Conservatives weaponize autism in their fight against transgender
What is happening and what can be done. A conversation between Brandy Schillace and Eric Garcia
Red states have been limiting transgender care through unfair legislation, seeking to limit or eliminate affirming outlets for trans youth. That’s bad enough. But recently, states like Alabama and Georgia have added additional language that targets those with disabilities, too. Gabriel Arkles writes that “ableist justifications for anti-trans legislation are everywhere” in an essay for Truthout; Eric M. Garcia, in a piece for MSNBC, writes that disabilities are now considered “comorbid” with gender dysphoria by Georgia law, “weaponizing autism against diagnosis.” In my own writing, I’ve interviewed transgender autistic people like Eryn Star who spoke openly about having her “queerness” denied because of her disability.
Speaking about autism specifically, Garcia suggests that people may soon feel they have to choose between identities–masking their autism or hiding their transgender identity for fear of being denied care. I caught up with Eric Garcia this past week to talk about the new threats. What follows is a record of our conversation, which (being that we are both autistic and no fan of phone calls) took place over email. Below, we talk about this latest conservative stop-at-nothing tactic for abusing transgender and disabled people.
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You and I have been talking a lot about how the current conservative platform threatens the rights of transgender and disabled people (autistics among them). As a historian working on the rise of transphobia and homophobia in the Interwar period (and the rise of Nazism), it’s frightening for me to see the same rhetoric employed by members of the GOP. That same rhetoric, then as now, also threatens disabled people; the Nazi used eugenic theories to ultimately murder anyone they thought of as “unfit.” But something new seems to be happening — at least since the Republican CPAC convention: the weaponization of autism against transgender people. What’s happening?
I incidentally just published something for MSNBC about this very thing. I first noticed this trend in 2020 when I was writing my book (and I should say I only noticed this but it likely was happening before then) and JK Rowling wrote in her anti-transgender manifesto “The UK has experienced a 4400% increase in girls being referred for transitioning treatment” and that “autistic girls are hugely overrepresented in their numbers.” That stat read to me as a bunch of malarkey and likely is. So cut to three years later and I’m at CPAC earlier this month and I see Marjorie Taylor Greene speak about how there was this “billion-dollar industry that mutilates the genitals of children” and said how “of autism, mental illness. They have depression, they have anxiety, they have psychosis.”When I heard her say that, my ears perked up, because I thought “oh, that canard made it stateside.” The latest law in Georgia banning gender-affirming care for minors included a clause saying “Gender dysphoria is often comorbid with other mental health and developmental conditions, including autism spectrum disorder.”
So Republicans have crafted an argument that this supposedly evil industry is “transing” autistic kids. It’s a compelling narrative because it slyly doesn’t fault the actual trans people, but rather, it puts the onus on these supposedly nefarious actors who are manipulating kids.That ties into the clip most people saw from CPAC, which was when Michael Knowles, who works for the Daily Wire and hosted a podcast with Sen. Ted Cruz, said “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.” Many people saw that brief clip and understandably reacted viscerally. But it’s part of a larger narrative: If the concept of “transgenderism” doesn’t really exist, and people are being manipulated into transitioning their gender, then this very concept must be eradicated. I should also note that I was filing another piece when Knowles was giving that part of the speech so I didn’t catch that initial part. I recommend people go back and watch the entire speech because he explains the conservative game plan: he criticizes how Republicans conceded on same-sex marriage and feminism and then conservatism lost but when conservatives stood firm on “the right to life.” And he’s kind of right: Conservatives waited for the better part of five decades to overturn Roe and they won last year.
At this point I feel like I should add that the evidence shows that anti-trans legislation is about as unpopular as anti-abortion legislation is (and incidentally, you barely heard anything about Dobbs at CPAC). Ettingermentum, a really funny (but anonymous) tweeter, posted this great history of anti-trans legislation and how it isn’t a political winner. As you know, I got my start covering North Carolina politics and I am a UNC basketball fanatic. When Pat McCrory, the Republican governor of North Carolina, signed the infamous bathroom bill in the state, the NCAA pulled out of the state, which is almost sacrilege given how devoted people are to college basketball in the state. He wound up losing re-election in a state Donald Trump won and Roy Cooper, a Democrat, campaigned against it. Andy Beshear, a Democrat in Kentucky, just vetoed legislation that would have restricted gender-affirming care for minors and restricted which bathrooms they could use. Beshear is running for re-election this year in a state that Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell overwhelmingly won in 2020 and he wouldn’t have vetoed it if he thought he wouldn’t pay a price. Similarly, you see Minnesota working on a “trans refuge” bill. So what you are seeing is that Democratic politicians clearly see this as a political winner, or at least not a loser.
