Autistic and Queer: Coming Out on the Spectrum

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You’ve probably given some thought to where you fall on the sexuality spectrum, but what about the neurological spectrum? There is a small amount of emerging data to suggest that autistic individuals are more likely than the general population to identify as asexual, queer or trans. Yet queer autistics are often excluded from the non-autistic LGBTQ community based on inaccurate stereotypes about their ability to empathize and desire intimacy. April is nationally designated Autism “Awareness” month, but activists from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) are running a #AcceptanceIs campaign to encourage people to change the narrative and think in terms of “acceptance” rather than “awareness.”

“A lot of people are ‘aware’ of autism, but that doesn’t mean they have a meaningful understanding, or that they’re thinking about ways to include and accommodate the autistic people in their lives,” said Julia Bascom, Director of Programs for ASAN via e-mail.

Julia BascomJulia Bascom

Julia recently wrote a beautiful entry on her blog about “The Talk,” she must have with the women she dates as the physical intimacy progresses in their relationship. Sex-ed is often not offered to autistics because it is assumed they aren’t interested, so many miss out on this important opportunity to learn about their anatomy and sexuality.

“A big part of autism is having a body that works differently, and learning how to understand it, use it, and navigate a world designed for other ways of being. Especially when it comes to areas like sex and being with other people, we usually don’t receive a lot of help from therapists or other professionals here: we have to figure it out on our own. I’m hoping that as autism becomes less stigmatized and more and more autistic people get a chance to share our experiences, this process gets easier for others. You shouldn’t have to be a stranger from your body,” said Julia.

Julia says coming out as a lesbian in high school surprisingly counteracted the discrimination and social ostracisation she was facing for her autism.

“I figured it out pretty early in high school, and I came out in inches. My mother was a conservative Evangelical, so that was difficult, and she was one of the last to know,” Julia said. “At high school, I actually found out that coming out decreased some of the harassment I had been experiencing for my disability. It was as if people couldn’t conceive of someone being both developmentally disabled and gay; for some reason, homophobia was less cool than ableism. I was very lucky.” Ableism is a term used to describe discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities.

Julia described her personal style as, “femme-NOS,” a term that evolved at the intersection of the queer and disability communities. “NOS” stands for Not Otherwise Specified; it’s a marker used in professional diagnosis.

“For me, femme-NOS means that I’m femme, but with significant motor skills problems,” Julia said. “I can’t put on makeup or style my hair, and I can’t wear most heels or fabrics. So it becomes a question of how to express that while wearing very soft clothes. Lots of skirts, long hair, dresses, wrapping beads or bangles around my wrists to fidget with. It’s definitely a look.” Her idea of a perfect date would be one that is quiet. Getting food somewhere at off-peak hours, going to a museum or the movies, watching Netflix. Pretty typical. The amount of care she has to take with noise is probably the only distinguishing feature.

Kris Guin is the president and founder of Queerability, a national LGBTQ and disability rights advocacy organization run by and for LGBTQ people with disabilities.

Kris GuinKris Guin

“I knew that I had different feelings towards boys and girls and different feelings about my gender I was assigned at birth when I was a young teenager, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to identify as LGBTQ until I was 18 and met openly LGBTQ people for the first time who taught me what being LGBTQ means,” Kris said over e-mail.

Queerability recently collaborated with Campus Pride, an LGBTQ rights organization focused on creating safer college and university campuses to create the Disability Rights Activism for Student Leaders, a resource full of ways to include people with disabilities into LGBTQ student groups.

“I love being a part of the queer autistic community,” Kris said. “There is a deep mutual understanding and support of the unique challenges and joys that come with being queer and autistic. For example, in terms of the policies that impact people with disabilities, including autism, many of us, even if same-sex marriage is legalized in our state, are still not legally able to get married. Many people with disabilities rely on social security to survive, but they risk jeopardizing their social security if they get married because social security has a penalty for marriage.”

Autistic activist Lydia Brown is about to graduate from Georgetown University where she has been studying Arabic and working in public policy to stop violence against multiply-marginalized disabled people, including LGBTQ, poor, undocumented, and people of color groups within the disability community. She was recently recognized for her disability advocacy work as a Champion of Change by the White House on the twenty-third anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Lydia BrownLydia Brown

Lydia is proudly autistic, asexual, panromantic, Asian and adopted.“The idea that someone can be that many kinds of divergent from what is considered normative is terrifying for people because the more you deviate from the norm the more you are a reminder to them that the normative was never possible to attain to begin with,” she said.

Lydia is coming up on her two year anniversary with her partner who is also an autistic activist. They were first introduced through a friend online in 2009, met in person a few times and then started dating officially in 2013. “We went out for date night at a really nice Italian restaurant with white table cloths and all these people dressed to the nines. We just awkwardly showed up in ripped jeans and T-shirts. That’s autistic dating for you. [laughs].

Lydia and her partner are on the asexual spectrum, but she says that her autistic friends have shared with her some of their unique sexual experiences. “A lot of us have tactile sensory issues so navigating what is okay in the bedroom can become very complicated, especially if both people involved are autistic and they have different tactile issues,” she said. “Then it’s like, well, experimentation time! Some people prefer deep pressure touch as opposed to light touch, some might like to get in the mood by caressing their partner from the back, but that might not work for some of us, or someone might like to lightly play with someones hair for foreplay but that might not work for somebody either and you might find that out in the course of a very awkward interruption.”

When Lydia tells people that she advocates for disability rights, they may not realize that she is autistic. She says the response she receives often takes a patronizing tone, with high praise for her saintly work helping those “unfortunate people.” She says she appreciates straight and non-autistic allies who want to help in meaningful ways, but too frequently the desire to help stems from a place of condescending pity rather than genuine compassion.

Lydia encourages people to reexamine their mindset. “You shouldn’t assume that because someone is disabled, they need to be fixed. When we talk about acceptance, we mean acceptance for everybody. Whether they can go to college or not, whether they can work a 9-5 or not. Whether they can communicate orally or not. Whether they ever choose to date or not. Acceptance doesn’t come with qualifications or ifs or buts. Acceptance means radically choosing to believe and to affirm through your actions, that all humans are in fact valuable. That all ways of being human are worthy of respect. Even if you don’t understand them. Especially if you don’t understand them.”

Sydney Parker is a writer based in Los Angeles. She writes about humor, humanity and pigeons on her blog CarnivalofSouls. You can follow her on twitter @carnivalosouls.

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