Not conforming to Gender

LGBT Pride Month illustration with typography text in rainbow color. Poster, card, banner and background. Vector illustration - Vector

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I knew that I wanted to write a blog post for pride month this year. In many of the talks I’ve been in surrounding autistic advocacy and further outreach into autistic communities, the importance of focusing on LGBTQ+ issues and perspectives has come up with increasing frequency. It’s not yet a big focus for many advocacy/support organizations and programs, but it should be.

Of course, there’s still a struggle to turn much-needed attention towards more “adult” topics such as dating and sex for those on the spectrum, so it’s no surprise that topics of sexuality and gender may seem similarly hard to broach. The fact that many on the spectrum need life-long caretakers (and that even those who don’t may still require more support in their lives than neurotypical adults) lends itself to some level of infantilization. The most well-meaning people can still fall into the trap of forgetting that even the least independent autistic adult is still an adult. They may even be a queer adult. According to some small scatterings of research, it could be more of a statistical likelihood than you’d think.

When thinking about what to write for pride month, the first thing that springs to my mind is my bisexuality. But a lot of what I’d want to say about that would be echoing what I’ve already written in my previous blog post about love and relationships. I could talk about what it’s like to be a queer person on the spectrum but, again, the relationship my autism has with my sexuality can be largely summed up in how it affects my dating prospects.

So, let’s talk about gender instead. I’m a cisgender woman, so I certainly don’t have the most to say when talking about gender during pride month. But that doesn’t mean I have nothing to say at all.

I identify as gender non-conforming (gnc), which some put on the genderqueer spectrum though I am uncertain about using that label for myself most days. Being gnc doesn’t cancel out the fact that I am cis, and I wouldn’t want it to. I find it incredibly important to make it clear that I can be cis and still have a complicated relationship with gender.

Someone who is gender non-conforming does not feel they align with the roles, images, aesthetics, and expectations associated with the gender they identify as. You can be trans and gnc as well as cis and gnc. None of us truly conforms totally to the stereotypes of our gender, but I think the identity of gender non-conforming is about a deeper level of discomfort with what you’re told it means to be your gender even as you strongly identify with that gender. Butch women or drag queens may be some of the more extreme examples of gnc individuals that come to mind. There are even some cis gnc people who have taken to using non-standard pronouns even while continuing to identify as cis. I’m not as far out on that end of the gnc spectrum, but the label still feels right to me.

I don’t wear make-up, ever. I don’t shave any part of my body or even trim my body hair (not even during summer, when I wear swim shorts instead of the standard women’s swimsuit bottoms). The only traditionally “feminine” thing about my grooming habits is my very long hair, which I suspect is the reason I’m rarely perceived as looking masculine no matter how I dress. I wear almost no jewelry (with some exceptions that have only cropped up recently), have never been comfortable with heels higher than an inch, and despite what I’ve heard some say about the comfiness of skirts, I’ll choose a pair of jeans over one every time. And dresses? Unless it’s for a formal event you can forget it. A lot of my wardrobe is made of “unisex” (which we all know usually means sized for men and sold to everyone) clothing, which I find more comfortable to wear than a lot of clothes cut and sized for women. Even if the latter is undeniably more flattering on my body. The main reason I’ve never tried wearing men’s pants is that they simply don’t run small enough for me.

I’ve probably always been a bit of a tomboy. I would still use that word to describe myself now. I obviously wouldn’t use butch; I don’t have a wardrobe full of men’s clothes and I don’t eschew all feminine clothes and accessories. But I’d also reject any stretch of the word girly being applied to me. I may not reject “femininity” outright, but I’ll certainly never strive for it.

Plenty of girls who grow up as tomboys profess to have a change of heart when they become women. With growing maturity, they come to realize that their disdain for femininity was really misplaced anger at a society that attempted to coercively force it on them. Bit by bit, they learn to embrace it on their own terms.

Or, for others, it turns out to be the first step in an eventual rejection of womanhood. They go on to realize their identities as trans-men or some version of non-binary/genderqueer.

I’ve ended up bucking either trend. I did, for a time, think I was settling into being more fluid in my presentation (though never my actual gender) on the spectrum of masculine vs. feminine. I felt like when dressing up in alt-fashion styles, I could embrace a non-traditional version of femininity. However, I recently went to another country for a not-insignificant amount of time. To make packing simpler, I decided to stick to a more androgynous/masculine-leaning style while I was over there. As a result, once I returned, I realized I truly did feel less comfortable and natural in more feminine clothing. I had been perfectly comfortable doing without any of it while traveling and attempting to return to wearing such clothing felt awkward and restrictive. It could be fun to wear, but more in the way a costume can be. It didn’t feel natural, and it wasn’t me.

Yet I have also never questioned my identity as a woman throughout all of this. Any distress or discomfort I felt around my gender was born out of my certainty that I was a woman despite the world around me insisting that a woman was many things that I am not. That a woman should like or want many things that I neither liked nor wanted. That things were natural for a woman that were not natural for me.

I think much of this experience of my gender is unquestionably entwined with my autism. My aversion to things like makeup is partly due to sensory issues, and my difficulty with social skills and cues can cause me to behave in ways that are considered decidedly unfeminine. I was not able to understand the rigid and arbitrary rules of the gender binary, so I rejected it. I did not feel the desire to reject my womanhood itself though, and so did not feel pulled towards a non-binary gender identity as others might have. It has made navigating the world, even among the queer community at times, a bit harder. Yet I have accepted that it is what it is. I have accepted myself.

Some odd research here and there, plus plenty of anecdotal info from all over, has suggested that those on the autism spectrum may be more likely than average to identify as part of the queer community. Especially regarding their gender identity. This is likely due to reasons like the ones I have outlined for myself. Many of us on the spectrum want rules to make sense and are frustrated when we feel that they don’t. Few rules make less sense than the ridiculous laws of gender roles, so it’s no surprise that those on the spectrum have little interest in following them.

In the end, none of us will be exactly like anyone else. Our experiences will never be exactly like anyone else’s. Only we will ever know what labels are right for us. When we figure out who we are, that’s always worth celebrating. That’s always worth taking pride in.


Rachel is a Jewish bisexual autistic woman (she/her) with ADHD in her twenties. She loves writing and can always be found with her nose in a book! Her plan for the future is to earn her Psy. D. in clinical psychology. This interested in psychology started as a way to help her understand people better and to figure out what it was about others I kept not getting. It is also something deeply linked with her self-advocacy. There is a gap in communication between the autistic community and providers, and she want to help bridge it and challenge others to see things from different perspectives.

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