The Intersection of Gender, Misogyny, and Autism

person with a rainbow flag on their face made of glitter.

This post is mostly going to be about my experiences of misogyny as an AFAB person, but also about decoupling feelings of injustice and misogyny from gender identity.

If you want the quick version: It’s hard.

Reminder here that gender expression isn’t always about gender identity, but it can be expressed that way when you’re confused and want to be seen by society as something that they don’t currently see you as.

Growing Up Gendered

When I was 4 years old, both my brothers took their shirts off to play basketball. I did the same. “You can’t do that, you’re a girl!” Life already felt unfair at 4 years old.

Growing up as the youngest, and the only daughter in my family, and as an undiagnosed autistic kid, felt like being constrained by a boa constrictor.

My parents often embraced my differences, and noticed them quite early. They were proud of me as a “different, quirky, smart girl.” Walking down the toy aisles, I would often navigate to the boy’s section of toys. “Action figures actually move!” I said. “Not like those boring dolls.”

Hot wheels and making race tracks were my favorite at a very young age, which I had a lot of. My brothers, however, got Transformers and Bionicles, and I did not; so I became the annoying little sister wanting to play with their toys, getting the leftovers (got the rock Bionicle instead of the fire one).

I had a giant meltdown when the only Halloween costume my mom could find in my size was the Pink Power Ranger. I wanted to be the black or silver ones – the ones my brothers could wear. I was so angry at the unfairness of my life, how I felt like I always got the worst option of everything. I hated pink with a passion.

Gender Becomes A Thing

In 4th grade on the playground, a little kid came up to me and asked if I was a boy or a girl. Not maliciously, they were really just curious. “Obviously I’m a girl! I have long hair!” I said in boy shorts and a boy shirt. I also had long fingernails. I thought by having long hair and long fingernails, I was thereby marked as a “girl” in society and could therefore dress and exist however I wanted to otherwise.

In junior high, the band director told my mom that I was “so interesting” because of my long hair/long fingernails combined with my boy clothes. It sounded like she was fascinated by my presentation and simply wasn’t sure what to make of it.

In 6th grade, my mom was chatting with another mom, who was currently pregnant with a girl – she had only had boys before then. She said she was looking forward to going shopping with her future daughter. While in my presence, my mom replied, “Be careful what you wish for, because you never know!” pointing to me.

The Clothing Nightmare – Shopping and Formal Occasions

I didn’t think about my gender identity really at all growing up. It was about practicality – shorts should have pockets in them! I like long shorts. Why doesn’t the girl’s section have long shorts? Why are girl shirts so tight and made out of poor material– cat claws constantly make holes in girls’ shirts compared to boys’. Why does society make girls wear impractical, sometimes painful, and nonfunctional clothing and attire (like makeup)?

Basically – why can’t we just have the same things, wear the same things, and do the same things as boys?

I want to preface this section here – Now, my parents were relatively supportive of me and my androgynous look. However, for formal occasions, and on a whim, my mother sometimes wanted me to try on a dress, or wear a dress for an event. This happened only once in my life, and it wasn’t a bad or uncomfortable dress itself – I was just horribly uncomfortable for the entire event because I was wearing a dress.

I was ready for battle every time my mom and I went shopping together. First it was, “Well, let’s look at the girl’s section first at least, just to see if there’s anything,” then asking me to try on a pair of pants or shorts that are “similar” to the boy’s section (they weren’t), and then we could go buy clothes in the boy’s section.

Only much later did I realize that this was more due to her own embarrassment of shopping in the boy’s section than anything else. Of course, I complained the entire time.

For the 90s, this was considered progressive. Often, when I got upset about preparing for a formal event and looking for clothes that I could wear that weren’t dresses, my dad would say, “You are so lucky that Mom lets you wear what you do. Most parents wouldn’t let their daughter wear cargo shorts or boy’s shirts. Can’t you just do this one thing and stop complaining?”

