cw: explicit language

The English language is an incredible beast. What makes it difficult to learn is also what makes it incredibly malleable and amazing. Not to get too vulgar right off the bat, but have you ever considered how many different ways we can use the word “fuck” to convey all sorts of emotions and meanings? Here, watch this real quick and you’ll see what I mean (cw: sexual violence, death; it’s from the show The Wire)😉😅

I shit you not, I only know about that scene because one of my linguistics professors showed it to us in class! But even without the video, you can see how a lot of our swearwords alone can be used in different contexts and mean different things. Okay, I guess we didn’t need to use swearwords as the example for this linguistic phenomenon (called lexical flexibility), but I like diving into taboo any chance I get. That being said, let’s get to the actual topic I want to discuss today: the word “queer” and its appropriate contexts of use.

“Queer not as being about who you are having sex with, that can be a dimension of it, but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” – bell hooks

I’ve used this quote before in my writing, as it pertains to who I am at my very core. The identities I hold most dear are the identities that are most at odds with my surroundings (outside of being in the environment I’ve curated specifically to be safe for my queerness).

This may be controversial to say, but as a former linguistics student and continuous advocate for inclusivity, the word “queer” does not need to be exclusive to the LGBTQIA+ community. As history tells us, the word “queer” has already undergone several iterations. In the 1500s, the Scotts used it as an adjective to mean “strange, peculiar, eccentric, odd” which is still in use today. By 1740, it came to mean “open to suspicion”, and even slang for counterfeit money in the early to mid 1800s. It wasn’t until 1922 that “queer” came to be officially used to describe “homosexual”, but wasn’t a noun for the same until 1935. As a verb it was used to mean “to spoil or ruin” in 1812. Before that it was often used to mean “to puzzle, ridicule, deride, cheat”. And finally, Queer Theory/Studies was born in the 1990s. All of this information was found at etymonline.com.

What wasn’t mentioned on that website is how “queer” has been reclaimed since the 1990s as an identity marker by the LGBTQIA+ community itself, though on second thought, it should be implied to be an implicit part of Queer Theory/Studies.

“I see it as you can be neuroqueer, or genderqueer, or various flavors of queer. Isn’t the whole point of queer theory that being queer is an intentional subversion of cultural normativity?”

– a friend and fellow autism advocate, David Gray-Hammond of Emergent Divergence: Addiction, Mental Health, and The Autistic Experience

Not everyone agrees with this reclamation, mind you. Old school members of the community, and those who have experienced discrimination and harm from its use (young and old), wholeheartedly still consider it a harmful slur. In fact just the other day I was accused of being homophobic by a Facebook stranger, who appeared to be my age, because my blog is named “Queer Cult”. Clearly they’re missing the point of the name I chose, but it was an interesting experience to say the least.

When it comes to my membership of the LGBTQIA+ community, reclaiming “queer” as my own has been a very empowering experience. I’ve always been the weird kid, and as I’ve already discussed, “queer” is an easy descriptor for the peculiar. So when I finally figured out my sexuality and, ultimately, my gender identity, using “queer” was the simplest, most accessible way to communicate to others who I am. It just made sense, and felt safe to use because it described me even outside of my LGBTQIA+ identities.

That being said, listing all my identities within the community is cumbersome to say the least, and they don’t even fit all that well to begin with. While labels are liberatory and often connect people to each other, they are also limiting at a certain point. I only use “nonbinary” because that is the simplest, most accessible way to communicate that I don’t identify with being a man or woman, but it doesn’t exactly describe who I am either. To describe my gender would take pages, and all of those pages would be filled with nearly nonsensical analogies. “I am stardust. I am galaxies. I am water flowing with salmon swimming upstream,” that kind of stuff. “Queer” allows me to communicate that I am different, period. It’s vague enough to allow my identities breathing room, to stay fluid, to stay “me”.

Also the featured image on this post, it says: People seem to believe that allowing polyamorous people to use “coming out” admits them into the queer community. That’s a debate for another time, but I think a polyamorous person can use the term without being regarded as inherently queer.

According to hooks’ definition of “queer”, I am queer in multiple ways: I am multiply queer within the LGBTQIA + community, I am dynamically disabled, I am autistic/ADHD, and I am polyamorous. I’ve had to “come out” several times for all of these identities, and I will continue to “come out” as I meet more people for the rest of my life. This will be reality for most of us who don’t fit the status-quo until the status-quo shifts from a white, cis-heteronormative existence to one that is post gender, race, sexuality, etc. We will continue to be subject to “coming out” until our labels don’t actually matter outside of connecting to each other, where mainstream media is so diversified that all identities are just considered “normal” and laws accommodate for all differences—where all lives are considered worthy of dignity and respect.

