Thursday, April 26, 2007

Forcing social conformity in young men: Aspergers and homosexuality: is there a similarity?

In January 2003 I visited a filmmaker in New England, and as we sat down to dinner in a Friday’s, he said, “Oh, you have Aspergers. You know, the lack of body language.”

I suppose that if medicine had, a half century ago, been where it is today, such a diagnosis might have been made of me. A mild “pervasive developmental disorder” leading into the autism spectrum. I am also a gay man. So I experienced my fair share ot teasing and social ostracism, with some counter-rebellion, especially late in grade school and in middle school (high school was much better). In grade school, I had issues with interrupting in class, which was marked by teachers as “needs improvement” on “practices self-control.”

Most people with Aspergers are (or grow up to be) heterosexual, but it sounds as if many do not get married. Likewise, a gay male with Asperger's is likely never to have a long standing domestic partnerhship (let alone a “marriage”). There is a tendency for us to shun the intimacy of the “family bed” and feel satisfied with our own worlds, which we can create for ourselves. The whole spectrum of personality types is even more complicated by the idea of psychological polarity (some men can be "submissive" or "yielding") as developed by Rosenfels, and a minority of people (probably for biological wiring reasons) are introverted.

School systems in the 50s marked “progress of the pupil as an individual” and “progress of the pupil as a member of the group.” Persons – especially boys – who are “different” are strongly pressured (by teasing and sometimes outright hazing or bullying) to conform to the norms of the group, and in the time that I grew up, this pressure had considerable moralistic overtones. I can remember that a third grade teacher tried to intervene in my housekeeping habits at home. (Third grade, age 8, was the time when I started to fall behind other boys in physical strength and motor skills, and this became a "problem" -- even a "moral" one in others' eyes. That is also the time I suddenly wanted to take piano lessons and did start.) (Remember the nerdy teen Dwayne (Paul Dano) in "Little Miss Sunshine" who wouldn't speak, handscribbles "I hate everybody" and just wants to be left alone.)

Now, one of the most important points here is that many developmental and behavioral issues have biological, often genetic explanations. This may be true, “hands separately”, for both homosexuality and Aspergers. Science keeps accumulating evidence of biological causes for these things. Yet, when we deal with behavior that is more obviously destructive (like drug abuse or alcoholism, or susceptibility to addiction), biological tendencies do not provide a morally acceptable “excuse” for otherwise objectionable behavior.

The clinical issue for pervasive developmental disorders is to provide intervention so that the child will grow up able to function and earn a living. It is not just to make the person conform to the personal goals of parents. However, much of the pressure placed on me had to do with learning to “compete like a man,” play sports, do mechanical chores, and so on. My father talking about “learning to work.” Parents and society often have another agenda in pressuring kids to conform. Parents may (especially with only children or first-born sons) want to feel comfortable that their kids will give them a lineage. And society, particularly in earlier times, will insist that everyone (males especially) be able to assume his fare share of the burdens of a “free country” – such as fighting for it, and fitting in to the communal aspects of family life and child care for the next generation -- sharing family responsibility. Along these lines, there is considerable pressure not only to develop practical skills but also to become more responsive and attentive to people "as people" and not to just one's own inner compass. This does not sit well with many people who grow up to be "different."

There is, in the “developmental spectrum” a group of people who, when permitted to, function alone quite well in a modern technological society, and may individually make great accomplishments. Since the Cold War (about the time of Sputnik) the “nerds” and even loners have had more to offer society, it seems. Technology gave us media (including access to music) and personal mobility first (oil), and then essentially instant “astral projection” with the Internet and search engines in the 1990s. The stereotypes are somewhat true: gay men developed a lot of artistic culture, and geeks developed Silicone Valley (Alan Turing seemed to fit both areas and may have won us WWII). It’s possible to construct a life according to the “alternating current” model, where intimacy is welcomed when chosen by the individual and on the person’s own terms, preferably when he or she has achieved something first. This is particularly true of “artists”. I took piano for nine years, and in retrospect it is regrettable that I “chickened out” of music as a career because of the pressures of the draft and the Cold War. In general, the freedom to live as one chooses may be compromised by the demands and burdens of others (especially family members) in one's environment, regardless of one's own choices.

