Miracles do happen:
What transgender might learn from neurodiversity
In autumn 2014 it became known that some Swedish feminists, who had expressed criticism of transgender claims, were harassed by transgender activists. This included sending mail to the employers of those feminists in order to get at their jobs. I then wrote this essay in Swedish. It was published on a blog made in Gothenburg (the Swedish city were identity politics seemed the least hysterical at the time). Here four years later is, for what it’s worth, an adapted and updated translation into English. It is dedicated to the struggle to settle the feminist vs transgender conflict in the UK.
I saw no one refute the reports that Swedish trans activists have made employer call-outs against their critics (in which camp those activists put anyone approving of a writer whose whole book included two sentences dedicated to criticism of their claims). Apparently, there’s a leftist McCarthyism going on. To me, having Tourette’s syndrom, this recalls sadder times when the Swedish battle of neurodiversity seemed impossible for my side to win. Yet we did. I find a useful lesson in how we and our families eventually won so much public understanding and sympathy. To ponder which tactics served our cause in the long run, and which did not, might prove relevant for the transgender issue.
In 2000, a book and plenty of articles by then-hyped (now forgotten) Swedish sociologist Eva Kärfve did much harm to the neurodiversity cause. Kärfve claimed that having a neuropsychiatric diagnosis causes ”social death” and ”annihilation”, its carrier being seen as ”an inferior human being” and it will thus be regarded ”normal and understandable” to bully that person. Anyone telling of the actual improvement in public awareness and tolerance of neurodiversity that had started in the 90:s (unfortunately coinciding with an economic crisis and unemployment on a scale of which almost no Swedish policy-maker had living memory at the time), was rejected as blinkered and blind to the determined cruelty of our society.
The excesses of stigma-theory and ’dont’t shoot the messenger’-tactics used by Kärfve and her followers were reminiscent of how opponents of same-sex parenting often speak (’but you see, most people are so intolerant’ etc). A Swedish reader might recall how tabloid Expressen’s sensationalist 1993 placard ”The Swedes want to deport immigrants and refugees!” was statistically false yet followed by a wave of racist hate crime in Sweden. As should also be remembered, a common argument against granting refuge to more Jews in neutral Sweden during WW2 was that ’there is so much anti-semitism here’.
Kärfve further argued that owning a neuropsychiatric diagnosis means ”the shirking of existential responsibility” and ”the loss of a future”. She said our parents want to diagnose us to conceal their bad parenting (as usual the mothers were to bear the brunt of the blame). Her book was accoladed by almost all of the Swedish Left, which saw a weapon in the long-jaded ”nature versus nurture” feud while finding no other angle relevant to neurodiversity. This was political correctness at its worst: a rigid biodenialist dogma dictating a discourse not based in any solidarity with the people it was all about.
Imagine if I had played out the ”contact-to-sack” tactics towards Lund’s university where Kärfve was associate professor (Sten Levander, professor in psychiatry in the same city, did precisely that), and also towards the employers of all who praised her book! Then I’d have lost almost all my friends within the Left (this came to happen anyway due to leftist betrayal of Syria’s people but it’s another story). Can belonging to a disadvantaged minority justify sabotage against the careers of one’s opponents? No way!
What I and other neurodiverse persons and families were demanding, in the heyday of Kärfve and her media ambassadors, was that our voices be heard. We used no weird language or jargon. We did not attack ‘neurotypical’ people (i.e. the majority corresponding to what transgender activists call ‘cis’) telling them to check their privilege. We patiently sought dialogue, understanding and curiosity regarding our odd and often fascinating life stories. Never did we demand that people must speak or think in a certain way.
Admittedly there were nasty cranks in our ranks. One bloke with Asperger syndrome infiltrated and thrashed an internet forum for child abuse survivors (as if those were our enemies), defending paedophilia as an expression of repressed diversity. A clique of ’Aspies’ wanted to ban the word ”empathy” as meaningless and offensive to them (deficiency in empathy is a common Asperger symptom, although we neurodiverse people can learn it the hard way if the will is there). It’s a mercy these querulants lacked the social skills they’d need to sustain an audience.
More damage was done by Levander demanding Kärfve be sacked from her academic position, by a few exhausted parents trying to no-platform Kärfve and, particularly, by professor Christopher Gillberg’s notorious shredding of medical records. Gillberg sought to avoid medial scrutiny by Kärfve and her partner in misinformation, fringe-MD Leif Elinder (he had private rancour against Gillberg; now that Kärfve/Elinder eventually lost the neurodiversity war, Elinder has found political Viagra in the pro-Putin, pro-Assad and pro-Julian Assange troll-group SWEDHR where a clique of retired doctors use their med-cred to spread fake news and deny war crimes in Syria). In their most triumphal moment, Kärfve/Elinder won in court the freedom of information to view Gillberg’s records. Had Gillberg and his team understood how media works they might, like some Greenham Common women, have chained themselves to the journal cabinet until police seized its content by force. Then he might have been regarded as a champion of his patients’ integrity. By turning the shredder on, Gillberg instead made himself a symbol of neuropsychiatry supposedly being shy of daylight and averse to public debate. He was suspended from his council position in our National Board of Health and Welfare and convicted of misconduct for not revealing the documents on demand. He went into temporary exile in Britain after being viciously demonized in Swedish press. All of this created a narrative of neuro-obscurantism which Kärfve and Elinder exploited very cleverly. The darkness was painted by the very editors who rejected most texts where we, who live with neurodiversity, tried all we could to let the truth about our syndromes, and how we cope with them, be heard.