I think the question I have for you, and I’ve thought about this a ton, is that you have only started to come out publicly as autistic in recent years and are very visibly nonbinary. Obviously you can only speak for your experience, but how does this current moment affect that public presentation? How does it affect how you mask or not mask in both of these identities? And more importantly, how do you see these identities as complementary?
I’m answering this question after months of being trolled on twitter by those who see sex and gender as utterly fixed. The sex-is-binary-and-that-proves-trans-wrong crowd point at chromosomes and biological categorization, but even sex is far more complicated than XX vs XY. There are plenty of essays and articles and yes, even scientific studies, that explain sex beyond binaries, but for many, they cling to sex (and gender) as unchanging and fixed.
This frustrates me to no end. I have never thought of sex as immutable — and that’s long before I came out as nonbinary regarding my gender. What do reproductive parts have to do with identity? As an autistic person, I understand that identity is performed. I mean everyone’s identity has performance elements–but I’ll speak about mine:
I have been performing my whole life — masking to be understood emotionally and intellectually, masking to be accepted. It takes a toll, because I am always reading others, reading the situation, trying to figure out how to fit into that situation. Why? Because I was always told my behavior was the problem. Undiagnosed, I was told to “shape up” and “stop being weird.” I spent hours reflecting on my behavior, trying to hone it; I traveled great distances on behalf of other people’s comfort. That extended to my gender presentation. My dad preferred my “boy” self, and I was quite masculine growing up. But in my first job, I was expected to be “womanly.” I can do that, too. I thought about it like clothing; I put on gender and I put it off again. It wasn’t until I realized I was autistic that some of this began to make sense.
My gender was also a way of masking: I learned to see social interactions as a play; I can handle any genre — so long as I have the script and know the dress code. Trouble happens when there is no script, or someone changes it halfway through. I spent harrowing lunch hours driving home in traffic because I’d worn the wrong self for the day’s activities. I can feel physically sick if I misread the type of attire expected for an occasion.
I do have a public presentation. It’s me, but it’s not me, too. I am so fluid that I needed… a sort of human logo of myself. An avatar, or maybe the “me” I am in the Matrix. The public presentation, in which I admit I am nonbinary and autistic, is really a composite self. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s a bit like combining Morticia Addams with David Bowie, giving them a PhD and a crash course in steampunk, then setting them up as a private eye. In a top hat.) This personality, which is me, is also the shield to protect me. RIght now, I am getting a lot of attacks for supporting trans rights, and I have been weathering them — but I am starting to worry that my autism will be used against me. Non-binary is, like bisexuality, not well understood or received in a world that privileges the binary (as my twitter trolls make very apparent). Will I register as a “confused” autistic person because non-binary? Someone who is simultaneously infantilized as unable to make choices, but at the same time “not trans enough” to be trans? My identity is solid, but not singular; it’s a hell of a thing to feel like it might be attacked from several angles at once.
Now, my question back at you: RE: The Nefarious Actors. We have seen this before; I certainly see it in my research of the Interwar period. I saw the situation unfolding in New Zealand, where the anti-trans feminist found herself backed mainly by neo-Nazi and Proud Boy types — and there has been plenty of antisemitism in other transphobic attacks. In the 1920s, proto-Nazi claimed that Jews were “making” people gay. Are we about to see this rhetoric again? If so, who are the new targets? What might this mean, in real terms, as we enter the election cycle?
Yeah, you know a friend of mine flagged that protest in New Zealand and on one end it surprised me but also didn’t surprise me. Gender ideology goes really well with other parts of. You mention the antisemitism in these transphobic attacks. That’s not an accident. Antisemitism is, to be blunt, a harbinger. Yair Rosenberg wrote something I think about a lot, which is antisemitism — unlike racism, homophobia, transphobia or sexism — isn’t just a form of bigotry, which it is; it’s also a conspiracy about how the world operates. The shooter in Pittsburgh, if you recall, specifically blamed the Hebrew Immigrant and Aid Society (HIAS) for bringing in “evil and hostile invaders” to the United States. That’s not an accident.
