July 18, 2020

What if we really are this queer?

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 3:11 pm by chavisory

A research study on sexual orientation among autistic people, actually published a couple of years ago but recently making the rounds of social media, has found that just under 70% of autistic respondents identified as non-heterosexual, whether they be LGBTQ+, or on the asexual spectrum, or both. While this may sound like an incredibly high number, it roughly accords with both anecdotal accounts from within the autistic community over the years, and my own (very rough) estimates of what might be the case, loosely extrapolated from earlier studies on the rate of transgender identification and gender non-conformity among autistic youth tending to find rates seven to eight times higher than among non-autistic teens.

While the underlying reasons for these results is not yet well-understood, a very common response to them is that rates of non-heterosexuality are probably actually similar in the non-autistic population, but that autistic people are simply more honest, or are less impacted by heteronormative socialization, care less about social disapproval, or do not pick up on social messages of disapproval around gender and sexuality like non-autistic people do.

I both find these explanations unconvincing, and think we should be very cautious of embracing them, for several reasons.

1. There is ample evidence that autistic people are perfectly capable of perceiving negative messaging from our social environments. No, we don’t necessarily do it as well or in the same ways as non-autistic people. But autistic adults have written endlessly about picking up anti-autistic and ableist messaging from our environments and internalizing those attitudes. Even if no one giving us these messages even knew what autism was, we readily picked up on the fact that it wasn’t considered okay to be the way we were. We frequently realized that people didn’t like us or considered us weird even when parents and other adults explicitly denied that was the case. We learned to suppress stimming and how to fake eye contact in many cases without even being explicitly told to.

And compared to anti-autistic messaging, homophobic messaging in our society during the time many of us were growing up was very, very overt. In many places, it still is.

The controversy over Ellen’s coming out (and that it nearly ended her television career), the murder of Matthew Shepherd, the nasty comments made about teachers suspected of being lesbians, the fact that “gay” was one of the more common insults available…these were features of my early teen years.

Believe me, I did not miss the memo that it was considered wrong and looked down upon to be gay or bisexual when I was growing up (there was much less mainstream recognition of asexuality, let alone asexual spectrum orientations like demisexuality). It was not especially subtle. I don’t know how much people realize this who didn’t grow up in proximity to evangelical Christianity (which my family did not follow, but its cultural presence was hard to miss), or in socially conservative parts of the country, or during the culture wars of the 1990’s, but it did not go unspoken. It was not subtle.

Hannah Gadsby said in a recent interview, “If I could’ve been more feminine, I would’ve been. Where I grew up, that would’ve made my life a whole lot easier.” I probably would’ve, too, if I’d known how. I didn’t know how. I couldn’t meet those expectations; I didn’t just not understand they existed.

Which isn’t to say that ableism isn’t often spoken aloud, or that subtle manifestations of homophobia can’t be harmful.

But I think there’s a particular danger of this narrative, too, to autistic youth in parts of the country where homophobic and transphobic messaging is still very overt, that it doesn’t matter as much what they hear because they won’t absorb or be as affected by it.

Because we know that autistic youth absorb and are profoundly affected by ableist and anti-autistic messages even when they are relatively subtle.

Why would queer autistic youth not be by homophobic ones?

2. I don’t think most people are being fundamentally dishonest about their most visceral experiences of attraction and desire, and I do not think making this assumption sets a good precedent.

I’ve written about this before, but I just don’t think that our media environment is pervaded with assumptions about how sexuality works for most people….because they’re actually all lying about it and this relatively small fraction of us (most of whom are not autistic) are the only ones who didn’t get the message that we were supposed to.

I don’t think that generations of queer people have been met with shock, rage, and confusion upon coming out to their families, that a shocking percentage of kids living on the street are queer because they were kicked out of their homes for it, or that the existence of an organization like PFLAG was necessitated to help straight parents come to understand and accept their gay kids, if nearly everyone really was queer and just denying it.

We don’t like being told that we’re not capable of knowing our own minds. We don’t like it for good reasons. We object when people tell autistic trans youth that they’ve just been brainwashed into thinking they’re trans and deny them gender-related healthcare. Or self-identified autistic people that they only think that because they’re quirky or awkward and autism is an internet fad.

“You only think you’re what you say you are because that’s what society told you” is not a rhetorical stance I think we should be adopting.

People have a right to self-identify and by and large I think we should believe them.

I also don’t think we should present identifying one way or another as more honest or virtuous, or imply that someone who says they’re straight is categorically more likely to be lying.

Someone’s professed orientation should not be a moral issue and we should not make it one.