So yes, I agree with Poly Philia that using the phrase “coming out” does not make polyamorous people inherently a part of the queer community, meaning the LGBTQIA+ community. But I don’t agree that being polyamorous can’t make you another kind of queer. I operate out of bell hooks’ definition of queer, and I do believe that my polyamory is a part of my queer identity, but that doesn’t mean it’s a part of my queer identity within the LGBTQIA+ community. We’re discussing two versions of “queer” here.

That’s the beauty of language. We can have phrases and words that mean one thing in one context, and another thing in another context. Of course it’s important to recognize people’s desires and boundaries for certain uses. For example, the shortening of “polyamorous” to “poly” has been strongly discouraged by the Polynesian population that uses “#poly” to connect to each other online and for advocacy. Polyamorous people who aren’t Polynesian use that term and flood social medias, disrupting that connection for Polynesian people. We should respect racially marginalized groups and their desires. Instead, we use “polyam”.

But just as women have reclaimed “slut” and “bitch”, and the Black community has reclaimed the n-word, queer people reclaiming “queer” is not inappropriate. And I think it’s okay, if not absolutely appropriate, to extrapolate that reclamation to other identities that make us queer, in light of hooks’ definition of “queer”.

Thanks for coming to my TED talk.


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I’ve never identified with the binary, not even as a young kid. It just didn’t make any sense.

– Me, from my post Nonbinary and Me

I’ve written a few times about my nonbinary gender and what it means to me. And I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job at expressing myself. Except it’s still felt a bit inconclusive, like something is perpetually lacking. Then I recently found autigender:

Neurodiverse Tumblr users first coined autigender in 2014, defining it as a gender which can only be understood in the context of being autistic. This definition suggests that some people’s gender experience and knowledge is influenced by or attached to their being autistic. 

– Katie Munday on AIM for the Rainbow

While autigender can be used as a standalone gender, it’s also used as a qualifier (much like nonbinary). When I say I am autigender nonbinary, I mean I cannot see the world without my autism’s influence, including perceiving and understanding how I am nonbinary. Using “autigender” does not make a person trans, though transness can of course co-occur (as it does with me). Autigender, as I use it, actually expands my understanding of my own transness. It just makes it make more sense.

I’ve never understood gender. Not once. I’ve only played the part and respected others’ expression. Intellectually I understand gender is a spectrum, but it’s hard for me to conceptualize that spectrum in any real meaningful way. It’s not tangible. I just know what feels right and what doesn’t. What some understand boy to be vs. girl does not land with me because we’re all just human. I have said before that I often wish I could just say my gender is “human” and call it a day.

Growing up, I didn’t want to be a boy, nor did I want to not be a girl. I just wanted to be me.

In looking back, it’s fair to say I wanted the social gender of “boy.” I didn’t care about genitalia, but I knew I wanted shorter hair (because long hair for me is sensory hell) and to be treated like “one of the guys.” And then puberty hit. My “weirdness”—I was still learning how to mask my autism effectively—already threatened me with ostracization. Therefore, it became abundantly clear that if I wanted to fit in at all, I needed to commit to the greatest acting challenge I’d ever have to take on: the role of “girl.” I participated in traditionally feminine rituals like doing make-up, wearing heels, or “gossiping,” because I desperately wanted to be included. All of it made me incredibly uncomfortable.

Making friends in the moment isn’t always hard, but keeping them has been a life-long challenge. So I played the part, and failed a lot. Instead of being true to myself, I put on mask after mask, to hide my quirks and to show up in the world as others expected me to be. I lost sight of who I was; even though I was performing gender the “right” way for the most part, I still didn’t succeed at keeping those friends. I have now learned that the more I am authentically me, and loud about it, the more the right people come into my life and stay.

I was forced into this box of femininity that did NOT serve me. I never saw myself like I saw the other girls, and never felt like I belonged. The only time I’ve felt like I’ve belonged was when I got attention from men in college. It was not an intrinsic sense of belonging, but a contentment that came from seeing how I was being treated just like the other girls (hello trauma).

