Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Doubly Deviant: On Being Queer and Autistic

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: This is a very long, rambly autobiographical post about being bisexual and being autistic: it compares my experiences coming to terms with both of these facts (always knowing about the autism, vs. having to figure out the sexual orientation; and also, doubting the possibility that I could *have* a sexual orientation because I thought autistic people didn't date or have sex, or even want to do either of those things) with those of Amanda Forest Vivian, who is a lesbian, and autistic, and has written about those things at some length at her own blog. I also discuss the ways being autistic has complicated being gay for me --- besides my initial difficulty realizing that what I felt about girls was, in fact, sexual desire, there was also a profound isolation from the larger Gay Community, which I never felt like I could (or would want to) join.

Amanda Forest Vivian has a post from a while ago about this --- being gay (Amanda uses "same-sex attracted", to encompass lesbian, gay, bi-*, poly- and pansexual folk, and also people who don't really fit into any category but "queer"), but also being different in another way (like having a developmental disability) that might make it harder to navigate an LGBTQ** an LGB social scene.

Here's her description of coming out in high school ---

When I was in high school, someone who wasn't my friend said this to my (secret, closeted) friend, who then told me: "Everyone could see that something was different about Amanda, and then when they found out she was gay, they had an answer."

When I was in high school, the word dyke or lesbian was a way to easily quantify all the things about me that didn't seem right. When I was in high school I felt very alone.

When I was in ninth and tenth grade, I actually brought all this on myself by not denying that I was gay or bisexual, and presenting in a masculine way. I felt this was an important thing to do because other kids needed to see that queer people were just regular people. The problem with this idea is, in hindsight, obvious: I am not a regular person. Being openly queer in a heteronormative environment is a noble thing to do, but maybe not if you have anxiety about pretty much everything and have trouble talking to people.

A lot of my coming-out process happened when I was on a lot of medication and overwhelmed by the relationships I was in. By the time I was in eleventh grade, I was more able to clearly see what was going on, and I knew that I'd made a mistake by not being closeted. My school was very small, and some people were genuinely afraid to be friends with me in case someone said they were having sex with me, and I wasn't a person who could charm my way out of this stigma. But my school wasn't violently homophobic and I feel like a more normal person could have made a difference. It would have to be a person who fit in every way, except one.
--- which reminded me a lot of these much older posts by elmindreda and one of the other Amandas whose writing I love, Amanda Baggs, which postulate something called the "difference slot."


[M]any of [the people I spend my time with nowadays], even though they seem superficially informed about basic disability issues, seem to believe in the difference slot.

The basic idea is that each and every person has their difference, and it should be respected. Note the singular form, however. When they learn of my autism, which is usually the first major difference to come up in conversation, they seem to think "oh, so that's her difference". They then proceed to fill in my difference slot in their mental table, and everything is as it should be.

Or so they think.

Then, a little while later, I happen to mention some other thing that makes me different from most other people, and their belief system collides head-on with reality. Usually, it's another one of my disabilities that triggers it. This is when they almost invariably go "..." for a while, only to finish with "you have that too?" In other words, "your difference slot is already filled, and you can't have another one."

Amanda (Baggs):

What I'm writing about is similar [to elmindreda's idea of the "difference slot"], but perhaps from a different angle. A phenomenon I've seen over and over again runs something more like, "Please violate only one stereotype at a time."

This can apply even if you have only one "difference" (be that autism, physical disability, whatever).

If you have several differences, of course, the problem becomes exponentially harder to deal with.

What Amanda Forest Vivian is describing --- being in a very normative environment (hetero- and otherwise) and trying to figure out, and come to terms with, how you deviate from those deeply-entrenched norms (which you do in multiple ways that you either cannot yet identify or are struggling to identify) --- sounds a lot like what elmindreda describes: the first difference you name to other people defines you, and explains Everything That's Weird About You, and people resist learning that there's more to the story than that One Thing That Explains Everything.

