Autism Acceptance Month Master Post

April is a difficult month to be autistic. Every day we are bombarded with “awareness” campaigns calling us broken or diseased, spreading misinformation and fear, and promoting abusive practices “for our own good.”

But I talked quite a bit about ableism in my previous post.

Autistic self-advocates are taking back the month of April with a movement called “Autism Acceptance month.”  This year, I participated in autism acceptance by making one post to social media every day about the experiences of autistic people. I’ve compiled them all here.  This is a particularly long one, so I’ve separated and labeled each day for easy scroll-and-skim.  Enjoy!

 

DAY 1: What is Autism Acceptance?

According to the creators of Autism Acceptance: “During Autism Acceptance Month, we focus on sharing positive, respectful, and accurate information about autism and autistic people.

Autism Acceptance Month promotes acceptance and celebration of autistic people as family members, friends, classmates, co-workers, and community members making valuable contributions to our world. Autism is a natural variation of the human experience, and we can all create a world which values, includes, and celebrates all kinds of minds.

 

DAY 2: A$ in a nutshell

Because April 1st was a Sunday, April 2nd was the international “Autism Awareness Day” complete with the campaign to “Light it up blue.” At the school where I work, many teachers and paras wore matching blue T-shirts featuring cartoons of stick-figure children happily playing together, brightly-colored puzzle pieces, and a big yellow caption reading “It’s OK to be different!”

Which would be all well and good without A$’s long history of behaving as if the exact opposite were true.

On that day, I was working with a student in a classroom for young children with complex support needs.  Almost all of the students are paired with a para educator throughout the day.  As I was packing up my materials, I heard a para – who happened to be wearing one of those blue shirts – shout “STOP FLAPPING YOUR HANDS” to the 4-year-old student she was working with.  When I stepped around the divider to intervene, I saw the little boy fixing her with a deadpan expression and hand-flapping freely. I spoke to the para as diplomatically as I could, which perhaps wasn’t the best solution because even by the end of our conversation she still had no idea that she’d done anything wrong.

And that is the trouble with Autism Speaks in a nutshell. It’s okay to be different, except in ways that make neurotypical people feel uncomfortable, or worse: less proud of their openness. In those cases, difference is a problem that needs to be eradicated.

(Side note: I do speech therapy with this student, and we sometimes use movement stims to help him understand and retain the language that we target. It’s been really effective, and he loves coming to speech.)

 

DAY 3: Instead of giving money to A$, consider supporting organizations run by autistic people FOR autistic people.

In America, good examples include the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and the Autism Women’s Network (AWN)*. I’m not sure which organizations and/or charities are best in other countries, but feel free to comment if you know any!

*AWN has now changed their name.  See Day 26.

 

DAY 4: Thank you, ProloQuo!

Proloquo2Go is one of the most well-known communication apps for iOS. This app can turn an iPhone or iPad into a communication device, allowing a nonspeaking person to produce language by touching buttons on a screen.

Although a myriad of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) apps exist, Proloquo2Go is one of the biggest and widely viewed as one of the best.* Autistic people, many of whom are nonspeaking, form a large portion of their consumer base.

Unlike other companies that develop adaptive tools for autistic people, Proloquo honors Autism Acceptance month instead of Autism Awareness month.  Not only did they offer a sale with the specific word “Acceptance” (no puzzle pieces to be found!), but they also shared an adorable infographic about autism from the Neurodiversity Library.

Also there are more Neurodivergent Narwhals where that came from.  You’re welcome.

*As a speech therapist with an interest in AAC, I find Proloquo to be comprehensive and easy to navigate, but tougher to customize on-the-fly than other AAC apps. Also very expensive. Just in case you wanted to know.

 

DAY 5: What it feels like to be an autistic person of color in the eyes of the police

“I live in a world that fears my skin color and doesn’t want to understand how my brain works.”

In this article on the Daily Beast, Eric Garcia, an autistic person of color, describes his experience fearing police brutality on multiple fronts.

Hearing cops say they hadn’t meant to shoot the black man, but the autistic one, hit close to home. I feel less secure than white people with autism and less secure than my friends of color who are neurotypical.

It’s not surprising, per se, but it’s frustrating and disappointing.

In a way, the police using an autistic person as an alibi makes sense. A recent white paper released by the Ruderman Family Foundation showed that up to half of all people killed by police are disabled and a medical condition or “mental illness” is used to blame victims for their own deaths. On top of that, 80 percent of all cases involving disability are labeled mental illness.

Definitely worth a read.

 

DAY 6: Follow Friday Part 1. Neurodivergent Rebel

Neurodivergent Rebel has a blog with text posts, video posts, and pages of great merchandise on neurodiversity and autism acceptance. Her posts contain a variety of great insights on being autistic in a neurotypical world that insists on consistently misunderstanding us.  Check out her website, Facebook page, or Twitter handle. I have one of her tote bags, and I like it a lot!

 

DAY 7: Identity-first Language

Why “autistic people” instead of “people with autism?” I posted some links last month, but here are some more that explain the issue, and its importance, clearly and beautifully.

A quote from Identity-First Autistic on why language matters:

Because autism – and by extension autistic people, are demonised every day when our neurology is referred to as a sickness or a disease and we are called a burden and a curse…we believe that a positive change in language is the catalyst to a positive change in our thoughts and actions.

Another from ASAN breaking down the difference between PFL and IFL.

When we say “person with autism,” we say that it is unfortunate and an accident that a person is Autistic. We affirm that the person has value and worth, and that autism is entirely separate from what gives him or her value and worth. In fact, we are saying that autism is detrimental to value and worth as a person, which is why we separate the condition with the word “with” or “has.” Ultimately, what we are saying when we say “person with autism” is that the person would be better off if not Autistic, and that it would have been better if he or she had been born typical. We suppress the individual’s identity as an Autistic person because we are saying that autism is something inherently bad like a disease.

Yet, when we say “Autistic person,” we recognize, affirm, and validate an individual’s identity as an Autistic person. We recognize the value and worth of that individual as an Autistic person — that being Autistic is not a condition absolutely irreconcilable with regarding people as inherently valuable and worth something. We affirm the individual’s potential to grow and mature, to overcome challenges and disability, and to live a meaningful life as an Autistic. Ultimately, we are accepting that the individual is different from non-Autistic people–and that that’s not a tragedy, and we are showing that we are not afraid or ashamed to recognize that difference.

 

DAY 8: ‘All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism’

This is an anthology of short narratives, essays, poetry, and artwork by autistic creators of color, discussing the intersection between autism and race in our white neurotypical world. It’s not easy to find in bookstores, but I did find a local independent seller who was willing to order it, and it is worth it! It’s a very powerful read, enough that I’m needing to go through it slowly with frequent breaks, but I am really enjoying it so far.

Also, Autistic people of color are not given enough of a voice in most spaces, and Autism Acceptance needs to work on fixing that. This is a great way to start.

Read more about the book on its website.  You can also follow two of the editors, Lydia X. Z. Brown and Morénike Giwa Onaiwu on Twitter.

