The Crossroads of Being Autistic and Queer

This is part 2 of The Intersection of Queerness and Disability.

Coming Out as Nonbinary

When you come out as nonbinary, it’s confusing to people around you, even among accepting families. If you come out as a trans man, the parent can think about it and realize “Oh, I have son!” and bond that way.

If you come out as a trans woman, the parent can think about it and realize, “Oh, I have a daughter!” and bond that way. They can do things that validate the child’s gender.

But when you come out as nonbinary, the first question is usually – “Well, what does that mean?” My family is generally very accepting of LGBTQIA+ people. They are also exposed to trans people as well, even nonbinary people. But it takes a second for a family to catch up to realize who you are, to wrap their heads around what someone being nonbinary actually means, and what it means for them and how to support that person.

Coming Out as Autistic

Even before knowing I was nonbinary, especially in the autistic community, there has always been a lot of talk about “coming out” as autistic. Many people have talked about how it is difficult to “come out” as autistic. And honestly, I get a pretty similar response of, “well, what does that mean?” when I do.

Of course the assumptions come in first, like “You must be very high-functioning!” (trying to give me a compliment), and “Well, you don’t look autistic!” (also trying to give me a compliment). But afterwards, it boils down to one real question – “What am I supposed to do with that information?”

The thing is, those things aren’t compliments. We understand that you don’t know what to say when we come out, whether it be as autistic or nonbinary. We get that it’s confusing. I just wish people would be a little more validating before asking questions or making assumptions. Maybe just saying, “Thank you for letting me know,” or “I’m really glad you told me,” and then, “Let me know what you need from me to be supportive.”

I kind of thought coming out as nonbinary would be a whole thing. Coming out as autistic was more eventful in a way, as I got to explain some of my behaviors and talk about my childhood.

With being nonbinary, I didn’t really want to talk about it. It was just something I had a label for now that I always knew, and I didn’t ever really try to mask that part of me, aside from assuming that I was a girl. I had that privilege of expressing myself in the way I wanted to most of the time, even if I “was a girl” in my mind growing up, as everyone kept telling me.

Masking and Neurotypical Standards

With being autistic, it was a lot different. I had to mask being autistic so much more than my gender. It helped that I grew up with two brothers, so I didn’t feel like I had to conform to a “feminine standard.” I felt like, if my brothers could do it/wear it, I could do it/wear it, too.

In a way, being autistic shielded me from a lot of self-consciousness about my presentation. I almost never looked in the mirror. Early on, I decided that looks didn’t matter and that clothes needed to be practical. I decided that I wasn’t going to care especially about what girls in my class thought of me, because in my mind I wasn’t really one of them.

Although I dealt with some pressures of gender roles, I pushed back from them enough to keep my comfort zone. I knew my mom and other women in my extended family were feminists and fought for women’s rights. I knew that it was okay to push back against those norms.

Growing up autistic was very different because it wasn’t okay to push back against neurotypical norms. And not knowing I was autistic or that my brain could even potentially work differently from people around me was constantly confusing, stressful, and overwhelming.

I tried really hard to be the “appropriate” and acceptable neurotypical version of myself, as close as I could get. I absolutely voiced my opinions about the absurdity of social etiquette at home, especially regarding school, but I still felt compelled to adhere to it, to “deal with it,” as we are often told to. Further, not knowing I had sensory sensitivities (in particular pain with loud noises, called hyperacusis) had a huge impact on my mental health and overall stress levels.

The difference was that I grew up knowing that it was okay to be a “tomboy,” even if society didn’t really like it. I knew it was okay to push back and I knew my family would support me. And I knew that I was different from most of the girls I interacted with, and that it was okay to be different from them.

I didn’t know, however, that my brain was different. I didn’t know it was okay that my brain was different, and that it was okay to push back against neurotypical norms. No one knew about this difference, and we didn’t even have the language to describe it back then.

The most pushback I got regarding my gender expression was in my teens. In society, girls are expected to “grow out” of the tomboy phase, learn to wear makeup and dresses, but I never did.

