“Autism, Gender and Sexuality” by Leighanna Rose Walsh

 For audio please click here.

Brief Introduction

I’m an autistic queer trans woman, who also deals with other neurodivergency and mental illness. I had a very confusing time growing up, and lacked a diagnosis until I was in my early 20s, already struggling in college. There are some very strong misconceptions with regards the relationship between Autism, and the concepts of sexuality and gender. There tends to be a small number of very strong images of what autism looks like, and we’ve yet to really come very far in diversifying those depictions.

I tend to deviate from that image quite a bit, so it can be a difficult intersection to live on. Moreover, the intersection of trans and autistic tends to be one regarded quite negatively, as they are both identities seen as being “out of touch” with traditional reality. Autistic people and trans women, especially autistic trans women are often the target of abuse. Being natural outsiders, we’re easy to depict as Pariahs when we become outspoken, which can result in many of us becoming tokenistic uncritical members of the community, passing the buck back to the critical ones, meaning there are fewer people to speak out from this perspective than would be ideal. Sexuality and autism are two subjects that are often considered mutually exclusive, and the relationship between gender and autism is a difficult one that needs some dissecting, so I’m going to start there.

Gender and Autism

If you poke around for traditional depictions of autism, you’re most likely to see one of a few things: a picture of a little white boy playing with building blocks. A picture of a little white boy, mouth open, looking to the side kind of sad or confused and distant. If you’re lucky, a white girl staring at some building blocks.

There’s a common problem with how our concept of autism and neurodivergency in general is constructed. This is particularly obvious when it comes to race – it’s something that comes up a lot in the western media, when reporting crimes people of colour are less likely to be labelled “mentally ill”. This is also true in terms of diagnosis, rates of autism are lower amongst minorities. Our conceptions of other cultures and identities often discounts the idea of them having the same complexities and nuances as our own.

This also holds true for transgender identities, which are largely regarded as a first world phenomenon, despite having strong global roots, for example the Hijra in India, and Muxe in Mexico, which encompass transfeminine and non binary identities. The strong conception of the gender binary is in many ways a colonialist artifact.

This brings us to the problem of gender. One of the biggest issues is a theory pushed by Simon Baron Cohen called the “Extreme Male Brain” theory. The idea is that children with autism often display an exaggerated form of some aspects of typical male behaviour – such as hyperfocused interests, because as we all know girls with obsessive interests don’t exist and the existence of tumblr is a dirty lie.

This is based on yet another fallacious concept – that male brains are built to systemise, and female brains to empathise. And of course, autistic people are generally shown as being low on empathy. Add to this the fact that Autism is diagnosed more in boys than girls, it becomes a game of stereotypes playing off one another to construct a dangerous and irresponsible view of how our brains work. This only further feeds back into the lower diagnosis rate amongst girls, due to the conception that they’re rarely autistic, unless they act in stereotypical “male” ways.

In reality, while it is true male and female brains tend towards different wiring in certain areas, there is no absolute male or female brain, and speciality cannot be so easily split between the genders. This becomes a difficult case to tackle when talking about transgenderism, especially when pushing the “trapped in a body” narrative which misrepresents the relationships we have with our bodies. A number of studies have indeed shown that the brains of trans women do in a number of ways match the structure of natal female brains, and vice versa for trans men. However, these are in of themselves largely generalisations, and obviously it’s quite unlikely there’s a distinct “It’s summer, gotta start shaving my legs” centre of the brain.

Gender is based on innate feeling, a sense of self. It goes deeper than gender roles, as many trans women do not subscribe to the typical image of big hair lipstick and heels – though some do and that’s awesome too – while I identify as “feminine” overall I don’t personally subscribe strictly to either gender role, I have typical “male” interests as well as female interests. For cis people, they do not have or develop an innate sense of being a gender other than what they were assigned at birth. For trans people – for whatever reason – they do make this realisation and at different ages. Being autistic compounds this further, as you’re less likely to engage in stereotypical feminine behaviour or question norms as a youth. I grew up in the 90s in conservative catholic Ireland, so people like me were unheard of except as the butt of a joke. At one stage in my life, I had more typically male interests which for a time made presenting male easier as I conformed to an expectation. I started to realise that even when I identified as female, that feminine things and feminine interests were unduly shamed by wider society, as a backdoor means of shaming women. So now, I still collect action figures of Marvel comics characters, but I’ve started posing them in ballet positions.

Gatekeeping

One of the major issues I faced being transgender, and indeed autistic, was the concept of gatekeeping. Society teaches us that as neurodivergent people – or as transgender women – we do not know our own minds and bodies best. These are the realms of often misguided “Experts” – like Baron-Cohen, like Ray Blanchard. There seems to be a stance in certain corners of the medical establishment that the outcome of transition is an undesirable one, and we should aim to have as few transgender identified people in the world as possible, in some ways mirroring the desire for some organisations to “Cure” autism.