 

DAY 9: Autistic Queer Theory 101

Intersectionality in advocacy doesn’t only mean acknowledging that not all autistic people are white; it also means recognizing that not all autistic people are straight and/or cisgender.  This introductory-level article on the Asperger/Autism Network (AANE) goes into it a bit more.

Because someone is diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition does not mean that person is less capable of determining their own sexual orientation or gender identity. It is more likely that family members or professionals will question their identification with these non-mainstream identities because of the autism profile and out of concern that their loved one will be part of yet another marginalized, vulnerable group.

 

DAY 10: On being an autistic woman

On April 9th of this year, Julia Bascom, the executive director of ASAN, made the keynote speech at a UN event on empowering autistic women and girls. Here is a transcript of her address, with some of my favorite quotes listed below.

As a society, we still see autism as a negative, sad, scary thing. But for autistic women, an autism diagnosis can be a tool for empowerment. It’s an answer and an explanation, it’s a way out of cycles of self-blame and guilt, it’s a passport to an entire community, and if we’re lucky, it’s a connection to the understanding, supports, and services we need in order to truly thrive, sometimes for the first time in our life.

Access to diagnosis, however, is still deeply inequitable. Autistic women and girls are diagnosed much less frequently than autistic boys, and we’re often diagnosed later in life, or after we’ve gone through a roulette-wheel of other labels. One of the most common ways for autistic women to get diagnosed, in fact, is after we bring our own children in for assessment. The diagnostic criteria for autism are normed off of 4-year old white boys in upper-middle class families in the US, so anyone who doesn’t fit in that box has an uphill climb.

It’s really powerful and moving.

It shouldn’t be surprising, but the needs and struggles of autistic women and girls are very similar to the needs and struggles of women and girls broadly. We need our voices to be heard and honored. We need access to education and employment, we need access to the tools that empower everyone to be a part of the world and in charge of our own destinies. We need equal pay, not segregated employment and subminimum wages. We need real education–not 40 hours a week of behavioral modification, not compliance training, not forced normalization…My life, in many ways, looks different from that of other women and girls–but in the essentials, it is exactly the same. I deserve that same endless possibility. I deserve that same support. I deserve to be my own best champion. I deserve to be my own sun, my own moon, my own stars. And none of that depends on how well I can make eye contact or how still I can sit or how fluently I can speak. This is my birthright as a woman. Autism shapes what it might look like, but it doesn’t change a single one of my rights.

 

DAY 11: Allyship 101

The truth is most autistic people are brushed away and passed off when the conversation turns to autism – and the megaphone is usually handed to our loved ones and our medical professionals. We need to have a voice and a say in the autism acceptance movement, and in how we’re treated with respect and dignity.

Interested in being an ally to the autistic community? Check out this article on Everyday Feminism for a list of great ways to start.

An accountable ally wants to amplify our voices and make them heard by a larger audience. An accountable ally wants to make sure spaces are accessible to autistic people. They work to respect and center our needs and wants.

An accountable ally is constantly challenging ableism – both other people’s and their own – because they know we’re all part of a system of oppression.

 

DAY 12: AAC and Voice

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) is a means of communicating without speaking (see Day 6 for an example of one of the biggest developers of iPad-based AAC; for one of the most famous examples of an AAC-user, look up “Stephen Hawking”).  A disproportionately large number of autistic people use AAC to communicate, whether it’s through iPads, picture boards, or something else.  The U.S. Education system is not very good at teaching nonspeaking autistic students, but thanks to the work of people like DJ Savarese, it’s getting better.

AssistiveWare, the company who developed the Proloquo2Go software (See Day 6), wrote a great article on AAC and voice in honor of Autism Acceptance month.

Some AAC users do call a voice – and you might have seen AssistiveWare using this kind of language too. But nobody can decide for somebody else what their true voice is.  Some people who need AAC don’t have access to it yet. Others can only express a limited range of messages and ideas with their system. Supporting people in these situations to expand their communication is important, but only part of the solution. We also need to work on respecting people for who they are now and learning to listen to the voice they already have.

 

DAY 13: Follow Friday Part 2. ‘Growing Up Aspie’

You can follow this comic writer/artist on Facebook or Twitter.  Most of what he produces are comics, but he does some short videos as well.  I’m a particular fan of “Shame Changer.”

 

 

DAY 14: On Meltdowns and “autism parent” pity-parties

Neurodivergent Rebel wrote a post about parents who post videos to social media of their autistic children having meltdowns.

If you have an autistic or otherwise neurodiverse child, please never EVER do this. These videos create a permanent record of a child without their consent, which could follow them through high school, higher education, and even job applications. Don’t presume your child will never have these opportunities. Don’t assume strangers won’t be able to find these videos, now or in ten years. Don’t pretend to raise “awareness” in order to gain pity for yourself.

Meltdowns are intense, harrowing experiences that make nearly everything impossible. It takes a long time to recover and even longer to rebuild trust in the people who triggered them or made them worse. Do not be those people. Do not tolerate it when your friends or relatives do this to their autistic children.  Do not do this to your autistic child. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are. Just don’t.

 

DAY 15: Simple, everyday things you can do to support your autistic friend/family member/coworker/acquaintance/etc

Credit to Autism Ambassador

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DAY 16: ‘The Visibly Invisible: Autistic People of Color’

I got it. You had to be tough to be black. There was no crying, no picky eating, none of this I can’t look you in the eye. Humor was a way of toughening yourself up, because the world was going to be tough for us, so if you don’t have a sense of humor now, you had better develop one.

Here’s an article about what it’s like to grow up and exist in our neurotypical society as an autistic woman of color.

Autism is written off not just as a condition affecting white people, but as a behavioral problem, a set of character flaws, stubbornness, and eccentricity bordering on mental illness.

TL;DR: it’s tougher than anyone who is NOT an autistic woman of color can understand.

I have told people  I have autism.  Too many times the reactions are either disbelief or fear.

“There is nothing wrong with you that God can’t fix,” is often the reaction.  Or “I know a little something about that, but you can look me in the eye, unlike my cousin’s child.”  Or worse there is fear.  I feel as if other black people are saying we have failed her, she is not one of us. She is how old and acting like that? Poor girl.

 

DAY 17: Autism and gender diversity

Autistic people are more likely to identify as transgender or non-binary than neurotypical people are. Trans/NB people are more likely to be autistic than cisgender people are. And yet, trans or NB autistic people have to deal with a laundry list of barriers as a result of being both neuro- and gender diverse. Here’s a post with a million references on the topic.

 

DAY 18: Book recs!

Another great way to support autistic people while learning to see the world from a different perspective is to read books by autistic authors.  Here’s a list to get you started.

I particularly recommend:

  •  So You Want to Be a Robot by A. Merc Rustad (Science Fiction/Fantasy, Short Stories)
  • Ninefox Gambit/The Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee (SF)
  • Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde (Young Adult)
  • On the Edge of Gone by Connie Duyvis (YA SF)
  • Emergence: Labeled Autistic by Temple Grandin (Memoir).

 

DAY 19: We need to talk about ABA

Hoo boy this was a long one.

