Guest post by Ayman Eckford
[CN: Homophobia; Islamophobia; Ableism]
My name is Аyman. I am Autistic; I am a Muslim, and a lesbian. While I am Russian by birth, I do not belong to Russian culture. I don’t understand it although many people suggest that it is my culture. My perception of culture is reflected in little things; in that sort of stuff that seems irrelevant at the first sight, but it very clearly defines me as a “foreigner.”
My differences are almost invisible from the outside. People are not aware of my sexual orientation. I do not look like the stereotypical “butch” or “femme” lesbians that people expect me to be, or the “masculine women” that people of my mother’s generation imagine when they hear the word “lesbian”.
I was born into a conservative Russian Orthodox family. I suffered from serious psychological problems because of religion, and initially I was afraid even to think about leaving Christianity. Transitioning to Islam has influenced my worldview more than the way I look, dress or speak.
But I do not look like what people expect a typical Muslim to look like. I have light brown hair, light skin, and I speak with no accent. I do not act like a typical Muslim woman as the majority of people think she would. I listen to metal rock music. I talk a lot about politics and about human rights, and I wear European clothes most of the time.
My national identity is fairly American. I chose it myself, but at the same time, I didn’t.
I have never understood my family’s culture. Looking at my parents and other adults, I did not copy the norms of behaviour. If I didn’t understand the goals of such behaviour, then those norms were alien to me. You have probably witnessed little kittens imitating their mother’s behaviour or children copying their parents. Like many Autistic children, I have a badly developed mechanism of imitation.
The idea that people who I share my apartment with (even if they are my parents) should define the way I think seems like a meaningless abstraction – almost magic – to me.
That’s not the only example.
I didn’t notice the peculiarities of post-Soviet culture. At that time, I did not know why. However, the reason was that I did not recognise nonverbal signals and shades of meaning in other people’s talk. I could not “read” the culture of people who surrounded me. That was why I could not understand it.
I read books because they were easy to grasp. I watched movies. I researched information on the topics that interested me, and I formed my own culture based on what I could understand and what interested me. This culture originated from the culture of all humanity – from all the facts that I knew and which I could understand based on my knowledge. That culture had something that was missing in the Orthodox post-Soviet culture of my family, and my family considered that culture as wrong. It was something that we did not discuss at home; something that I learned from books and that I came up with on my own. I did not choose my culture, like you did not choose yours. It formed by itself. However, some elements of that culture were the result of deliberate choice.
Later, I started to realise that my culture is strangely similar to American culture. I can easily understand characteristics of American culture in books and in films, even those that seemed strange to the majority of my friends. It is easier for me to communicate with Americans rather than Russians. That is how I acquired some sort of a national identity.
I also have another identity that, perhaps, influenced everything else in my life. It is autism, which defines me almost entirely. I cannot separate my personal characteristics from autism, because it influences everything. It affects the way I communicate with people and how I perceive communication. Being autistic influences my attitude towards my interests and the effects that sounds and colours produce in me. It defines what helps me to relax and guides what interests me. That’s why the idea of “curing autism” seems brutal to me. If you take autism from me, what would be left of me? When I am told that autistic people would be happier without autism, I hear that they would have been happier if we didn’t exist.
Most often, I have heard this from people who know almost nothing about autism. These people base their judgments on what they think it means to be Autistic without even knowing how autism looks like. They often don’t even know why there are five times less girls diagnosed with autism than that of boys. We are rarely diagnosed because all of the first books about autism were based on observations of the control groups which included mostly boys, and in most cases autism in boys manifests itself differently than that of the majority of girls. My autism follows the “female pattern”, like in many Autistic girls. And it means that – again – I find myself invisible.
If you belong to several minorities, you cannot avoid wrong assumptions. Especially, if you are not a typical representative of these minorities.
Homosexuality was unthinkable in our family. My father called it “sodomy”. When the United States legalised same-sex marriage, he predicted a great economic crisis which would eventually destroy the U.S. economy. He spoke of Greece and Rome, which had “fallen because of gays”.
This conversation took place a few months before I finally accepted my homosexuality. I was afraid to talk about it to my parents. After coming out, I was afraid to go home. I did not know what consequences to expect. I was ready to end the relationship with my parents. However, everything went much more smoothly than I thought because it seemed as though my father didn’t take me seriously.
I should have expected this because I have faced similar situations all my life. Denial is one of the most common types of wrong assumptions. This was the first kind of wrong assumptions that I faced because it permeated my entire life with my family.
Looking at me, my parents saw a completely different child – the child who they wanted to see in front of them. They saw a Russian Orthodox girl – which I never was. More specifically, I was Orthodox for many years, but even though I was Russian by birth, I was never Russian in a cultural sense of this word. My parents, of course, did not notice. They talked about all sorts of things that were supposed to be clear and dear to me because I am “Russian”. I explained in vain that those things were alien to me, and that I understood different views and traditions better. They ignored my explanations.
