13 November, 2010


I remember feeling annoyed by some of the comments on Ari's Wired interview in the ontd_political community on LiveJournal. Basically the interviewer wrote something like, "Imagine a world where most of the public discussion of homosexuality was about curing it." And everybody flipped out and was like, "but that IS what it's like!! Oppression Olympics!"

First of all, the interviewer is gay, which I think matters. His experience as a gay person obviously hasn't led him to feel that most of the public discussion of homosexuality is about curing it, or he wouldn't have made that analogy. I understand commenters may not have known he was gay, but they assumed he wasn't. And I think the fact that a gay person made that analogy indicates that "public discussion of homosexuality is mostly about curing it" is a disingenuous statement in the US. I wouldn't make that analogy just because I don't think it's particularly helpful (plus I'd expect all the Oppression Olympics accusations), but as a gay person I don't think the basis of the analogy is untrue. Of course SSA people are oppressed but I think we moved out of the medical model a long time ago, which is a triumph.

I was also really pissed because at one point one of these people said, "Hey, people get KILLED for being gay, that's not a fair comparison." Getting pissed at someone else for doing Oppression Olympics on what you claim is not a true assumption, and then starting your own Oppression Olympics round based on an assumption that is incredibly untrue, and obviously so to anyone who's engaged with disability issues...is way way worse than what Steve Silberman did.

Oppression Olympics--let's call it "comparing oppressions" to be a little more measured--is a tricky issue. A few months ago I posted about this person who was saying, "Pop culture is so into portraying autism but eating disorders and depression should be portrayed too." That person's post really frustrated me because they obviously didn't have a good grasp on how autism is being portrayed or how people with autism feels about those portrayals. They didn't have the compassion, or didn't do enough research, and ended up complaining about how good people with autism have it in pop culture compared to them and their friends with psychiatric disabilities.

However, I do think that comparing oppression can sometimes be a good thing. Because I'm queer and disabled I'm obviously aware of things straight and non-disabled people do like "trying to explain alternate points of view and get you to think more objectively." (I'm not going into detail on this, but do you know what I'm talking about?) So I think this means that while I definitely don't "get" what it's like to be a person of color, etc., I'm at least a little more aware of my privilege and try not to go all, "But you're being mean! Think about white people!" This term I have also felt sort of weird in my fiction class because I've felt kind of synced-in to classmates of color's stories which address identity and experiences of oppression, but when my instinct is to respond to those stories as a minority, I worry that it will be rude because they may not read me as a minority or as the same kind of minority as them.

I recently had the interesting experience of saying to someone, "I mean I know comparing oppressions is wrong, but--" and having the other person cut me off: "I don't think it's wrong. I think the only way anyone ever learns anything about someone else's oppression is by having it related to a type of oppression they're familiar with."

Which...damn, I'm sorry, but that is how it's worked for me.

I feel like one way of looking at this is that there are just two different kinds of comparing oppressions and one is trying to prove that someone has it worse than someone else (which I guess you should say is about dividing people), and one is trying to help people understand other people's experiences (which is about allyship and connection), but I think this is really an oversimplified way of putting it, because a lot of the time someone will think they're doing the latter, but other people will feel that they're doing the former. For example, when the Special Olympics did ads where they used racial slurs to try to make people more aware of ableist slurs. That was really fucked up. At the same time I feel like trying to relate ableism to other forms of discrimination can be useful sometimes.


  1. Amanda, for your information, I got that analogy verbatim from a non-gay autistic person who is very active in the disability rights movement. I would have quoted him directly, with attribution, but his statement was said to me in a situation that had rules about direct quotes, which I followed to the letter. In fact, he wrote to me afterwards to tell me how much he appreciated how I handled his statement. So...

    Steve Silberman

    Steve Silberman

  2. Hi, I was actually trying to defend you--I don't think that what you said was offensive. I'm sorry if it came off differently. Would you want me to delete this post if you feel it misrepresents you?

  3. To clarify, I was complaining about people's reactions to your analogy. (I understand that you didn't come up with the analogy, and in fact I'm not surprised because I've heard Autistic people use it before--but if I remember right, the way it is included in the intro does make it look as if you agree with it.)

    First I was just pointing out that a supposedly offensive-to-gay-people analogy was used by a gay person who apparently didn't find it offensive (you), and that a gay Autistic person (me) does not find it offensive either. I was pointing this out as evidence that the statement is NOT objectively offensive to gay people (and I also tried to explain why I don't think it displays any ignorance about what gay/queer people go through).

    Then I used this as a jumping-off point to discuss the issue of "comparing oppressions," which some people seem to think is inherently offensive and competitive, and explain why I don't think it is. This was the main subject of my post. My intent really wasn't to criticize you or the analogy.

    As an Autistic person I really appreciate you doing such a respectful interview with Ari, and I'm sorry if this post comes off as criticizing you--if some aspect of it is misleading, I'd like to know what it is so I can fix it.

  4. Amanda, no worries at all, and I really appreciate your interest in the interview. I just wanted to clarify because I thought you might be interested in where I got the statement. Thanks so much.

  5. As another gay autistic woman I agree with Amanda's evaluation of the situation between gay and autistic people. I'm also transgender and even there who I am is not treated as something to be cured outside of truly bigoted circles.

    I think the salient difference is that when someone says they should work to "cure homosexuality" people perceive them as the bigoted assholes they are. When people say we should "cure autism" they're seen as compassionate and down right magnanimous by the population at large (and nobody listens to us anyway).

    In fact, the times where I have stood up in neurotypical space and protested "the cure" I was slammed pretty heavily and called all kinds of nasty things.

    So, that's the difference between the two.


    As for comparing oppression I agree that it can be valuable. I feel that as long as it's done respectfully it does give us a lot to learn from but it can also be used to oppress in and of itself.

    Perhaps, because we want to learn, it is better to ask questions than to assert ill-informed truth: "Do you think that that way they oppress you is like what happens to me when they do this?" I think I'd respond much more favorably to that.

  6. Really good post. I saw that ontd_political thread and was annoyed by it, too. I feel like people were latching on to that one line in the really long interview as a way to discredit Ari and the neurodiversity movement. Neurotypical people who otherwise spend absolutely no time considering the oppression which autistic people (or PWD in general) face. Blech. I think Ari could have worded what he was saying a little better, but a lot of people were kind of missing the point in a major way. And as for all of the "but people get killed for being queer" part...people get killed for being autistic, too. And it's commonly considered an act of mercy. Seriously, I wish people would open their minds and do a little research before dismissing these comparisons offhand.

  7. I have to admit I also find analogies which compare one kind of oppression to another really useful in getting people to understand things. Like, in explaining to people why I resent Autism Speaks so much, I might say something like "What if the biggest women's organization was actually run by men, and a lot of women thought they were doing really sexist things but they still thought they knew better?"

    To be safe, I try to stick to comparing oppressions I experience to other oppressions that I experience (ableism to sexism, etc.).

  8. I find that I relate to the experiences of the stories, memoirs, and poems written by Asian American authors in my Asian Lit class because they struggle with language and cultural differences but it is so hard to explain to my teacher and classmates that I am comparing their experiences to my experience with Autism. I am clearly not Asian American, and like you said none of them would read me as a minority.