Down the Rabbit Hole: The Language of Autistic Queerness

Increasingly, I’m feeling that there’s nothing about my identities as a queer person that can be separated from my feelings, experiences, world-view and personal sensibilities as an autistic.

Nothing.

I suspect that I’m queer because I’m autistic.

I don’t mean that people who aren’t cisgender, heterosexual and heteromantic must be autistic to be queer. I don’t mean that queerness is intrinsic to neurodiversity (although I will argue that neurodiverse people are more like to eschew cisheteronormativity and amatonormativity in a variety of ways). I’m trying to say that my identity as a queer person is complex, and most of that complexity, if not the entirety of it, exists because, as an autistic person, I have a loose, complicated relationship to many social norms and a body with very different requirements. In this case, I lack the deep, natural, unquestioned physical and emotional connections to experiences like sexuality and gender. That looseness provides space to think and question; it’s easy to reject normativity when you’ve only been anchored to it by the chafing, fraying twine of societal expectation. Even someone like me, trying desperately to perform allism (the state of being not autistic) and fearing the heaping of more difference on top the difference I repressed, still found it possible, over many years, to examine, test and accept labels that define and celebrate more of my differences. I still tried on labels like bisexual, lesbian, man; I still found labels like agender and queer.

The idea that a word like autism can group all the ways in which I have been different is new. I’m a baby autie, in terms of my space in the community, and I don’t deny it for a moment. I’ve been that kind of different all my life though, so the only arguable difference is that now I can retrospectively apply a word—autism—instead of the words I’m used to using, words like “weird” and “strange”. The real difference between me today and me of two, four, ten, fifteen years ago is that I now possess a word that owns, positively, my differences. I can own my autistic traits instead of shoving them to the background and pretending that they don’t exist from the fear that people will only like and accept me if I am half or less of the person I am. In spaces where I feel safe enough to use this word, I can deny nothing. I’m not broken. I’m autistic. I don’t think and feel like you, but I don’t wish to!

(There’s a price to pay for that difference of thought, being that I needs must live in a world not designed for me and experience a range of difficulties that are seldom accommodated or understood.)

This adopting of a new word does make visible to me, though, that there are many other things, including identities and complexities of those identities I am, that I have been pushing away because society tells me these things are abnormal.

I’ve been pushing things away my whole life. It’s how I’ve survived in spaces where it’s dangerous to be me, in spaces where I’ve had no language for the person I am, in spaces where I am alone and strange. I suspect I’ll spend the rest of my life happening across something I have, unthinkingly, repressed. However, as a queer person, I profess no inherent value in clinging to some outdated sense of normativity that never included me, celebrated me or acknowledged me in the first place. Yes, the performance offers me a degree of safety and acceptance, but when I’m this far down the rabbit hole, there’s little enough of that. Why not go further down and see where it leads?

The words I’ve been using don’t tell the whole story.

They begin it. They offer a few lines to draw in, some blocks of colour, the shape of a thing. There’s no detail shading, though, and there’s bits that are erased by the artist, too wrong to include in a picture meant for public view.

Today, I want to fill in some of the missing lines.

I don’t remember just when I decided I am aromantic. I didn’t write some big coming-out post; I just mentioned it a post somewhere, I think, and kept on using it. Now, however many months or years later, it feels so unquestionably right I can’t think why I didn’t take it up earlier. (I don’t think, given my writings voicing my frustration with the omnipresence of romance, especially in queer genre fiction, it needs explaining or justifying. I wouldn’t feel the way I do, with such intensity, if I weren’t alienated by feelings and experiences that aren’t native to me.) For a long time, I didn’t understand that aromantic identities can be and are separate from asexual identities; they’d always been presented, in the dialogue I had seen, as intertwined. If I’d realised this, I’d have proclaimed my aromanticism from the rooftops a great deal earlier.

This, along with my genderlessness, is something I’m comfortable with: the absence feels clear and right to me. I don’t feel the want or need for romantic relationships any more than I feel the want or need of any gender.