They also ignored my autism. At school they told teachers that I was “an unusual child,” but at home they blamed me for everything. They scolded me for problems with communication that made me a target for bullying and made me want to die. When I did not do things on time, they accused me of having problems with planning. Because of that, I started to experience panic attacks. They did not believe that I could not hear their voices when there was noise around. I walked strangely. I did not look into their eyes, and I ran back and forth across the room in order to calm myself down. They explained that away as signs of my “immorality”. They often said that I was a weird kid, but they could not explain me what was wrong with me. I demanded accurate explanations, but I was never able to get them.
I received these explanations when I received my autism diagnosis. In the beginning, my parents also refused to believe that I am Autistic. It took for them several years and many articles read by my mother in order to accept it.
My parents could not support me because of their wrong assumptions about me. All these years, their misconceptions hurt me the most.
I often encountered them in my life. Usually people need a few minutes to conclude about my sexual orientation, neurotype, religion and cultural background based on my appearance. Most of the time their conclusions are wrong.
Like my parents, other people do not want to recognize their mistakes, even if I clearly point them out.
“You are too normal to be Autistic. Why do you invent all those diseases?”
They ask, even when I have already told them that I do not consider autism a disease. Usually I hear that from people who have never read the diagnostic criteria.
“You do not look like a lesbian”
They say, meaning that I am not “masculine” enough.
People who say that do not understand that a person’s gender expression does not define their sexual orientation.
“Of course, you belong to Soviet culture! We all belong to Soviet culture, because we have absorbed it, even from our cartoons. There are so many implicit “Soviet” themes and substance there!”
When people tell me that, they forget that as a child I didn’t know how to recognize those themes or substance.
For some reason, people think that they know who I am – better than I do. Wrong assumptions emerge because people do not want to listen.
Sometimes people deny my experience out of their best intentions.
Once a doctor told my mother that he had noticed “Autistic signs” in me (as in the USSR Asperger syndrome was often referred to), but he did not tell that to my face, so that I would not feel “abnormal”.
One of my close relatives tried to “comfort” me saying that I was still “able to understand my culture”. In addition, a stranger in the street advised me to “return to Russian roots”.
Many of my LGBT friends were advised to see a therapist in order to become “normal”. Some people are convinced that LGBT people suffer from their sexual orientation and gender identity. Even if LGBT people themselves told the opposite.
Some of my LGBT friends think that I would have felt better if I stopped believing in God.
Wrong assumptions arise because people think I would feel better if I become someone else. They arise from the fact that people think I suffer from being myself.
Some people in the LGBT community call Islam “the religion of the devil”. One of my LGBT friends told me this right to my face, not knowing that I was going to convert to Islam.
I have heard homophobic jokes from my former friends, and I heard their calls for “jailing all faggots”.
They did not even suspect that a lesbian was among them.
I have heard and read that people without disabilities are calling to take us all to “one large island and leave” us there because “nobody wants them, except for their parents”. I have heard and read that all Autistic people are considered to be unable to think, unable to feel, or unable to make their own decisions.
People who wrote and said it did not think that an Autistic might hear or read their words. Looking at me, they would never have thought that I was Autistic.
This is one of the main dangers of hate speech. People who would never say such a thing to the face of those whom they “do not like” say it unaware of who is present around them.
Perhaps that is why I feel an alien almost everywhere.
And perhaps that’s why so many people tend to hate – for them, people whom they hate are actually aliens. Not aliens from science fiction stories, but aliens from computer games that can only spoil everything, and whom they should kill. They do not think that we can be their friends, colleagues or comrades in activism.
Wrong assumptions arise because people think that they can learn everything from a person’s appearance. They arise because people start to hate those of whom they know nothing about.
I belong to the four categories that are too mythologized in Russia (and in Ukraine, my home country).
I am fully aware the vast majority of people want me dead basing at least on one of these categories.
I am used to it.
Yet, I cannot get used to it.
I cannot fully get used to it.
I do not fear much for my safety – otherwise I would not be involved in LGBT activism and Autistic activism.
But sometimes my emotions are too strong.
For example, when a former fan of my blog about autism wishes me to be raped for being a lesbian.
Or when my mother, who (I thought) knows me well enough to avoid such assumptions begins to fear that I’m going to join ISIS.
Or when a person who I corresponded with for about a year, thinks that when I converted to Islam, I became a danger to my girlfriend.
Or when a good friend of mine writes that I have no right to claim that autism is not a disease because most doctors think differently.
Or when my grandfather said that only criminals inhabit the United States.
I tried not to pay attention to such statements, but I could not ignore them.
This causes very unpleasant emotions.
Random calls to violence targeting the groups that I belong to also cause uneasy emotions – as does the justification for killing Muslims, Autistic people and homosexuals, which I come across too often.
All these calls to violence and thoughts that I am dangerous emerge from wrong assumptions.
My name is Ayman. I am Autistic. I am Muslim. I am an American. And I’m a lesbian.
I am quite satisfied with it. I do not need anybody to be sorry for me, defend me or try to correct me.
I just need you to stop trying to convert me. Get rid of your wrong assumptions. Because it’s not my sexual orientation, neurotype, national identity or religion that present a real threat for me, but the very assumptions that you hold and perpetuate. These assumptions may kill. They have already killed too many people. And left too many broken lives. That is why I am writing about them.
This post was translated from Russian into English by Natasha Kim