When you're very young, that first difference you name might not actually be the difference that's most relevant to your day-to-day life, either, but may simply be the first difference you know how to name. This is especially relevant to people whose differences are either a) internal or invisible, something you have to find out about yourself rather than something that's always been generally known about you or b) disabilities that affect your ability to put things into words, or even recognize all the ways in which you differ from most people. (Cultural differences might also factor into (b) --- if you come from a culture that does not discriminate between X sorts of people and Y sorts of people, and you immigrate into a culture that does, you may find that you don't even know whether you're X or Y, and that makes it difficult for you to navigate a social setting in which lots of important stuff hinges on whether you're X or Y.)

I had almost the opposite experience from Amanda's --- my first difference was my autism, which has been generally known about, and accommodated, and I've been able, to varying degrees, to talk about, for as far back as I can remember. As long as I remember being able to think in terms of "me" and "you" and "them" (which for me happened rather later than for most people, I suspect), I knew that I had a thing called autism which meant I was different from most people. As I grew older, I came to understand how I was different, and to be able to tell other people about it, but I always knew that I was different.

I had a very elastic understanding of this difference of mine, probably because I learned I was autistic before I could have any real idea what "autistic" meant, so I pretty much equated it with "whatever I am," adding on "whatever [other autistic person I meet] is, too".

(I had always had plenty of contact with other autistic children, both older and younger, and I also always had books written by autistic people about their lives on hand, so I never really fell into the "autism is *ONLY* what I experience" trap that some autistic people fall into --- it seems to be the flip side of the "impostor syndrome" that many later-diagnosed autistics have).

So, for me, being queer was the late-manifesting difference that made it harder to quickly and easily account for everything odd about me, and accordingly I had tons of self-doubt when I first started wondering if maybe I was gay.

My relative lack of interest in boys (had one crush in middle school, on a long-haired androgynous-looking boy) as I was going through puberty didn't tell me anything --- after all, I was autistic! By this time, I had come to understand a bit of what "autistic" meant, and one of those things --- communicated mostly by my mom's not thinking it a priority to educate me about sex and relationships --- was that I might never have sexual feelings, or act on them if I did. This was a boon in some ways: I was never assumed to be straight, exactly, and it was never taken for granted that I would marry by age twenty- or thirty-whatever and have x number of children. I was allowed to develop sexually at my own pace, and in my own direction, rather than feeling like I had to fit a mold. But, at the same time, since I wasn't assumed to be a sexual being, I felt like I couldn't really be sure that the things I was feeling were sexual feelings. So maybe I *did* expect to fit a mold, but that mold was asexuality rather than monogamous, married heterosexuality.

Accordingly, I waited to come out until I had clear, unmistakable evidence that I was gay: a really intense, serious crush on a female friend of mine who was bisexual and "out" about it.

Once I was absolutely certain I felt "that way," however, I thought nothing of telling people so if it came up in conversation. (I never lied, or tried to hide it from anybody, but then neither did I feel like I had to go around telling everyone I knew that I was now a lesbian. Either they'd find out sooner or later, or they didn't need to know).

It did surprise me, though, when in my last year of college I ran into a girl who'd been in my high-school graduating class --- whom I hadn't really known all that well; we went to a huge high school and knew each other by sight and by name, but never talked much and weren't friends --- and she told me that she, and a whole group of other people I didn't know or didn't know very well, apparently thought I was probably a lesbian. This surprised me because, as I mentioned, I was only really "out" to my friends --- the people I talked to enough that it eventually came up --- and I had figured I was more or less invisible to the rest of the school. So apparently I differed from whatever my high-school culture considered a "normal girl" enough, and in enough of the right ways, that people would think I must be a lesbian without ever having heard me say it. Either that, or they noticed me sticking around the girl I loved like I was actually glued to her side, and figured I must be on rather more than just "friendly" terms with her*** ...

I was also not the only lesbian, gay or bisexual person at my high school, either, so I had none of the anxiety that Amanda describes about being the Queer Model Citizen who shows everybody that queer people are people just like everybody else. If people needed that lesson, there were lots of people at my school who were better qualified (i.e., more charismatic, more involved, more flamboyantly out) than I was and more eager to do it besides.