I’m a touch-averse autistic, though. I’m a touch-averse autistic who has been in situations of enduring unwanted touch, most of it romantic and sexual. How much either or both impact me today is beyond science to reckon. I don’t care. I don’t want to cuddle or kiss. I don’t want to snuggle close beside someone; I don’t want to sleep beside someone else. (Just thinking about both of those things leaves me slightly panicked. Holding still to cuddle someone for longer than three seconds?) I don’t want to date. (Going to a restaurant and playing What Foods Can Kim Eat roulette? Nope.) I don’t want those things I deem trappings of romance in my life. (Other people will see romance and the elements that comprise it in a different light. One’s relationship to something nebulous like romance is as personal as gender.) A great amount of that list, though, is inseparable from the fact that I am autistic. It is grounded in that I don’t like others touching me for non-brief periods of time, need personal space, can’t handle the sound of another person breathing and believe sharing a bed with another human being is a fast route to sensory hell. It is better, in truth, that I don’t feel any yearning or desire for romantic relationships (as I define them), because most of those things are difficult if not outright stressful.

My body is smart: it hasn’t made me want anything that’s going to make me miserable!

Allowing that for truth, though, I’m more than just aromantic—or aromantic is the umbrella term that includes the specific form of aromanticism I feel, a very autistic aromanticism. I’m arovague, or my neurodiversity—in this case, autism—impacts and shapes my aromanticism. Every aro neurodivergent person will have their own personal relationship to arovague, if they choose it; mine is a complete absence of romantic attraction because of autism.

This is only the beginning, however.

I spoke of neurogender last time and how, for me, neuroagender is closer to the mark as it specifically highlights the lack of gender I feel. Since I like the symmetry with arovague, and symmetry, rhythm and repetition are important to my communication, agendervague works for me. (The in-use term is gendervague, a non-binary identity related to neurodivergence.) Again, my personal experience is that of a complete absence of gender identity connected to autism, and while gendervague does that, the addition of that one letter highlights my lack of gender. My genderlessness is non-binary by function, yes, but to be a gender identity it needs must be a gender, which it isn’t.

Agendervague, like arovague, centres the absence.

This is complicated for me, because I feel allistic views of autism (meaning all the medical professionals with which I must work) erase how people view the sincerity of my genderlessness as a valid, isolated aspect. I’m tired, very tired, of people treating me as though I’m an autistic cis woman who just doesn’t “get” gender. My genderlessness, in this way, is seen as a medical deficit rather than an integral, rational and correct part of my identity that needs celebrating, respecting and protecting. I need people to take me seriously as an autistic; I need people to take me seriously as an agender person … whether my lack of gender is related to autism or just another curious part of being me.

But I cannot say that my genderlessness is distinct from autism. How can I? I think the very notion of connecting to something as ephemeral and evanescent as gender and using it to create a set of expectations or subverted expectations about behaviour and identity to be … absurd. There’s some sense of connection, community and identity, I know, that others experience. I don’t. (I don’t wish to.) It doesn’t make sense to me and that cannot be isolated from all the other things, as an autistic person in this bizarre world, that also make no sense. Very likely, it makes no sense to me for the same reasons eye contact and non-direct requests make no sense to me. I’m genderless. I’m agender. I’m agendervague.

Shall we complete the trifecta?

I’m pansexual. I consider myself pan because the idea of (what feels to me) arbitrarily deciding I am not attracted to someone based on gender (presentation, performance, identity) seems ridiculous. (In fact, I rather like this questioning of the gender-based attraction model.) Yes, most of the people to whom I feel sexual attraction are female, female-aligned, femme, non-binary, genderfucking, genderqueering or Anyone Not A Manly Dude. How do I know, though, that one day I don’t run into a manly guy who inspires that attraction? Why exclude that possibility? Why draw lines and invent rules? It seems restrictive and limiting; it requires a depth of feeling and connection to a world view that I, as an autistic, just don’t feel in the same way. I don’t understand how one can’t just choose to be whichever multisexual identity best suits or why one wouldn’t choose it. Philosophically, multisexuality feels a far more logical way to approach sexuality.

The idea that one feels sexual attraction so strongly that said attraction excludes feels absurd to me. I don’t understand it.

That’s the thing, though. I do experience sexual attraction; it’s just that it’s seldom strong enough for me to be bothered with it. I feel more passionate about soft toy ducks and things to make with pony beads than I do a sexual relationship. I haven’t had one in five years; I’m not looking for one. If I find a person who’s happy to be a fuckbuddy in a QPR and is open to all the negotiation required to be in one with me, I might not say no, but I don’t care if I don’t. I don’t need or wish to do anything about sexual attraction other than note its existence and return to the more pressing question of why I keep using “horde” when I mean “hoard”!

