BEING LGBTI brings a unique set of challenges in how we navigate our relationships and the world. For some people in our community, being on the autistic spectrum also means experiencing and managing things differently.
Autism (which is known formally as autistic spectrum disorder, and includes what was formerly known as Asperger syndrome) refers to a range of conditions of brain development. Some autistic people consider it a disability, while others think of it as just a difference.
Being both LGBTI and autistic is more common than you might think. In particular, up to about one in 10 young trans people are autistic, with another one in 10 having ‘autism traits’ like impaired social skills.
As far as sexuality goes, being asexual is much more common among folks on the autistic spectrum. Whether being autistic is related to being gay or bi is harder to find figures for, but ask someone with a lot of friends on the spectrum if they know many straight people, and you’ll get an idea.
Cory is a 24-year-old gay cis guy. He is involved in advocacy for LGBTI rights and for people with disabilities. He works with groups including Rainbow Labor Network Victoria, which works for equality and diversity, and Inclusive Labor, which addresses policymaking around people with disabilities.
He was diagnosed young and went to a school for autistic kids. Cory had a difficult relationship with his family because of his autism, which made coming out to them in his teens much more tumultuous.
“It was very challenging, growing up identifying as gay and also having Asperger syndrome,” he says. “Even the autism side of things was very challenging to my parents. Then it took them a lot to adjust to me being gay.”
Cory lost his job due to a company downturn a few years ago. He was unemployed for a year and a half. He was rejected for jobs because of his disabilities, which also include a significant vision impairment.
“I put myself out there as me, not someone who has autism,” he says. “But I had people in interviews ask me if I thought my disabilities may impact my ability to do the job.”
Cory believes the way he speaks and his problems with eye contact were what made interviewers notice his autism.
“They would actually say, ‘We notice you have a bit of autism.’ It would always end up with, well you can’t get the job.
“A lot of employers don’t like hiring people with disabilities,” he says. “It would be great for them to start thinking about looking at people with disabilities and give them a try at least.”
Senswide Employment, a “disability/gay friendly organisation”, finally helped Cory find work with a company that has a program to actively hire people with disabilities.
“At that time I thought I was the only person with autism who identified as gay,” says Cory. “I was blown away by that organisation. I learned there’s a lot of people out there who are gay and are somewhere on the spectrum.”
He now works in the tourism industry, where he’s been in an internal customer service job assisting other staff for two years. He’s learned skills like conversation and eye contact that don’t come naturally, but he can now use successfully at work. His manager is even helping him work towards stepping into a ‘front end’ role working with the public.
Cory’s partner of five years, who is not autistic, is very supportive. Their relationship is strong and they manage the occasional challenges that include Cory’s trouble reading emotions.
“He understands how I think, and sometimes he may need to push me a bit,” says Cory. “He’s incredibly understanding.
“I do not understand certain moods. For example, angry and annoyed sound very similar to me. He might be annoyed with me, and I take that as angry. So trying to understand the difference between the two is hard. And I’m a bit stubborn.”
In terms of whether he considers his autism to be a disability as such, Cory says, “I think it’s unfair on people with autism to be pigeonholed as having a disability. I would love for people to think of us as just human beings. It’s just who we are.”
Kylie*, a 27-year-old trans lesbian, does think of her autism as a disability.
“I hate it so much,” she says. “I hate being autistic way more than I hate being trans. There’s treatment for being trans, but there’s none for autism. I wish there was a cure.”
Kylie has known she’s autistic since she was 14. She finds the social impairments less troublesome than the physical symptoms.
“Because of sensory issues I have lots of problems doing ordinary things, like doing the dishes or listening to people speak,” she says. “I can’t filter everything else out to process speech like other people can.
“And I’ve got no fine motor control, so I’m very clumsy and keep walking into walls or falling down stairs. And I absolutely hate skin contact unless it’s really firm, like a tight hug.”
Kylie lives in Brisbane and is very sensitive to the heat, like many people with autism.
“There’s no social interaction when I can’t sleep due to it being 0.7 degrees hotter than usual,” she says. “Even in winter I have the air con on full blast.”
Kylie, a scientist, hasn’t had too much trouble with work.
“In research, there’s heaps of autistic people, so they’re used to it,” she quips. “Although the whole ‘autistic people being direct’ thing means I won’t accept bullshit and am always getting into trouble with management.”
Kylie finds her tendency to be direct with people is often helpful, particularly in situations like seeking medical help that are often challenging for trans people.
“I am quite frank and direct, and autism helps me look at my situation pretty objectively,” she says. “Because doctors typically know nothing about trans healthcare, we kind of have to become our own primary carers and advocates.”
Dr Gale Bearman from the Brisbane Gender Clinic and Gladstone Road Medical Centre specialises in LGBTI health, and trans health in particular. She finds autism is “overrepresented” in trans patients, and particularly in people whose gender is non-binary.
Sometimes for autistic people, “gender is not terribly important”, she says. In terms of providing healthcare, and potentially treatment for transition, the doctor’s role then includes establishing “what is disinterest in gender presentation, and what is non-binary gender”.
People who are both trans and on the spectrum “need more time and consideration” from their doctors, says Dr Bearman.
Rye*, 31, says he has a “deep-seated rejection of being male” that he’s recently begun addressing through therapy.
“If I could have chosen male or female before being born, if I got to pick the basic traits, genetically male wouldn’t be one of them,” he says.
“I’m actively annoyed with my anatomy. 90% of your day a penis and testicles are useless, if you aren’t peeing, having sex or masturbating.”