People like us may remain very distant from others and seem non-communicative. We may seem insular and seem to lack empathy. Others may perceive us as “dangerous” and a threat. But it seems that there are really three big reasons why society puts so much pressure on us.

First, as I mentioned, parents want a lineage. That is all many people have to carry themselves on. Lineage and loyalty of children comes across to them as one of the “rewards” of fidelity and commitment for decades of marriage. It is hardwired into their adult experience of marital sexuality. It is not fair to them, they feel, that children contradict their values or ignore them.

Second, a modern technological society may provide a false illusion of independence. Pandemics, terror, global warming, and eventual oil shortages can threaten personal independence unless technological progress intervenes first. (So far it always has, but the looming threats are big). So, people need to learn interdependence, and, so the thinking goes, the nuclear family is the heart of this, and everyone should be nudged into participation, using the social institution of marriage with all of its props, including abstinence outside of heterosexual marriage.

Finally, there is a moral issue of how burdens are shared. In the 60s and 70s, the Left tended to present this in terms of groups or “class struggle.” In more recent times, conservatives have started to get the point that personal values have a big effect on vulnerable people, although conservatives are less consistent on how people who “don’t reproduce” should be expected into sharing this responsibility. (The Mormon idea of mandatory missionary work fits into this idea.) Persons who are aloof and satisfied to live in their own psychological worlds simply may not be able to do what is expected or needed (and this changes with the times and with demographics, as well as the political climate) without unacceptable cost to themselves.

What I relate to, as a teen and young adult, is spending a great deal of energy and effort on my own welfare and “coming out” process. In my era, I did serve in the military without incident (because of Vietnam), but society was hostile to the idea of our taking part in raising children. But today, with a growing elderly population and fewer children, people like me will have to learn to deal with the possibility of others becoming dependent. Family responsibility doesn’t just come from procreating children.

It’s interesting, then, that when I started substitute teaching, I ran into such difficulties communicating with certain kinds of students. I simply did not have any notion of emotional empathy after my three decades of social urban exile. On the other hand, raising children or serving as a father figure or role model for them may not be an issue for gay men that have tried marriage (and may be divorced with child support payments and visitation), or who had more family responsibility for other siblings early in life. Many jobs that are pushed on seniors assume a high degree of socialization and manipulation of others For me, there is also the disturbing experience that expected “smalltalk” and manipulative social interaction in these jobs (including those involving children) contradict the upward affiliation that drives creativity and aesthetics. I know that this can lead one into dark areas of thought. Others may feel that some public self-expression from people like me indirectly demeans them and would not come from someone who shared more interpersonal responsibility. For example, profession of a desire to "submit" (and unwillingness to have children) can embarrass the family because it implies (in the view of some) that another family is "better" than one's own; someone who respects himself would go to bat for other family members. But that's just a superficial appearance.

Current social and political problems may indeed pay more attention to how people share sensitive responsibilities bringing them into forced intimacy. In these regards, not only military service, but national service in general, as well as parenting and filial responsibility are becoming increasingly sensitive issues for those of us who are a bit different. One point: forcing "different" young men to empathize in a more conventional way with others may make them better citizens (especially given the challenges that seem to be coming our way), but it won't make them "grow up straight." So it also won't justify McGreevey-type marriages just to meet societal expectations and approbation.

Earlier blog posting on role modeling.

Earlier blog posting on ABC News coverage of Aspergers and autism


Reuben Walton said...

Thank you for sapping any hope I might have had for relationships in the future. (I say this as an 18 year old gay male with Asperger's Syndrome). :(

Bill Boushka said...

I agree that this is a somewhat “brutal” post in its candor. Visitors can check into this book:

Author: John Elder Robinson.
Title: Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's.
Foreword by Augusten Burroughs,
Publication: New York: Crown, 2007. ISBN 978-0-307-39598-6. 288 pages, hardcover.
The book is by and about a heterosexual with Asperger’s who did marry. It’s reviewed on my books blog Oct. 3, 2007. So don’t take my “generalizations” too literally; they don’t apply in all cases.

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Anonymous said...

Interesting article.

Theres lots of hope though :)