Kirsten Lindsmith on Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, and Autism
Recently, an article appeared in the New York Times featuring my boyfriend, Jack, and me. It was about how autism affects romantic relationships, though really it was about how our autism affects our relationship. Every relationship is different, and every autistic is different.
One criticism of the article that really resonated with me was about my comment about how learning to dress differently opened me up to more romantic venues. I said, “A lot of it is how you dress. I found people don’t flirt with me if I wear big man pants and a rainbow sweatshirt.” Now, like many autistics, I have trouble communicating my thoughts and intentions when speaking aloud. I am far more eloquent in text, thankfully, but nevertheless, my speech difficulties lead me to say things like this. I want to clear up exactly what I meant, because out of context, this statement can be quite hurtful to many people. After my explanation, I want to address the larger picture behind the controversy: the autism world is currently extremely hetero-normative.
Now, the quote was part of a larger story. When I was in high school I cut my hair myself. I always kept it short, going so far as to simply cut as close to my scalp as I could with thinning shears. I wore ill-fitting men’s clothing from thrift stores, and I had an obsession with rainbows. I had a rainbow belt that was my grandmother’s in the 60s that I wore every day, I wore rainbow pins on my backpack, and I painted rainbows on my clothes with acrylic paint. I didn’t learn until the end of high school from some classmates that plenty of boys had thought I was cute, but everyone had just assumed I was a lesbian because of how I presented myself. Interesting, isn’t it? Without even realizing it, I was advertising a social niche. I was sending non-verbal signals about my identity to those around me.
Visual images telegraph quite a bit about identity to the community. Would you assume a male college student wearing a football jersey and a backwards baseball cap might be a sports fan, or a “jock”? Why? What would you think of the same boy with dreadlocks and a baggy sweatshirt? How about if that same boy wore a dress?
Many autistics are logical, straightforward thinkers. Is this shirt clean? Am I wearing pants? Ok, ready to go. For most of my life I put little if any thought into how I dressed, or how I wore my hair. I wore pigtails because a favorite cartoon character wore pigtails. My favorite shirt had a wolf on it because I liked wolves, and light-up sneakers sure were neat. As I got older it still never clicked. I wore a lot of teal because it was my favorite color, just like I wore rainbows because rainbows are pretty. I cut my hair short because I was too impatient to grow it out, and whenever I got bored, I would just cut it some more. I never once thought about how clothes could represent identity, beyond wearing a shirt with my favorite anime character on it.
I was a heterosexual girl, with no problems fitting into my assigned gender. Though I don’t consider myself extraordinarily girlie, I feel like a girl on the inside. I liked boys, yet I was communicating myself as off limits through my clothing. When I learned this, I started to make an effort to buy clothes more appropriate for the image I wanted to present. I started wearing skirts and dresses—and rainbow dresses ! And I began to grow out my hair. This in no way means that, if you’re a straight girl, to find love you have to turn into something you’re not. I never faked anything. I still wear clothes that I like. I still wear men’s clothes and rainbows sometimes too, though lately I’m making more of an effort to dress like an “adult,” whatever that means. I’ve found that I really enjoy having long hair. I can play with it and style it, and it’s an all around fun part of my body to have. I didn’t turn into someone I’m not to get male attention, though I’ll admit that I have tried and failed a few times. I simply learned how to speak the language of clothing.
If you’re a heterosexual girl who wants male attention but is so not girlie, then you don’t want to doll yourself up to attract guys who want something you’re not. If you want to wear baggy cargo pants and metal t-shirts and shave your head, go for it. Believe it or not, everyone is different, and sexuality is far from black and white. There are more than a few guys out there who will love your shaved head and non-conformist attitude. Or who will love your grandma sweaters and peasant skirts, or your dreadlocks, or your Mohawk. And guys, the same goes for you. You don’t need to like sports if you really couldn’t care less, and you don’t need to be something you’re not. Because even if you do end up attracting a mate by faking a role, you’ll never be happy with that person. You’ll have to keep on faking.
Now, something I have never once seen mentioned in any mainstream autism media is the fact that–gasp–autistic people can be gay, bi, trans, gender queer, or anything else for that matter. It’s hard enough for someone to whom social signals don’t come naturally to find a mate, let alone someone whose sexuality strays outside what’s considered the norm. How does an autistic teenage boy figure out whether the cute guy in his calculus class is gay or not? What about the autistic labeled by a driver’s license as “female” who doesn’t feel like either a girl or a boy? This stuff is hard even for neurotypicals, and autistics are basically left high and dry when it comes to sexuality in the first place.
As a straight, cis girl with only my own experience to draw from, I am in no way qualified to give advice on any of this. We live in a world where there are only two genders, and those genders are expected to always match up perfectly with biological sex. We live in a world where anything other than procreative intercourse is taboo enough to make most people uncomfortable, and any sexuality outside of heterosexual vaginal penetration is condemned. Why is it that a straight man that likes prostrate stimulation is seen as “gay,” even if it’s his wife he’s having sex with? There are so many problems with the way our culture addresses love and sex that I won’t try to get too far into it in this blog, but I will certainly write more on this in the future.
All I want to say for now is, if you’re reading this—yeah, you!—and you don’t feel like that daytime TV heterosexual, you’re not alone. Just because you don’t only like to have sex with a single someone of the opposite biological sex in missionary position with the man on top doesn’t make you a freak. If you’re a boy who wishes he could hug his friends like girls are allowed to, you’re not alone. If you’re a girl who’s sick of being judged the second you walk into a video game store, you’re not alone. If you’re a trans woman who can’t afford surgery who’s tired of being treated like some sexual pervert, you’re not alone.
We autistics are often classically considered to think in black and white absolutes, but I can’t think of anything more black and white than the modern view of sexuality and gender identity.
See more of Kirsten on Autism Talk TV.