3. Differential interpretation of available data is not necessarily dishonesty.

Both the beauty and the horror of the human mind, I was saying to a friend recently, is that it’s capable of assembling data into narrative in a basically infinite number of ways. We often like to believe that if other people had the same information we do, they would draw the same conclusions or the same logical consistencies from it, but that is often not true at all.

Many people, for instance, believe that if only I knew what they knew about how some people are affected by autism—that some autistic people are intellectually disabled, or can’t speak, or self-injure, or need intensive help with activities of daily living—that I would be in favor of curing or preventing autism, at least in some cases. But I do know those things, and I still don’t agree. The fact that we have access to the same information but draw different conclusions from it doesn’t mean any of us is being dishonest or disingenuous or only saying what we’re saying out of fear of disapproval, rather than that we see that information differently, interpret it differently, and genuinely disagree about the best possible course of action based on that information.

Likewise, among the populations peripheral to the autistic community–the people we refer to as autistic cousins, as belonging to the Broad Autism Phenotype, or simply as neurodivergent but without being able to categorize someone exactly and definitively as belonging to a specific diagnostic category, there probably are people who could in all honestly identify as autistic, but who don’t, for a variety of reasons. Some may really just be in denial. Some may not be ready in their own minds to identify as autistic yet, but will eventually. Some never will because they don’t feel the weight of their experience justifies it. They may be right or they may be wrong but the rest of us generally take them at their word as far as their own experiences.

Conversely, within the LGBTQ+ community, we recognize that though in many cases, the terms “bisexual” and “pansexual,” among others, may be being used by different people to describe extremely similar patterns of attraction, there are subtle distinctions between them which are meaningful to some people but not others. (I somewhat suspect that the same may be true for the categories of “demisexual” and “gray-ace.”)

mr buress with a psa
[Image is a meme of comedian Hannibal Buress, a black man in glasses, depicted with four multicolored emblems representing the pride flags of bisexuality, omnisexuality, pansexuality, and polysexuality. It is captioned to read “These broadly overlap but the distinction matters to some people and that’s okay.”]

One thing we do know is that autistic people prioritize information differently than non-autistic people, that we tend to show a bias for specific, localized information over broad, generalized information.

And so one thing I think may be happening, not even just between autistic and non-autistic people, is that some fraction of people may experience incidental same-sex or same-gender attractions, but not as significant enough in the grand scheme of things, in their overall pattern of attraction, to identify as queer or bisexual rather than straight. While another person, for a hundred different possible reasons, including but not limited to an information-processing style that prioritizes specific over generalized information, may experience or interpret those attractions as meaningful enough to identify as bisexual or queer.

Neither of these people is necessarily being dishonest or hiding the truth from themselves, rather than assembling information in a way that feels most meaningful to them.

I think that’s something we should actually honor, rather than suggesting that they’re either brainwashed or too fearful to be true to themselves.

It probably is the case that more people are queer than currently self-identify as such, because internalized homophobia does exist, and because we live in a society that in so many ways can make it hard to find good, non-judgmental information about the real variety of experiences and identities that exist in the world, much as it is the case that autism is likely still under-diagnosed, because of a whole range of prejudices and lack of accurate information made available to families, and yet it is not the case that “Everyone’s really on the spectrum somewhere!”

And like the “Everyone’s a little autistic!” line, which we rightly hear as a dismissal, it hamstrings the ability of queer people to talk about actually being different from the majority in important ways.

Just like I don’t believe that so many autistic youth go through our childhoods feeling lonely and alienated to the point of deciding that we’re not really human at all because we really are just like everyone else, I do not believe that so many queer youth go through our early lives feeling alone and ashamed because a stunning majority of our peers really are just like us, but that we alone (including non-autistic queer people) just didn’t get the memo that we’re not supposed to be that way.

4. If we really are more queer on average than the non-autistic population, why would that be wrong?

Why would that be undesirable?

Why do we even feel the need to reach immediately for this explanation that “Oh no, we’re not really more likely be queer, we’re just more honest about it?”

So what if we were?

Why would it even be implausible? We don’t know that much about how exactly sexual orientation originates to begin with, but like autism (in most cases), it doesn’t seem to be the result of one “gay gene” or “straight gene,” but rather a complex interplay of many factors, both genetic and environmental. The affirmative declaration of the gay community for years and years was “Born this way,” and while there’s been some backlash to that in recent years—that it shouldn’t matter whether people are born queer or choose to be, our mistreatment on that basis is still wrong—progressive society now tends to accept sexuality as innate enough so as to make it not just wrong, and harmful, but probably useless, to try to change or cure it.