Here, from later in the post, is the part of Amanda's story that most closely matched my own:

Even though my school is ssa-positive, most of the people at my school are straight just like most of the people in the world. I have enough friends that I never feel lonely, but I don't belong to a group of friends (partly because I don't like groups), and I know very few ssa people because I don't have stereotypical queer interests.

A few years ago I posted on a lesbian advice forum saying I was depressed and stressed because I wanted to believe I would someday get married and have kids, but that I had never been in a relationship and didn't think I ever would be. People responded telling me that if I was on a date with a girl, I shouldn't tell her I wanted to have kids, because she would think I was creepy. One person went to my livejournal, saw where I went to school, and told me that my school wasn't anyplace to complain about and that I should "stop whining." She provided a list of various social groups and activities that would help me to meet "dykes," including eating in a co-op (which would mean being organized enough to eat at the same time every day, taking up a lot of executive function cooking and cleaning, and constantly interacting with a large group of people I didn't know).

While there are a few differences --- I don't want kids, and I never got depressingly counterproductive advice because I never thought to ask for advice in the first place --- this sort of inability to find other queer women even on a campus with a burgeoning, vibrant queer culture (well, for Kansas anyway --- I went to KU, which, while it might look straitlaced and boring to someone from California, does have a fair amount of gay-themed student activities) is exactly what I experienced at college, too.

I wasn't closeted, and I wasn't isolated in general --- I just needed to socialize on my own terms, one on one with people I met in classes or in the dorms (or, sometimes, at the gym, which was my other main on-campus haunt), which might eventually lead to me joining a group of friends, rather than trying to meet people at huge gatherings of strangers (like a party or student club; I've never been much of a "joiner" because of my tendency to fade into the background and not enjoy myself at group events), so this ruled out my meeting other lesbian and bisexual women through formal channels, like the campus Queers & Allies club or gay-oriented parties and bars. Unfortunately, the informal, one-on-one processes I used to make friends --- and which worked really well in that regard --- never linked me up with any queer women. So I went through college knowing that lesbian and bisexual women were around, but I just wasn't meeting them.

Rather than belong to a lesbian or queer community, I just existed as a lesbian. (I didn't know I was bisexual until later in college). What I had growing up as an autistic person --- personal acquaintance with a number of other autistic children, access to autistic adults' life stories --- I did not have when I was coming out as a lesbian. I knew I liked women, but never met anyone who might reciprocate those feelings.

What compounded my isolation was my total lack of anything resembling gaydar. I really do have the inability to "read" faces, body language, tones of voice etc. that has become a stereotypical characteristic of autism, so I need to be literally told 1) that a given person is gay or bisexual or 2) that a person is attracted to me. I neither flirt nor perceive flirting in another person, which might well have told an unknown number of interested lesbians that I wouldn't welcome their attentions.

So when Amanda says this ---

I used to have a political problem with the way other ssa people behaved. Whenever I thought about it I got so upset I didn't know what to do. The way I saw it, there were two kinds of ssa people:

1. "gay" people (such as people involved in the HRC) who were very normal and wanted to have normal jobs and normal families. They didn't think much about trans people, non-homosexual sexual minorities, or anyone who wasn't normal.

2. "queer" people (such as a lot of people at my school) who were very into not being normal, playing rugby, performance art, co-ops, and so on. Many of them identified as trans but didn't seem to realize that some trans people actually take hormones and get surgery and are poor, and are not students at a liberal arts college who change their pronouns every week.
I felt weird because I wanted to get married but I wasn't normal and I felt like "gay" people wanted to help normal people get married and "queer" people were anti-marriage so neither one included me.

--- I nod because the feeling of not belonging, of not finding what one is looking for in a group, is familiar to me, even if the actual dynamics of gay-identified versus queer-identified groups fall far outside my own experience, which is of near-total**** isolation from other women attracted to women, whatever their chosen label or subculture*****.

