As a community, we rarely ever acknowledge autistic lesbians. We know, naturally, that some lesbians are on the spectrum, but autism and lesbianism are treated as two completely different and unrelated identities. Today is Lesbian Day of Visibility, so let’s visibilize this unique experience, too.
Author’s Note: When I contacted Rainbow Roo to offer to write this article, I did not anticipate that it would be so hard. Autistic lesbianism is a concept I had been thinking about a lot, but it was the first time I had the opportunity to write about it. It’s a topic that is at the intersection of so many others, it requires so much defining, explaining, and justifying, that I almost wanted to give up. I hope it can serve as a basis for discussions, debates, and self-reflection for people who recognize themselves in my words.
Autism impacts everything. It impacts the way you think, the way you live your life, the way you understand yourself. The only reason why so few people understand how deeply it can affect one’s sexual and romantic orientation is because sitting at the intersection of homophobia and ableism is not a good place to have your voice heard. I happen to have the stage today, so let me tell you a story - the story of how I started masking.
To get all readers on the same page, I’ll start with a widely accepted definition of masking. Essentially, masking is a conscious or subconscious attempt to appear allistic, or non-autistic. It requires two things. The first one is shutting down all external signs of “otherness”, like flapping my hands or rocking. I was not good at it. Throughout my whole education, you could find me rocking on my chair to focus on my math problem, flapping my hands when I had gotten a good grade on my French test or playing with a hair elastic because I needed my hands to do something.
What I was good at, however, was the second feature of masking: observing my neurotypical friends and copying some behaviours I perceived as “normal”. I was raised as a theatre kid, so I already had a lot of make-believe practice to back me up. This capacity allowed me to blend in somewhat and make some friends. I was still the weirdo of the group, mind you, but not a totally isolated weirdo.
So, what did I copy? Well, that’s a tough question. You see, I was only diagnosed with autism at age 20, so that process of masking was mostly subconscious. This means that not only was I unable to easily drop the act, but I didn’t even know what was the act in the first place. Did I start crossing my legs while sitting because I found it comfortable, or because I interpreted it as “sitting normally”? Did I grow my hair out because it looked pretty on me, or because girls are supposed to? Do I even like the colour blue, or did I adopt it as my favourite colour because everyone around me told me it was theirs?
Those concerns are not unique to me, or to autistic people, of course. We all construct parts of our identity in response to peer pressure in childhood, but it affects autistic people and autistic girls in a particularly strong way. We are especially vulnerable to loneliness, isolation and bullying. I had spent most of my time in primary school alone and othered by pupils and teachers alike, so acceptance became vital when I entered a middle school where I did not know anyone. Unfortunately, that is not quite how it went down.
In sixth grade, I was only beginning to mask. My behaviour was still perceived as odd, and it most often came up as adults and classmates calling me out for a perceived aggressiveness I could not understand. I thought of myself as a timid and soft-spoken child, but looking back, I was also frank, gestured a lot and would stare at people for seemingly no reason. This came to a head in Physical Education class, in the swimming pool’s lockers.
“She’s been peeking while I changed! She’s a freaking dyke!”
This accusation (completely unfounded, I was ten years old and also minding my business) started a months-long bullying campaign against me, and irrevocably linked my “otherness” to a predatory attraction to women. This did not help me to accept that I actually did like girls – I still came out as bi to some friends about a year later, but never dated girls or even confessed my crushes to them until well into high school.
This is a classic experience with lesbophobia, but it reinforced my need to hide my “otherness”, which now included my romantic orientation. But as you may remember, I was not so good at hiding.
I was great at imitating, though.
There started a frenzy of crushes on both male celebrities and classmates. I was assumed to be in love with a boy, because “normal girls get crushes”, and so I was. It seemed real to me, too. I never questioned the fact that whenever I managed to get a boyfriend, I immediately daydreamed about the relationship ending.
This phenomenon, believing you love men when you don’t, is once again not unique to autistic lesbians. Its name is “compulsory heterosexuality”, and potentially anyone can be affected by it. The difference with autism is that it integrates with the mask, so as long as you’re not actively working to drop it, you’re unlikely to find out why dating men feels so off.
My lesbian realization came as I was working on my mental health and untangling what was part of my mask and what was part of my actual personality. I was dating a man at the time, and for various reasons, the relationship was making me miserable. It was, however, instrumental in my introspection, because I had to wonder why I was not falling in love. In pretty much all respects, this man was perfect for me – sweet, funny, caring, you name it. If I could only love one man, certainly it would be him. And yet – I couldn’t. Ergo, I couldn’t love any man at all.
“I’m a lesbian” is possibly the most freeing sentence I have ever said. It made so much sense, and it felt so good. No more men, no more heterosexuality. I effortlessly slipped into the role of the butch lesbian like it was a tailored suit. Being a lesbian brought me more joy in a few months than being bisexual ever did. It felt right. There was – and still is – no doubt in my mind that I need to be lesbian to be truly happy.
And then it fell apart.
So, what happened? Nothing. Lesbianism is surprisingly hard to maintain. I have yet to unlearn that my self-worth is based on how much attention men are giving me. I have yet to fully drop the mask. It’s difficult, it takes time, and it was naive of me to expect my transition to lesbianism to be frictionless.
So yes, I am a lesbian. I also date men, sometimes. You might argue that makes me bisexual and you would not be wrong. I don’t think you would be right either.
Calling myself bi, at this point, would be an admission of defeat. My mask wins, heteronormativity wins, and I lose. I owe it to myself, and to all the autistic lesbians in my community, not to go back. The least I can do is to tell my story and keep moving forward.
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