Thus in the early and mid-noughties, the dialogue we sought was supplanted by a monolgue from blasé and intellectually lazy baby-boomers using their media power to deny the us having any agency or being anything more than victims of a nefarious diagnosis-machinery in ”One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”-style. This was, predictably, followed by cutting of public funding for help to neuro-diagnosed kids, while our patient associations were drained of resources by the effort it took replying to endless accusations of having made our syndromes up. The scientologists speeded up their aggressive disinformation campaign, perversely (and in contrast to charities like MIND) attacking the preventive and best-working branches of psychiatry in order to recruit and collect among fragile young people before the latter could get any help from society. They fooled some journalists that ”Citizens Commission on Human Rights” is what its name suggests. It is not. It’s a front organisation for a totalitarian sect.
At that point I felt like surrendering the debate. I had good friends, education and a decent job by then. I needed no healthcare. Winning against the neuro-denialists seemed impossible. So why bother? I tried to get on with my life and to avoid those who would not believe that my brain works differently (this, it should be noted, has no connection to the notion of ‘blue and pink brains’ now in vogue; the latter stereotyping dichotomy can be resisted without pretending we were born as blank slates). I was almost as unaware as the Swedish press was of the tremendous progress that a new neurodiverse generation had begun to enjoy. Such things seldom make headlines.
But miracles do happen. During the 2010:s, neurodiversity in Sweden has seen an openness, understanding and tolerance surpassing anything I thought possible in this world. To tell my boss about my Tourette’s is now as banal as being lesbian or gay in Soho. Neurodiversity and its role models are now highly visible in Swedish politics, church, rock’n roll, stand-up comedy, design, fashion, sports and law. The derogatory Swedish word ”bokstavsbarn” (’acronyme kid’, meaning a child with adhd) was lyrically reclaimed — in a way similar to the gay movement’s finest hours — by Swedish rap artist Petter in his song “Krafter” (‘Powers’) where he very touchingly tells of his living with adhd and understanding himself better now. In 2012 a technology student told liberal daily Dagens Nyheter of ‘coming out’ as a person with ADD (i.e. non-hyperachtive adhd):
– You expose yourself a little bit more. It makes others be more open as well. I feel it has brought me closer to other people.
In 2013 (the year before Sweden got a soc dem/green gov’t after eight years with the Right in power), a great public outcry was sparked by the cutting of resources for children with adhd, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and dyslexia, and another one by the revelation that a voucher-funded private school rejected adhd pupils whom the headmaster called ”rotten apples” spreading decay to other kids. The latter scandal shocked Jan Björklund, the Liberal party chairman who championed vouchers as freedom of choice. ”Speaking in plain Swedish I am bloody angry”, said Björklund about this graphic drawback of market-ruled school (he is now much more aware of its downsides). In conservative daily Svenska Dagbladet, leader writer Tove Lifvendal almost sounded center-left in september 2013, arguing it is short-sighted to let austerity hit adhd and ASD kids who will likely contribute to our society if given proper and early support. ”Which option has the highest price?” she asked bravely. That same autumn an IT-employee, who was sacked on unjust grounds related to his adhd and prepared to sue the employer, got a settlement of £ 25 000 through advocacy by syndicalist TU in Norrköping (a town with a workers’ history similar to Manchester). Sweden shall remember 2013 as the year it was plain to see that while neuro-discrimination still occurs, it has a price and never more will it stay uncontested.
We who live with these syndromes are now cashing in the tolerance and goodwill earned by the fact that the resilient among us fought with just and honest methods all through the hardship. We have won a resounding victory that will not easily be taken away.
After FIFA world cup 2014 the US goalkeeper Tim Howard, who has extraordinary reflexes, was honoured by Obama for his skilled soccer playing. He is open that he “will always have Tourette’s syndrome, so why not put it in use? I think it has made me more alert in reaction. If I woke up one day not having Tourette’s, that person would not be me”. Indeed, some with Tourette’s syndrome develop speeded reactivity to neutralize our increased risk of stumbling in childhood.
Since Howard’s exploit I’ve heard no one say our diagnoses cause ”social death” or ”the loss of a future”. Nor has anyone in the ageing Kärfve/Elinder crowd apologized for writing things on our social lives which everyone can now see were lies, but that might be to much to ask for. Gillberg, who is a brilliant researcher and a poor media influencer, has not either got any public apology from those who made him our nation’s villian at the onset of this millennium. But he’s back with a new medical centre in Sweden. It opened in Gothenburg 2011 and is at the global forefront of knowledge of ”ESSENCE” (Gillberg’s technical term for what I prefer calling neurodiversity). All that the wrecks of the once so jumped-up neuro-denialist camp can come up with now is a bigot’s swan song, i e to shame us for our privilege of integrating into a society where other groups are still outcast.