I’m somewhere on the ace (asexual) spectrum. Grey-ace, I think, describes me well. I’m a grey-ace pan, who does feel sexual attraction irrespective of gender, but not strongly. (That lack of strength might be why it seems senseless to me to exclude.) I do see this as connected to autism; I also consider this as my body, sensibly, not requiring me to high-key desire something that is often stressful or difficult for me. Again, while I don’t feel an absence of sexual attraction, the low level I feel is connected to or influenced by my neurodivergence, and acevague is as appropriate as anything else, I think. However, for the same reasons I won’t use “gendervague”, I’d append acevague to gracevague. (Grace: slang for gray ace in American English spelling.) “Ace” is too often seen as a term for “person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction” and not as in “umbrella term for all those under the ace spectrum”, and I’m not comfortable using a word that isn’t specific to my experience and identity.

If I list all the queer-umbrella words I identify as or feel describe me, I’m a non-binary, trans, genderless, grey-ace, pan, aro queer. (Diamoric also belongs there, somewhere.) Non-binary is an important umbrella term because it locates and contextualises my genderlessness in Western society. Trans I use, and will keep on using, as a middle finger up at everyone who has ever told me I am not trans enough because I’m not following the traditional binary medical transitional model. (I do experience dysphoria, but even if I didn’t, I’d still be trans simply because I am not cis, and I will use the word until all trans and cis people alike understand that I am trans.) Genderless or agender describe my absence of gender. Grey-ace describes my present location between the absence of sexual attraction and the presence of sexual attraction that is strong enough to make any impact in my life; pan describes the focus of said attraction or the philosophy behind it. Aro, because I do not connect with romance and romantic attraction. Queer, because it is the only word that both describes all of these things and the interactions between them.

(My identities are not disconnected. I’m pansexual in a diamoric way. I’m grey-ace in an aro way. I’m aro in a genderless way. There’s a space between them where they all intersect and shape each other, and that space is queer. No other word describes it.)

In addition, I’m arovague, agendervague and gracevague: words that centre my neurodivergence in context of my sexual, romantic and gender identities and identity.

The words I’m throwing around right now are dangerous. Not only am I using more obscure words, I’m modifying them to make them even more obscure! Special snowflake might be hurled at me if one doesn’t veer right into edged monosexism, cissexism, exorsexism, heterosexism, allosexism and ableism. In a world where any divergence from the norm is seen as unusual and multiple divergences are seen as unnatural and improbable despite our existence disproving this, daring to claim and modify non-mainstream words is going to earn (undeserved, unjustified) hate. Why can’t I accept the words I have? Why aren’t they good enough? Why do I have to describe my sexuality in terms of to whom I am attracted and the intensity of said attraction? Oh, my gender is a helicopter, so you need to respect that too!

Why?

Because I’ve spent years talking about my sexual orientation in terms of to whom I am attracted without ever mentioning that those feelings lack in intensity such that I feel little to no wish to act on them. Because I’m tired of the feelings of shame and abnormality, even in queer spaces, that stem from not having intensity of sexual attraction such that I’ve hidden that aspect of myself away before now. Because words allow me acknowledgement, connection, community, identity and pride. Because it is important to me now to acknowledge that I am pansexual and grey-ace all at once, and that both together comprise any meaningful understanding of my sexuality.

Because everything I am is autistic and it’s important to acknowledge that intersection with my queerness. Because my queerness, especially in terms of absence of gender and romantic orientation, is just not separable from my autism and shouldn’t have to be. Because, as an autistic person, I have a driving need to be as precise and as accurate as possible, and to attack me for doing so with the language tools that do exist is sheer, simple ableism.

Because, and I cannot stress this enough, I can.

I need this wide and varied toolbox. I need to be able to say here that I’m agendervague; I need to be able to tell doctors, who are like to dismiss my gender, that I am genderless, an absence of gender that stands on its own feet. I need to be able to tell people I’m trans, as a weapon held in my hands against all those who only see the transmedicalist narrative as the “true” trans identity. At different times, in different places, I need different words, but that doesn’t make any one of them less true. They’re all true, all me, all powerful.

The joys of language in 2017 is that words are fluid and complex and specific as the concepts it describes. We can change language to make it work for us! We can invent terms! We can be as specific or as general as we need to be!

It shouldn’t be unusual to look at one’s identity and take on or make a word that best describes it. It shouldn’t be unusual to have those words shift over time or even from situation from situation.

It is, I think, extremely and gloriously queer.

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