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Guest Essays

Neurodivergence as Queerness

We Are Here, We Are Weird, We Are... Queer?
Reading this guest essay from made me start crying several times. There’s gold, here, and like so much about neurodiversity it’s about learning to see it.
Neurodivergent people tend to value doing things the “right” way – we want to find the clearest answers, use the most efficient systems, implement the most effective solutions, use the most precise language, make the optimal choices, and adhere to our principles at all times. This value and the pressure we put on ourselves in pursuing it can create a variety of problems when we try to talk about sexuality and gender identity because we live in a world where the autistic experience of sexuality and gender has been excluded from the cultural conversation.

Who Benefits?
We struggle to find answers for ourselves and communities where we belong and even limit our own self-discovery and exploration of identity because we don’t know if we have a right to it. We don’t want to claim experiences or identities that are not ours, so neurodivergent people who aren’t sure if we are “queer enough” or “trans enough” to explore those facets of ourselves feel obligated to accept the identities assigned to us, even as we chafe under the stereotypes and roles they bestow. Neurodivergent people who harbor a deep-seated discomfort with compulsory heterosexuality and cisnormativity but also don’t identify with more mainstream narratives of queerness and definitions of queer identities feel pressure to conform to hetero- and cis-normative societal expectations we are not comfortable with because we think we have no other choice. When there is no space for our conception of gender and sexuality, we suppress or deny our discomfort with the labels we’re born into. If we think we don’t have the right to acknowledge, explore, and accept our differences, we will try to force ourselves to fit the identities bestowed on us by our families and cultures. We think that’s the right thing to do. But for whom?

Who benefits from a culture that tells people we’re not queer enough to be queer? Who benefits from a culture that tells us we have to be straight? Do we really believe queer people benefit from any belief system that encourages people to deny the ways in which they diverge from cisheteronormative expectations? It’s time for neurodivergent people to realize that there’s no truth in this message. We’ve seen this trick before. Neurotypicals tell autistic people who diverge from stereotypes or identify themselves as autistic without seeking medical diagnosis that they’re not really autistic and are harming the “real autistic people” by claiming that identity, even as the autistic community overwhelmingly supports self-diagnosis. We know we aren’t harmed by autistic people embracing their identities, so why do we believe that embracing our queerness is wrong? Homophobic and transphobic cultures always tell queer people they’re not queer enough. We’re not supposed to identify with our queerness or our neurodivergence because homophobes and ableists don’t want queer and neurodivergent people to be real. They don’t want us to exist. The more they don’t want us to exist, the louder we must be in asserting our existence. The erasure and assimilation forced on us doesn’t mean we aren’t queer enough, it’s proof that we are. This coerced conformity isn’t an exclusively autistic experience, it is our common experience as queer people. Alienation, shame, and forced heteronormativity are inflicted upon all of us. We are not alone. This struggle is shared.

Inherently Part of the Queer Community
I believe that neurodivergent people are inherently part of the queer community because no matter how we express them externally, our internal experiences of gender and sexuality do not conform to traditional cishet norms. Autistic people do not have the same relationship to gender and sexuality that allistic people because we don’t have the same relationship to social constructs. It’s not that we don’t see them as real — it’s that we recognize that they’re fluid, constructed, not fixed. Social constructs are malleable, for us, and often the allistic people around us don’t understand that.

To be cisgender means to identify with the gender you were assigned at birth, but we don’t identify with gender the same way that neurotypical people do. Interpreting the words the way they were originally defined, I believe that no autistic people are cis and we should not be put in that box by default. Many autistic people identify as cishet for the same reason many allistic queer and trans people do - intense social pressure and a lack of other options. While I’ve spoken to many autistics who identify as cis and straight, upon deeper conversation, every single one of them revealed that they didn’t actually feel an identity with their assigned gender. They didn’t mind being perceived as their assigned gender and didn’t feel a need to change their outward presentation, and they believed that meant they had to identify as cis. Every single one revealed a more complicated internal experience of gender but believed that their outward presentation dictated how they could identify. Obviously I have not spoken to every autistic person in existence and I don’t deny anyone’s right to identify as cisgender if they desire to, but the belief that outward presentation dictates gender identity is a product of a transphobic society and must be challenged. How other people perceive your gender affects how you are treated in society, but it does not define your internal experience. You are the only one with the right to do that.

The intersection of neurodivergence and queerness has been largely ignored in academia, so we have limited research to draw from, but the little research that does exist has demonstrated a much higher percentage of self-reported queer identity than is found in the overall general population and the majority of neurodivergent women identify themselves with a sexual orientation under the queer umbrella. I’ve done informal polls on twitter about gender identity and only 25% of the autistic people who responded felt totally comfortable identifying with their assigned gender at birth. While it’s impossible to draw scientific conclusions from an informal internet poll with a small sample size, I believe this demonstrates the probability of a large population of autistic people who identify as cis, but are not comfortable with it. Being forced into a gender role you don’t identify with is incredibly harmful to mental health and neurodivergent people should no longer accept this denial of our internal experiences. Not being allowed to acknowledge your queerness is the most basic form of oppression against queer people. We must at least begin to allow ourselves to acknowledge it within our own minds and with each other.

