Hello folks! I thought a nice wholesome topic for this post would be my coming out! I promise that my ASD is relevant to the story, and I think it also raises some interesting ideas about how autism and sexual orientation are intertwined.
When I was in year 6 (the last year of primary school for non-British readers), I was called a lesbian by another girl on the school football team. Even without going too far into stereotypes about gay woman and football, this comment confused me because I didn’t know what the word meant. I assumed it was a comment on my goal-saving abilities, given I played keeper, and yet I had a suspicion that it wasn’t meant in a kind way. I asked a boy what the word meant the next day, to which he replied, “it means a girl who likes girls”, or something to that effect. As far as I could tell, most women are therefore lesbians, as most women have at least one other female friend. I am dismayed that this initial assumption was wrong, and while I do have a disproportionately large group of LGBTQ+ friends, most women are, in fact, straight. Ew.
In year 7 I cut my hair very short as I disliked the upkeep of my longer hair. I remember being asked in the school canteen whether or not I was a boy. Had I been armed with the knowledge and confidence I have now, I like to think I would have verbally smacked that boy in a long and in-depth talk about why gender, sex and presentation are not interchangeable, and how that question was both unnecessary and borderline transphobic, given the vitriol in his voice when he asked. I didn’t do that, instead I just said “girl” and picked up a jelly pot to have with lunch.
In year 8, things started to get interesting on the whole sexual orientation front. What’s more, I found my old diary from that year, and so I have a written account of many of my thoughts and feelings! Whilst reading my thorough critique of the twilight saga was very amusing, and my account of the game my brothers and I played which included characters such as “Sarah-wan Kenobi”, “Darth Jader” and “William Fett” was oddly nostalgic, the part that piqued my interest the most was my descriptions of my feelings. Throughout the first 3 months or so, I mention the name of a girl who I —in hindsight— clearly had a crush on. Here is a quote taken from my diary:
“I was also thinking about [redacted] and for some reason I really want to know her more. I’m not sure what it is, but I want to talk to her and make her laugh. I don’t really know why? I just do!”
- 28th September 2013
Little gay Sarah may not have understood, but big gay Sarah certainly does. I had a crush! The next few times she is mentioned it is always in a similar way: wanting to talk to her and make her laugh and not having any concept of why. Reading these extracts of my life is very interesting as it has clearly not occurred to me that I might have a crush. In fact, despite several of my friends talking about being queer or even outright coming out, I never clocked the fact that perhaps I was gay until year 9, whilst walking down the streets of Hamburg.
In Year 9, I went on the German exchange program. There were a group of 10 English students from my school and 10 German students from a Gymnasium in Hamburg. The experience ranged from low-key terrifying to high-key exhausting, and yet I really enjoyed myself. It was the first time I had been to Germany and I decided on that trip that I wanted to move there after I finished university in the UK. (That is now approaching and suddenly the logistics of moving to another country are looking way more complicated that I initially thought.) On one particular day, the German students were required to go into school and we went with them. We went to the same lessons as our exchange partners and mostly sat in a corner talking in English amongst ourselves. One notable moment was however, when four of us were chatting very animatedly and a random boy came up to us with a pair of scissors and yelled “SCISSORS” at us. Not really sure what that was about.
More important to this story is when I sat in a Geography lesson with a couple of other English kids. The Germans were doing presentations and my exchange partner was in a group with the exchange partner of one of my friends. Despite understanding about 20% max of what was being said, I was enraptured by this presentation. The exchange partner of my friend was unbelievably pretty. I don’t mean moderately good-looking; I mean I was slightly speechless. That presentation on renewable energy sources was one of the best presentations that I have ever sat through while not listening at all. (Side note: I think a lot of queer people can relate to this moment of ‘gay panic’, and I of course looked her up on Instagram while writing this post. She is now a model and is so attractive that I just sat at my laptop for a few moments having another gay panic over this one woman. I would tag her so you can go and follow her and see but then she might read this, and I don’t want the shame.)
Despite all of this happening, I was still not aware that I am less straight than a circle, and this is when my very good friend Eris enters the story. She, a few other people, and I were walking down the street together one afternoon when a street preacher came into view. While our German was not wonderful (although Eris’ German is likely much better now that she lives in Germany), we understood enough of what he was saying that we knew he was not a fan of “the homosexuals”. The order in which we walked down the pavement is important for this, and it was as such:
As we walked away from the mean man, Eris made an offhand comment that triggered my entire realization about my own sexuality. She said “it’s so weird because everyone of this (gesturing left) side of me is straight and then (looking right towards me), yeah…” That moment was the first time that anyone, including myself, had suggested that I might be anything other than the default setting of straight. As I went back on the U-Bahn later that afternoon, I sat thinking about the possibility of being gay whilst my exchange partner debated the gender of Nutella with her friend. With cries of “die Nutella” and “das Nutella” ringing in my ears I pondered various events up until that point, re-examining them in a new light.
“Could it be?” I thought to myself.
“Das! Das Nutella!”
“Am I gay?”
