Tuesday, July 30, 2013

(neuro)Queer: A Prose Poem Essay

This is an idea I've been toying around with for a while now, an idea that really lies at the heart of Defiant, to the point where I almost used it as the title. It's something I've had in my head for about a year now, but it's only been something I could put into words for a couple of months. It's an idea about how the various intersections of our identities are really inseparable from one another, how things like my neurotype, my unique set of neurological attributes that people call autism--how that informs my sexual identity, my experience of my own gender, and even my approach to negotiating cultural topics such as class and race.

This is an idea that was born out of my own sense of discomfort, out of my feeling that, in order to find support in an autism community, I needed to "suck it up" and find solidarity with people who were really holding on to some attitudes that I found destructive. Not just wrong, but dangerous in the way that their effects could reach beyond the person who held these destructive beliefs and wreak harm in society. Along with the push to be more "tolerant" of these views, there was a curious kind of quiet around issues that were not child-centric--issues such as sexuality, negotiating consent and power in adult situations, end-of-life issues, and basic civil rights (such as the right to self-determination when it comes to living situations).

In these situations, I felt like I was not only needing to speak up and change the conversation, but like I was actively caught between participating in moral and political causes, such as anti-racism, and participating in the autism community. Luckily, I didn't stay caught for long. I started to meet up with other Autistics who were pushing back too. Some of them, like my friends Nick and Ibby, were having some of the same ideas I was having. Especially this idea: NeuroQueer, as Ibby puts it. I prefer (neuro)Queer, and I'll get into the whys and wherefores in a minute. For now, you should go over to Ibby's first post on NeuroQueer. She does a solid job explaining what the Queer movement was and how it informed her approach to this idea.

As much as I respect and agree with Ibby's position regarding the Queer movement and its goals and accomplishments, I did come to this idea from another direction. I've only recently starting using the word Queer to describe myself, and it's been a complicated journey to that label.

I don't write about it much, but I've been openly bisexual since I was a teenager. It wasn't an easy thing to admit to myself when I first started to deal with it, and for years I avoided coming out because during an early attempt to do so, several of my friends accused me of just trying to get attention. This was the mid-late 1990s. I went to a public high school. It was college before I finally stopped questioning myself enough to really have a conversation about this part of myself with anyone, and doing so had its own series of upsets and surprises when I did.

Even after my friends assimilated this information and stopped asking embarrassing questions and telling really off-putting jokes, it was still something I remained uncomfortable with. Mainly, this was because there seemed to be no place for people like me. I was in a basically heterosexual relationship, so going out to Pride and trying to participate in gay culture was complicated, and the casual assumptions and homophobia in most exclusively straight spaces made them uncomfortable. This was during the early 2000s--there were not yet a lot of mixed spaces, with regards to sexual orientation, in my region that were targeted at my age group.

So it was that bisexual came to describe what I did and how I felt, but not what I was. It was an obligatory inclusion in the alphabet soup, but people on both sides of the more traditional sexual binary often seemed uneasy with it.

The term was also uncomfortable because it suggested a versatility or a kind of switch--the idea that the attraction was something that went in more than one direction--which I didn't feel was really true with me. I had a very specific kind of approach to attraction--a specific set of scripts about how my desire worked and what I would be comfortable doing with a partner--and it was totally different for partners of different gender. From the top down, the way that I expressed affection and attraction just felt different when I thought about men than when I felt about women. Both were strong attractions, too--I don't mean to imply that I felt more limited in one way than another. Just that there was definitely no switching or flexibility. Instead, it was more like eating vs. drinking.

I've never been really comfortable with what masculinity demands of me. That's another complication in this whole scene, and I think it's important because I think it's tied in to how my sexuality works and why the term "bisexual" just feels a bit wrong to me. Not to borrow tropes from trans* narratives, but it's been that way since I was very young. My body language, my tastes and aversions, even what I do with my hands has always been a bit wrong, and long before I received any kind of diagnosis of autism, I was picked on for it. Not just by other kids, either. My dad spent a lot of time when I was a preteen and early into my teen years referring to me as his "oldest daughter".

It didn't help that I was born a cryptorchid. It really didn't help that the surgery to correct it basically resulted in a removal and then replacement with a prosthetic. (Yeah, I had a neuticle back before there was a name for it.) I spent a lot of time during puberty wondering if the reason I didn't feel comfortable with "guy things" was because my hormones weren't right.

In high school, I sought out bisexual girlfriends who would indulge me when I wanted to wear their clothes. I modeled for the "art girls" who wanted boys to cross dress for their vocational ed. photography class projects. I got into the goth clique and learned to do my makeup.

All of this met with heavy resistance and lopsided compromise from my family, even though I hid the part about wearing leather skirts and shaving my legs. I was only allowed to wear makeup if I left our community for concerts in nearby cities. I was not to present in certain fashions at school. Since I worked a few blocks from home, I had to pull back there, too. I retaliated by buying myself a uniform--five sets of combat BDUs and a dozen black Hanes t-shirts.

