This testimonial marks the fourth voice to speak out in Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s Fifty Years after Stonewall: A Virtual Listening Tour.
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I still remember what it felt like five years ago, when the elder of my two autistic children told me that she was transgender. The entire world froze. I wasn’t sure I could breathe. I couldn’t get any words to come out of my mouth. The only words that I could form in my mind were, “Oh, shit.”
I was terrified. I had been working for years to make sure that, when my autistic son grew up and became independent, he would be safe. My husband and I knew he’d reach independence later than his age peers, and that was okay. We just had to ensure that, when he got there, he had the knowledge and skills he needed to be safe.
You have to understand, people with autism are far more likely to be victims of abuse than their neurotypical peers. They are more likely to be emotionally abused, to be sexually assaulted, to be physically attacked. They miss social cues, and they often don’t realize when someone is taking advantage of them. They can’t think quickly in a novel situation. They don’t understand where proper social boundaries lie. It takes them time to process the sensory and social information. All of this makes them uniquely vulnerable.
And, of course, parents and teachers make it worse because we work so hard to make our autistic children compliant. We have to teach them to follow instructions that they don’t understand and don’t want to follow, if they’re going to be able to function in school, get along with other people, and eventually hold a job.
Autistic people have trouble finding and keeping jobs. Depending on the study you look at, somewhere between 50% and 85% of autistic adults who are not living in an institutional setting do not have a job. It doesn’t matter if they have a high school diploma or a college degree. It doesn’t matter how highly skilled they are. They’re quirky. They’re odd. They misunderstand instructions. Or they refuse to follow instructions that make them uncomfortable.
So we work really hard to teach them to follow instructions, even if it makes them uncomfortable. We work hard to make our autistic kids compliant. But the more compliant we make them, the more vulnerable we make them. Predators recognize their vulnerability and target them at alarming rates.
If that were not enough, self-harm and suicide are far more common among autistic people than among neurotypical people. Some people think they don’t have the same kinds of feelings that other people do. But the truth is that they don’t show their feelings the same way. So their family and friends don’t recognize it when they are depressed and overwhelmed. This is especially true for autistic people who are considered high functioning. Like my child.
So I was looking at my 23-year old autistic son, and my stomach tied up into a knot. I had thought I had to teach an autistic son how to be independent and safe. I was wrong: I had to teach an autistic, transgender daughter to be independent and safe.
And I had no idea how I would do that.
I started learning. I learned that there wasn’t good research that would tell me everything I needed to know. It’s hard to do research on transgender people, because it’s a population that is often in hiding. But what I could find was every bit as alarming as I’d feared. Transgender women, like autistic people, have trouble finding and keeping jobs. Even when they look every bit as feminine as any cisgender woman, someone will inevitably learn that they are transgender. And when that happens, they’ll lose their job.
Of course, as with autistic people, the job isn’t the only issue. As with autistic people, transgender women are far more likely to be victims of abuse than their cisgender peers. They are more likely to be emotionally abused, to be sexually assaulted, to be physically attacked, to be killed.
And my poor child would never see it coming. She wouldn’t see the signs that a person or a situation was dangerous.
The only consolation was that transgender women are most likely to be harmed in situations that involve men and alcohol. My daughter hates the taste of alcohol. And she’s not interested in being romantically involved with men. If she ever dates, she’ll date other women.
That isn’t enough to keep her safe, of course. But it mitigates some of the risk.
My autistic child already knew the risks. She had been seeing a therapist for some time already, and she had recently been referred to a physician who treated transgender people. They had covered all the risks with her, both the medical risks and the social risks. And she had already started hormone therapy.
I was almost as shocked by my child having done all that independently as I was by the news that she was transgender. Finding a doctor, making appointments, following up on medical care—those were tasks that were generally outside her skill set. They were far, far outside her comfort zone. But she’d done it.
I asked her how she’d managed, and she gave a little shrug. “I either had to transition,” she said, “or die.”
That was when I learned about the incidence of self-harm and suicide among transgender people. It is astonishingly high. Or, at least, it astonished me. But from the research that we have, it looks like transgender people are three times more likely to attempt suicide, and four times more likely to engage in self-harm without the intent to die.
There are two things that mitigate the risk of self-harm and suicide. The first is transition. The second is having a family that accepts your transition. When a transgender person’s family uses their chosen name and the pronouns that match their gender, the risk of self-harm and suicide fall to the same rate as cisgender people.
My child was transitioning, with or without me. That was simply a fact. I had nothing to say about it.
But as for accepting the transition, accepting that my child who was my son is now my daughter—of course I would accept it. I had accepted, years before, that my child was not the neurotypical person I was expecting. I had learned to love the child I had, not the child I had thought I would have.
And so this was just more of the same. My job wasn’t to make my child into the person I wanted her to be. My job was to ensure that she had the skills to be a safe and independent adult. It wasn’t up to me to choose her hobbies or her friends or her career goals. And just as I didn’t get to choose her gender when she was born, I didn’t get to choose it 23 years later. It wasn’t my choice.
But I did choose to help her however I could. When she transitioned socially, when she was ready to share her gender and her new name with others, she asked me to tell those of my friends that she felt closest to, the ones that she trusted to love her no matter what. She didn’t want to have to worry about who knew and who didn’t, so we agreed that I would send a batch of emails one evening, so they’d all know at the same time.
On her list, to my surprise, was our priest. She had long since quit going to church, but she still had warm feelings towards the Church and towards our priest. She had always felt that he’d had her back when issues related to her autism had come up at church. That wasn’t entirely true, but we had never told her about the struggles we’d had with him. It didn’t seem worth poisoning their relationship.
So, in that batch of emails, one went to our priest.
He wasn’t the only Orthodox priest that we told on our daughter’s behalf. Our circle of friends includes a fair number of priests. Everyone on the list responded kindly and warmly. Some of them acknowledged that they struggled with the news. They immediately started using her new names and feminine pronouns. They all assured us, and asked us to assure her, of their continuing love for her.
Except our priest. He didn’t respond. It was years before he would even acknowledge having received it.
And when he did acknowledge it, he told me that I should have done everything in my power to prevent her from transitioning. I told him what she had told me: Living as a man had made her suicidal. She had to transition or die.
He said, “Some things are worse than death.”