There are a number of reasons behind this – one being the efforts of Bailey and Blanchard, and their theories of transgenderism, which basically come in two flavours – extreme homosexuality, and “autogynephilia”, being sexually attracted or to or aroused by the idea of one’s self as a woman. So basically, if you’re AMAB and identify as a woman, you’re either a flamer or a pervert. The efforts of a number of trans exclusive radical feminists have also compounded this. Prior to the 1980s, the US provided healthcare coverage for transgender people wishing or needing to transition. Unfortunately, a TERF named Janice Raymond, author of the Transsexual empire, wrote a report recommending that transgenderism be “morally mandated” out of existence. This is akin to something really ridiculous, for example, allowing people involved with the Magdalene laundries to dictate our legislation on sex work. I guess we’ve yet to learn better across the pond.

Gatekeeping meant that it took 8 years from the time I came out as transgender to the time I started much needed hormone replacement therapy. Because supposed professionals knew less about my supposed condition than I did, and because I was not trusted with my own body and identity, I suffered through 8 torturous years of misery where I’m not sure I had a single truly happy day. Because I was autistic, and because of yet another apparent bizarre stigma of autistic people having “gender confusion”, I was kept from the treatment I needed and put through pointless examination.

Again – the outcome of a transitioning transgender individual is seen as negative, a bad ending. While I still have my issues – I can tell you wholeheartedly, that this was not an ill-advised course of action. If the supposed professionals had spent less time subtly telling me I couldn’t be a woman and more time giving a shit, I might have a lot less psychological trauma than I do today.

There’s a long time problem with members of marginalised communities finding themselves voiceless in the face of “well meaning allies” and NGOs who dictate what’s best for us. Because autists often have difficulty with communication or conflict, this can be a particularly big stumbling block for us. Organisations like Autism Speaks are still at the forefront of Autism activism, despite being reviled by actual Autistic activists. Their board is made entirely of allistics. We do not trust the words of marginalised groups unless filtered through the mouths of the privileged.

In the case of Irish politics, everyone signing off on the gender recognition report was cisgender. Again, this is a common thread through issues of marginalised groups – in my work with the Roma community and Asylum Seekers, gatekeepers who are not members of those communities make interaction difficult. In particular this country has a strong tendency to police what women and minorities can be or do with their bodies, as seen in our lack of abortion legislation and the damaging end demand laws being considered by Minister Fitzgerald. The Gender recognition act, finally allowing us to self identify is a welcome reprise from this.

Sexuality

Going back to the stereotyping of autists, we are rarely ever shown to be sexual beings, to have any sexuality or sexual agency of our own. Because we are often infantalised, and because we tend to be depicted as nerdy and awkward. The fact is that a lot of those young boys you see in pictures grow up to be autistic adults with needs of their own, not to mention the fact that there are autistic people of all sorts of genders and identities.

When we are depicted as having sexual identities, they’re often predatory, unsettling, or at the very least imposing. At best we’re the Quasimodos; the loveable outcasts who learn to be happy not to get the girl at the end. At worst, we’re Buffalo Bill like figures. In less educated feminist circles, the popular imagery associated with the problematic and misogynistic “Nice guys” often tends to be unconsciously overextended to conceptions of Autistic and Neurodivergent people.

With women, non-male identified people, the tropes are sometimes similar, sometimes different. Autistic girls are generally depicted as frumpy, awkward, undesirable, the “before” of a secret princess makeover. As a transgender woman, I’m perceived as an odd mix of both male and female tropes. When people decide they want to mock or dehumanise me, I am very often reduced to a male identity, especially since that means that a lot of the harsher tropes can come into play – not the mention the idea of me being some kind of deviant adds to the punch(again, Buffalo Bill). As an autistic, transgender woman, I felt a lot of shame over my sexual identity for much of my life. Due to my dysphoria, I had no real confidence in my body. When I was younger, I conformed in many ways to the negative stereotype associated with autistic boys – being unaware of boundaries in relationships, insistent and generally lacking in any form of social grace. I was and still am attacked for this, and because there was a grain of truth in it, I became deeply ashamed of possessing any degree of sexuality. I was not and am still not conventionally attractive.

The idea of someone like me viewing themselves in any way sexual, again, puts me in the role of a caricature, a joke, someone who doesn’t know their place and has notions above their station. Someone like me isn’t meant to ever feel pretty, or sexy, or feel like others can be attracted to them. My borderline symptoms often preyed on these feelings, making me paranoid and unable to believe anyone who might feel otherwise, making the formation of relationships very difficult.

Both dysphoria and autism can lead to feeling uncomfortable in one’s own skin. When you factor in sensory issues – you start exploring a whole new world of discomfort. A lot of people don’t realise that Autism isn’t just about being “eccentric” or child-like, but that we possess an array of other issues, in particular issues such as stimming – repetitive and unusual mannerisms which make us look visibly “retarded” to others, and issues with touch, sight and sound. The idea of being physically intimate to some of us can be doubly frightening for that reason – first off because of all the social protocol we need to deal with to get to that point, and secondly because the actual sensation could be frightening for us.

