainstream (because that sounds too hipster even for me to utter) but I think it's popularity and its ease for allies to get involved (all you have to do is donate a yearly amount and boom, you're a member with a nice little card that says so which you can stick in your wallet and feel good about) allows for a lot of misunderstanding. Also, big organizations lean towards being more profitable and economically beneficial rather than being non-profit and focused on issues at hand.

Not saying that the HRC totally sucks... they're trying, at least, and they have made advancements in advocating GLBT issues. But I'm peeved that they're not really practicing what their preaching. And given the distrust towards organizations and institutions that I've laid out in my previous posts, it's a bit much.

Add this on to the post I was originally going to do this week and you can see why I get a little frustrated. Awareness of autism is a huge issue worldwide and one of the better known groups working on this issue in the United States is Autism Speaks. Not long ago, I thought there were a good group. And then I saw this post on Tumblr:
Hopefully you can read most of this. If not, definitely check out its original source. Also, this post from the same site and this post as well does a great job of describing what Autism Speaks is doing wrong. Which is a lot, actually. Failing to actually have any members on their board who have autism, addressing autism as a burden to families, treating them as an other... you get the idea.
For an organization who's motto is "It's time to listen," they certainly don't seem to be listening to people with autism. You'd think that a group evidently spending money to find a cure for autism would understand that autism is linked to genetics and doesn't have a cure (unless you can change the entire genome). But a cure is besides the point. A cure insinuates that people who have autism (who I've been told generally prefer to be addressed as "autistics" rather than "people with autism" as they see autism as part of who they are rather than separate from them) or who fit on the autism spectrum have a disease (ie: there is something wrong with them and it needs to be fixed). This sort of rhetoric is deeply troubling. Especially because it reinforces the idea that there is a state of "normal" (if there is one, would you be so kind as to tell me who and what it is, because what other people consider "normal" I find pretty strange) and that we should fit in this category of mental normativity. Oh, hello again, hegemony.

I wish I were better versed on these issues but I'm not. From my experiences, psychology is absolute crap at teaching about these areas (the fact that the class where autism, depression, and other "mental illnesses" are discussed is "abnormal psychology" is telling. Considering the prevalence of depression and autism, are these things abnormal? Really?) and I'd really like to see how they approach autism in classroom and especially in textbooks change. Though I lack psychology background on autism, I do have two close friend who have Asperger's (a "disorder" (sorry for the lack of a better word) on the autism spectrum) and being friends with them had greatly changed how I view autism/the autism spectrum and "mental illnesses" in general. There is nothing wrong with my friends, but they do see the world differently. Once I understood this, there was absolutely no problem. Sure, we had communication issues and misunderstandings, but everyone has communication issues and misunderstandings. Being friends with them really helped me empathize with people more and understand how unique people can be. And we've been friends since at least junior high, so, you know, I owe them a lot (You guys have put up with me for that long?! WHY?).

Awareness and education, is far more important than trying to find "a cure." This is not to say that autistics don't have struggles and issues of physical/mental health as well as definite challenges in the education system and society in general. But perpetuating the stigma attached to autism through the rhetoric used by Autism Speaks does more harm than good and reestablishes the issues related to education and society. "You are perpetuation ignorance," the annotator of the Autism Speaks letter has written. I'd agree. I'm certainly no authority on autism and I don't have autism myself so, like the HRC issue, I can't speak for them. But treating autism as if all of categories on the spectrum were the same and something shocking and abnormal really doesn't seem like a very good idea to me. People are different and their differences should be discussed and supported, not feared. There's this great quote I heard back in high school psychology (I think it's from Oliver Sacks, but I can't find it) that goes something like, "Treat the patient, not the disorder." It's important that people are not their "disorder." It is a part of them and a label that they will have various feelings about - some really identify with the label and are proud of it. But it is also important to remember that people are unique, that their experiences with autism will be different, and we cannot assume that autism is the same for everyone. I remember trying to read Look Me in the Eyes by John Elder Robinson one summer in high school and not being able to get through it at all because his experiences as an Aspergian were so different from what I saw my friends experiencing that I couldn't understand how they could be diagnosed with the same "disorder." But then again, what I saw my friends experiencing is probably very different from what they felt, so there's that very important note too. Also, the "disorder" it is not the only thing that makes someone who they are. They are still a person and if you only focus on the "disorder" (as I'd say Autism Speaks does) then you're not seeing them as a whole person. If there was one thing I wish psychology would discuss more often, it's this very issue. People are amazing and diverse and complicated but we're all equal and we all deserve to have our voice heard. It's time to start seeing advocacy groups that represent this, not ones that perpetuate misunderstanding.

Also, if you're interested in reading about how "mental illnesses" have changed in how society thinks about them and have your life forever ruined in regards to how we talk about these sorts of things, I strongly recommend The History of Madness by Michel Foucault. I've only read about half the book myself (and it's been sometime since I've picked it up; it's a huge tome) but it's fascinating and really effected how I think about psychology and the mind.

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