Autistic individuals with minority sexual or gender identities can face a unique set of challenges, having to navigate the intersections between two sets of identities not yet fully understood by the straight, cisgender and neurotypical majority. To mark World Autism Awareness Day, two members of Ireland’s autistic LGBT+ community have chosen to share their experiences.
For young bisexual woman Catherine Hoskins, coming to understand the intersections between her sexuality and her autism spectrum disorder has been “a very confusing but positive experience.”
“I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder way before I came out as bi,” Catherine says. “So for the longest time, I had a strange feeling around any attraction that I wasn’t able to understand. Especially why I felt that way. I think at first, I brushed it off as awkwardness. But when I finally came out, everything just clicked into place. I gained such a greater understanding of who I am and learned more about the communities I belong to.”
Trans man Max Butler also remembers early difficulties in understanding his identity. “I think that being autistic made it very difficult to fully discover and embrace my queer identity,” he says. “Even very basic things like interacting with others, exploring my sexuality, expressing my feelings and so on were very difficult. I wasn’t aware until I was 15 that I was on the spectrum but before that, I’d already made some mistakes in regard to relationships that meant there were certain aspects I didn’t approach for many years, mainly because I thought it was entirely my fault.”
Nonetheless, Max recognises a plus side to having grown up autistic. “It also helped me to embrace certain things, he says, “because I couldn’t see the point of hiding them. I didn’t have an issue with saying things as they were for me, even if that’s shocked some people and so I suppose it’s why I’ve always been able to find and befriend other queer people fairly easily. If I see that I share something in common, I just go for it, which was pretty valuable in secondary school when such things were largely hush hush.”
An inclusive community
The LGBT+ community, Max emphasises, have always been welcoming when’s he’s needed them. Having been involved in his college LGBT+ society during his time at university, he no longer feels the need for such a tight-knit group. “I honestly don’t feel very connected to the LGBT+ community,” he says. “I was involved in that space when I was in college and I was very comfortable there but I think for me, the need for inclusivity hasn’t been very important.”
“No one has ever said I can’t be part of a space because I’m trans and/or autistic,” he adds, “but I just don’t have a space where I fit anymore. I did in college but once I became a postgraduate, I felt the difference, a disconnect which I think largely arose because I was older and had different concerns than many of the people I was interacting with. I’m not a student anymore, I don’t fit into that space but I don’t feel the need to go out of my way to seek a community space for myself either.”
Catherine, too, has always felt included by her neurotypical LGBT+ peers. “I feel very connected to the LGBT+ community,” she says. “People have been so friendly and understanding and I feel so welcomed and proud to be part of the community.”
As a trans man, Max admits he has heard “horror stories about autistic people trying to access trans healthcare.”
Nonetheless, he says, “In my own experience, I’ve found that it hasn’t made things any more difficult. I didn’t lie about my gender identity or pretend to be neurotypical and I think having a chance to talk about both was very beneficial for me.
“It’s not about labels or anything. I am trans, I am autistic, I am queer, those are just parts of me, they aren’t the only parts but I think they’re inseparable from the true me. I’d had advice to lie or play down the autism based on what I’d heard from others and while I was anxious about revealing those details, I need not have been. If a healthcare professional is as good as they’re meant to be then they know that being trans is actually quite common on the spectrum so if they say to you that you can’t know what you’re talking about simply because you’re autistic then they’re the one at fault, not you.
He emphasises that the abilities and confidence levels of those on the autism spectrum can vary widely, and that other individuals can need more support. “My communication skills are very good,” he says, “and my college life definitely helped with that so I understand that my experience isn’t everyone’s.”
A creative outlet
Catherine, an artist, finds enormous value in creative work as a means of expressing the complex emotions at play in her life as a queer, autistic individual. She says “My work is definitely influenced by my identities. Especially emotionally. Being LGBT+ and Autistic each come with their own unique struggles, not to mention all the different nuances in the intersections of those identities.
“It’s cathartic to take the sense of fear, frustration, and also positive emotions, and turn it into something new. It can be applied across a varied range of genres too, from a suspenseful horror to a sweet and fun queer romance.”
Words of wisdom
Asked to offer some advice for young autistic LGBT+ people, Max is firm in his conviction that those living with minority identities can be themselves and find a sense of belonging.
“I’m sure that everyone says that you aren’t alone,” he says, “and it sounds like one of those things that people say to make you feel better. You know, a little patronising but it’s true. There are a stunning number of queer people on the spectrum, you aren’t alone, you aren’t the odd one out. You aren’t weird for being queer and autistic, hell, you aren’t weird for being either of those things and no one should make you feel ashamed for being yourself. No one should try to change you and you shouldn’t let them.”
Catherine wants to remind young people “that you’re never too young or old to discover your identity. Especially when it comes to the intersections of being queer or autistic. I felt like I should have known when I was younger but I’m here now and that’s all that matters. And remember that there’s a friendly welcoming community here for you in Ireland, ready to support you.”
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