But I believe that one group’s progress can work as source of inspiration and knowledge for another. Particularly I think of transgender persons now. I see no reason that tactics which worked for neurodiversity would not work for transgender. We know what it’s like to be bullied, misunderstood, shamed, unemployed, gaslighted and sometimes feeling that life is not worth living. We have also seen how progressive change can work. Indeed, we have been part of it.
But what do transgender activists do now? The most militant and nasty among them have charisma and manipulation skills which the neuro-querulants could never have. That can be a curse rather than a blessing. Anyone doubting this can google the phrase ”cotton ceiling” coined by trans activists and porn star Drew DeVeaux. A travesty of the ”glass ceiling”, it means the dyke’s knickers which MTF:s apparently struggle to force because lesbians don’t get turned on by a male body. This attack on lesbians’ sexual freedom might, like many postmodern notions, have begun as a wordgame but it has evolved to be much more threatening. In 2012, a Planned Parenthood conference in Toronto held a workshop called ”Overcoming the Cotton Ceiling: Breaking Down Sexual Barriers for Queer Trans Women”, which in plain English means “getting a dyke to have sex with me though I have a penis”. Long before Jordan Peterson was heard of in Europe, this met resistance from Canadian feminists who saw the promotion of a rape culture. They emphasized the false analogy with ”glass ceiling”. Unlike a sex-discriminating employer, a woman who says no to sex should never have to explain or justify her choice. The ”cotton ceiling” phrase is now also seen in Swedish ‘social media’.
Whether women’s sex-segregated spaces should allow males claiming to be women is not my business. I merely note that too many trans activists seem blind to the difficulties in verifying such claims. Coaches in women’s self-defense told me of sessions disrupted by blokes seeking to provoke or pick-up while saying they are innate women (and how could this be disproved)? I also see that separatist events for black people (which I don’t oppose and would never stomp into, just as I leave women’s spaces alone) may find it difficult to draw the pigment line in a society with many mixed families. We neurodiverse people are admittedly privileged having no such worries. We are among the least separatist people that can be. Once I arranged a meeting with ten other Tourette’s persons; it was hysterical and I’ll never do it again. An attempt to create separate SME for Aspies has failed. We’re at our best when our odd skills and weaknesses can be a complement to those of ’neurotypical’ people. Many employers understand that now, instead of seeking all employees to fit the same personality test profile. Our struggle has always been to find our place in the broader society. Many of us are getting close now, although hardship persist, particularly on neurodiverse children from socially disadvantaged families. The plight of the latter, related to class injustices, should not be belittled. Yet it was worse when those kids had no chance of being understood as anything else than unruly waywards.
To a non-Anglophone reader, the transgender struggle would seem on balance to hold progress. Transgender or drag varieties are much more visible now, e g through the Eurovision winners 1998 (Dana International for Israel) and 2014 (Conchita Wurst for Austria). In Sweden it is now allowed to take a second name of the opposite sex (the “John Madeleine” case 2009) and, since 2013, to change legal sex without sterilization (which makes our law quite similar to UK’s provided the self-ID won’t pass). For most Swedes outside feminist (or very conservative) circles, transgender seems to be no big issue. We have not yet reached ”peak trans”, whatever Rod Liddle may write.
A coming surge in puberty blockers and hormone therapy for Swedish ‘tomboys’ and ‘sissies’ is plausible, though. Should this happen to our children, warnings from the UK should be heard. In such a scenario, I hope we’ll avoid a cry-wolf effect from the wholly unwarranted media panic Kärfve and Elinder started on the mild drugs with small side-effects (alleged to be big as ”brain decay” in scientologist lies not told anymore) that are quite often prescribed to adhd children in order to help them cope. Sadly this was echoed in a light-version by too many Swedish feminists over-influenced by critique of biologism and patriarchal medicine then applying those concepts wrongly on a group which was weaker than them at the time. The great second-waver Maria-Pia Boëthius, who saw her older sister struggle with a mother-blaming establishment to get appropriate help for a son with adhd and deficient motor skills, was the shining exception here. For now the issue polarizing Sweden is the refugee crisis.
So what can we make of all this? I say that miracles do happen, but any activism to improve our societies and their inclusiveness must be fought in a spirit of honesty and decency. There are Anglo transgender people who do just that, like Kristina Harrison, Debbie Hayton and Miranda Yardley. What if their nuanced voices are drowned by a mob committed to censorship, no-platforming, ”we’ll call your boss”-tactics, sexual invasions, sports or fellowship cheating, asocial media bullying, erasure of female biological concepts, call for violence against ”TERFs”, sabotage and bomb threats against women’s meetings, a physical assault against a 60-year-old woman at Speaker’s Corner (!), refusal to condemn such violence and, finally, dangerous quakery risking sterilization and sexual dysfunction side effects on non-gender conforming children?
We know now what you’ll get then. Call it an achievement if this is what you wanted. Or maybe it is time for a new beginning. A movement whose struggle is done in such nasty and selfish ways will never get the deep and relaxed integration that neurodiversity is now enjoying in Sweden.