Applied Behavior Analysis is a therapy technique that has been used to “treat” autism since around the 1970s, with some precursors in institutions in the 1960s. Basic tenets of the practice include interpreting behavior as a functional response to stimuli, teaching complex tasks step-by-step, and trying to “condition” preferred behaviors using systems of reward and punishment.

Ableism gets in the way of my access to the queer community and in turn makes me less proud to be part of that community. While I feel comfortable in autistic spaces, I do not always feel visible and affirmed as a queer, nonbinary person. I am always dividing myself into fractions in order to be socially accepted; I can never show up as my full queer, autistic self.

I do not exist as a fraction, and I cannot extricate my queerness from my autism. Queerness and autism are both marginalized identities that make navigating society difficult; thus, I crave companionship and solidarity in both communities. In order to do this, I need queer spaces that are more accessible to autistic people.

Chrysanthe Tan wrote a great article on the difficulties of finding accessible social spaces as a queer autistic person.  They included a list of great tips for queer people looking to make their spaces more autism-friendly.
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DAY 24: Processing…processing…
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“Processing” is what our brains do with new information.  When someone says something to us, we interpret the words, hold the concepts in our immediate memory, figure out the implications, decide which information needs to be stored for later, and identify an appropriate response.  This is processing. Most of the time, we do it all in a tiny fraction of a second. For autistic people, it can take a bit longer.
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In this article from the National Autistic Society in the UK, several autistic people and parents of autistic people describe what it’s like to interact with a neurotypical world despite processing delays.  They talk about what helps and what really, really doesn’t.  It’s a great read, but I know that I’m linking a million articles in this one post, so here are some highlights:
  • Don’t bombard an autistic person (or non-autistic person with processing difficulties) with tons of information at once. That can get frustrating and overwhelming.
  • Ask your question or present your information, then wait, even if the person doesn’t respond right away. Your instinct might tell you “they didn’t hear me – I should repeat myself” or “they didn’t understand – I should explain more.” This is likely not true, even counterproductive.  The best thing you can do is wait.
  • Don’t follow a question with another question if you haven’t gotten an answer to the first one. “How are you? How have you been? Did you do anything exciting recently? See any good movies?  How about [recent movie]? Did you see that one?” As an autistic person, I can promise that if you do this to me, by the time you reach question 3 or 4, I’m no longer even trying to process what you say.  I’m just planning my exit strategy.
  • Prompts or pressure to make decisions quickly can be counterproductive and stressful for people who have processing delays.  In extreme cases, they can cause a shutdown or meltdown. If you need a quick decision, better strategies for an autistic person are to reduce pressure and background noise while providing visual aid for choices. Informing the person of the need for an immediate decision at the time that you present the choices is not going to end well for anyone.
  • Be aware that an autistic person may have trouble hearing and understanding you in noisy environments.  Funny story: I used to think I had mild hearing loss, because it’s very difficult for me to understand people in spaces with lots of background noise. I was actually surprised when my hearing test fell within normal limits.  Then I read about and talked to other autistic people (see Day 22), many of whom had experienced the same thing!
  • Respect an autistic person’s need to protect themselves from loud noises. For some, noisy environments aren’t just annoying; they’re overwhelming.  Same with sudden, loud, or high-pitched sounds.  The person may need to leave the space or wear sound-suppressors due to auditory sensitivity.
  • Big, stressful, or emotional decisions may take days to process. Even non-autistic people sometimes need extra time to make big life decisions such as moving in with a significant other, accepting a job offer, or having children. For a person with processing difficulties, this may apply to any decision that carries weight.

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DAY 25: CDC report on the prevalence of autism

The Centers for Disease Control recently released a report on the prevalence of autism in children in certain areas of the U.S.  According to this report, 1 in 59 eight-year-old children in these communities has a diagnosis of autism (roughly 1.7%). This is an increase from reports conducted in previous years.

In The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network released a statement that addressed some limitations with the CDC’s methodology (examples: small sample size, limiting the survey to children) and positive changes in the data (for example: more girls and children of color are being identified than before).

Among the autistic community, people are mainly relieved that people who were not being diagnosed before are now having access to necessary supports at a younger age, attributing this increase to a better understanding of autism.

In other spaces, media outlets and certain organizations are using this information to promote fear of autism, mostly for the purpose of increased publicity.  I’m not linking to examples here.  They’re easy enough to find if you want to see them.

 

DAY 26: Autistic Women & Non-Binary Nework

The Autism Women’s Network (See Day 3) is officially changing its name to Autistic Women & Non-Binary Network. It’s always great to see advocacy organizations taking steps toward intersectionality and inclusion. Also, I admit, I’m kind of enjoying the trend where organizations that originally established themselves as “for women” redefine themselves as “for everyone except cis men.”

 

DAY 27: Follow Friday part 4. Ada Hoffmann.

Ada Hoffman is an autistic writer, poet, blogger, and book-reviewer who has a lot of fantastic things to say about the portrayal of autism in fiction. Her book recommendations have been extremely helpful to me, and I’m currently on the lookout for HER book, Monsters in My Mind. (No luck so far.) She’s also the one who wrote that mind-blowingly good article about emotional labor and autism. Check out her website and/or her Twitter account.

 

DAY 28: Favorite canon and headcanon autistic characters 
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“Canon” means something is explicitly stated in a book/comic/TV show/movie (e.g. “Commander Spock is half-human, half-vulcan”), and “headcanon” refers to something that fans interpret without actual confirmation from the creators, though there may be evidence to support it (e.g. “Commander Spock is in love with Captain Kirk”).
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The importance of headcanons for people with marginalized identities is an important topic for another time.
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I’ve made a list of my top 10 favorite autistic characters, using a mix of canon and headcanon.
  1. Abed Nadir from Community (TV show). He’s far and away my favorite of the bunch. Everyone else is listed in a sort of random order.
  2. Denise from On the Edge of Gone by Connie Duyvis (book)
  3. Dr. Julian Bashir from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (TV show)
  4. Lunella Lafayette from Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur (comics)
  5. Tesla from “How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps” (short story)
  6. Lisbeth Salander from The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson (books)
  7. Alternate Astrid from Fringe (TV show)
  8. Keith from Voltron: Legendary Defender (cartoon)
  9. Maurice Moss from The IT Crowd (TV show)
  10. Carlos the Scientist from “Welcome to Night Vale” (podcast)

 

DAY 29: Special Interests

In my favorite writing class in college, we spent a day talking about obsessions, what they were and how they could be an asset to writing. College was really the first time I had the opportunity to see special interests as a source of strength and pride rather than shame. Now as a therapist, I use them with my students all the time, as motivators or topics or teaching tools. Special interests are strengths and we should play to them.  Here’s a whole article on special interests and autism.

 

DAY 30: For more information…

I’ve been throwing a lot of articles and information into the social media abyss this past month. I know that at least a few people found it interesting, and some learned a thing or two. I hope I’ve made a positive difference. Because there are still people out there who are afraid of people like me, who pity our families for “putting up” with us, call on abusive practices to force us to change who we are, and celebrate the prospect of an autism “cure.” And probably worse.

I’m leaving this one last article for the rest of you. It’s a page of links to MORE pages of links with information about autism, advocacy, and disability (even more pages of links can be found under “resources” on the red menu bar). I hope you enjoy it, or at least find it useful in some way.