I say this to tee off a larger point, which is it seems like the only *real* governing ideas within the modern GOP at this current moment are anti-immigrant rhetoric and transphobia. Again, going back to CPAC, the only thing that was mentioned as much, if not more than anti-trans rhetoric was the influx of immigrants at the US-Mexico border. Those are really the only two lodestars for the GOP these days. There are multiple reasons for this and Trump is only one of them. For the longest time, conservatism in America was premised on what Rush Limbaugh called the “three-legged stool,” which was fiscal conservatism with a focus on tax cuts; robust military interventionism and social conservatism.
Trump never really cared for fiscal conservatism; he hated free trade deals that he thought were ripping Americans off and imposed tariffs on China (though he did pass massive tax cuts in 2017) and talks about supporting Social Security. Nor did he really care for the idea of a robust foreign policy; he largely attacked neocons for the War in Iraq and literally just now, I got a campaign email from him ripping Ron DeSantis for having “long embraced neo-con foreign policies of John McCain, Mitt Romney, Karl Rove, and the Bushes.” So what are you left with? Well, you’ve got social conservatism. Now, Trump himself has never been socially conservative. He was a Democrat who lived in New York for many years before he was a Republican and if you remember, social conservatives got pissed at him when he said in 2016 that women should be punished for having abortions. He even expressed some openness to allowing transgender people to use bathrooms after North Carolina’s bill. I don’t think he spent much time thinking about transgender people before he ran for president, honestly. Katelyn Burns, a trans journalist, likes to remind people Trump only mentioned transgender people twice in his administration.
But he came around at a time when social conservatives felt like they lost ground. He announced his candidacy the same month that the Supreme Court had the Obergefell ruling.and Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender. A few years before, Orange is the New Black came out and you had Laverne Cox being this very visible transgender woman people saw regularly. So Trump becomes this vessel for social conservatism, even given his libertine past. And it becomes this thing that he uses to reel in social conservatives when he couldn’t fulfill other parts of the GOP agenda. Around the time attempts to repeal Obamacare fail, he tweets the ban on transgender people serving in the military. He nominated many anti-transgender social conservative figures too.
Conservatives know they lost the battle on same-sex marriage. And this last election showed that restricting access to abortion is unpopular even in places like Kansas. So now all they really have, aside from lies that the 2020 election was stolen and anti-immigrant rhetoric, is anti-trans rhetoric. That’s kind of the glue keeping the coalition together after the other parts of the stool fell apart. Trump got his biggest pop at CPAC when he said “I will revoke every Biden policy promoting the chemical castration and sexual mutilation of our youth and ask Congress to send me a bill prohibiting child sexual mutilation in all 50 states.” Up until then, he was mostly meandering. So even though it hasn’t shown to be popular with swing voters or even winning over Democrats, I think you can expect to see Republicans talk about it a lot more in 2024.
This leads me to my next question: Why do you think people get so hopped up on social media when you talk about things like gender and saying it’s not immutable? And we’ve only recently learned about this intersection between transgender and nonbinary people, but it seems like people are especially weird about autistic trans people. Why is that? You say “ I am starting to worry that my autism will be used against me.” We’re talking about this a few days after the awful shooting in Nashville where the shooter was transgender and there was a media report that the shooter was also autistic (though I don’t think it was entirely journalistically responsible to publish that). But with this influx of anti-trans laws and that public knowledge, do you fear that autistic people will be less likely to transition or even have gender affirming care withheld from them? Do you think conversely, autistic trans people will be less likely to present those autistic parts of themselves or unmask less if they fear that people will weaponize that part of their identity to delegitimize the trans part?
This question is hard to answer in short form; I actually spend two chapter of the book trying to answer the question “how does hate begin, how does it grow?” So much of what we see now is really rooted in misogyny and racism. Now, I realize some feminists have joined the anti-trans movement, but that doesn’t mean the whole isn’t rooted in hatred of women. Part of the fury is driven by fear — fear that giving rights to trans people (usually trans women) will take rights away from women. And fear is the seed of hatred. In the early 20th century, industrialization changed a lot of roles; the women’s movement got its start, women were in the workplace and wanted the vote. The backlash of misogyny came from a fear that women getting rights somehow took rights and privileges away from men (or perhaps made them feel less privileged).