Gender and Orientation
The unique relationship autistic people have to gender by extension affects our sexual orientation. The obvious reason is that the concept of heterosexuality is predicated on the idea of identifying as either a man or woman and being attracted to people who identify with the gender you do not. The more nuanced reason is that many autistic people experience sexual orientation in different ways mentally and physiologically. Someone who does not feel an internal concept of gender can still feel a physiological orientation only towards people who present or identify with a certain gender. The mental and physical experiences of attraction and romantic love can be separate – a person may be physically attracted to one gender but mentally attracted to many genders, or the other way around. This complicated relationship to gender and attraction does not necessarily fit any of the labels of sexual orientation afforded to us by the English language. That doesn’t negate the reality of this experience. Some neurodivergent people have sought to express this unique form of identity and sexuality by creating new terms such as autigender and neuroqueer, and those are valid identities that should be accepted as part of the LGBTQ+ community. Many neurodivergent people don’t like labeling their gender or sexuality at all, which should be recognized as a valid choice, as well. Not using a label doesn’t make someone cishet by default and it doesn’t mean their internal experience of gender and sexuality is not real. Not everything can be put into words. Sometimes trying to define a complex human experience just creates a misshapen and hollow copy of it.

Queerness is by definition amorphous, flexible, complex, layered, and unknowable. The confusion so many neurodivergent people feel about their gender and sexuality does not need to be solved to be included in queerness – it *is* queerness. Until a few years ago, I was tortured by my struggle to figure out my identity, to finally find the word that would explain me and connect me to people like me. I came out as bi, then as gay, and a few years later when I realized I no longer neatly fit into the gay/lesbian label, I decided to avoid another round of pain and confusion and stopped using any labels more specific than “queer” because I finally understood that I can’t fit my sexuality into the labels this society offers. I’m not confused about who I am, who I’m attracted to, and who I love, I simply can’t contain those parts of myself into rigid enough descriptors for most people to be able to understand. I am queer, a word that tells other people almost nothing and to me signifies everything I was never able to express before.

Grace
I came out as queer and questioned my gender long before I knew I was autistic, so I had the benefit of already feeling a sense of belonging in the LGBTQ+ community. When I finally did realize I was autistic, my remaining questions about my sexuality and gender lost their mystery. The reason my queerness felt different from the labels I’d been offered to choose from was because I’m autistic. My neurotype and my queerness are interconnected. In fact, they are the same thing. All neurodivergent people have a different relationship to gender and sexuality than neurotypical people do and that makes neurodivergent people part of the LGBTQ+ community whether we identify with a specific label or not. We are not appropriating experiences and identities that aren’t ours. This is our story and community, too. You don’t have to fit into a set of strict roles and norms to be queer – you simply need to diverge from the strict roles and norms that neurotypical culture dictates and declares the standard. It’s time to take our place in the LGBTQ+ community, embrace it, and allow ourselves the grace to explore this aspect of who we are and how we relate to other people.

On Queer Gatekeeping
Not everyone in the LGBTQ+ community wants to accept neurodivergent people with open arms, but that doesn’t mean neurodivergent people don’t deserve a space in it. Not everyone in the LGBTQ+ community wants to accept trans people and bisexual people, either. Their opinion doesn’t matter and their invite isn’t required. The LGBTQ+ community contains all of us. There is room for all of us. We need all of us. Any queer people who don’t want to include autistic and neurodivergent people – including neurodivergents who don’t claim a specific LGBTQ+ identity – are driven by ableism and the false belief instilled by an ableist society that proximity to the cultural norm is the path to equal rights and acceptance. It’s the same fear that creates bias within the community against queer people who can’t “pass” for heterosexual or cisgender or don’t desire to. But just as openly queer people have never been the stumbling block to equal rights for queer people, neurodivergent people are not going to prevent cultural acceptance of queer people. Proximity is a false promise. No amount of conformity will ever result in equal rights and respect. We do not need a smaller, stricter, “pure” pool of LGBTQ+ people to advance the cause. We need all of us, as many as we can get, working together.

