Last year I took myself down to my psychiatrist and got diagnosed with ‘high functioning’ autism. It certainly made sense, at least to me. My awkward mannerisms, the way I dress, the way I absolutely loathe making eye contact…plus, two of my confirmed autistic exes had thus far suggested that I may also be autistic. And, as Hannah Gadsby once said, “Autistic people love to tell other people that they might be autistic.” So, there you have it, I am an autistic lesbian. One of many. Now, why not do a bit of navel gazing while we’re at it?
I find myself at the intersection of three roads: autism, lesbianism, and gender nonconformity. And I know I’m not alone at this intersection. Many of the gender nonconforming lesbians I have met either have or suspect they may have autism. There are overlaps in my experiences with lesbianism and autism. Autism impacts my experiences as a lesbian in ways that I believe will resonate with those in a similar place as me.
In my experience, gender nonconformity is a big space of overlap between my autism and lesbianism. Femininity feels so restrictive to me, both as a gender nonconforming lesbian and as a woman with autism. One of the symptoms of autism is feeling distress when confronted with certain textures and sensations, and the physical sensation of femininity–the textures, the pinching and the pulling, the feeling of having something ‘put on’–it’s all but unbearable to my autistic brain, and feels incompatible with my mode of gender presentation. When young Boo from Orange is the New Black said “I look like a thumb” while wearing an uncharacteristically frilly dress, I felt that. I don’t perform femininity because I can’t. In a physical sense, I cannot stand the sensation. In a mental sense, I cannot stand the idea of being perceived as a feminine woman.
I can only speak to my own experience, of course. Many traditionally feminine lesbian, heterosexual, and bisexual women are autistic, and many are not. Many, many women go undiagnosed for years. One theory behind why so many women and girls go undiagnosed is the idea that female children are raised to not cause a scene, to not stand out too much, to be secondary and submissive. Autism traits tend to directly conflict with these expectations, so many girls tend to mask them. This phenomena is often called Chameleoning. The model for autism is built around boys. Women’s health has always been secondary. Many autism symptoms in girls are written off as anxiety or depression. It’s no wonder why so many girls, myself included, fall through the cracks.
Being gay and being autistic have shaped my life in ways beyond my control. Because of these things, I’m comfortable living outside the lines. I have no other choice. Gay society was formed outside the lines, and autism impacts the way I engage in that world. Gay socialization has to be somewhat subtle, and subtleties and autism aren’t exactly compatible. I can’t tell if a girl is being friendly or friendly with me, and I can’t meet an inviting gaze. Online dating has helped, sure, but I still assume everyone is friendly until proven interested. Gay clubs, some of our only spaces, are overstimulating to me. Even Pride, the time of year we look forward to the most, can be intensely overwhelming for me. But, you know what? I go anyway. I go, and I’m awkward, and I can’t dance, and I immerse myself in the revelry and the discomfort. I can’t do it any different but I can do it.
Now gather ’round and let me tell you of the tale of a time when my autism and my lesbianism collided spectacularly. I was 18 and housesitting and swiping through Tinder, as one does. I matched with a girl and we messaged back and forth and agreed that she should come over to swim. She came over, we swam, we made a cake, she told me it felt nice when I traced her tattoos with my finger. Then she went home! It had never occurred to me that she might have meant something by that, or that coming over to a Tinder match’s empty house might suggest something of a date. This wasn’t a case of being a “useless lesbian”, it just did not occur to me. I have a hard time reading the intentions of others. I don’t get romantic intent until someone is on top of or underneath me. These things just don’t register with my mind! I shudder to think of all the missed opportunities I’ve simply not recognized as they went by.
I also recall that time I went to Dinah Shore and had…a time! I thought my issue was simply being introverted. But looking back, the bright lights, the loud music, and the social interaction were likely just interacting poorly with my autism. Do I regret it? Hell no! Would I go again once that’s a thing? Absolutely! Will I pack myself some tranquilizers next time? Maybe!
If anything, FOMO is the crux to my autism. I might be uncomfortable but I’ll be damned if I miss out!
I like being autistic. I love being gay. Sure, it can make existence in this society a bit…difficult, but these things are what make us who we are. I love being a woman and loving women, and I like being a little bit strange. For years I felt wrong, I just didn’t know why. Now, I have the words to put to these feelings and I know now that they’re not wrong. I’m autistic. I’m a lesbian. I’m me!