I felt guilty for wanting the same things my brothers had for free their entire lives. For people to not care about their gender, or how “formal” they look in their khakis and button-downed shirts. I just wanted people to not make a big deal about clothes or what I looked like. I wanted clothes to be comfortable.

Only just recently did I realize also, in the back of my mind, this nagging thought:

I wanted to feel like myself.

And I knew with those girls’ clothes, I would not feel comfortable, nor feel like myself due to how others perceived me. I hated the words “pretty” and “cute” and “adorable.” They felt infantilizing. I felt like a dress up doll whenever I dressed remotely feminine.

I wanted to be “cool.” I wanted to be unnoticeable. I didn’t want people to care about what I was wearing. And the only way to do that is apparently to not be assigned female at birth.

Most of the time growing up, I was too busy worrying if I was acting human enough to care about what gender I was or how other people perceived my gender (i.e. if my clothes were “appropriate”).

I was already masking, and they expected me to wear a dress?! That was the last straw in my mind. I was also bullied as a teenager– by my “friends”– into trying feminine things (like painting my fingernails) and was basically betrayed by them.

I have never trusted femininity, and I’ve never thought that it was for me… because I knew if I ever tried, I’d just fail at that, too, like every other “neurotypical woman thing” I was supposed to do.

Questioning – Opening the Pandora’s Box of Gender

I got a short haircut a while ago, just because I was quite annoyed by my long hair (showering took too long). The day after I got my haircut, I held the door open for someone and they replied “Thanks, sir.”

I just said “You’re welcome,” and slightly chuckled to myself. I wasn’t annoyed about it – I’ve never really cared about pronouns. I was kind of happy? Especially that it wasn’t “ma’am” or “woman.” I hate ma’am, darling, sweetheart, honey. They feel infantilizing.

Just recently, I’ve learned about a lot of non-binary autistic people. I follow quite a few LGBTQIA+ people on Twitter in general, and a lot of them are also autistic. I kind of thought, “Oh, that’s cool, but that label’s not for me” at the time I found out about it.

Societal vs. Internal Identity

I’ve always assumed that my reason for not liking “feminine” things was because of the pressure from parents and peers that was put on me to conform to femininity growing up. I thought it was because I have sensory issues. I thought it was because I like pockets.

I don’t know why, but one day just a few weeks ago, a thought popped into my head:

I’m not a girl.

I ran away from the thought for another few days until it popped into my head again:

I’m not a girl.

It just felt, accurate. I don’t hate my body, and I don’t really have much dysphoria that I know of yet, but it’s just a body that I’m sort of, living in. And dressing masculinely makes me feel more, me, because, I’m not a girl.

I’m much more certain of what I’m not than what I am.

When I think about gender in this way, I’m not immediately angered by feminine things, because I know that I’m not a woman, and I don’t feel constricted to that small, suffocating box called femininity or femaleness.

When I couldn’t explain why I didn’t like girl’s clothing, I bet that thought was there hiding in the back of my mind – it’s because I’m not a woman. When I had a meltdown in a clothing store as a teenager because my mom was coercing me into a dress I knew wouldn’t fit, I think that thought was there.

Why would you do this to me?! I don’t want this. I’m not a woman. Why don’t you understand? When my family asked me to try on a dress in high school at home (just to see it on me), and I explained to my dad why I wouldn’t wear it – “Imagine if everyone was asking you to wear that dress; wouldn’t you feel uncomfortable?” That thought was there.

It’s been there for a long time, but I refused to listen until recently, when my mental waters have finally calmed, when I’ve finally learned to navigate society as a disabled autistic person.

Femininity isn’t as threatening when I know it’s not a disguise I have to put on, but rather an accent to my identity. Femininity is not peers or parents trying to make me who I’m not.

I never really compared myself to other women, and I think part of it is because, I’m not a woman. That’s not for me.