*According to Genderbitch, it's actually possible to be bisexual (attracted to people belonging to either of two sexes) without one of the categories you're attracted to being the same as your own. When you consider a broader spectrum than just cis men and cis women --- one that includes trans men, trans women, non-binary trans people, intersex people and people in whatever other sex-and-gender categories there might be --- a bisexual person might be attracted to people in any two of these categories. So not every bisexual person necessarily fits under Amanda's "same-sex-attracted" umbrella, but I do (having so far only been attracted to cis women and cis men) and this post is about Amanda's (who is a cis lesbian) experience and mine.

**Edited to reflect a lesbian trans woman and an aspie's criticism in comments that, since I am talking about cis lesbian/bisexual stuff, I shouldn't use "LGBTQ" because it implies an inclusion of trans people that isn't in the post.

***I wasn't, as a matter of fact. I was in love with her, and told her so repeatedly, but she didn't love me. At least, not in a romantic way. We did come to be pretty good friends, though, even after high school!

****I did meet one other lesbian at college, whom I found nice, and attractive, and would certainly have befriended and quite likely have dated if we had ever met again. We just ran into each other one day, outside the dining hall, started talking, and kept talking for a long time eating lunch together. Then we went our separate ways and never bumped into each other again. She played rugby, and tried to interest me in joining, but I was unsure about how much extra time I could spare for practices --- I always took really heavy courseloads, tried to keep my GPA pretty high, and spent one to two hours in the gym every day. I figured if I did much more, I'd feel like I was stretched too thin. So, while I had good reasons for not wanting to add another commitment, I still feel sad about missing that particular opportunity. :(

*****Had I managed to fall in with the Queer Culture Amanda describes, I would probably have found it a more comfortable fit than she did, since the kind of alternative family structures she says they liked to try to create are just the sort of thing I'm looking for: I need kind of a lot of support, day to day, and don't think any one person could be everything I need and also have a life of hir own. So a poly family actually looks really good to me, and indeed my last relationship did somewhat resemble this.


a lesbian trans woman and an aspie said...

Trans has nothing to do with gay, do NOT conflate the two by talking about BLG issues and using "LGBTQ".

If you want to earn the right to use the letter T, talk about trans in more than passing.

Leah Jane said...

I'm bisexual and autistic too, and my experience has been that my autism has indeed influenced the way I interact with people I found attractive. Namely, I had a hard time grasping "personal space" when I was in my teens and would often make my affections known to someone by pawing them and licking their face. No small wonder that the only successful relationships I've had have been online...
I've never been comfortable within the larger gay community at my university either, to be honest. I'm supportive of them and attend events, but I could never be described as "active" among them. I think this is more just because they encouraged heavy socialization and parties like "queer prom" and other events which make me bristle, because I hate noises and crowds.
When it comes to sexual orientation, like everything else about my personality, I think I'm just more comfortable expressing it online or with a select few people, for the reasons described above. Less of an issue with violation of personal space and body heat.

Lindsay said...

You're right, a lesbian trans woman and an aspie, I shouldn't have made it seem like this post deals with LGBTQ issues when I do not talk about anything other than cis lesbian/bisexual stuff.

Sorry about that --- I changed the acronym to reflect the limited nature of this post.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

I love this post, especially the difficulties of "The Difference Slot." I notice my own learned tendency to want to simplify difference when it comes to other disabled people. My mind has no trouble taking it in if someone is multiracial, or black/gay/autistic, or white/hispanic/trans/dyslexic. But when someone has multiple disabilities, I find it harder to hold them all in my mind at once--despite the fact that I have multiple diagnoses as well.

I had contact several months ago with a woman who has MD and CP and is legally blind, and I noticed myself thinking such irrational things as "So, how am I supposed to think of you? As having MD? or CP? Or being blind?" I think this must have to do with the ways that western medicine separates so many things into discrete diagnostic boxes. There's a tendency to carve up a person into diagnoses rather than to see the person as a seamless combination of a great many things at once. It's a lot of work to undo the influence of this kind of thinking, but it's so necessary.

Thanks for a great post.

Anonymous said...
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DarkSideCat said...

