For this woman, who's blind and autistic, sex positivity matters even more.

Michelle Smith, 21, was understandably nervous when her mom found the BDSM restraints she had hidden under her bed.

"I was afraid you’d find those," Smith said, hiding her face in shame. "I thought you’d noticed them before and just ignored them."

"'Them' what?" Mom responded as she glanced around the room at the collectible anime action figures and other nerdy memorabilia that adorned the shelves. "It’s just a strap to a suitcase."


There's always a strange tension between parents and children when it comes to sexuality. But in this particular instance, mom's naïveté was compounded by the fact that Michelle is legally blind and has autism — and she was about to leave for a kink party with her then-boyfriend.

Photo by Sarah Ginsburg/"Best and Most Beautiful Things." Used with permission.

Blindness and autism can obviously cause some complications, especially in terms of work and school. But what about sex and romance?

Humans are sexual creatures, and neither blindness and autism should change that. Still, Smith had some difficulty when she first began to explore her sexuality — not because of her disabilities but because of other people's perceptions of her disabilities.

"When I first got into this lifestyle, I was convinced that no one would want to play with 'some blind chick,'" she says. "There were people online who said things like, 'Oh, you have autism, that means you can’t consent.' And it’s like, excuse me? Who are you to say that?"

Photo by Sarah Ginsburg/"Best and Most Beautiful Things." Used with permission.

When Smith finally found a safe kink community, she laid down the ground rules: They weren't allowed to ask about her disabilities, unless they had specific questions about what she could or could not do or see.

BDSM and other kinds of sex play involve power and authority — two things that don’t often get bestowed on people with disabilities, at least consensually.

Smith might enjoy being submissive in a sexual way, for example. But that's different from when people see her with a cane out on the street and treat her like a child. That is condescending and unwanted, while her sex life is liberating and cathartic and — above all — consensual.

Photo by Sarah Ginsburg/"Best and Most Beautiful Things." Used with permission.

"When you’ve already had to acknowledge the fact that you’re a little bit unusual, finding out that you’re unusual in a sexual way, you just kind of shrug and say 'that figures!'" she says with a laugh.

In her experience, there's a lot of overlap between autism, kink, and nerd/geek communities. She also finds a similar empowerment from cosplay — dressing up like her favorite characters from anime or video games for conventions with like-minded fans. Again, it offers her a sense of control; she's accepted and appreciated for the same passions that make her "different" in the eyes of others.

Photo by Matthew Dorris/"Best and Most Beautiful Things." Used with permission.

Since she began to embrace her kinks and quirks, Smith has had several relationships, lived on her own, and continued to pursue her career, just like any other able-sighted or neurotypical person might.

That doesn't mean everything is simple or easy, of course. Both her autism and blindness still affect her life in certain ways, and sometimes even work together to a disadvantage. "Sometimes with autism I get really interested in something, and then I’m frustrated with my blindness when I can’t do it," she says. (This can be particularly hard to balance with her love of video games, where her sight problems prevent her from enjoying certain games that aren't calibrated for people with low vision.)

In the meantime, she's still striving toward her dream job of being a full-time voice actor for cartoon work. She's making industry connections through friends in Los Angeles and building a reel and resume through making original animated projects with friends. It's not an easy path for anyone to follow — but there's no reason that her autism or blindness should get in the way either.

Photo by Sarah Ginsburg/"Best and Most Beautiful Things." Used with permission.

By sharing the story of her passions and perseverance, Smith hopes to break down stigmas around disability, neurodiversity, and sexuality.

"Autism is a disability of the people who don’t have autism more than it is for the people who do," she says. "It’s a disability of perception. Neurotypical folks, a lot of times they don’t give us a chance, and I think that’s where a lot of the problems come from."

She also shared a story from a recent screening of "Best and Most Beautiful Things," a documentary film that chronicles her journey over several years. After the movie, an older woman confessed that the movie — and Smith herself — had made her rethink the way that she treats her own granddaughter.

Photo by Jordan Salvatoriello/"Best and Most Beautiful Things." Used with permission.

"I don't know if her granddaughter is queer or kinky or has crazy-colored hair, is a nerd, is blind, has autism, any of the above, all of the above, none of the above," Smith says. "But that girl who I have no idea about, who probably has at least a couple things in common with me, is now not worrying about the way her grandma looks at her. So that makes me happy."

And that's the crux of Smith's mission in life. She doesn’t want to change the way she is or the world that she lives in; she just wants to help others understand it, with all its kinks and quirks.

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

In the autumn of 1939, Chiune Sugihara was sent to Lithuania to open the first Japanese consulate there. His job was to keep tabs on and gather information about Japan's ally, Germany. Meanwhile, in neighboring Poland, Nazi tanks had already begun to roll in, causing Jewish refugees to flee into the small country.

When the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania in June of 1940, scores of Jews flooded the Japanese consulate, seeking transit visas to be able to escape to a safety through Japan. Overwhelmed by the requests, Sugihara reached out to the foreign ministry in Tokyo for guidance and was told that no one without proper paperwork should be issued a visa—a limitation that would have ruled out nearly all of the refugees seeking his help.

Sugihara faced a life-changing choice. He could obey the government and leave the Jews in Lithuania to their fate, or he could disobey orders and face disgrace and the loss of his job, if not more severe punishments from his superiors.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Sugihara was fond of saying, "I may have to disobey my government, but if I don't, I would be disobeying God." Sugihara decided it was worth it to risk his livelihood and good standing with the Japanese government to give the Jews at his doorstep a fighting chance, so he started issuing Japanese transit visas to any refugee who needed one, regardless of their eligibility.

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