He has begun experimenting with aspects of feminine expression while he explores his gender.
“Any feminine thing I can get away with,” he says. “I keep my toenails painted, and I’ll paint my fingernails if I feel like it.”
Rye doesn’t remember having those kind of thoughts about gender as a child, and isn’t convinced at this stage that he thinks of himself as trans or should look at transition. He jokes that a friend called him “such a navel gazer that questioning gender identity was going to happen eventually”.
“It doesn’t provide me any resolution to the question of gender,” he says. “But when I get to present something non-masculine it gives me that much joy.”
Rye’s diagnosis of autism came only a couple of years ago.
“Work was telling me that I stood too close to people, wasn’t making eye contact with customers, listened to conversations I shouldn’t, was too blunt,” he says.
He became badly depressed, and it was while seeking mental health treatment that he was also diagnosed autistic.
Being aware of his autism has helped Rye manage social interactions better, to a degree.
“I have fixed some of it, but the more attention I give to it, the worse I feel,” he says. “My anxiety spikes pretty hard when I’m in a situation where I have to filter myself—how I stand, where I look.
“At the end of the day what helps me stay calm is not caring about my little differences.”
Rye is apprehensive about dating, having not been with anyone new since his diagnosis. He’s not sure how to broach the issue of being autistic with a new partner.
“There are sensory issues because of my autism, things I didn’t have a reason for before,” he says.
“The tamest example is I cannot have my stomach touched. A lover’s arm draped over me is an absolute no-go, so that’s one barrier I’ll have to cross.
“I think about it a lot though, how am I going to come out of the closet about being autistic to a new prospective partner? Does a hookup need to know? Third date? How is it going to come up—someone pointing out a symptom? These are things I don’t have a grasp of.”
Jarad, a cis guy in his thirties, was diagnosed with autism when he was five. He lives with other disabilities as well, including vision and hearing impairments. He came out as gay in his mid-twenties, but knew he was different from a young age.
“When I was about 14 I found a male centrefold in an old Cleo magazine,” says Jarad. “I remember thinking, why am I looking at these pictures of naked posing men, and not girls in bikinis? That was my first taste of seeing something that made me think I’m not heteronormative.
“It wasn’t until I looked on the internet and read a few books that the word homosexuality began to resonate with me, to form a perception of what this was. It took me quite a few years to get through the different stages of acceptance and not hiding who I was.”
Was coming to terms with his orientation different as a young person with autism?
“Oh yeah,” says Jarad. “It can be really turbulent, having a different sexual orientation.
“We’re taught from a very young age that you have a predetermined sex and gender, and you have to do this and be that. And when you get older and go through adolescence, you’re meant to be in a relationship with someone who is female and cisgender. You’re not meant to be doing anything with males. You’re not meant to be programmed that way, it’s not how the brain’s meant to be routed.”
As an adult, Jarad sees parallels between being gay and being autistic, in terms of subverting what society expects.
“There’s a lot of pressure on people not to be who they are, or who they’ve grown up to be,” he says. “There’s a lot of conformity in how a person has to behave and function.
“It’s like that when you’re autistic. You have all these different behavioural characteristics. Processing how a person is reacting to how you’re talking to them. Different functionalities in how you sense emotions, different body movements. The way our brains are developed, we do approach things a different way.”
Jarad finds dating as an autistic gay man is a challenge. He’s had a couple of hookups but not a longer relationship yet.
“I’ve had to be an expert in the art of celibacy,” he jokes.
“As a person with a disability, I hate not knowing how people are going to feel and react when you want to initiate an intimate relationship. Because they’ve probably never met anyone who does have your particular disability or impairment.
“One of the most common misconceptions about queer people with a disability is that we can’t initiate sexual activity. And we weren’t taught, so we pretty much had to teach ourselves. What is kissing, what is masturbation, what are oral and anal sex? I think it’s a sad indictment of the school curriculum.
“This is why Safe Schools is so important,” Jarad adds. “Because we still see same-sex activity as something that’s wrong, and it isn’t.”
Jarad’s not looking for a relationship yet, but would like to have more hookups. He says dating and being involved in the LGBTI community with a disability is “astonishingly different”.
“How do you start that type of discussion?” he says. “You have to figure out the emotional and social constructs, and the physical ones as well, of trying to get into a relationship.”
Jarad has experienced a lot of rejection because of his disabilities. He says LGBTI people talk about embracing diversity, but often “don’t like your particular kind of diversity”.
“You see ableist attitudes and behaviour a lot, even in the LGBTI community,” he says. “You go to events to meet people with the same appetites as you, and you have to jump through hoops to get them to pay attention to you.
“But they don’t want to have anything to do with you, and discard you because you don’t fit what they think is the stereotypical queer man. I hate that people don’t want to see the person from the inside. People who see you inside and out are a rare breed.”
Jarad is a strong advocate for the rights of people of autism and other disabilities. “You have to accept the full person,” he says.
“We need to work more on inclusiveness and equal rights. We need to bring in more diversity in leadership on committees and councils.
“And I think the LGBTI community can change and mature towards that. It has room to welcome people who don’t conform to the normative persona.”
Jarad is a uni student and a board member of People with Disability Australia. This year he’s going to Mardi Gras for the first time, where he’ll be part of the parade on the PWDA float.
“I’m popping my Mardi Gras cherry,” he laughs. “I hope it’s going to be unforgettable. And hopefully I’ll find a man or two for a casual sexual liaison.”
*Not their real names