Double Rainbow: Navigating Autism, Gender, and Sexuality
Welcome to my guest blog series, Double Rainbow. I am very excited to be blogging for Bitch and for the opportunity to lend my voice to discussion about representations of autistic sexuality (and lack thereof) in popular media. I chose the title of my blog both as a playful reference to the "Double Rainbow" meme and as a reference to the fact that I am a lesbian on the autism spectrum. The aim of this blog is to explore and interrogate popular representations of autistic sexuality and gender performance from a queer, autistic perspective. (As a gender/cultural studies scholar, part of me insists that "queer, autistic" is redundant, but in this context I mean for it to refer to sexuality and gender and to signify non-heterosexual, non-cis identities.)
While—in my experience—many autistic self-advocates and bloggers tend to be quite sensitive to intersectional issues, autistic voices are difficult to find in feminist discourse outside of spaces with a distinctly third-wave-and-beyond sensibility, such as Bitch. To be fair, we have a hard time making ourselves known and heard anywhere outside of autistic spaces, particularly if we what have to say isn't what the non-autistic mainstream wants to hear and/or if we have to convey our thoughts and convictions through unconventional means. Those autistic people who are visible within mainstream discourse are tokenized and tend to support a paradigm that pathologizes, others, and silences any but the most "high-functioning" autists. For example, in his latest book, Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian, John Elder-Robison completely dismisses nonverbal autists and—despite the title—actively advises young "Aspergians" to avoid being too different and to essentially be as un-autistic as possible.
I have found that confronting popular representations of and attitudes toward autistic gender and sexuality often means being the "bad guy" and laying into stories, articles, and works that are perceived to be beyond reproach. For example, take a look at this piece on "Navigating Love and Autism" that ran last week in the New York Times as part of a series on autism. I would like to say that I am happy for Jack (who happens to be John Elder-Robison's son) and Kirsten, and certainly wish them no ill. Yet I find this ostensibly "uplifting" article incredibly frustrating. It has the usual gawking, othering tone, and the usual dehumanizing rhetoric like:
People with autism, Dr. Grandin suggested, can more easily put themselves in the shoes of an animal than in those of another person because of their sensory-oriented and visual thought process.
One line in particular jumps out:
Her blunt tip on dating success: '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.'
Gender normativity and backhanded homophobia in one "blunt tip." This is a statement made as part of a presentation in front of a group of young people with autism. No further comment is made on the remark in the NYT article, but it is deeply troubling. Not only are gay, lesbian, and trans* autists ignored and erased in the piece, we're actively shamed. There must have been young women in the audience during Jack and Kirsten's presentation who just feel more comfortable, more like themselves, in "man pants." There must have been young adults who are gay and/or genderqueer or trans*, or who are unsure of and are exploring their identities. The message they received was not that they are not alone and are worthy of love, but that they are undesirable. I know from first-hand experience that autistic youth are often already emotionally vulnerable. To be told that you are doubly broken, doubly unlovable and undesirable, because you are both autistic and queer, is devastating.
I hope that this blog series will provide an open and visible space in which to confront the erasure of autistic sexuality, particularly of queer sexuality, to interrogate the intersection of autism and gender performance, and to nudge these discussions toward the mainstream. Popular media is saturated with representations of autism; I certainly have plenty of material to address. Let me know if there is anything in particular—any film, book, or news story—that you think I ought to address. I look forward to exploring and discussing this topic with the Bitch community.
FWD: Feminists With Disabilities (although the site is no longer active, its archives are a fantastic resource)
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