Xenofeminism and Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity is a word heavily discussed in disability justice and in the movement for Autistic liberation, but conspicuously absent in virtually all other theory. Disability justice is a major field of activism with a long history, serving a demographic that intersects with all other oppressed people, yet disability is rarely incorporated into leftist theory. This is a fatal mistake.

There is one leftist current disability justice meshes particularly well with—xenofeminism. It is as far removed as one can get from assimilationist politics, which do not help disabled people but only erase us. Xenofeminism embraces difference, celebrates weirdness. Autistic people often see ourselves as alien to neurotypical society; in our own spaces we embrace our weirdness. Yet, analysis of disability or neurodiversity is absent from xenofeminist theory. The xenofeminist manifesto mentions disability exactly one time, and (in English) uses terminology disabled people have always hated. It is time for disability to be properly incorporated into feminism.

The Neurodiversity Movement

Neurodiversity is a rejection of a falsehood commonly taken for granted—that all human brains basically operate the same way, and that one that differs sufficiently from the norm is flawed. Neurodiversity rejects this oversimplified and ableist view of nature and asserts that conditions like autism, ADHD, Down syndrome, schizophrenia, dyslexia, and so-called personality disorders, are not an accident of birth or a mistake in upbringing, but a natural variation in human evolution, not superior or inferior to the neurotypical brain, merely different.

To all of the challenges neurodivergent people face living in a neurotypical-dominated world, neurodiversity would say these are never the fault of the wiring of our brains, but failures of society to accommodate us—by making life changing medication inaccessible to those who need it, by lacking basic environmental accommodations like low sensory spaces, or by gatekeeping neurodivergent people out of any position of influence. Neurodiversity is an inexorable part of disability, all neurodivergent people are disabled by a fundamentally ableist society.

Feminists should take notice of the neurodiversity movement—it is perhaps one of the movements least influenced by cis men. This is no coincidence, as research currently predicts that trans people are 3-6 times more likely to be Autistic than cis people. Almost every milestone in the history of the Neurodiversity movement can be traced to the work of someone who isn’t a cis man. Autistic sociologist Judy Singer was one of the first to use the word neurodiversity in her 1999 thesis. Jim Sinclair, a self-described “androgynous and nonsexual” intersex Autistic person, was one of the founders of the Autistic community as we know it in the early ‘90s. They helped organize the first self-advocacy network, Autism Network International, and the first Autistic-run yearly gathering, Autreat. Of the two major Autistic self-advocacy organizations in North America, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network is run by a majority of women, and the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network is run entirely by non-men. There are many valid criticisms of the direction of those two organizations, but these demographics remain consistent in the majority of Autistic spaces. From the top of these major industrial non-profits to the floor of a locally organized Autistic self-advocacy conference, cis men are a scarcity. It is safe to characterize the neurodiversity movement as a movement of trans and nonbinary people, some cis lesbians, and the occasional cis man.

The Intersection of Ableism with Misogyny and Transmisogyny

The intersections of ableism with misogyny and transmisogyny are abundant. It was not fifty years ago that common mental illness like anxiety and depression in women was still diagnosed as a pseudoscientific “hysteria.” Hysteria appeared as a diagnosis in the DSM until 1980. Even without its diagnostic justification, medical and psychological professionals routinely dismiss and ignore their patients who are women (especially trans women), nonbinary people, or trans men. It remains a prevailing attitude in medicine and psychology that people perceived and classed as women are hysterical, too emotional to believe about their own bodies.

So many ableist words trace their origin to misogyny—hysteria (from the root of “uterus”), lunatic (one infected with periodic insanity dependent on the cycle of the Moon—the monthly hormonal cycle of estrogen dominant bodies). Outside medical contexts, we see this idea everywhere in society. A person perceived as a woman who steps out of line, speaks up too loudly, or has radical ideas, that is a crazy person, driven by uncontrolled emotion, a woman. And a revolutionary organization of women, that could only be mass hysteria.

Trans women are affected in our own unique ways. Being an Autistic trans woman is an endless feedback loop of transmisogyny and ableism. We cannot possibly know we are trans because as Autistic people we do not understand things like gender. We cannot possibly be Autistic because we have too great an understanding of our bodies and minds if we know we are trans. TERFs love to use Autistic people as a prop for their fascist ideology—accusing doctors of abusing Autistic people by letting us transition, telling us we are mentally incompetent with our own needs and bodies.

