Coming Out As Gay Was Easy — Coming Out As Autistic Was Hard
By Euan Burns
I was born autistic and gay. I was also born with blue eyes, brownish hair, and short stubby fingers that would obviously hinder any attempt to become President of the USA, but all those attributes are accepted automatically by the world. Disability and homosexuality, on the other hand, set me apart. And yet, for most of my life, I was proud of one and fled from the other.
I suppose it’s expected at this point to say that I have always felt different. That’s partly true. On the autistic side of life, I used to complete jigsaw puzzles upside-down, struggled to understand idioms, and didn’t have many friends. Then again, I did have some friends, and I was enthusiastic about football to a socially acceptable degree. I was unusual, but I think other people noticed it more than I did. In high school, though, my friends and I drifted apart. We had less and less in common: The other boys in school gained an overriding interest in girls, while I felt increasingly curious about boys. I remained largely apart.
I went to university because I felt that’s what I should do. The first day I moved away from home, I cried like a fountain. I was terrified of my flatmates, my lecturers, simple chores like shopping. I attended only one exam at the end of the term, and moved back home in the new year. I finally figured that my life was not entirely working out the way I thought it would. Researching online, I came across a then-obscure condition called Asperger’s Syndrome. Some of it didn’t fit, and I was not like the few famous autistic people out there, but the parts I recognized fit me completely. More, they explained my life.
But my diagnosis, at the age of 19, didn’t come as a relief. Instead, I felt like a failure. I failed at being social, I failed at my studies, I failed at life. Knowing that autism was the cause of that failure didn’t make me hate myself less — it just made me hate autism. I met once with the disability service at university, after I was allowed back in, and it refused any offers of accommodations. After that, I decided I would never mention my autism, never even think about it. It was merely a problem to be overcome. Even relatively accurate depictions of autism emphasized the otherness and tragedy of its “sufferers.” No-one wants to think of themselves that way. Besides, perhaps I wasn’t autistic after all? Maybe it was just a delusion, an excuse? I resolved to forget about it, move forward, and repair my life.
As part of my determination to fix or ignore my autism, I committed to dealing with the whole never-been-kissed issue. Autism is sometimes described as a developmental delay, and while that’s an oversimplification of our life experience, it can accurately describe our experience of sexuality. It’s not uncommon for love and sex to be entirely absent from our minds until (comparatively) later in life, and this was certainly true to me. Even if any crushes had thrown themselves at me, I was more likely to build a particle accelerator than attempt a relationship. By the age of 22, though, it was clear that the only way I was going to have love in my life was by living as a gay man.
I may have had trouble coming out — even to myself — as disabled, but I didn’t have trouble coming out as gay. I had the fortune to grow up in a lovingly supportive family. My cousin came out years ago, and his partner is accepted entirely by the family. My best friend was just confused that I hadn’t told him sooner. My mother was pleased for me; when I told her I had something to share, she was worried I would tell her I’d “found religion.” She was relieved I was only gay.
I wasn’t in a world where being gay is a sin, a perversion, a choice, or a disease. I wasn’t destined to die young, a tragic figure: a warning to everyone else. I was told, by nearly everyone I knew, that it is fantastic to love who you are, to fight back against prejudice. I was scared, but the world around me confirmed what I thought: Accepting my sexuality was a path to the future family I wanted. One more ingredient of that essential Good Life.
Autism didn’t hinder my dating, either. It turned out that being socially awkward was not much of an impediment to getting a guy into bed. It was a much bigger issue in trying to navigate a relationship, but I wound up meeting the most wonderful and understanding man in the world.
But though I was supported, romantically happy, and at ease with myself, I still couldn’t come to terms with my autism diagnosis and the failure I felt it represented. My family initially tried to talk about it openly, but I refused. To me, autism was the thing that held me back. In my mind, it was still the condition of Rain Man and other institutionalized hopeless cases. I must be one of the few lucky high-functioning ones, I thought.
I knew I wasn’t the only one who thought this way. When I had gone to the hospital for diagnostic tests, my Mum had accompanied me; the doctors want to talk to your parents, or indeed anyone else who can give an accurate picture of what you were like as a child. (Autistic children are far better understood than autistic adults, because that is where the money goes.) My Mum told the hospital receptionist that we were there for an appointment, and the receptionist looked at me sympathetically and then asked my Mum: “And how old is Euan?” Already, it seemed, I was expected to be spoken for, not spoken to. I fixed her with a glare and told her myself.
I wasn’t willing to submit to other people having that conception of me — an object, not aware of my surroundings, a broken man — or to having that conception of myself. Disabled adults are sometimes the most forgotten. We’re generally not as cute as disabled kids, and society looks at us as hopeless cases. At most, we are a problem-solving exercise: What can we do with these lost causes so that they don’t get in everybody else’s way? This was what I felt when given the diagnosis with no basis to contextualize it.
When I was growing up, celebrations of gay pride were already common, but I had no concept of being proud of my autism. I knew of no parades in the street. I had no idea how many other people there were like me — if there even was anybody like me. Not that I thought I was special, just uniquely broken and of no concern to a society embarrassed by bodies or brains that do not function typically.
Having my disability diagnosed and explained didn’t make me stop hating it. For that, I needed to meet other people like me. Recently my day job has brought me into contact with other autistic people: first one or two, then more and more. It turns out that autistic people are everywhere. We may not be putting on parades in the street, yet, but we’re not hiding. I just didn’t know how to look. Seven years after my diagnosis, I started learning about autistic culture, not just bare diagnostic criteria. Some people were like me, others radically different. All were autistic. None were failures.
To my joy, I found that the idiosyncrasies that I thought were failings had perfectly natural causes. My hearing is hypersensitive, making it difficult for me to distinguish voices around background noise — I’d thought I was just a terrible listener. The sound of certain fabrics being rubbed is like a needle being scraped against my brain, part of the sensory issues that autism brings along — it’s not just me being fussy or particular. My physical clumsiness and my scattered-brain were part of it too, as was my ability to focus exclusively on a subject I enjoy and my dislike of dissembling (especially to a friend). Online, I discovered autistic people were now speaking, not being spoken for. There is a growing movement for neurodiversity and pride.
These days, I am proud of being autistic in the same way that I am proud of being gay. I’m not some parody of normal, some evolutionary dead-end, one of nature’s mistakes to be pitied for my hardship. I may be atypical, but I’m part of a culture, and we’re all atypical together. It’s true that society at large still prizes conformity over individuality. But now that I have an alternative, I’m getting better at realizing that conformity is not the only way to belong.
I’m a history in progress. I’m gay. I’m autistic. And I’m not alone.