 

Happy Autism Acceptance month, everyone.

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‘Acceptance’ not ‘Awareness:’ Making sure advocacy isn’t ableist

(Image: rainbow infinity symbol representing neurodiversity; credit to Autistic UK)

Quick note: I am going to use identity-first language.  If that bothers you, read this article on the Autistic Self-Advocacy network.  Check out the links at the end if you need more convincing.

I’m sure many of you are aware that April has been designated “Autism Awareness Month,” with “World Autism Awareness Day” set to kick it off this year on Monday, April 2nd.  In just about two weeks, it will be time again for neurotypical (NT) people to show off just how aware and conscientious they are.  The trouble is, autistic people have been voicing serious complaints about this campaign and the organization who runs it for over a decade. Some NT people have listened, and some haven’t.  Still others remain blissfully unaware of the emotional (and sometimes physical) damage that Autism Speaks has inflicted on the very population it has been ostensibly trying to serve.

What many NT people seem to miss is that to most autistic people – such as myself – autism isn’t a disease or a disorder but a different way of perceiving and interacting with the world. From that perspective, autism is yet another misunderstood and marginalized identity in a world that continues to have a very difficult time accepting and accommodating diversity in any of its forms.

On February 20th of this year, a shelter-in-place alert went out at Norwalk High School after a student reported hearing someone slinging a gun in the bathroom.  Although the incident turned out to be a false alarm, school dismissed early that day, leaving the student body scared and confused.  Many students, as a result, took to bullying and harassing an autistic student named Owen Lynch, blaming him for the incident and spreading rumors that he had brought a gun to school.  He hadn’t.  No one had.

Read more about that incident and its fallout here and here.

Lynch happened to be in the bathroom when the alarm was raised, so it was understandable that the police would be overcautious in their response, especially so close on the heels of yet another mass school shooting in America. What is unacceptable, however, is the bullying that Lynch endured as a result of a situation that had nothing to do with him.

Every time a mass shooting happens (all too often these past several years), a small but increasingly loud group of people wonders if there is a connection between autism and people who commit mass murder.  (There isn’t.)  The conversation about guns in America is beyond the scope of this particular post, but the damage that this sort of speculation causes is unforgivable.  Autistic students are already more likely to be bullied than NT students are, and students like Owen Lynch are now facing a false but increasingly widespread belief which will only exacerbate the problem.

The problem these days doesn’t seem to be awareness, but acceptance. It would be difficult to find a person in the United States (and likely elsewhere) who hasn’t heard the term “autism” before, but that doesn’t stop people from perceiving it as a threat, tragedy, disease, or combination of the three.

Even the Schroeder article that I referenced above focuses primarily on the ways that autistic students’ deficits place them at an increased risk for bullying, failing to place responsibility on the NT population for bullying them. Time and time again, we focus on “fixing” autism, rather than accepting it as another form of diversity.  This reinforces the othering of autistic people, which exacerbates our marginalization and isolation, further increasing the likelihood of bullying and perpetuating a cycle it was ostensibly intended to correct.

The focus on the tragedy of autism is a component of the Impairment or Medical Model of disability, which  interprets a disabled person’s experience as the result of their disability and/or medical condition.  Deaf and hard-of-hearing people are disabled because they can’t hear. Wheelchair users are disabled because they can’t walk.  We help these people by “fixing” them, using hearing aids, cochlear implants, surgeries, physical therapy, etc.

In contrast, the Social Model of disability takes into account the way that society places disabled people at a disadvantage. Deaf and hard-of-hearing people have trouble communicating because most of the world uses sound-based language. Wheelchair users have mobility restrictions due to the near-ubiquitous presence of stairs and narrow doorways. The Social Model presents a major shift in how we view disability, placing responsibility on nondisabled people and the larger community instead of exclusively focusing on disabled people as being “broken.”

The Schroeder article spends most of its time discussing autism through the Impairment/Medical model, with very little focus on the ways that individual and systemic bias contribute to bullying. In contrast, a study in 2016 examined first impressions that NT people formed of autistic peers, given varied types and amounts of information. (In this study, ASD refers to ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder,’ and ‘TD’ means ‘typically developing.’) They noted:

observers’ first impressions of individuals with ASD engaging in real-world social behavior were found to be robustly less favorable than those of matched TD controls. These negative first impressions were consistent for both adults and children with ASD, for static as well as dynamic stimuli, for both brief (2–4 s) and longer (10 s) glimpses of social behavior, and did not change with repeated exposure. Further, because these impressions were associated with reduced intentions to socially engage by observers, they may reflect a previously under-recognized contributor to the reduced quantity and quality of social interaction experienced by individuals with ASD

Person-first language aside, this article uses the Social Model to examine the struggles that autistic people experience.  Rather than focusing on the individual deficits that may be causing autistic people to experience isolation, they study the reactions and intentions of NT peers. As a result, they’re able to identify factors that the NT community doesn’t seem to consider. For example, autistic people are largely viewed as having trouble with social interactions, but rarely is it acknowledged that we struggle in part because neurotpyical people avoid interacting with us.

Here’s another important takeaway from that study:

…negative first impressions of adults with ASD occurred only when audio and/or visual information was present, and not when the transcript of their speech content was evaluated (Study 1). This discrepancy suggests that social presentation style rather than the substantive content of social speech drove negative impression formation of individuals with ASD. Supporting this conclusion, a static image was sufficient for generating negative first impressions of those with ASD and including additional information, such as body movement or voice, did not worsen them further. In contrast, first impressions of TD controls improved with the addition of a visual information, suggesting that unlike the ASD group, visual cues helped rather than hurt the impressions they made on observers.

Negative first impressions that NT people form about autistic people have nothing to do with the content of what the latter actually say.  We now have empirical evidence that these judgments are insubstantive. Yet they persist, and this article is one of few to suggest that the fault does not lie with autistic people alone.  We aren’t disabled simply because we have trouble with social interaction, but also because the neurotypical world is conditioned to perceive us in a negative way when we don’t conform to their expectations.

When autistic people do “pass” as neurotypical, by suppressing autistic traits and intentionally adopting NT behavior, it usually requires a concerted effort with an intense emotional cost.  Ada Hoffman wrote a long post about the emotional labor that autistic people perform in order to appear NT in different situations. As she points out:

Any autistic person who “passes”, or tries to pass, is doing a ton of invisible emotional labour by definition. Even people who don’t pass usually do some of this labour so that they will bother people less.

Most of the material in social skills classes for autistic people is geared towards teaching us to do even more of this emotional labour in even more circumstances.

Hoffman also discusses the types of emotional labor that are particularly difficult or easy for autistic people to perform, as well as types of emotional labor that many autistics are performing constantly, which might not seem like work to a NT person.  In a particularly heartbreaking moment, she points out that “Many of the complaints that NTs have about autistic people boil down to the fact that autistic people are not doing enough emotional labour for them.”

So even though autistic people who attempt to pass as neurotypical are constantly performing more emotional labor than our NT peers, NT people still avoid us because our efforts are not enough to make them feel comfortable. Viewed from this angle, it starts to look as though the problem isn’t inherent to autism after all.