At the time, women and the budding gay and trans rights movement joined forces — they had nothing to lose. Fear turned to hatred against both groups, and swelled to include other things like disability and race. A hydrophilic molecule draws water to itself. Well, fear is hate-philic. And it doesn’t discriminate what it hates. Every time we see an “anti” movement, it draws other anti-movements, so that anti-trans has also become anti-gay and antisemetic, too. People sometimes don’t realize how far they have traveled into hate’s center, and by then, they are helping to support it. No one wants to admit that they are part of the problem, it is much easier to dig in. SO: someone attacks autistic trans people, but they say they aren’t being ableist or transphobic, right? They say “I am protecting women’s rights.”
I was being attacked on twitter for saying things like this, and I remember thinking, if they knew I was autistic would they discount everything I say? But of course, it happened anyway. They discredited me for being a woman, for being a historian, for being a writer, for being nonbinary… I think it is true, they will weaponize your autism. But they are weaponizing everything. If I wasn’t white, they would have used my race. After that affair, I realized that being concerned autistic people won’t get care or might be more likely to mask or even to delay transition is part of something larger. We are *all* threatened. Everything will be used as a vulnerability to exploit. Autistic people who white and trans might be less threatened that someone who is disabled and black and trans (but not autistic). I think all of us are facing a possible future where we are forced into hiding parts of ourselves. That’s why it is so important to fight this now, before we get to a point where just “being” is criminalized. And I know it sounds alarmist — but reading your last reply, I don’t think it is. We are headed for big trouble.
My next question: you have a better handle on the political scene than I do, how much time do we have? Is it going to be about resisting a possible Trump re-election? (I ask because I feel like that may be but one goal among many before we can turn this around).
To answer your question about time: I think it varies a ton. On the congressional level, you saw the Republican House pass the “Parents Bill of Rights,” which would require that parents have a right to know whether a transgender girl is playing in women’s sports. It would also require that schools receive parents’ permission for trans students to use different names, pronouns or bathrooms that match their gender identity. In many ways, this reminds me of the fight you’ve seen between autistic and neurodiversity advocates versus some parent advocates about who is the best advocate for autistic people.
I mentioned earlier that in the past, anti-trans laws have been a political loser. I still believe that. But I think you will see efforts to restrict gender-affirming care in red states kick off in earnest. In 2016, the business community, entertainers like Bruce Springsteen and college athletics pushed back on North Carolina’s bathroom ban (I can talk about how the NCAA was hypocritical because it exploits Black labor another day). Now an entire right-wing ecosystem focuses on crafting these bills. Axios just published a pretty comprehensive piece on this. Groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom, the American Principles Project are now advising state legislators. Incidentally, Republicans have proposed or adopted this even in swing states like Georgia, which voted for Joe Biden, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. By virtue of transgender people being a sliver of the population, I think a lot of conservatives think few people will care, which allows them to pass these bills in earnest. So the question of time, it will be different on the state and federal level.
At the same time, I should say, Democrats have been more vocal in support of transgender rights than they were for abortion rights. Amanda Becker wrote this great piece last year about why Democrats never codified the protections in Roe and I remember the day the court announced the Dobbs decision that only recently did Democrats have a majority that supported abortion rights. That is very different from today. If you notice, President Joe Biden, an 80-year-old white Catholic man who has been very squeamish when he talks about abortion rights, has vocally supported protections fo transgender people [NOTE: This conversation happened before the Biden administration announced a new transgender athlete policy this week that would bar “categorically” banning transgender athletes from participating in the sport that aligns with their gender but would allow states to limit the participation of trans students if participation undermines competitive fairness, according to The New York Times]. Senator Raphael Warnock, a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist church where Martin Luther King preached, has openly supported transgender people. So I think what you will see is support for transgender people will exist more on party lines wherein if you live in a red state, your rights will be restricted but if you live in a blue state, they won’t be.
Now, for you: If you spend any amount of time on right-wing Twitter or consuming right-wing media, you see right-wingers invoking the Weimar Republic. Jesse Kelly, the right-wing talk host, has said that “that there were so many Germans, Jew-hatred or not, so many Germans who were willing to accept anything to make that degeneracy stop?” In Ohio a few months ago, you saw the group White Lives Matter had a sign outside an all-ages drag show saying “Weimar conditions require Weimar solutions: Watch Europa the last battle.” As someone who is actively researching this inter-war period, what do you make of the modern right invoking this era?