What’s interesting to note is that many women that struggle with autism and mental illness – especially trans women, and especially trans women of colour, turn to some form of sex work as their means of support due to existing out of the mainstream. Which is a double edged sword – on one level, it offers us an escape from the regimented routine of regular work which can seem overly imposing on many of us who march to our own beat, but on another opens us up to a whole world of sensory issues and social stresses. I’ll come back to this point a little later on, as we’re getting into how “difficult” groups can be excluded from what’s seen as polite society.

Relationships and Exclusion

This is the somewhat controversial part of the talk, so there may need to be questions on this. Relationships in general can be seen as too much hassle for many us, which is in part why many of us are single, but in general, we are seen as too difficult. Personally – I want to be in a romantic relationship, but I am often too anxious to know how to pursue anything. Aside from my autism putting me out of step with others, my borderline symptoms often manifest as overt “clinginess” and I’m constantly afraid of being emotionally manipulative.

This is what we are told as neurodivergent, as mentally ill people, that our personalities are toxic, that we are harmful towards others, that just because we are mentally ill doesn’t mean we can’t be abusive! Trust us, if you’re about to reblog or retweet that note we’ve heard it. Chances are, we’ve dealt with that crippling shame and fear for most of our lives. We’ve been told that even sharing our feelings, that venting and being honest, that surviving is a breach of other people’s boundaries. Our entire existence quickly becomes someone else’s burden.

This is unfortunately not much better in feminist and social justice circles. A lot of these attitudes are to be found in much the same form, but again, with language revolving around the concept of boundaries and other feminist friendly terminology. The problem with this is that it seems to be built on the idea that social exclusion is somehow not necessarily a bad thing.

There was a time when there was a much deeper focus with marginalised groups on exclusion – I’m sure you’ve probably seen a “that special episode” in your time that focuses on a gay person, disabled person or ethnic minority being excluded. Somehow, as a collective, we’ve forgotten that this is bad, and that people have a right to question why they are excluded from communities, or why people suddenly cut all ties with someone; feeling they don’t owe them an explanation, due to their neurodivergency.

As I mentioned in a blog entry some time ago;

Boundaries are there to protect you and your autonomy as a human being.They are not there to: Use as a tool to defend privilege; Ignore the boundaries or sensitivities of others; Use as a “get out of jail free” card in an argument where you’ve hurt or offended someone else, crossed their lines and do not wish to justify yourself; Use as a means of socially excluding those with social difficulties and mental illness; Protect yourself from any and all criticism;Generally, use as a weapon against others.

While there are times when it is difficult to deal with someone – due to mental illness, or due to the anger that often seems inherent to being a transgender woman or other oppressed group – it’s very important to recognise that you may be unconsciously playing into wider narrative that passes the burden back to the person who’s already doing the most suffering. Very often, there is a layer of misunderstanding and a resolution can be reached without either person having to go out of their comfort zone. But, a strong degree of entitlement comes with privilege – especially in Neurotypical privilege, and as long as it’s possible to render us as “Toxic individuals”, we’re not owed compassion or explanation. We’re reduced to obstacles your self help book tells you to weed out.

And that’s what I feel is so important – compassion. Compassion, empathy, and sympathy are different concepts. While some neurodivergent people might lack empathy – feeling what someone else is feeling, or sympathy, recognising their feelings based on common experience – they can still show compassion – an appreciation for their difficulties, and positive emotive response based on this. My difficulty doesn’t lie with empathy, but with reciprocation. Sometimes I just don’t know how to respond. Many people don’t realise this.

The way I interact with people is simply different. This is why it’s difficult for me to hold down a normal job, sometimes to keep friends. While you’re not obligated to prop up everyone who deals with social difficulties, it is important to be critical of the focus we have on “positive” and “negative” ideas and people, which tends to be highly ableist and exclusive. It favours people who deal with their difficulties silently rather than vocally, and happy faced survivors over traumatised victims – except where the latter is convenient to push a narrative, such as TERFs who also abuse the concept of “boundaries” to exclude and further marginalise trans women focusing on detransitioners, or sex work abolitionist orgs cherrypicking a small number of exited women. It’s a strong almost socially darwinistic artefact of western, capitalist culture that makes it difficult for people like me to maintain a stable position in society.

We’re already excluded from many institutions based on our difficulties – we live in an increasingly noisy world – so I think it’s important for people to just take some time out and try and understand, and to not fall into the trap of projecting negative or inaccurate stereotypes onto us. I am not the Rain Man any more than I am Caitlyn Jenner. I am Leighanna, and I’m finally coming to terms with the fact that it’s okay to love myself, to love the body I’ve been told to hate, and that not being neurotypical doesn’t mean I’m not deserving of love. I am not trapped in a body, nor do I live in a world of my own. I exist in the here and now, and even if I operate on a slightly different wavelength to others, I am still self aware, and I can still speak for myself and own my identity, as well as make observations on how the world would treat me.

Thank you.

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3 Responses to “Autism, Gender and Sexuality” by Leighanna Rose Walsh

  1. Hi, I’d recommend putting the audio on top if possible

  2. Eilis Dillon says:

    Finally got around to reading this, amazing well written and eye opening. Thanks leighanna well done!

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