That part from Amanda suggesting that 'real' trans people always want surgery or hormones and do not have pronoun switching was pretty damned dismissive of those who do not want those treatments and of non-binary people. Non-binary people do exist and this hostility does not help. It also does not help that, to get those treatments, non-binary people who wanted them would have to lie and fake at being binary. Poor genderqueer and nonbinary people exist, at pretty high rates, particularly as we find it nearly impossible to find jobs unless we fake and pass as one side of the binary. I was rather accepted and at ease as a genderqueer/non-binary poly, kinky bisexual amoung the 'queer' groups, but the more assimilationist groups hate me. I cannot go to a single event without having some part of my identity slammed in such a blatant way that even I pick it up pretty quickly.

Amanda Forest Vivian said...

'real' trans people always want surgery or hormones and do not have pronoun switching was pretty damned dismissive of those who do not want those treatments and of non-binary people

Hi DarkSideCat. I know that what I said was pretty aggressive/dismissive-sounding and it doesn't represent my feelings about all people who are non-binary, don't get surgery, and/or don't take hormones. It was a characterization of particular people that I went to school with.

It is frustrating when (after female-assigned people who are involved in a dyke/queer subculture with a lot of masculine expression start using gender-neutral pronouns or male pronouns within that subculture, or simply identifying as trans/genderqueer) those people and their friends' way of being trans becomes their whole idea of what it means to be trans. This can result in a lack of support for trans women and other trans people who were male-assigned; binary trans people; people who want to go on hormones; people whose identity as trans didn't develop when they were part of a queer community; and other people who are not trans in the same way as the first group of people I described, or simply don't fit in with those people.

My impression at my college was that people's idea of "trans issues," and support for people who were trans, was very centered around the experience of being raised as female, identifying as queer, presenting in a masculine way, and often not being binary, or being interested in hormones etc. I say "was" because I don't really know what stuff is like now, even though I still go to school there, because my impressions were mainly gleaned from someone I knew who didn't fit into the mold mentioned above, and didn't feel very welcomed by trans groups/community at our school. She graduated two years ago so I don't really hear as much about this stuff now. I get the impression things are better now at my school, though, because more trans female students have come out, or started attending my school, and have become involved.

Although I do question my judgment in making the statement you're referring to, I sometimes feel uncomfortable in environments where it is considered offensive to ever criticize anyone's identification or activities, or to say that some people's activities and identities seem like an expression of culture, and aren't as permanent as other people's, and that some trans people are much more permanently stigmatized and oppressed than others.

(I'm not saying you are doing this, but I have encountered it in the past, and it's one reason I went ahead and said that.)

It kind of reminds me of "safe spaces" where women who identify as queer/lesbian/bi/pan etc. are not allowed to complain about the trend of lesbian-until-graduation, or girls making out at a party, etc. On the one hand, I think it's shitty to identify any particular person's behavior or identity as being fake, a phase, etc., or to judge them as an individual. However, if you do have a stigmatized identity that you've lived with for a long time and experienced oppression from, it can be frustrating when a group of people seems to be making a foray into that identity, as an adventure, at college.

I kind of feel like I shouldn't be posting this because it is so hard to express how I feel on these issues. But I am sorry about the dismissiveness that passage implies re: non-binary people and people who don't want to take hormones.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Maria who is the Rental Agent at Sahara Palms Apts. Protect Rapist Daniell Grant, for some unknow reason.Thier relationship is unknow at this time. She was over heard laughing at how The Victim was tormented and RAPED she thought it was funny how Grant talked about victim.Ms Grant who resides at the apts. Danielle Grant 23, of Las Vegas is a RAPIST, she and another man used a date rape drug on Victim at Sahara Palms Apartments 2900 El Camino ave. apt 170, Danielle L Grant sodomized the victim with a plunger. She is lite skinned 4'6 to 4'7 and she drives a Black Ford Focus, She works as an dental assistant during day. STOP her please. Victim is too ashamed to tell Police. Memory just now coming back. Danielle L Grant MUST BE STOPED. She is a drug addict and dealer ( Lortab and Meth,weed ) sometimes works as a Vegas Escort/Prostitute when she needs money. If you have information on her criminal activities Please contact the Las Vegas Police Dept.