For the next year I thought at great length about whether I was gay or not. I worried about the reaction of my family, specifically my grandparents, and just couldn’t fathom how I would ever be able to tell them. On top of that, I have alexithymia, a common condition in autistic people which means I am unable to tell what I am feeling. I can tell when I am feeling good and I can tell when I’m feeling bad, but other than that I can’t do much in the way of conveying my emotions. I am much better at it now through the effects of therapy and my own personal strategies, but it is still really difficult for me. I will often not understand what is wrong, or even if something is wrong, until it completely overwhelms me, or someone else mentions something and I am able to connect what they’re saying to my own feelings. When I was trying to figure out if I was gay, the alexithymia meant that it was incredibly difficult to work out what I was feeling. This meant that the time I spent thinking about it only served to stress me out. I couldn’t figure it out, nor could I ignore it as it was now on my mind.
At the end of year 10, I finally had a moment where I realised for sure that I am gay. I had won a prize at my school and so as a reward, all the winners had to attend a very long and boring ceremony, where you listened to different people making speeches of varying quality and interest, before being forced to walk up to the front of the whole crowd and shake hands with a ‘VIP guest’ and get a book. In this one particular ceremony, I was sat next to this girl in my Chinese class who had also won a prize. We were pretty friendly and had nice chats while we waited. I was hyper-aware that evening of how she made my stomach feel odd and I got very nervous whenever I talked to her. Throughout the pomp and ceremonial walking in and out of various people, we had been making comments to each other and laughing quietly at the back of the seating area we were in. This particular prize giving went on for an obscene length of time and both of us were struggling to stay awake. Eventually, she succumbed and fell asleep with her head resting on my shoulder. I have never sat so still in my life. I barely breathed in case I woke her up, and I prayed that no one would move suddenly. The ceremony which I had been willing to be over, suddenly seemed to be going too fast. I wished that it would restart so that we wouldn’t have to get up and move. It could only have been a few minutes that this lasted, and yet they were some of the most brilliant but terrifying minutes of my life. It was then that I realised I am gay.
Sexuality, along with gender, is a really interesting topic when it comes to autistic people. My friends and I have had multiple conversations about this and all agree that from our experience, the rate of queer or gender-non-conforming autistic people is significantly higher than that of neurotypicals. We have come up with a range of possible reasons but the one we think is most likely is that contrary to NTs, autistic people don’t always learn the designated social rules from when we are children. We aren’t picking them up from subtle clues around us. I only worried about my grandparent’s reaction because my Grandma had told me that she believed being gay was a sin when same-sex marriage was being legalized in the UK. Personally, I didn’t care about how other people identified because to me it made no difference. I was scared of coming out myself because I had been explicitly told that two family members who were and are incredibly important to me, did not think that being gay was okay. Wonderfully, I came out to my Grandparents a couple of years ago and they could not have been more accepting. When I told my Grandma she said, without hesitation, “well you are my granddaughter, and I will always love you”. My Grandad was dozing in his chair, but he opened his eyes, nodded his head, and went back to sleep.
My Grandparents were a product of their time, and while my Grandad is no longer on this mortal plane, my Grandma is a fierce advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. She is a 91-year-old lady and has completely changed her views towards the community. She was absolutely outraged that London pride isn’t televised as she enjoys watching the marathon and so hoped to watch the pride parade as well. She is a phenomenal person with the kindest, most loving heart out of anyone I know. Grandma was taught that being gay was not okay when she was young, but had she not learnt this, she would likely have never said to me what she did. So now it is not difficult to imagine that if a group of people do not pick up on social clues well, they will likely be much more open minded as they never learnt to hate people for such arbitrary reasons. And if they are open-minded, they are much more likely to be more open with their own sexuality as they didn’t have the internalized homophobia that so many people develop. They will care less about what others think of their self-expression and chosen partners, both because they may not even notice any judgement, but also because they have no preconceived ideas about what is or isn’t deemed “acceptable”. Feeling less pressure to conform leads more people to deviate from pre-determined expectations. Already being told that you are different or lesser —as is so often the case with autistic people— allows you to care less about what other people think of you because you don’t have as far to fall in social standings. Constantly being discriminated against, overtly or covertly, means you have less to lose by being completely yourself, because those that want to hate you already have a reason. So adding one more thing doesn’t really change anything.
My autistic friends are extraordinarily genuine people. Our conversations cover all manner of topics and there is a lack of judgement which I have seldom found otherwise. Of course, we have opinions and we talk rubbish about people, but it is never for any integral characteristic of the person. If they are advertising 15-hour study days with no breaks, we will judge them because that is just irresponsible. But as for how a person intrinsically exists in the world? Who cares? (With the caveat that it does not negatively impact on anyone else’s wellbeing.)
Until more research is conducted on the matter, we might not know why so many autistic people are non-cis and/or non-straight, or even if that really is the truth of it all. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. My journey to realizing my sexuality started in Germany when a street preacher told us that gays are going to hell. It doesn’t get much more ironic than that. Coming to terms with your identity can be difficult for an assortment of reasons, but I do think that ASD is not necessarily one of them. There are those who will say that autistic people can’t have feelings towards another person because we are devoid of emotion, but that is clearly nonsensical given my own existence. Having feelings towards another person, be they romantic, sexual, or both is not mutually exclusive to autism. They might be confusing, especially with alexithymia, but these types of feelings often are for lots of different people. If you are autistic and reading this, then know that regardless of what others are saying to you, your feelings are just as valid as theirs. Straight, non-straight, cis, non-cis, it is all okay and you do not need to bend to the pressure that other people are putting you under. Sometimes your instincts are right. Trust yourself, don’t rush, and know that there are thousands of people that love you for exactly who you are. You are not alone, nor are your feelings less real because your brain thinks a bit differently than most. I am autistic, I am gay and most importantly, I am proud of both.