For the first time in my life I feel able to manage my condition. This has encouraged me to take a big step, and “come out” as autistic and mentally ill. It’s a huge relief to be open and honest with everyone. However, as expected, there have been a few negative responses. I’ve noticed parallels between responses to my coming out as autistic, and coming out as a lesbian so I thought it might be interesting to discuss the two experiences side by side. There are many people on the autism spectrum who identify as LGBT, and I cannot help feeling they are often overlooked, as it’s a great deal of difference to heap onto one person. You belong to one oppressed minority? Fine. You belong to two oppressed minorities? Nah… nobody has an identity that complex, you’re just attention seeking now.
I came out as a lesbian when I was about fifteen and had fallen hopelessly in love with a girl from my school (she ended up dating my best friend, but let’s not get into that now, I’m sure it will make a great TV drama one day). My parents are very tolerant, so I knew I had nothing to fear when I told them I liked girls. My mother in particular has many close gay friends who were my role models when growing up. I always have, and always will consider them part of my family. Not everyone was happy to accept me as a lesbian, but the negative responses tended to be more confusion and denial than blatant homophobia.
I think the main reason I was so much happier to come out as a lesbian than an Aspie is that I had grown up lesbian role models. I also had lots of LGBT friends. While I did have a couple of autistic friends, they never discussed their disability in public and they occupied the same outsider status I had spent my whole life (unsuccessfully) trying to break out of. I didn’t know any adults on the autism spectrum. Autism was something that nobody ever talked about. Did Aspie’s get jobs? Did they get married? Did they raise a family? Of course they do. But at the time, I didn’t have a single example of an autistic adult doing those things. If I admitted to my disability, my future became completely blank.
Anyway… as you know, I did come out as having Asperger’s. I did come out as someone who’s suffered from depression and anxiety disorder. Most importantly, I do have a future. My future has turned out to be in raising awareness of autism and promoting the creative activities of people on the spectrum. This is something I never could have predicted. Teenage me would have been horrified at the thought of it. Then again, teenage me was in the closet.
The following is a list of some of the negative reactions I was faced with when coming out as autistic, coming out as gay and coming out as mentally ill:
‘It’s just a phase you’re going through.’
Autism is not a phase. It is a lifelong social awareness and communications disability that cannot suddenly be developed, or suddenly disappear. Depression and Anxiety Disorder are serious, clinical illnesses. You wouldn’t tell someone who had been diagnosed with cancer or IBS that they were ‘going through a phase’, so why say that about mental illness? Dismissing someone’s ill health as a phase or a rough patch will only discourage them from seeking the help they desperately need. As for sexuality… this is more of a grey area. Some people do go through phases where they are attracted to someone of the same gender. But it’s not a phase for me. I’ve been noticing girls since I was about thirteen, and although it took me a long time to realise I was attracted to them, once I did, I knew there was no going back. It’s hard to be honest about your sexuality. Never dismiss someone’s love life as a phase.
‘No you’re not! I would have noticed if you were.’
The arrogance behind this kind of comment makes my blood boil. No matter how much time you spend with a person, it would be untrue and unfair to assume you know everything about them. Personally, I don’t believe in gaydar and I never have. The way someone chooses to dress, walk, talk or style their hair does not impact on or illustrate their sexuality. The above comment becomes twice as arrogant when used to refer to someone’s mental health or disability. Are you seriously going to assume that the countless doctors, psychiatrists, therapists and autism specialists I’ve been too are wrong, and you’re right? Get over yourself.
‘This means you can’t really have kids.’
Gay’s have kids. Autistic people have kids. The mentally ill have kids. I honestly don’t know why so many people assume otherwise. From sperm donors, to surrogate mothers, to adoption and foster care there are so many options out there that don’t involve a man sticking his penis into a woman’s vagina. While it does impact on my quality of life, my disability is certainly not going to get in the way of me being a good mother. My only real concern would be passing my health issues on to any children I might have. But as I mentioned earlier, there are many options for becoming a parent that don’t involve my genes or my body.
‘You don’t deserve to get married.’