Second wave feminism pushed back hard against ideas like “hysteria.” Women are not crazy, they said. This was the wrong stance to take. Neurodiversity says it is okay to be crazy, there isn’t just one way of thinking and being a person—in saying this we seek to abolish craziness by embracing it as normal. If it is normal to be crazy, then it could never be used to justify the oppression of women or anyone else. Instead of a reactionary approach, “we’re not like them,” they could have stood with mentally ill and neurodivergent people in solidarity. The damage is done, and it is on the feminism of the future to correct this mistake. Feminism that leaves behind disabled and mentally ill women is no feminism at all!

As one consequence of feminism abandoning the neurodivergent, women and trans people are greatly underdiagnosed with Autism. There is no sound science suggesting that there actually are more Autistic cis men than any other demographic, yet they hold a sizeable advantage in diagnostic numbers. This has been used as self-reinforcing evidence that “boys” are more likely to be Autistic, or that autism presents differently along binary gender lines, both of which are unfounded claims. In anyone perceived as a woman by the medical system, what are obvious neurodivergent traits are written off as typical erratic female behavior.

This medical perception of incompetence directly leads to cis women, trans men, and TME nonbinary people being denied any surgery that will render them infertile—what if you change your mind? Aren’t you too young to know what you want?—questions not asked of cis men who seek permanent birth control options.

Ableism is one fuel for the fire of the movements against abortion and birth control, yet paradoxically it also leads to forced sterilization of disabled people of any gender held under guardianship or conservatorship. Eugenics of the disabled via forced sterilization has gone on unhindered since the birth of the American eugenics movement that was so inspirational to Nazi Germany. Neurodivergent and disabled people are viewed as forever-children, too innocent to ever be sexual beings. This is used to sexually repress disabled people, cover up sexual abuse of disabled people living under guardianship, and to force sterilization procedures on them. There is no outcry on this from the pro-life movement of course, it was never about birth, it has always been about control, and disabled people are under control.

We also see eugenics in the form of genetic testing for neurodivergence. A pre-natal test exists for Down Syndrome, and the result is that 92% of positive tests result in termination of the pregnancy. One of the major battles of the Autistic self-advocacy movement is against the development of a similar genetic test for autism, as we rightfully fear a massive eugenics campaign against people like us. This issue is spoken of by anti-abortion reactionaries only as a way of using disabled people as an object of pity to further their agenda. But because they take this stance at all, we Autistic self-advocates are often unfairly accused of being against abortion by feminists with no analysis of disability or eugenics in their theory. This is not at all the case. Choosing not to have a child is not wrong, but choosing to have a child and picking and choosing a specific child to have is eugenics. It is not the abortion we oppose, it is the genetic test that threatens our continued existence as a population while providing nothing useful to us. This issue is a pointless conflict between feminists and neurodiversity advocates that drives a wedge between movements largely run by the same people and inexorably linked together by a history of shared oppression.

Division Between the Disabled and the Left

To reactionaries, it is absurd to say someone should have a disabled child on purpose, because our extermination is so deeply ingrained in this capitalist society. It is absurd to them that we would let “those people” breed and produce more disabled people. Leftists who have read Kropotkin often cite a long history of humans taking care of the disabled, and evidence of disabled people living long lives even in prehistoric societies, as justification for mutual aid organizing in the modern world. But rarely do we see leftists actually analyze this issue in the present day with any depth or take a strong stance against eugenics. Reactionaries are hypocrites who use disabled people as a prop to erode away the right to abortion, but immediately cease to care about disabled people—or anyone else—at the moment of our birth. Leftists can be guilty of the opposite hypocrisy—ostensibly standing for mutual aid and the guaranteed survival of disabled people, but silent on whether we have the freedom to reproduce more disabled people.

In the history of the left, disabled people have ranged from a nonexistent specter, a societal product of bourgeois decadence, or an afterthought to any theory, begrudgingly accepted as real people but not incorporated in any realistic way into visions of a future world. None are more fundamentally ableist than anarcho-primitivists and other anti-tech leftists, whose ideas if enacted would invariably cause the death of millions of disabled people and trans people who depend on medical technology for their survival. They will tell you it will not cause this outcome, but offer no explanation how it will not. Most leftists are not advocating for the mass death of disabled people, but most still ignore our needs in a way that could lead to the same outcome, if leftist theory does not now incorporate disability in a meaningful way.

