“My child is autistic and they recently came out to me as bisexual and genderqueer. I’m having a hard time accepting that they can understand their own sexuality or gender identity, because of their disability. Do you have thoughts on this?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Emily Brooks
Congratulations for seeking to understand your child’s experience better! It’s tough, because as a parent of a disabled person, you might have heard teachers, therapists, and doctors explain to you what your child “can’t” do. They may have based their theories on research, and at times, they may have even been right about your child’s impairments. Yet when it comes to autism spectrum disorder, gender, and sexuality, the best expert on your child’s capabilities to develop and understand identities is your child.
Autistic people certainly can and do have a wide variety of gender identities and sexual orientations, and that includes bisexual and genderqueer identities. As an autistic adult who identifies as queer and non-binary, I’ve met and talked to other autistic children, teenagers, and adults whose gender expressions, gender identities, and sexual orientations spanned from heterosexual and cisgender to the entire LGBTQIA rainbow.
As a parent, you’re concerned that your child really understands the identities that they are claiming. After all, what your child is telling you about their experience does not match dominant ideas of disability, sexuality, and gender. Mainstream autism news articles, television reports, and novels can portray sexuality as a problem to be managed instead of a complex process of self-expression and identity. In general, sex is an uncomfortable topic. That discomfort quadruples when the sexual person in question is disabled. Even when they don’t totally avoid romance and sexuality, news stories about autism and works of fiction with autistic characters usually focus on straight dating and relationships. By not portraying autistic and disabled LGBTQIA people, media representations might create the illusion that we don’t exist.
There’s a mistaken idea that disabled teens and adults don’t have sexual desires—much less diverse sexual orientations. The unfortunate belief that people with disabilities aren’t sexual may spring from how society “infantilizes” people with disabilities by viewing them as babyish or child-like, even when they are grown up. Infantilizing gets especially nasty for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder. Yet even if they need support in certain areas of their lives or socialize and communicate in alternative ways, disabled people can and do have a wide array of gender identities and sexualities.
And when it comes to gender, the mainstream media seems most interested in parsing out differences between autistic boys/men and autistic girls/women and discussing whether biological sex plays a role in autism prevalence rates. Instead of acknowledging the gender diversity in every community, including the autistic community, media sources capitalize on gender differences, rely on gender stereotypes, confuse “sex” and “gender,” and end up erasing the experiences of autistic people in the trans and non-binary community.
When you say you’re struggling with accepting that your child can understand their gender identity and sexuality, are you most concerned that your child can’t understand gender identity and sexuality in general, or genderqueer and bisexual identities in particular? Because people presume that others are automatically straight and cisgender, nobody expects straight people who identify with their assigned gender to “come out.” Yet straight or cisgender people still participate in a process of exploring and claiming identities, even if it’s normalized and expected.
If your child communicated to you, “I’m straight, gender-conforming, and cisgender,” would you be just as worried about their potential inability to understand the categories with which they were aligning themselves, or does your fear stem in part from LGBTQIA identities, which may marginalize them further, on top of being autistic? If you are worried that your child’s LGBTQIA identities will make their life harder since they are also disabled, this is probably true, but there’s nothing you can do to change who they are. Therefore, the best tactic is to make yourself more comfortable with the LGBTQIA community so you can provide acceptance to your child and bolster them against the difficulties they will face in the world as a multiply marginalized person.
I would bet that your child understands their identities. I highly doubt they pulled the concepts of “bisexual” and “genderqueer” out of the air. Rather, before coming out to you, it’s more likely that they reflected on their own feelings and thoughts about gender and sexuality and considered which words best describe their experiences. When it comes to gender and sexuality, disability “experts” cannot negate what your autistic child is showing you about their embodied experience. Your child’s expertise in understanding themselves trumps other people’s theories about their capabilities.
For years, society has denied people with disabilities like autism spectrum disorder the opportunities to express their gender identities and sexualities. It’s not a problem that your autistic child views themselves as bisexual and genderqueer. The only problem would be viewing their LGBTQIA identities as issues or “symptoms” to eradicate or treat, just because they’re autistic. Of course, identities intermingle and it can be hard to know where one begins and another ends. The way your child understands and expresses their identities may be different than you expected, and that might have to do with their communication style or way of processing from being autistic, but then again, it might not. Even if they do approach their identities in a different way, it doesn’t mean that they don’t know what it means to be bisexual or genderqueer, or that they aren’t entitled to identifying that way.
By coming out to you as genderqueer and bisexual, your child decided to share their journey of self-discovery with you, a trusted parent, and that’s awesome. Now that your child has opened the lines of communication with you, you can learn more about your child’s perspectives on their identities and ask them about what kinds of support they want. After all, your child knows themselves better than any professional could. By embracing your child’s gender identity and sexuality, you can affirm their sense of self and provide welcome acceptance as they navigate a homophobic, transphobic, and ableist world.
Best of luck!
Emily Brooks is a writer and advocate who focuses on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and disability. Currently, Emily is pursuing her MA in Disability Studies and working with young people in New York City. To read more of Emily’s work, please visit www.emilybrooks.com and Autostraddle. You can follow her on Twitter @emilybrooks89
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