Gendervague: At the Intersection of Autistic and Trans Experiences
I’m an autistic activist deeply invested in queer politics, and I’ve managed to fumble my way around without ever developing a conventional understanding of gender. Growing up, everyone around me assumed I was a girl based on the genitals I was born with, but I always felt deeply uncomfortable with being labeled a “girl” or “woman.” I don’t feel like a woman, but I know I’m not a man either. I now identify as genderqueer or non-binary. It wasn’t until partway through college, though, before I began to question what gender might mean to me, my explorations largely kindled by developing important relationships with many openly trans autistic people through my activism.
In fact, such a huge proportion of the autistic community identifies as trans, genderqueer, non-binary, or genderless that we’ve developed numerous in-jokes and in-group terminology to describe our particular intersection. More recently, I’ve started referring to myself as gendervague, a term coined within the autistic community to refer to a specifically neurodivergent experience of trans/gender identity. For many of us, gender mostly impacts our lives when projected onto us through other people’s assumptions, but holds little intrinsic meaning.
Click to learn more in the National LGBTQ Task Force’s joint statement on the rights of autistic transgender and gender non-conforming people!
Someone who is gendervague cannot separate their gender identity from their neurodivergence – being autistic doesn’t cause my gender identity, but it is inextricably related to how I understand and experience gender. Autistic people’s brains are fundamentally different from those of anyone who is assumed to be “normal” or “healthy.” For many (but certainly not all) autistic people, we can’t make heads or tails of either the widespread assumption that everyone fits neatly into categories of men and women or the nonsensical characteristics expected or assumed of womanhood and manhood. Recent research has shown that autistic people are more likely to identify as transgender or genderqueer than non-autistic people. That’s not surprising to me, because I’ve met far more trans or genderqueer people in autistic spaces than I have anywhere else.
Many of us are used to being outcasts for our atypical communication, sensory experiences, emotional expressions, and behavior. For some of us autistic people, that constant outsider status makes it easier to figure out that we fall somewhere along the transgender or genderqueer spectrum since we’re already used to not fitting in, or at least, it’s harder for us to hide outward gender non-conformity. The advent of social media has also been a welcome boon for those of us uncomfortable with or incapable of consistent face-to-face interaction, allowing us to safely explore new concepts and meet people with similar experiences.
Similar to how mainstream society often pathologizes transgender identity, the dominant narrative around autism and other mental disabilities is also that we are broken and there is something wrong with us that requires psychiatric intervention. Despite the common intersection of autistic and trans identity, however, much of the trans movement rejects neurodiversity and by extension, many disabled trans people. In the rush to affirm the validity of trans identities and experiences, trans movements frequently practice disavowal of neurodivergent and other disabled people. The common refrain, “Being transgender isn’t a mental illness, so there’s nothing wrong with us!” results in real harm to all people with mental disabilities, but especially those of us at this intersection. While being transgender is of course distinct from having a psych disability, the implicit assumption is that those who are really mentally ill should be subject to coercive treatment, paternalistic care models, and social stigma as broken or unstable.
That pattern of disavowal directly contributes to erasure of autistic and other neurodivergent trans people. In classrooms, group homes, and our parents’ houses, we are told that our gender identities are fake because we’re autistic. If placed under guardianship – common for many adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities – we can be legally prevented from even going to LGBTQ meet-ups by an anti-trans caregiver. Autistic trans people of color face high risk of criminalization, police violence, and incarceration. Trans autistic children are especially vulnerable to behavior plans that include cisgender normalization alongside forced suppression of autistic traits, while gender-affirming expressions or explorations risk harsh compliance-based punishment in schools.
With a trans movement that often rejects neurodivergent people in its fight for acceptance and validation, autistic trans people are left in the lurch. In the fight to legitimize our existence as worthy and valuable, we need to reject the refrain that there’s nothing wrong with us while there is something wrong with them. We deserve movements that recognize and affirm experiences that cannot be easily separated into trans or autistic issues only, especially given the commonalities of the oppression we face. It’s okay to be autistic and trans, and it’s okay for those things to be related and overlap. I’m excited to be working for the National LGBTQ Task Force this summer, where I have been encouraged and supported in working on all issues from an intersectional framework, without having to silo aspects of my identities. Effective activism for trans rights, let alone trans liberation, requires not only a recognition of the parallels and connections in our issues and experiences, but active commitment to intersectionality with neurodiverse communities.
Click to learn more in the Task Force’s joint statement on the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming autistic people!
by National LGBTQ Task Force Holly Law Fellow Lydia XZ Brown