The same is (slowly) coming to be considered true of autism. That yes, while it poses certain challenges and often requires particular supports, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it.

We also know that autism is highly correlated with other complex conditions, for reasons we don’t totally understand, that are definitely physiological and not a matter of personal interpretation of experiences, like Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and epilepsy. There’s also a whole raft of more nebulous conditions like alexithymia and prosopagnosia whose precise relationship to autism (whether they’re “genetic stowaways,” or result from the inherent neurological differences that comprise autism, or are downstream consequences of those processing differences) is still unclear.

When discussing those conditions, we don’t tend to say “But probably they occur in non-autistic people at similar rates. We’re just more honest about it because we’re not affected by social pressures the same way.” At least not that I have ever heard.

Why when it comes to gender variance or sexuality do we reflexively feel the need to attribute some higher virtue to our identification, or emphasize that it’s not really that more of us are? When we don’t do that with regard to other aspects of identity or disposition whose relationships to autism we don’t really understand yet?

Why could it not be the case that some aspect of autistic neurology or development gives rise to a higher rate of non-heterosexuality than more typical neurology or development does?

What would be wrong with that if it did?

6 Comments »

  1. AspieJedi said,

    Wonderful! We already know that one gene can affect many things we wouldn’t suspect so why should autistic genetics and the intersection of different gender identities and sexualities be so surprising?

  2. I really like this post. I’ve been hesitant for years either to identify as bi or as autistic, but there’s definitely some of each of those in me. The part that puzzles me is that some people find these things easy to discover and define, and I don’t at all. It’s so complicated! Nothing is binary. I go through quizzes and answer everything “sometimes.” Lolol. But it’s nice to know I’m not the only one.

    • chavisory said,

      It’s been like a defining experience of my whole life that I just can’t answer surveys the way survey designers apparently think I should be able to answer surveys. So few things in my life are binary, and so little works the way other people apparently think it’s supposed to. Even on stuff like unemployment filings and other bureaucratic forms–nothing about my life can be categorized in the available categories, and I can just wind up feeling illegible to the systems that other people can depend on to make sense of their lives.

  3. tombrailli said,

    Thanks for posting this, it is very thoughtful and very well written as ever. I broadly agree.

    I find it very hard to believe the 70% (or 69.7%) figure cited in the report, particularly coupled with 30% of NTs identifying as non-hetero. This is much higher than typically found – the ONS says that around 95% of people over 16 identify as hetero, and it’s even higher than Kinsey estimated. That report is a real outlier that probably has sampling issues.

    That said, I don’t think there’s any serious doubt that autistic people are more likely to be queer, and vice versa.

    The main thing I want to raise is your point #2, concerning whether autistic people might be more willing to publicly identify as queer. Like you, I believe in respecting people’s self-identity as a fundamental right. That said, I think there’s a jump between that and assuming that there are very few closeted people, particularly among older generations. We see today that there are far more openly trans young people than in the past. I can only think that this is because young trans people feel more able, for whatever reason, to publicly identify as trans. Of course there have always been LGBT+ people who have come out in the face of ridicule, but there are many who only come out late in life or never at all.

    I want to avoid publicly speculating, but personally I think it’s likely that multiple factors are at play. Autistic people are both genuinely more likely to be queer, and more likely to be comfortable indicating that they are queer to someone on a survey. I think, personally, that if I was NT I’d probably be much more comfortable describing myself as straight – “close enough!” – rather than searching for a better answer.

    • chavisory said,

      I definitely think that the study has sampling issues, and these results need further and broader study. I don’t actually find the rate hard to believe at all (and I think the rate of non-heterosexual identification among the general population in the US anyway is now closer to 1/10). It pretty closely tracks with my personal/anecdotal experience of the autistic community. But I could entirely see reasons why the real rate (to the extent we can even apply the term “real” to a somewhat porous and subjective experience) could be lower…or could be even higher.

      I don’t think I’m making a jump between fundamentally respecting people’s right to self-identify and assuming that there are very few closeted people, though. I’m mainly taking issue with the framings that autistic people are more likely to identify as LGBTQIA+ because we’re more honest or less affected by social disapproval. I do think there are probably still a significant number of closeted people. But I’m very skeptical either of claims that “everybody’s actually queer,” or that…we just didn’t absorb or understand the social stigmas involved.

      But I can also very much see a partial explanation, at least for some of us, that we may be more comfortable indicating identification as LGBTQIA+ for a variety of possible reasons. At this point I’m still very much of the mind that there are probably multiple factors involved, both social and physiological/neurological.

  4. Great post. I have never encountered a topic like this at all.


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