I think my answer is endless screaming. It’s absolutely wild and horrific to see the same sort of rhetoric I’m researching in the proto-Nazi era being trotted out by conservatives today. I actually had a twitter troll reply to one of my essays saying that “killing trans people was something the Nazi got right.” I am shocked, but should I be when people in elected office are invoking the same type of language? And for those who don’t know–Weimar refers to the more progressive government of Germany’s early interwar period, when homosexuals and transgender people had more freedoms. At the time, even other countries thought of Berlin as a gay culture hub. The White Lives people are calling that the problem. Weimar solution, then, means the conservative backlash that allowed Nazi to take power in 1933. It’s a veiled threat and in support of Nazis. I can’t believe that is where we are right now.
My penultimate question has to do with what our responses should be… How do you see your role as an advocate and ally, and also someone who supports and helps autistic people self-identify? (This gets to some of the fears you have been talking about, I think).
So, I don’t and never have considered myself an advocate. I consider myself a journalist who writes about autism and covers the community. You can probably ask some neurodiversity advocates and they probably don’t like me that much. Rather, I think I decided to start covering autism as a journalist because I didn’t like how mainstream media covered autism. I started my career in journalism in 2014 and almost any coverage about autism began and ended with talking about vaccines or “curing” autism. But that felt divorced from the real needs of autistic people. Furthermore, I noticed that many news outlets would almost exclusively quote parents of autistic people, clinicians or researchers. That to me seemed as divorced from reality as only quoting white people when reporting about race or only quoting men when writing about equal pay or abortion. So I think for me, it has always been more I want to reframe the debate. I want to actually write about the wholeness of autistic people’s experiences and hear what they have to say, but also take their needs seriously. I think a lot of people believe that autistic people need a mediator or a middle person to interpret their needs. As far as helping autistic people self-identify or come to accept their identity, I will admit I was skeptical of self-diagnosis initially, but then I learned about all of the socioeconomic barriers that impede a diagnosis. On top of that, plenty of people who have a diagnosis are kind of ashamed, or their parents hid it from them growing up. So a lot of them have a ton of internalized ableism. So I think helping autistic people see this part of themselves is a means of helping them accept themselves and I think there is something very powerful about autistic people affirming others’ experiences, especially if they weren’t diagnosed or they had to suppress it for a long time. I mostly went to parochial Christian schools from middle school onward until I went to college and I often joke that neurodiversity and self-diagnosis resembles the Protestant Reformation with (hopefully) less antisemitism; parent advocates, nonprofits, academics and clinicians served as gatekeepers for decades and society saw them as the authorities about autism but autistic people realized we can work this out ourselves and we can tell our stories on our own: It’s not a perfect analogy but it’s how I explain it to people. As far as how I have done it, I think it’s just by virtue of being a journalist with a big platform. People assume that autistic people can only live and thrive in a certain subset of vocations like STEM jobs or academia or finance. But being a journalist, I have a huge platform, so people reach out because I don’t fit the typical mold and because I like going back and forth and creating a dialogue with readers. I am a very visible autistic person who works in the media. Why wouldn’t I use that to help people on an interpersonal level?
I love this answer. I think let’s wrap up with a bit of hope for the future; what do you think is the best thing you’ve seen in support of trans and autistic people? What’s working?
What I do think is great is that you see autistic people more willing to be unapologetically themselves. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that has come around the same time of transgender visibility. A lot of the older disability rights leaders nicked ideas from the Black Panther Party or came up through the Gray Panthers. The Black Panther Party obviously offered aid to 504-sit-in activists.
In the same way, I think you have seen a lot of autistic people guide transgender people to realize they are autistic and vice versa. I think social media has allowed for cross-pollination that wouldn’t have existed even a decade ago. The other thing is I think that now, the press can interact with these conversations and interview people. It used to be very hard for reporters to contact self-advocates or transgender advocates. That excuse doesn’t exist (as much) anymore.
And I guess my last question for you is that obviously, the Nazis began the T-4 program and also tried to erase Hirschfeld’s work. What value can autistic, disabled and trans people learn from excavating this past?
I hope the answer is “a lot.” But the most interesting part of my research into the period leading up to 1933 is this: The Nazi almost didn’t come to power. There were two or three times where it seemed the good guys would win. If there had been a bit more support, if the public had got on board a bit sooner, if a certain bill had been voted on instead of put off–then history might have been very different, indeed. We tend to think of Nazis as a foregone conclusion, an unstoppable force. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now.
We still have time to change the world. Our actions and activities matter.
Thank you for reading! And thanks to Eric for joining me.