This article talks about the problems that autistic women face when they constantly attempt to pass (an habit also known as “masking” or “camouflaging”).

Some of the participants reported that they camouflage in order to connect with friends, find a good job, or meet a romantic partner. “Camouflaging well can land you a lucrative job,” Jennifer says. “It helps you get through social interaction without there being a spotlight on your behavior or a giant letter A on your chest.” Others said they camouflage to avoid punishment, to protect themselves from being shunned or attacked, or simply to be seen as “normal.”

This pattern can be very damaging to mental health.

Nearly everyone makes small adjustments to fit in better or conform to social norms, but camouflaging calls for constant and elaborate effort. It can help women with autism maintain their relationships and careers, but those gains often come at a heavy cost, including physical exhaustion and extreme anxiety.

On the other hand, being open and genuine about one’s autistic identity “comes with its own burdens, such as a stigmatising label and lower expectations for achievement.” Even further: “Many said they have played so many roles to disguise themselves through the years that they have lost sight of their true identity.”

Social interaction is meant to be reciprocal, so I’m not saying it’s unfair to ask autistic people to perform any emotional labor during social interactions.  What I’m saying is that the burden shouldn’t be entirely on us to change who we are in order to make NT people more comfortable.  I say this partly because social interactions tend to be disproportionately exhausting for autistic people, and partially because if NT people are perceiving autistic peers as awkward, unattractive, and unfavorable to talk or hang out with based on still photographs alone (see Study 1 of the Sasson article), then our attempts to camouflage can only take us so far.  At some point, it becomes unfair to view autism through the Impairment/Medical model and place the blame for social breakdown entirely on us.

Which brings me back to Autism Speaks.

For specific reasons why autistic people dislike Autism Speaks (often notated by autistic people as A$), look here, here, here, and here, for starters. Because A$ is the main organization behind “Autism Awareness Month,” “World Autism Awareness Day,” and “Light it up blue,” you can probably infer how the autistic community feels about these campaigns.

I’ll tell you anyway: they’re abelist, fear-mongering crap that make NT people feel good about themselves while simultaneously othering the very population they are pretending to help. But don’t take my word for it.

The Social Model of disability is crucial for understanding autistic people because it forces the conversation to include our input, allowing the autistic community to explain our own needs and perspectives.  As a variety of self-advocacy groups have stated: “Nothing about us without us.”  Meanwhile, A$ and Awareness Month have typically been about autistic people, but almost entirely without us.

The Medical/Impairment model results in trends like Applied Behavior Analysis, the popular but intensely problematic method of intervention which has been linked to increased symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in people who are exposed to it.  The Social Model brings us groups such as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the Autism Women’s Network, and communities on social media such as the #ActuallyAutistic and #AskingAutistics hashtags on Twitter.

Where the A$ campaigns are largely founded on the Impairment/Medical Model, the Social Model of autism provides the foundation for Autism Acceptance month, an alternative campaign started and run by autistic people.  “In a nutshell,” their description states, “Autism Acceptance Month is about treating autistic people with respect, listening to what we have to say about ourselves, and making us welcome in the world.”

In conclusion, as stated by one of the most well-written fictional characters I’ve ever seen on television (in a show that was, incidentally, written by an autistic person): “That’s what people don’t get, is they need to get me.”

Would you rather be accepting than aware? Would you rather be an advocate and ally than perpetuate this cycle of theatrically-well-meaning ableism? Here are some ideas:

  • Check out this list of ideas from the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and Autism Acceptance Month
  • Read some of  these books by autistic authors.  Alternatively (or in addition), read some of these books by autistic authors.
  • Be extra nice to your autistic friend, family member, acquaintance, coworker, etc. We are about to be bombarded for 30 days straight with allegations that we are broken, tragic, burdensome, an epidemic, at fault for being bullied, and (relatively new this year) potentially responsible for America’s gun violence problem.  Ask the autistic person in your life what you can do to help them get through this month. Then (this is key) respect and honor their answer.
  • Share any or all of the above resources with the neurotypical people you know who like to perpetuate damaging stigmas about autism, well-intentioned as they may be.
  • Enjoy the visual component of activism? Instead of blue and puzzle pieces, go for red and more inclusive, autistic-created symbols such as the rainbow brain or infinity symbol. Searching for “neurodiversity” on websites such as etsy.com and redbubble.com will bring you to a variety of paraphernalia worth looking at, with the added benefit of supporting autistic artists!
  • Into social media? Check out the hashtags #AutismAcceptance #AskingAutistics #neurodiversity or #redinstead.  On Twitter, you can actually post questions under #AskingAutistics, and there is a large community of people who will answer you honestly.  (If you are not autistic, please do not use #ActuallyAutistic, as that tag is meant for autistic people.)

Happy Autism Acceptance month!

Love is Love is Not an Excuse

Even when we aren’t marching with Tiki Torches and shouting “JEWS WILL NOT REPLACE US,” white people have a natural talent for racial bias.  So natural, in fact, that most of us regularly contribute to discrimination and erasure of people of color (POC) without realizing it.

The LGBTQ+ community is no exception.  In our struggle for rights and acceptance, we have an unfortunate tendency to ignore queer people of color (QPOC). Take, for example, the Stonewall riots: widely seen as a turning point in the struggle for gay rights in America (less so for trans* rights, unfortunately).  These riots, although instigated by trans women of color, launched a movement that benefitted white cisgender gay people disproportionately to the rest of the queer community. The 2015 movie about the Stonewall riots even created a fictional character just so the protagonist could be a cisgender white man instead of the real-life Marsha P. Johnson and/or Silvia Rivera.

We white people have been socialized, through a system of racial oppression, to see ourselves as the “default” and to center ourselves in situations that are not about us.  I am not saying that white queer people (WQP) do not face real difficulties with discrimination and violence, rather that QPOC experience a uniquely difficult struggle as a result of their intersecting marginalized identities.  See this, this, this, this, this, and this article for more information.

When the Pulse shooting happened last year, WQP yet again overlooked the experiences of QPOC as we processed our grief and rage and fear.  I own my contribution to this; I and many of my white queer friends initially failed to acknowledge that the majority of victims were people of color and that Hispanic/Latinx and black communities were hit harder than we were.  It took some reading, a few difficult conversations, and a lot of introspection for me to understand that by claiming the event as “the gay 9/11” and by centering my feelings of victimhood, I was effectively ignoring QPOC.

Which is why today, I want to talk about the comic Love is Love.

LoveIsLove-Cv1

For anyone who doesn’t know, Love is Love is a 144-page comic anthology co-published by DC Comics and IDW in December of 2016, in order to raise money for survivors, families, and victims of the Pulse Shooting. It features 1-2 page comics and spreads depicting the rage, grief, fear, and ultimately hope within the LGBTQ+ and ally communities in response to the event.

You might ask what this anthology has to do with QPOC erasure.  Look at the racial diversity represented on the cover! Unfortunately, the cover doesn’t mean much once you realize that white men are over-represented on the list of writers and artists, while people of color are grossly under-represented. In fact, despite 300+ creators contributing to the project, Love is Love features the work of exactly one black woman.  For perspective: two of the Pulse shooting’s 49 victims were black women; three were white men.