This was definitely the most self-conscious time regarding my gender and the role I played in society and how people viewed me. People were waiting for me to grow out of it, but my parents knew that was just who I was. My peers however, did not.

Currently, coming out as nonbinary and coming out as autistic gives me similar potential outcomes – confusion, assumptions, and/or disbelief. And the difficulty of deciding whether to disclose either of these identities is quite similar. You never know if it’s truly safe, or if you can trust that person, until after you tell them.

Gender Norms vs. Neurotypical Norms – One Is Invisible

I was not taught to fight against neurotypical norms in the same way that I was supported when fighting against gender norms. I was not taught to speak up when loud sounds hurt my ears — in fact, it was the opposite. I was not taught that it is okay to not look at people when you give a talk. I was not taught that I do not need to change my tone of voice, facial expression, or body language to make neurotypical people more comfortable.

Representation in Life

When I found out I was autistic, it took me 6 months to truly believe myself. When I found out I was nonbinary, it took me a month, with a few fluctuations here and there. The difference? I could find nonbinary people talking about their experiences and relate it to mine. I had also always presented in the way I prefer, which is often seen as more masculine.

But being autistic, there weren’t examples of late-diagnosed autistic people talking about themselves and re-analyzing their lives. That’s why I started my blog. I thought it was just me for at least a few months. Aside from one or two autistic authors, I mostly saw videos from “autism experts” that seemed rather one-dimensional. They weren’t necessarily completely off, but just not 100% authentic or accurate.

The information out there didn’t seem like something I could truly connect with, until I saw other autistic people who talked and moved and existed like me, people who had tried hard to fit into society without knowing why they didn’t, people who had to reframe life’s events based on their neurotype and others around them.

Representation in Media – Disabled People Get Crumbs

It seems like a lot of LGBTQIA+ representation is out there, and yet autistic adults are so hard to find! It feels like disability advocacy is only now getting the traction that the LGBTQIA+ movement got 20 years ago. And maybe that’s a bit extreme, but it truly does feel like that sometimes. We, disabled people, just don’t exist! Especially not any disabled person who’s not a cisgender, heterosexual white man.

The shows Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, and in later with Tal Anderson in Season 3 of Atypical, was groundbreaking for autistic people, mostly because they had actors who were actually autistic playing autistic characters, and they hired actually autistic consultants.

And yes, accurate representation is still a huge issue for transgender/nonbinary people as well, but I feel like this show shouldn’t be groundbreaking simply for hiring autistic people! And along with that, I’m still waiting for more nonbinary representation in media, though the TV show Billions and season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery is a good start.

I guess the difference to me is that nonbinary actors are playing these new nonbinary characters. And I know that hasn’t been the case for trans representation in media at all in the past (if you haven’t, watch Disclosure on Netflix), but now it’s just a given for these nonbinary characters.

Meanwhile, the disability community is so excited when we get any mere crumb of representation that is played by actual disabled people.

There’s a show called In The Dark about a blind woman, played by someone who’s not blind. They seem to think it’s okay because they worked with a nonprofit who supported blind people! Disability representation is so far behind. Just recently, Anne Hathaway played a villain with a common limb difference because simply no one thought about how it would impact people with that disability. We are still getting misrepresented on screen and then told we are “snowflakes” for asking for proper representation, that it was “just a fictional character.” This happens in media constantly.

People knowing about our existence is so far behind. And I just wish disability representation was aligned with how well transgender/nonbinary representation is going. It feels so much slower than that to me.

Abled people think that playing a disabled character is “just acting,” instead of the idea that disability is part of someone’s identity just like everything else. We still have such a long way to go for people to understand that disability is an identity, is lived experience, and is important to portray authentically.

My Identities Support Each Other

From having identities that often seem like a choice to other people, I have learned to believe myself more, to quench the doubt in my mind that I’m “not trans enough” or “not disabled enough” or that I “don’t really need that accommodation.”

