Etiology Does Not Define Us


My latest special interest is the intersection of autism and gender, and as I’ve been reading I’ve noticed that one of the core concerns of service providers is whether gender nonconformity is CAUSED by autism or not. This is often followed up by assertions that for many autistics gender nonconformity is long lasting and thus should be treated.

I find myself mildly perplexed by the proximity of these two sentences, as if the underlying cause of a source of discomfort or identity somehow validates that identity, gives it a stamp of approval. My sense of gender is deeply entwined with my understanding of myself as autistic, but that does not make my gender less real or less important, less deserving of recognition or (if it were causing me distress) treatment. More important questions seem to me to be how intense the feelings are, if they do persist over time, how much they interfere with someone’s life, and how permanent the proposed solutions are.

This is just another example in the obsession with etiology that appears whenever we have someone who is different. Difference is ok if it’s 100% innate and you definitely can’t change it and it’s certainly not your fault because you didn’t choose it nuh uh not even a bit. If your difference came from some kind of grand a priori category handed down by God or Nature, then it is acceptable, but otherwise you’re just being different and we can’t accept it.

We see this in the way that many advocates have taken to the “born this way” language with gusto. You can’t criticize this sexuality because it’s innate, it’s natural (see: the naturalistic fallacy). We see it when people suggest that others aren’t REALLY asexual or lesbian or trans, but really they’re those things because of trauma or a medical problem or mental illness (as if those things aren’t completely real and valid reasons to have an identity). People are OBSESSED with the idea that choosing to be different could be bad, but if it’s something you’re stuck with I guess we have to accept it. But there are lots of pieces on why that kind of attitude isn’t actually super great, and how there actually would be nothing wrong at all if someone chose to be gay.

So why do we care if ASD is part of why someone feels gender dysphoria? Perhaps it’s true that people with ASD are less likely to be influenced by societal expectations of gender, and thus are less likely to conform to gender roles, so Person X is only trans because they’re autistic. So what? It’s not as if there’s some magic day in the future in which the autistic person will suddenly become neurotypical and their dysphoria will disappear. Those feelings are still real, and their identity is still real: it really truly doesn’t matter why they have the identity they do. Even if those feelings do change 20 years in the future, we all have that possibility with every choice we make. Why is it suddenly invalid for a disabled person to make long lasting decisions about their body and identity because they might regret it later? Disabled persons are due the same ability to make serious and potentially risky decisions that all of us have.

Sure, there are some instances in which the origin of a feeling seems to be important, like if someone on the spectrum was stuck in some major black and white thinking and thought that liking “girly” things made them a girl, but I find myself utterly confused as to why it matters otherwise WHY someone feels as if they’re a different gender so much as what the impact is on the person of those feelings and whether it would improve their quality of life to recognize them as a different gender.

Perhaps even worse is the implication that autistic traits are in some way invalid, temporary, disordered, or wrong. Traits that are part of autism are still real and valid. they’re not symptoms, they’re not going to go away when we get better. They’re who we are, and while sometimes we can come to better arrangements with our brains (improving executive functioning, lowering anxiety), the basic thought patterns ain’t gonna change.

My mental health and neurodivergence affects my identity in tons of ways. That doesn’t invalidate my identity, nor should it mean I don’t get to make identity affirming, serious, important decisions. Good gravy.

Do I Get to Be Queer?


I am on the asexual spectrum. I’m not sure if there’s a great word for me. I’ve slipped in and out of demisexual, but it’s never felt 100% correct. My sexuality is a flitting thing: it comes and goes as it pleases, often with no rhyme or reason. One day I’ll feel sexual attraction to my fiance in a perfectly normal fashion, the next it will disappear for a month, two months, six months.

It’s stressful, and I have yet to encounter a community that describes quite this experience or gives a name to it. I find that particularly difficult. It makes it feel as if my sexuality isn’t real. I still have not entirely convinced myself that I get to claim the word asexual, even though I am definitely not allosexual.

Which makes it even harder to talk about the word queer, or about being in the LGBTQIA+ community.

I consider myself an ally. I don’t like to use that word very often because if I have to tell someone I’m an ally I’m really not doing it right, but I think it’s important in this context to recognize that I explicitly think of myself as an outsider when it comes to queer spaces. When I go to gay clubs or pride, I only go with queer friends, and actively think of myself as a guest.

But here’s the thing: I don’t have a sexuality that fits into the norm. My sexuality has very directly impacted my life in ways that led to sexual assault, breakups, and dismissal by the people I love most. I very much struggle with the idea that oppression is what makes someone queer: if a gay person grew up in an accepting family and never experienced bullying, harassment, or cruelty because of their sexuality, they would still be gay. They would still be a part of the queer community. So I struggle to understand what exactly defines queerness, and who gets to decide what groups are part of that umbrella.

The best I can understand is that queerness has to do with disrupting the status quo. And as far as that is concerned, my sexuality certainly fits. It fits enough that it has disrupted every relationship I have ever been in. It disrupts enough that I have had a therapist ask me if it was maybe actually just my mental illness not my sexuality.

So why do I not feel comfortable identifying as such? Why do I still feel like an outsider at Pride, or other gay/queer spaces?