By my second year at the university, when I actively started to come out to my friends, the paramilitary blandness of my fashion was its own identity, and because I lived in all-male residence halls and my livelihood was dependent on a student job that had conduct and presentation guidelines, I mostly left the skirts behind in my life and settled instead for a contrived rejection of whatever male fashions became popular. This softened as I started to try to dress in a way that might attract both men and women (and some serious weight loss boosted my confidence and put me in the mood to branch out), but no matter what I did, I just didn't wear male clothes all that well. Eventually, I fell into a comfortable routine of cheap jeans and khakis and disposable t-shirts.

I also settled into a long-term relationship that seemed pretty stable with someone who understood and respected my orientation, and who never tried to police my other ticks and behaviors. Eventually, I went back to graduate school, and I never really tried to do anything other than present as a cis male in a heterosexual relationship who nonetheless tolerated no homophobia, asserting that "just because I'm sleeping with a woman now, that doesn't mean I always did or that I always will."

Time passed, I lost more weight, and I grew my hair out. I got down to the point where, for the first time in my life, my BMI was what the "experts" said was normal. My hair got out past shoulder length. I started doing exercises that were specifically designed to build runners' muscles, in order to cut my muscle mass while remaining fit and healthy. Later, I started calorie restricting, eventually getting into a diet of fresh fruit, canned peas, rice, beans, and boneless skinless chicken. And nothing else.

My workouts started to take two hours. Then I started to do the twice a day. Then I started doing two 2-hour cardio trips per day and three separate hour long weight training sessions per week. Then four weight training sessions.

Then I cut breakfast.

Then I started to play games with how late in the day I could wait before I started to take in calories. Later, games with how far under my calorie count for the day or week I could stand to fly. Eventually, I started skipping dinner (my only meal by this point) whenever I planned on drinking, so that my calorie count would stay good.

All the while, I was measuring myself. Measuring my arms, my thighs, my waist. I was always disappointed, but I couldn't say why. I lost inches, more than one per month. Still, when I wrote all my measurements in my book, they stayed somehow wrong. I had no words for it. I also had no facial hair left--by then, even the hair on my head was thinning. I was starting to develop uncontrollable dandruff too.

Then I graduated.

Then things fell apart.

Then I quit smoking, cut back my drinking, gained 100 pounds, grew a beard, accepted that I have pecs and abs, started binge-eating, broke my hand, started wondering if I had ADHD, found out I was autistic, and quit binge-eating.

Then I started to put things back together, only when I moved out into the autism community at large, I had the problems I outlined above. And I still didn't feel comfortable being male.

Then I thought about transitioning. I read blogs. I looked at timeline photos. I read biographies. Discovered feminism. Discovered neurodiversity. Discovered anti-racism. Realized that the entire time I was being disgusted by my father's overt bigotry, I was doing some pretty racist things too.

Then I got better. That's still in process.

Then I started getting better assignments at work, making more money.

I thought more about transitioning. I felt body dysphoria--no one with my food issues hasn't--but it didn't seem like the right kind of body dysphoria. I got more male looking in the meantime.

Then I had a little cousin whose dad went to Afghanistan as a civilian contractor. Then I turned thirty. Then I became a homeowner.

Then this kid was looking to me, trying to figure out how to be a man. While I was thinking about whether or not I was one, he had no other men around to look up to, so he latched on.

Then I started to talk to him about being male. Because whatever else I was considering, at this point I had done nothing to stop presenting to others as male, so I felt like I owed it to him.

Then I started to like being a man. Except some days, when my clothes felt like they fit my body wrong and my genitals felt like a growth and I worried about developing a heart condition because I was always uncomfortable, it felt like I was changing sizes and shapes, and I don't know about medicine doesn't that mean I have problems with my blood pressure?

So here I am. I'm thirty-one. I'm autistic. I am happy being a man except on days when I'm not, and I can't tell when those days are sensory issues and when they're maybe something else, so maybe there's no difference. I can't tell if I like men and women differently because I'm always heterosexual but not always the same gender, or if all bisexual people feel like me, or if all of this is some kind of bizarre side effect of my body language being different and my sensory issues being different and my priorities being different and everyone's expectations being different.

Now I do not pass. I do not ask. I have spent long enough trying to find a definition to shoehorn myself into. Now I push back.

I have accepted that the same forces that cause me to feel perpetually unsafe in every existing permutation of sexual orientation and gender label are the forces that use social pressures and allistic normativity to pathologize my neurology. And I'm caught between cultures on almost every axis. I can play intersectional alphabet soup and say I am an omnisexual non-binary butch presenting genderfluid white autistic with arthritis and a history of compulsive behavior.

Queer seems to sum it up, though.

I am
(physically)
(sexually)
(gender)
(neuro)
Queer