Unlike many fields of liberatory politics, the disability justice movement did not arise out of the left, but in spite of it. Leftists see a disability justice movement mired in the nonprofit-industrial complex, a movement that does not oppose capitalism. How can we expect them to be anything else, when radical theory and praxis was riddled with ableist and eugenicist ideas for so long, and still holds onto some of them? Disabled people currently dependent on state assistance to survive are right to be afraid of revolutionary movements that do not outline a path to replacing those systems, they look back on a history of revolution that left many people without support for long periods of time, conditions that disabled people cannot survive.

In spite of being thoroughly made unwelcome on the left, the disability justice movement is impressively radical, having engaged in direct actions such as Arthur Campbell chaining himself to city buses, or the massive 1990 “capitol crawl” action that resulted in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, to date the only US legislation granting disabled people any real rights. This is a movement of oppressed people resisting oppression, it belongs on the left. Leftists should be working hard to close the gap between their organizing and that of disabled activists.

Disabled leftists do not like the nonprofit-industrial complex anymore than you do. You will find us in all radical organizations. If there are no disabled people in the room, you are not in a radical space. We are already here, fighting alongside the people who ignore our needs, who mockingly dismiss accusations of ableism within their organizations. So when will our abled and neurotypical comrades stand with us in our struggles? Where can we find a home on the left that is working to build a future we will be able to live in?

Xenofeminism Must Include Disability and Neurodivergence

Xenofeminism corrects many mistakes of the feminists before us, and this should be no exception. We have a lot to offer disability justice. We are anti-naturalist, or rather, against the supremacy of a static idea of nature. If nature is seen as endlessly mutable, then there is no one correct way to be a person, and nature can never be used to justify ableism. If we are to change society to better accommodate disabled people, we can change nature too! We have already been doing this for some time—psych meds improving our brain chemistry to help some of us live better lives, assistive communication technology to help nonspeaking Autistics communicate, prosthetic limbs becoming increasingly complex and improved, even open source and printable human limbs are on the horizon—disabled and mentally ill people have been cyborgs for a long time. As a demographic often made invisible and kept separate from society, we should be explicitly named as a part of a “politics of alienation.”

A vision of a future where disabled and neurodivergent people are free, autonomous, and guaranteed our survival is necessarily one that developed advanced enough technology to liberate us. Xenofeminism is a rare leftist ideology that seeks to use technology to aid us in our struggle and continue developing and improving it in a hypothetical post-capitalist world. Xenofeminism is gender abolitionist, and Autistic people are one of the most trans and nonbinary demographics in existence—there is no question that an Autistic world would not have a gender binary. We would thrive in a post-gender world.

Aside from all the potential xenofeminism has for the liberation of disabled and neurodivergent people, there is a reason we Autistic and disabled people must have a seat at the table—the danger of transhumanism. Transhumanist ideas carry the potential to liberate disabled people or to eradicate us. Disabled people must be present in any conversation that has the potential to turn to eugenics—we cannot trust abled people to keep our best interests in mind, we have learned this too many times throughout history. A transhumanist future without disabled people can only be the product of a genocide. But a transhumanist future that includes disabled and neurodivergent people, alongside trans people, women, and all other victims of alienation, is a truly liberated world.

For that reason xenofeminists must work to incorporate disability and neurodiversity theory into our own body of theory. The open source nature of xenofeminism makes it perfectly suited to such an adaptation, and it is imperative that we do so now. If we do not, our theory is fundamentally flawed. To xenofeminists and other leftists—familiarize yourself with the neurodiversity movement, with the struggles Autistic people are engaged in. Learn to see our enemies as your enemies—treat Autism Moms calling for eugenics as the fascists they are. Learn to view inaccessible spaces as hostile and demand better. Center disabled people in discussions about technology.

The future will be neurodiverse. And that future will include Autistic people of all presentations, of all the fake categories of “functioning” we are sorted into today. It will include psychotic people, it will include people with intellectual disability, it will include plural systems, it will include all of the people society would rather not see or acknowledge. It will include people who can’t contribute as much as others, and people who will never perform labor. While there is one institution, one person under guardianship, we have not abolished prisons. While one person cannot get the medicine or mobility device they need, we do not have healthcare. We disability organizers embrace this radical position—all those who are born deserve to live!