I’ve learned, especially from the queer community, that I deserve respect, and that people don’t have to understand me to respect or even accept me. People don’t have to understand my disability to respect me and accommodate me.

I’m going to compliment myself here – I am one of the most non-judgmental people I know. I attribute much of that to my neurotype. I don’t think I would’ve pushed against gender norms so much, to be myself, if I wasn’t autistic. It’s a quality that many people in my life have appreciated about me.

Moving Forward

We need more non-judgement. We need fewer invasive questions when someone discloses something about their identity, and we need more acceptance. We need more representation of non-cishet white disabled men. We need more intersectionality.

Respect people’s identities. Don’t question someone when they disclose something to you. Don’t make assumptions. Be supportive. Lift up voices from multiple marginalized identities (especially BIPOC disabled and/or queer voices, not just us white people).

It will truly help us all.

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8 Responses

  1. Gender and sexual orientation are importantly separate. Yet queer, formerly another word for gay, has become used for all the other gender identities than cis norm. This is unjust in impacts on the generations who lived in the times of both meanings, and who were in school when queer meant gay. To many of their peers in those generations, it still means gay.
    Suppose that as defined by your birth gender you are straight, and that both as an autistic and just by human variety your character and tastes did not match the normative model for your gender. Then it’s highly likely that you suffered the sanction that your school peers said it meant you were gay, which they also called queer. This particularly likely if you were a boy, as it is top of the oppressions used to enforce toxic masculinity.
    Then the fact of not being gay is very important to your fairness struggle. That the gay accusation is wrong + bigoted is part of the evidence against your oppressors, for your reasoning entitlement to be yourself.
    Gender radicals who were not of that generation made a bad call in a rush of momentum + never thought that through. By taking over the word queer, they have hurt gender liberties for the generation who already had unfairly lived a lot of life before the new gender rainbow of recent years existed. The same folks have not got the liberty to declare any non-cis gender identity, because to become defined as queer will be a victory for their old oppressors, some of whom will indeed still take it to mean gay + will believe they completely won.

      1. Some are – that’s bound to be part of the complication. Or their may be some who as part of nonbinariness don’t want to identify as straight but equally don’t find gay a correct description..
        My point is not about declared nonbinary folks. It’s about the word queer’s impact on all gender options. How it takes away the options to adopt any other than their birth cis identity, from folks for whom it has mattered against bullies + derisive peers that they are not gay.

        1. Spectrumfairness, I still don’t follow your point. Queer as an identity does not require a specific sexual orientation or gender identity. Are you trying to say you’re nonbinary but straight? Or cis and straight but gender nonconforming? These are valid. No one on the inside is assuming the details when someone identifies as Queer. I can’t speak to the infinite misconceptions of outsiders. But under the present usage, this is how this works in cities in the Anglosphere. Queer has been an umbrella term since about 1990 or so.

    1. I’m 60 years old. I came out as Bisexual in the Eighties, and also as Queer in the Nineties. This word was reclaimed as part of the liberation politics related to Gay liberation and AIDS advocacy. To communities that come from that experience, Queer is an umbrella term that anyone can use (only if they want it) if they are in any part of LGBTQIA+. This was already true in the Nineties when we had the word Genderqueer, which at the time included people who can now call themselves Nonbinary, a much newer word. This word, Nonbinary, does fit me, but we have always been here, just under other words. For example, in the Eighties I could say I was Butch or androgynous. Young people are always going to come up with new words as society changes, and change the meanings of words. They have every right to do this.

  2. I’m autistic and have gay and trans friends who are both autistic and neurotypical, and we all agree there is a problem with autistic people being stuck in the closet because they’re afraid of potential rejection by peers, just like being closeted gay. Closet autistic is another term for masking and being afraid to tell anyone about your diagnosis.

  3. im 26 and only within the past year figured out im nonbinary and autistic lol. it’s been a long, difficult year. also i havent officially gotten diagnosed yet, but, when you talked about autistic adults who never got diagnosed having to reframe their whole life, that’s how i felt when i realized it.

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