Why don’t I deserve to get married? Because my sexuality is a sin? Because I’m too fucked up to make someone else happy? If anyone can come up with a genuine, fact based reason why me getting married would have a negative impact on myself, my partner or the rest of society then I will eat my hat.
‘But you don’t look gay/ill/autistic.’
Nobody looks gay because physical appearance does not impact on or express sexuality. If only lesbians did all look the same! Dating would certainly be easier and we wouldn’t need to bother with coming out! Nobody looks depressed or autistic. Both these conditions are classed as invisible illnesses. Autism in particular is caused by unusual connections in neural pathways. If you could see the pathways in my brain then I might look autistic, but you just can’t.
‘I know about you. I can always tell.’
Once again, the arrogance in this kind of comment makes me sick. Nobody can presume to know everything about somebody else, and you are not a better judge of me than I am or my doctors are.
‘You’re not gay… you’re just afraid of penetration.’
I’ll be honest, I don’t enjoy penetration. However, I’ve come across plenty of straight women that don’t enjoy it either, and plenty of gay women who do. I do not identify as a lesbian because of what I prefer in the bedroom. I identify as a lesbian because I am sexually attracted to women. It’s that simple.
‘You’re not autistic… you’re just afraid of socialising.’
Just afraid of socialising… ahh- if only it were that simple! I would happily exchange autism for a fear of socialising. In fact, I would seriously consider never socialising again if it meant I was free from melt downs, sensory overload, clumsiness and difficulty communicating. Autism is not just being shy or not wanting to socialise. Many people on the autism spectrum (including me) love chatting and meeting new people, but that doesn’t mean we don’t find it difficult.
‘You’re not mentally ill… you’re just afraid that people don’t think you’re deep enough.’
Okay… I’ll be honest. I have come across some people who ware too much eyeliner, listen to emo ballads and describe themselves as depressed or bipolar without ever obtaining a professional diagnosis (not that every emo falls into this category). I can only assume they do this because music and television shows aimed at teenagers often glamourize mental illness, portraying it as a passing fancy that adds depth and mystery to their characters, rather than a lifelong struggle with serious health ramifications. I am not one of these people. I was a part of the Goth subculture during my teenage years, and for a while this prevented me from being honest about my health issues. I was concerned that people would think I was posing or attention seeking if I told them the truth. This kind of silence is very dangerous, as it prevents people from taking control of their health and obtaining the help they desperately need.
‘Well… why be just one thing?’
First of all, nobody’s identity is wholly based on one thing. The media often depicts celebrities and tv characters as the token lesbian, the token vegetarian or the token disabled person because their audiences find more than one difference hard to swallow. In real life, human beings are far more complicated.
‘God, why are you always trying so hard to be different?’
I am not trying hard to be different. I am not trying to be gay, mentally ill or autistic… I am all of these things whether I like it or not. What I am trying to be is open and honest about the issues I’ve faced, in the hope that society can recognise and accept diversity, and people with similar issues can avoid the mistakes I made.
‘You mean you’ve lied to me all this time?’
Yes, I have lied to you. But if it’s any consolation, I was lying to myself at the same time.
In conclusion, coming out as a lesbian wasn’t easy. Coming out as autistic and mentally ill is the hardest thing I have ever had to do, and out of all the responses it’s the denial that hurts the most. I know that there are posers out there. There are people who look a chronic illness up on Google and then decide they have the symptoms, just so they can create drama for themselves or try and claim a paltry sum of benefits. I am not one of those people. I was aware of my diagnosis for several years, and had it confirmed time and time again by professionals before I found the courage to make it public knowledge. If somebody trusts you enough to be honest about their health, don’t respond with denial and discrimination. Be kind, supportive and understanding. Earn that trust.
Finally, I want to end on a happy note. Although coming out was and still is hard, it’s the best thing I have ever done. For the first time in many years I’m no longer in conflict with myself. I no longer have to wear a mask or watch my tongue when I’m out with friends, family or work colleagues. I can share myself, my work and my life with them. There is nothing more rewarding.