At an LGBTQ+ comics convention in Brooklyn, New York, I attended a panel called “Love is Love: One Year Later,” featuring a small group of contributors, half of whom were white men. Marc Andreyko, the project’s originator and main organizer, moderated the panel. He was understandably proud of the anthology’s success; although meant to be a one-time event, Love is Love has gone through several re-printings, distributed more than 100,000 copies, and will soon be released for publication in several foreign countries. Given that 100% of the initial proceeds went to people who were affected by the Pulse shootings – with proceeds of later publications slated to benefit LGBTQ+ charities such as The Trevor Project – this is undeniably a good thing.

Which is likely why Andreyko was so thrown off when the first two questions from the audience called him out on the lack of POC contributors.

The resulting discussion consisted of several familiar justifications, from Andreyko as well as contributor Phil Jimenez (who himself is a QPOC):

  • You’re wrong.
  • How do you know they were white?
  • No seriously, how do you know?
  • We used white male contributors because we wanted this project to sell.
  • We reached out to as many people as we knew.
  • Not everyone we contacted was able to submit something by the deadline.
  • We didn’t intentionally exclude people of color.

Andreyko did later walk back a few of these comments, acknowledging the problematic lack of diversity on the contributor list and pledging to do better in future anthologies.  (Side note: apparently a five-year anniversary edition is in the works, and Andreyko promises to include more QPOC creators.)

Not all of these excuses were completely false; the comic publishing industry has been consistently dominated by white men. By limiting the project to people who were well-known, easy for white men within the industry to reach, and/or able to temporarily drop what they were doing to create a contribution without being paid for it, the organizers unconsciously favored white men, whose privilege allows them to be over-represented among people who fit those criteria.

White people who are committed to racial equality need to understand that it is not enough to be “color-blind” or to ignore race as a factor. In projects such as Love is Love, white people in a position of privilege need to actively reach out to people of color, directly counteracting the systemic disadvantages that POC face. We so naturally default to white centrism that anything that does not actively work to include POC unintentionally shuts them out. (And that’s not even considering the issue of tokenism.)

The conversation was not going well until Tee Franklin, the only black woman on the panel (the entire project, in fact) spoke up.  (Jimenez appeared stunned to learn that Franklin was the only black woman contributor.)  Franklin described her experience as the “token black woman” in Love is Love.  She talked about queer black women and girls who had approached her to say that her contribution was the only place where they saw themselves represented. She pointed out that not only do databases of creators of color exist, so do anthologies of their work.  There’s even a database where people can search for queer creators of color.

Andreyko seemed increasingly receptive to what Franklin was saying, and by the end of the discussion he appeared willing to take action to include more queer creators of color in future projects.  My girlfriend and I were visiting Tee Franklin’s display after the panel, and Andreyko actually approached her while we were there.  He looked through one of the anthologies she had mentioned and eventually gave her his contact information so that they could work together on future POC-inclusive projects.  As someone outside the comic publishing industry, I can only hope that positive change comes from this.

A recurring theme at this convention was the importance of diversity, intersectionality, and representation in the media.  Representation matters, I heard time and time again. The Love is Love panel attempted to put that mantra into action, by calling out a project whose representation was lacking. I’m sad that it took almost a year for this issue to be brought to the organizers’ attention, and I’m equally sad that Tee Franklin is receiving backlash for speaking out about it. WQP (and allies) need to start doing better by QPOC, and this is just one of the many ways we can do it.

So what can you do?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Watch a video of the panel on Facebook. Show your support for Tee Franklin and other QPOC by liking or sharing it.
  • Educate yourself on the struggles that QPOC face. As I’ve said in previous entries, it’s long past time for white people to listen to marginalized voices.
  • Include QPOC in your conversations about LGBTQ+ issues.  Do you know how many trans women of color were killed in 2016? 2017? The past 48 hours? Do your friends and family know? Do not let another conversation about the Pulse shooting finish without someone mentioning the queer Latinx and black communities. Keep pushing when your white friends and families try to ignore or dismiss the issue. Be that person.
  • Show your support for Tee Franklin on Twitter and/or by pre-ordering her book Bingo Love. I’ve read the preview, and it looks fantastic!
  • Support queer creators of color by actively seeking out their projects.  I listed some ideas in a previous entry about prose books by authors of color, and there are plenty of other resources out there for finding books and comics by queer creators of color.
  • Let Marc Andreyko know that you hope future projects similar to Love is Love will be more inclusive of queer creators of color.
  • Buy and read Love is Love. Yes, it’s problematic, but it’s also a wonderful project for an excellent cause. We can acknowledge its racial bias while enjoying and supporting it for the good that it does.  Just make sure that when you discuss the book, you acknowledge the experience of QPOC and creators who were excluded. Do the work to make your corner of the LGBTQ+ movement inclusive, intersectional, and representative.

Books by people of color: A rec list

In early 2016 I realized that the overwhelming majority of books I had read were written by white authors. It was one of those “duh” moments that formulated my privileged-white-person-becoming-aware-of-pervasive-systemic-racism process.  To some extent, I blame American public schools, the media, and the publishing industry, but the bottom line is that I had neglected to examine all of the ways that white supremacy has seeped into the cracks and seams of my life.  So, I made a resolution to only read books by authors of color for a year.

I highly recommend that other white readers do this: if not a full year of avoiding white authors, then a close examination of the diversity of the authors you’ve read and conscious effort to expand it.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: listening to people of color has never been more important than it is now.

I’ve created a list of some of my favorites.  I did my best to include a variety of genres, but there are definite trends.

Feel free to add your recs if you have any!

Nonfiction – Essays

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This is a collection of thoughtful, well-written, and occasionally hilarious essays on gender, race, sexuality, body type, higher education, and Scrabble. Anything by Roxane Gay is worth a read (I’m currently reading Difficult Women, which I love so far), and this award-winning bestseller is a fantastic place to start.

Ijeoma Oluo’s articles

Okay, you caught me. Two items on this list aren’t physical books. To my knowledge, Oluo hasn’t published anything off the internet (except for the Badass Feminist Coloring Book, which I discovered while researching her and will be placing on my wish list right…now.) Nonetheless, her writing is too important to exclude, especially now.  I specifically recommend “Welcome to the Anti-Racism Movement” and “When a Woman Deletes a Man’s Comment Online.”

Nonfiction – History

God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 by David Levering Lewis

This one was obviously written for people who either read about history for a living or want to read about history for a living. I am not one of those people. Still, it was worth pushing through the dense material in order to see a perspective on Medieval Europe that we never got in my overwhelmingly-white American public school.

Nonfiction – Memoir

The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyann Chin

Staceyann Chin, a lesbian speaker and activist from Jamaica, describes her childhood, biracial identity, adolescence, coming-out, and emigration to the United States.  Her story is emotional, charming, and powerful, and the audiobook – which she narrates – absolutely blew me away.

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

This memoir was published long before Obama ran for president, and it beautifully outlines the way that his biracial identity and early activism uncovered complex issues about American race relations.