I just want to remind you that gender presentation doesn’t equal gender identity – but the way I was expected to dress was very much tied to my gender identity and how people perceived me (“You’re going to have to wear a dress, it’s a wedding! You just have to” – meanwhile, my parents saw my brothers in khaki pants and button-downed shirts as acceptable).

And likely because I didn’t relate to my gender identity, I felt constricted to a box that I didn’t fit into. I’m sure autistic cis women may feel similarly in some respects– but the difference is that they identify as a woman regardless of presentation.

Gender Out of Reach

Sometimes it feels like my gender is some sort of nebulous blob, and whenever I want to talk to it, it just slowly walks away from me. I don’t know if it’s because of alexithymia or because of my somewhat-gendered upbringing, but I don’t think I will ever truly get a grasp on my gender identity completely.

And honestly, I think I’m kind of okay with that right now. I’m fine with my current name, and even she/her pronouns. I’ve never really cared about that. But I don’t like dressing feminine due to the way especially strangers interact with me and see me.

And I don’t want to be seen as a man, either. Currently I’d define my gender as nonbinary and/or agender, or maybe even a nonbinary woman? But honestly, I still really don’t know, and it might change, and that’s fine.

If you’re questioning your gender, do what feels comfortable to you (if it’s safe). Don’t feel pressured to be a certain way or act a certain way if it’s not who you are. Figure out what makes you happy. It’s worth it, even if it seems hard.

And if you just want to put that Pandora’s Box away for another few years until the water’s calmed – that’s totally okay, too.



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6 Responses

  1. As a strong believer in dress liberty I don’t mean to say it’s good that you were oppressed, this is a tricky thought to express – it’s good, in a solidarity way, to read a story of how female costume pressures can be experienced oppressively. It’s balance, for the oppression for men of feeling that our accepted range of costume is much smaller and getting assumed gay if we break out of it.

  2. This sounds like my life XO I do identify as non-binary and use they them pronouns, but other than that yeah. I liked boy games, boy toys, boy clothes and I hated skirts and dresses. Even though I rather be called “sir” than “ma’am” I don’t feel like I’m trans masculine… I’m just me.

  3. Mentioning Bionicle figurines, specifically “Ta”and “Po”, made my day,ah the memories…

  4. Dear Anonymous Nonbinary Person,

    I wish your parents had been a little more like my dad. He let me have toy cars and action figures and all kinds of “boy” toys if those were what made me happy. I asked him just now what he would have done if I asked to wear clothes from the boys’ section, and he said he imagines he would have been fine with it; clothes shopping involved us showing him which clothes we liked the most.

    Like my dad, I’m a big believer that gender shouldn’t limit kids’ options for toys, clothes, and fun. I had Lego Star Wars and Barbies. My Hot Wheels cars raced around the pink-and-purple Playmobil palace. The palace was haunted by Steve the Playmobil ghost, who watched over his collection of pretty rainbow beads. My dad didn’t believe in “boy toys” and “girl toys,” just whatever interested us.

    I think that’s how childhood should be, focused on whatever types of things the kid likes, not rigid gender rules.

    I’m glad you can dress however you want now. Whatever your gender may be exactly, you deserve the freedom to choose. I’m happy for you.

  5. I’m going to read this later (I still need hard copies for ‘real’ reading/absorbing), but I think I’m (partly) in the same situation. I wear a mix of clothes but they have to be ‘me’, have long hair and wear make up at times, as the subcultures I relate to don’t divide these things by gender. I look female, I’m not asexual, but I do not identify as gendered. A role where one’s ‘big day’ involves a voluminous frock, not a cap and gown is alien to me.
    I too hate being called ‘love’ I’d settle for Ms (or better still ‘Sir’), I use Mx, and prefer ‘it’ to he or she. It’s most annoying when people make assumptions about who I am and what I want. I tell you this potentially irrelevant stuff because I haven’t come across actual other people who don’t have a gender identity, only seen their existence mentioned in articles etc. Thank you so much for sharing.

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