The question of whether or not asexuality fits under the queer umbrella is fairly hotly debated, with some people suggesting that aces don’t experience enough oppression to count and ace people suggesting that they feel alienated by mainstream conceptions of sexuality and would like a safe space to come together, just as other LGBT folks do.

I see a few reasons why aces SHOULD fit in queer spaces, as well as a few reasons why many queer spaces aren’t a good fit. Because I am constitutionally incapable of letting any question about my identity be until I’ve driven it into the dirt, I’m going to spend some time detailing those reasons, and the best definitions of “queer” as I understand them, to better get to the bottom of why I feel like I don’t get to claim that label and to understand if I should.

Let’s start at the end and work our way back: what IS queer?

There isn’t a single, great definition of queerness. But most definitions are explicit in saying that queerness is political. Nadia Cho suggests “Being queer is first and foremost a state of mind. It is a worldview characterized by acceptance, through which one embraces and validates all the unique, unconventional ways that individuals express themselves, particularly with respect to gender and sexual orientation.” Under this definition, anyone who actively embraces alternative genders and sexualities or who identifies as an outside the mainstream gender or sexuality, could be queer.

The Unitarian Universalist Association gives a breakdown of quite a few potential definitions:

-being attracted to more than one gender
-not fitting cultural norms with regard to sexuality/gender
-transgressive or challenging the status quo

Pflag suggests that “queer” means a nonbinary gender or sexuality.

Historically, queer was a slur, which means that for many people using it as an identifier today is all about reclamation. Some people focus on that element: on the oppression of it. I see three major definitions of “queer”: outside the norm (which some people define as heterosexual and cis), challenging the status quo, and oppressed with regards to sexuality or gender.

There are certainly some of these that don’t make sense with asexuality. Asexuality has nothing to do with being nonbinary, or with being attracted to more than one gender (although someone might experience romantic attraction or a gender identity in these ways and be asexual). I will suggest that these definitions don’t encompass all the identities we typically consider “queer”: for example we often include trans individuals under the queer umbrella, and that does not necessarily make someone nonbinary or attracted to more than one gender. However if we really do want to define queer by either of these definitions, then it would make sense for asexuality not to fall under that label.

Another reason that aces often don’t fit in queer spaces is that queer spaces can often be incredibly sexualized: Pride is often all about embracing sex and sexiness, queer people tend to gather in clubs, or at drag events. What aces need from their safe spaces isn’t always what gay, lesbian, bi, and pan folks need. Instead of wanting a place to express their sexuality, they often want somewhere that they can feel safe from sexuality. I’m not sure that this means aces aren’t queer, but it does mean that we need our own unique spaces.

The definition where the rubber seems to meet the road for many people is “oppressed with regards to gender or sexuality.” Many people who use the word queer have expressed frustration with the idea that aces could be part of their community when asexual people don’t experience the same oppression that trans, gay, bi, and lesbian folks do. And this is where we can talk facts instead of just debating which meaning seems or feels best to us.

Asexual people have and do experience oppression. Our identities are invalidated, called fake, mocked, and ignored, often by people who claim to be progressive. More often than not, asexual people are told they’re broken, sick, or need therapy (and yes, saying that someone’s sexuality is an illness is definitely oppressive). We’re erased from media, from sex education, from discussions of diversity. We’re told we’ll never be happy and that no one will want us if we won’t have sex. If you believe that oppression is only when someone’s rights are taken away, then I suppose aces aren’t oppressed, but if you think the systematic erasure and dehumanization of a group isn’t oppression I don’t really know what to do with you.

Worse, it’s absolutely an ace experience to receive threats, abuse, rape, or violence because of our sexual orientation. Saying no to sex can be dangerous, especially if someone thinks that your reason for saying no isn’t good enough. I know very few aces who haven’t experienced some form of violence or abuse because of their orientation.

Beyond all of this, no personal individual has to experience oppression in order to be queer. There are white, rich, cis, gay men who have never encountered discrimination in their personal lives but no one is denying their right to be a part of the community. Oppression simply doesn’t make sense as a litmus test.

So how DO aces fit into the queer community?

Well I’d say the biggest and most obvious way is that they’re a sexual minority, and just as non hetero or cis identities challenge the status quo, so do non allo identities. Compulsory sexuality is a huge part of how society today understands relationships and sexuality, and it is deeply tied to heteronormativity and monosexuality. When you live an identity that questions whether sex is a necessity for a happy and fulfilled life, you challenge the status quo. In fact asexuality is so far outside the status quo that many people still don’t believe it exists. If queerness is about being different, well asexuality DEFINITELY fits.

And as an ace, the most important reason that I want to be a part of the queer community is because I want a community where I don’t feel like an outsider, where I don’t feel judged, and where I don’t feel that others think I’m broken. Obviously queer communities aren’t perfect and may still act negatively towards aces, but the idea of having a connection with other people who feel that their sexuality is different sounds very important and positive to me. Aces, as a minority community have said that they want to feel that sense of belonging, and that sounds important to me.

At the end of all this, I still don’t feel as if I should make a strong statement about whether asexuality fits within the queer spectrum, because I am cis and hetero. What I will say is that I can’t fully understand arguments against it, and I do see a benefit to including it. If the queer community wants me, I’d be happy to be a part of it.