Just as I encourage neurodivergent people to consider and accept their queerness, I encourage queer people who do not identify as neurodivergent to look deeper and consider this other aspect of their identity. If you fear being associated with neurodivergent people, you need to see if that fear springs from your own internalized ableism. Most neurodivergent people don’t know they’re neurodivergent. This society’s insistence that you are neurotypical unless otherwise diagnosed is compulsory neurotypicality, a form of erasure that perfectly mirrors compulsory heterosexuality and cisnormativity. Saying that queer people and neurodivergent people are part of the same community doesn’t mean queer people aren’t normal. Contrary to what we’ve been indoctrinated to believe, neurotypical does not mean normal. Neurotypicality is not default, just like heterosexuality and cisgender identity are not default. Acknowledging the overlap between queerness and neurodivergence doesn’t mean there is something unnatural or wrong about queerness, it means there is nothing unnatural or wrong about neurodivergence, either. Homosexuality escaped the DSM and autistic people are not dragging queer people back into it. We need the rest of the queer community to help us escape the DSM, too. Autism isn’t a disorder, it doesn’t require diagnosis, and it shouldn’t be in the DSM. We all deserve to be freed from the medical model.

It’s The Same Damn Struggle
The struggles for queer and neurodivergent rights are one and the same because our brains are not disorders and our identities are not aberrations or delusions – we were born into a culture that taught us to see ourselves that way in order to erase us, control us, and force us to conform. We are fighting for the right to openly be the people our brains are designed to be. I am queer and agender because I am autistic. Those identities are inseparable from each other and from who I am as a person. They are merely different angles from which to observe the same brain, functioning and expressing itself as it was created, refined, and fine-tuned by evolution to be.

The practical work of organizing and fighting for our rights is the same between the queer and neurodivergent communities. The fight for marriage equality is not over because disabled people do not have marriage equality. The fight for the right to create our own families is not over because autistic people and queer people are discriminated against in the adoption process as well as by many reproductive healthcare providers. The fight against conversion therapy isn’t over, it’s covered by insurance and recommended to parents of autistic kids in all 50 states. Some foster parents of autistic kids are even mandated to put their kids in conversion therapy. Just because it goes by the name ABA when it’s used on autistic kids doesn’t make it different unless you think autistic kids are less human than allistic kids. ABA is conversion therapy, invented by Ivar Lovaas for use on queer and autistic kids, who he believed were not fully human until they were formed by his program. Even if we take such a narrow look as to only consider the gender and sexuality aspect of conversion therapy, autistic kids in ABA are forced to conform to cishet norms. Neurotypical socialization is deeply based in cishet roles and ABA forces autistic kids to perform the expectations of neurotypical society or face physical and mental pain and discomfort. AFAB autistics are tortured until they act like neurotypical girls and AMAB autistics are tortured until they act like neurotypical boys.

The entire LGBTQ+ community should be speaking out against ABA with one voice. Those kids are our community. They are us, we are them, and we all have a responsibility to them because they are our people. The entire autistic community should be speaking out against laws and policies that harm trans kids and deny them healthcare because they are our community. They are our people. We have a responsibility to them. We all have a responsibility to each other, and that is an honor and our greatest strength as a community.

One incredibly important function of the LGBTQ+ community is providing education and services regarding sex, sexuality, and sexual health. After the devastating tragedy of the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s that killed an entire generation of gay men, the LGBTQ+ community formed an incredible network of queer-friendly STI testing facilities and created a culture of regular STI screening that doesn’t exist in heterosexual communities. Queer people came together to save each other’s lives when nobody else would. There are LGBT centers in every major city in the US where queer people can come for free information, healthcare services, and other forms of assistance. This community support is necessary because queer people are still at much higher risk of sexual assault, domestic violence, and homelessness than the overall general population. Autistic people are a similarly high-risk group, but without the support.

Towards A Better Future
Even outside of structured community support like LGBT centers, one of the incredible benefits of becoming involved in the LGBTQ+ community as a queer person is how much you are able to learn about yourself from others in your community. We learn from each other how to understand ourselves and navigate the world as queer people. Most autistic people have very little exposure or access to information about dating and sex from an autistic perspective. We often don’t even know that we experience those things differently from neurotypical people until we have confusing and traumatic encounters that convince us that something must be wrong with us. The LGBTQ+ community can and should be a place where we can learn about our sexuality and find support when we need it. Our sensory and emotional experiences are different than neurotypical people’s are. The way we connect is different. These physical and emotional foundations make our sexuality inherently different. The messages and lessons we receive about love, sex, and dating from neurotypical culture don’t make sense to us.

We have to figure everything out on our own, navigating a world that is often hostile, confusing, and dangerous for us – just as queer people have always been forced to do. The LGBTQ+ community is home for autistic people and can save our lives. Together we paint a fuller picture of what it means to exist, express, love, and connect as human beings and that’s what the queer community is all about. Without the unique experiences of identity and sexuality that stem from the neurodivergent mind, our collective understanding of queerness is incomplete. The way neurodivergent people perceive and express gender and sexuality is beautiful and it’s time we get to feel pride about who we are and how we love, too.

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