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching by Mychal Denzel Smith

I think, at a minimum, every American needs to read or listen to this book. Smith uses his life experience to illustrate hard and complicated truths, not just about the experience of black men in America but also the experiences of women, LGBTQ+ people, people with mental illness, and people with multiple marginalizing identities. There’s an audiobook narrated by actor Kevin R. Free, and it is phenomenal.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

A lawyer in Alabama who started a non-profit organization to provide legal counsel for Death Row prisoners – among a myriad of other things – Stevenson uses tragic and horrifying case examples to highlight the cruelty and racism in the American criminal justice system. This is another book that all Americans – especially white Americans and/or people who feel complacent with our justice system – need to read or listen to. (Stevenson reads the audiobook.)

Fiction – Non-speculative

Trumpet by Jackie Kay

A famous jazz musician dies, and his death reveals to the world that he was transgender in an age when trans* issues were even more poorly-understood than they are today. The book uses alternating points of view between between the late musician’s wife, adult son, and people with varying degrees of involvement in his life in order to weave a tragic and heartwarming story.

Burnt Shadows by Kamala Shamsie

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Kamala Shamsie (see also: In the City by the SeaKartography), but this one is my favorite. It follows a survivor of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki as she transitions from houseguest in a British home in Delhi, to refugee in Pakistan, to wife and mother in Karachi, to elderly woman watching New York City struggling to recover after 9/11.  There is love and tragedy and destruction and the sense that everything is endless and cyclical.

(Kamala Shamsie is my former creative writing professor, which is how I found out about her. I wish she were better-known because she is a fantastic writer with important things to say, especially about politics in the Middle East and the USA.)

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Tragic and complex and layered, this series of interconnected anecdotes centers on two Native American families living on a reservation in North Dakota.  The book meanders between time period and point-of-view as aimlessly as many of its characters wander through life.  Several of Erdich’s other books are on my to-read list.

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a good one for people who like unreliable narrators and hazy, ambiguous non-solutions to mysteries (I’m told that many of Ishiguro’s books are like that, so check him out if that’s your thing).  Slightly creepy, it’s a beautifully written study of mothers and daughters in post-WWII Japan and beyond.

Guapa by Saleem Haddad

A man in an unnamed Arab country narrates the 24 hours of his life after his grandmother discovers him and his boyfriend in bed together.  As he attempts – and fails – to go about a normal day, we see commentary on politics, society (Arab and Western), marginalization, and family secrets, all through the eyes of a traumatized man trying to redefine himself in a world that consistently fails to understand him.

Fiction – Spectulative (Sci Fi/Fantasy/Magical Realism)

Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

Anything by Octavia Butler is necessary reading (I read and loved Kindred, and the rest of her books are on my to-read list). She was woke before most white people knew woke was a thing, and she used sci fi/fantasy to illuminate difficult truths about racism, sexism, and classism in America. These two books, about a new religion fighting to emerge in a harsh, dystopian America, are beautiful, tragic, and surprisingly prophetic.  The second book in particular has some frightening parallels to our current political environment.

The Fifth Season/The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

The first two books in what is so far an incomplete series, these novels represent epic fantasy at its finest.  My words can’t do them justice, except to say that Jemisin 110% deserved the Hugo award she earned for the first book.  She is another author with several books on my “to-read” list. The audio books, read by Robin Miles, are also mind-blowingly good.

Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan

Most people know Amy Tan from The Joy Luck Club, though I actually enjoyed this one more. This book fits the “magical realism” genre because the narrator is speaking to us not long after her tragic and sudden death, describing a group tour through China and Myanmar that goes horribly wrong in part because she isn’t alive to lead it. The Bonesetter’s Daughter is also a good real-world-fantasy book.

Infomacracy by Malka Older

In the somewhat-distant future, our political, social, corporate, and globalization systems will have undergone some massive changes. Two parts political thriller, one part biting social commentary, this book (the first in a yet-incomplete series) holds up a funhouse mirror to politics, capitalism, and the information age, showing us a caricature of where we could be headed.

Fiction – Young Adult

Akata Witch by Neddi Okorafor

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed the Harry Potter series. There is magic, detailed world-building, compelling friendships, and an emphasis on standing up for what you believe in, even when it’s hard, even when it’s terrifying, and even when you have virtually no idea what you’re doing.  (I also enjoyed Lagoon and Binti.)

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Think Diary of a Wimpy Kid only far more profound and compelling, with an added focus on disability, segregation, poverty, death, and injustice to Indigenous people. At the same time, it somehow manages to be uplifting and occasionally hilarious. I fell head-over-heels for the protagonist and was genuinely upset when the story ended.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Another disabled-underdog protagonist with a sharp voice and compelling fish-out-of-water story; simply subtract the illustrations and add alternating points-of-view to create a more comprehensive look at this character’s life.

(If you liked one of the above two books, chances are good that you’ll like the other. Obviously, I highly recommend both.)

Shadowshaper by Daniel Older

This urban fantasy condemns police brutality, white supremacy, cultural appropriation, and gentrification. The magic is fascinating, the world-building complex, the story twisting and mysterious.  The audiobook, narrated by Anika Noni Rose, is phenomenal to the point where I would almost recommend that over the written version.  Her performance adds life and depth to the characters, sweeping you along with every step of the plot.

If You Could be Mine by Sarah Farzian

A teenage girl in Iran is in love with her (female) best friend, in a country where being gay is a crime but being transgender is not. This book uses the forbidden-queer-teenage-love story (see also: Finlater by Shawn Stewart Ruff) to explore issues of sexuality and gender identity in a way that is thoughtful, sad, and surprisingly uplifting at the same time.

Short Stories

Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta

A series of moving and beautifully written short stories about Nigerian women of different ages, classes, and sexualities.  I also enjoyed Under the Udala Trees, which is a full-length novel about a gay woman growing up in 60s/70s Nigeria.

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin

Yet another fantastic author who has produced a bunch of excellent works, Baldwin is particularly focused on the intersection between the black male identity and the queer identity in America.

Karma and Other Stories by Rishi Reddi

I actually read this series of somewhat-interconnected stories a few years ago. Each story depicts Indian American culture in a different way, presenting the different struggles, losses, and successes that Indian people of multiple generations face in America.

The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

This one is actually a single short story, rather than a collection.  It’s available to read for free here at Tor.com, so I’ll let the story speak for itself. Check it out!

Honorable mentions: 

(books and authors I enjoyed but didn’t include because I had to cap this list somewhere)

Nonfiction: A Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Non-speculative Fiction: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Color Purple by Alice Walker.

Speculative Fiction: Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord, The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino,  The Between by Tananarive Due.

Young AdultWaters Between by Joseph Bruchac, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova.

Short Stories: Let the Dead Bury Their Dead by Randall Kenan, The Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Other authors to check out: Isabel Allende, John Chu, Toni Morrison, Gene Luen Yang, Malinda Lo, Salman Rushdie.

Authors I haven’t read but I’ve heard good things about from multiple and/or reliable sources: Shamim Sarif, Audre Lourde, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Junot Diaz, Nalo Hopkinson, Gabby Rivera, Zadie Smith, Manil Suri.

SUGGESTIONS FROM OTHER PEOPLE AFTER I POSTED THIS:

On “Geek Spaces” and the Social Politics of Pokemon Go

Kenney Park, next to Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts, is a small but popular space containing a basketball court, a playground, an open plaza, a fountain that people can walk through on hot days, and – recently – four Pokéstops. This plus its proximity to other Pokéstops and gyms has made Kenney Park a popular location among players of the new augmented reality game Pokémon Go.  To the outside observer, this looks like oddly-clumped groups of people staring at their phones and occasionally spouting phrases like “one more Gastly and I can evolve a Gengar” while oblivious toddlers chase their grandparents through the water jets at the center of the plaza.

I want to stress that we – and I do mean we, as I myself have caught more Charmanders in Kenney Park than I have everywhere else combined – have never disrupted the activities of the people who visit these spaces for reasons other than Pokémon Go.  We are not loud, we are not unruly, and we aren’t in anyone’s way.  In every setting I’ve encountered while playing this  game, Pokémon Go players quietly coexist with non-players in these public spaces.

Yet our presence seems to have an effect on some people, and not in a good way.

One night as I was leaving Kenney Park (my battery was low and I needed to recharge), I passed a trio of white 20-somethings on the street corner across from the plaza.  One of them, the only woman, said: “I just feel really uncomfortable right now.” One of the others replied, “I just wanna go in there and knock everyone’s phones out of their hands.”

Had I been a braver person, I would have politely requested that this guy stop being a douche (or worse).  That, however, is not who I am.

One evening in Boston Public Garden,  a young woman and two people who were presumably her parents passed through another popular Pokémon Go spot.  I overheard her say, “Literally everyone here is playing Pokémon right now,” with the same tone and facial expression one would use to complain that no one in the house ever showers. She even held up her hands as if to ensure we kept our distance.

The man who could have been her father made eye-contact with me, so I smiled at him and nodded.  He looked away, uncomfortable, and I returned to my game.

It’s not just people loudly and pointedly voicing their discomfort with our presence.  I have, both individually and as part of a group, received taunts, jokes, and downright harassment by people who for some reason object to us playing Pokémon Go in public spaces.  Comments have ranged from passive aggressive and immature (“Did I run over a Pokémon?  GOOD!”- from a cyclist who looked old enough to be my father) to direct and downright abusive (“Hey ****s! Stop playing ****ing Pokémon Go!” – from a young man in the backseat of a passing car).

These incidents did not surprise me.  I have had geek interests since childhood and am well aware by now of the stigma around geek culture.  It has, however, surprised me to see that Pokémon Go players as a whole appear to be immune to these harassments when they occur. We exchange eye-rolls, laugh to each other, or often don’t react at all.

I once overheard a player describe an incident where a man attempted to throw water balloons at the players gathered in Kenney Park.  According to the story, he made multiple attempts, but the balloons kept hitting the curb instead of the crowd.  Eventually, one player shouted, “Try spinning them!” and every player in the plaza burst out laughing.

I wish I had been there.  Not only because then I could confirm that this incident actually happened, but because it would have been a joy to witness after years of being internally and externally shamed for having geek interests.

(Spinning the Pokéballs, for those who don’t know, is a technique that is used to try to capture Pokémon who are particularly powerful and/or difficult to catch.)

Plenty of people who enjoy Sci Fi, fantasy, or other so-called “geek genres” understand the experience of othering by people who do not share these interests.  We’ve been laughed at, ostracized, and/or openly shamed for years.  For me, high school and college was a slow discovery that other people shared my level of engagement in series such as Harry Potter, Star Wars, even cartoons and comic books.  It was a revelation; I didn’t need to hide who I was anymore because there were people just like me.  I could join geek communities and be proud of myself as a part of them.  This discovery literally changed my life.

Even so, geek culture has typically been relegated to niche spaces such as comic book stores, conventions, and of course the internet.  Geek spaces run wild on the web as fans from all over the world intensively discuss fictional characters and worlds, sharing their own artwork and writing with one another.  Still, these spaces have typically existed separately from the mainstream, and geek culture  has not been integrated into our society as a whole.  For example, it is common to see people in public spaces playing basketball, frisbee, or even baseball.  Less common: public Dungeons and Dragons tournaments.  Tabletop role-playing games are conducted in the back rooms at comic book stores or in players’ apartments.  We revel in who we are, possibly more than we ever have, but we continue to do so quietly, privately.

And then Pokémon Go happened.

Pokemon Go, by nature, directly contradicts the isolationism that has been intrinsic to geek culture for so long.  It forces players to walk around our neighborhoods, encourages us to gather in public places such as Kenney Park or Boston Public Garden. The aim is to get people active and exploring their spaces.  It has succeeded in this, of course, but it has also pushed parts of geek culture into spaces where we have not previously existed so openly. And that is making a lot of people uncomfortable.  We are not disruptive, but we are visible, and that appears to be too much for some people.

Many “non-geek” communities seem to view people with geek interests as being socially-awkward white men who live in our parents’ basements and have never had a girlfriend.  (For the record, as a white woman who does not live with her parents and DOES have a girlfriend, I see this reputation for what it is.) Pokémon Go is directly contradicting that stereotype.  We are all genders.  We are all ages.  We have a range of abilities, and we would have an even wider range if this game were created to be more accessible. We are straight, we are cis, and we are LGBTQIAP+.  We are black, white, Asian, Latinx, indigenous, and multi-racial.  We are single people, couples, families, and friends.  We are nearly everyone.  This diversity is obvious the first time you encounter a gathering of people playing Pokémon Go, and it’s beautiful.

The concept of a diverse group of people publicly enjoying a geek interest is apparently so threatening to the social order that some people – all of whom, as far as I’ve witnessed, have been white men – need to taunt and harass us as if we were all back in middle school.  The brilliant thing is, this time it’s not working.  We see these taunts for what they are and are unfazed.  Empowered by each other, we proudly exist in public spaces that belong to us as much as they belong to the people who neither know or care what a Voltorb is.  Because there are six billion people in this world and if coexistence wasn’t possible, humanity wouldn’t have lasted this long.

I recognize that I am drawing parallels with other marginalized groups, specifically pertaining to race, gender, gender identify, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, religion, and any number of other factors I may have missed. While I would never say that the experience of geek culture is proportional to what these groups have faced – in many cases these situations are literal matters of life and death – but the idea is similar. We have long accepted our marginalization and are now pushing for visibility and acceptance in public spaces, literally and metaphorically. This can feel threatening and upsetting to the people who have occupied those spaces for decades (centuries, even) and are suddenly feeling as though we are somehow infringing on their “rights.”  Hopefully this backlash will fade as these majority groups learn that we are not pushing them off the bench, merely compelling them to make room for us to sit there too.

So yes, I will continue to play my game based on an anime based on a manga based on a game.  I will pause in my attempts to catch that Fearow in order to smile at the small child chasing a butterfly in front of me.  I will carefully step around the water jets in order to access the Pokéstop at the back of the park. I will coexist with people outside of geek culture, proud to be who I am and like what I like. And that guy who believes I simply need to “get a boyfriend,” will someday, I hope, get over it.