– Me, again from the post Nonbinary and Me

It’s difficult to explain how I didn’t see myself like I saw other girls. It might be more accurate to say that I didn’t see myself as I projected how other girls saw themselves. And it didn’t help that my body didn’t develop in the same ways either (short stature, small chest, more of a square but pudgy middle, thick thighs). It was hard to ever feel beautiful, especially as I never felt like my outer appearance reflected my inner self, though I didn’t know why. No feminine expression ever really felt right. The most beautiful I ever felt was in a messy bun and sweats. In fact, that was when I got complimented the most. I theorize it’s because I was comfortable, and therefore more able to be authentic. It never crossed my mind that I could be something other than a girl, not even when I encountered trans people for the first time and started to learn about how I fit into the LGBTQIA+ community in sexuality (probably because nonbinary wasn’t a part of that world yet in the way that it is now). Every instance of “failure” I experienced at performing my gender directly affected my intrinsic sense of self-worth. Instead of “failing at being a girl” it felt like I was just failing at being human, at being me. And I really couldn’t understand why that was.

A lot of trans people have said and will continue to say, “Oh I’ve always know I wasn’t my AGAB.” These folx usually have stories to tell of how they defied gender stereotypes for that explicit purpose/understanding. For me, I’ve always known I was different neurologically (maybe not in those terms, but I knew I was different and that I couldn’t change). Gender, however, was never questioned because I was never presented another option. There are girls, and boys—that’s it. My version of “girl” growing up was “tomboy.” And after a certain point, “tomboy” was no longer acceptable.

And so, there was a complete disconnect inside of me, and not because I wanted a different gender’s body. I wanted a different body alright, but a different “girl” body so that I could pass as a girl better. All I wanted was to be a perfect daughter and someone a man would find worthy enough to marry. These were the virtues I was taught took precedence, even over my intellect. I could go to school and get a good job, but it really didn’t mean much unless I got married and had kids (as is the plight for women under the outdated rules of patriarchy, especially those who are consumed by the Christian Church as I was then).

In my brain, I’m just human–without qualifiers. I’m just ME.

I’ve said in the past that I feel like all the genders at once, or none at all, or I’ll slide fluidly between many. But that was only an attempt to describe how much gender just doesn’t work in my brain. Those were the words I knew to use to convey how things work for me, as best I could. Nonbinary has worked, but it’s been like wearing a shoe that’s just barely too tight. You can get away with wearing it fine for a while, but after a whole day of walking around, you’re sore and worse for wear. It’s a bit stifling. Suffocating. It’s still a box, even when there is no right or wrong way to be nonbinary (it’s paradoxical because there’s no right or wrong way to be any kind of gender). For this reason I sometimes prefer genderqueer to nonbinary (it conveys more room to move around in for me). I’d rather just not be a part of the system at all though. I’d rather be a constellation of what makes up ME, where I choose the things I do and do not like and exist as a human on this earth without being forced into labels or skewed understanding. Adding “autigender” to my nonbinary label, then, allows me that liberation from the whole spectrum even as I operate within it.

I do believe my neurology has played the biggest role in not only trapping me into “womanhood” for so long, but also in my liberation from it. I was a girl for so long because my environment told me I was. Many autists are very literal people, myself included. I just accepted I was a girl, and a poor one at that. I couldn’t truly grasp gender before, but now looking through the lens of my autism, everything just makes sense. I needed new information and a safe space to try other identities on, and I’m so grateful that’s what I found myself in just a few years ago, and continue to find. Give me the space and tools to be creative, and I will create! And man did I ever create a masterpiece, one that is wholly reflective of who I am and not who I was projected to be.


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“Are transgender and nonbinary synonymous?”

Short answer, yes. Long answer, no.

Well that’s confusing, so let’s dive deeper shall we?

Transgender is an umbrella term. What’s an umbrella term?

“An umbrella term, or a hypernym, is a word or phrase used to generally, rather than specifically, describe a group of varying but identifiably related subjects.”

Alicia Sparks at infobloom.com

Under the umbrella that is “transgender” we have the gender spectrum. Cisgender people exist on the polar ends of said spectrum, outside the transgender umbrella, though even this is being reworked a little (more on this in a bit). As the photo above depicts, there are two small umbrellas underneath the larger transgender umbrella, and those are “binary” and “nonbinary.”

In the binary category, we have transgender men and women. They are under the binary umbrella because trans men and women are just that, men and women. That’s the classic binary code of gender, 1 or 0.

In the nonbinary category, we have genderfluid, genderqueer, bigender, agender, demigirl, demiboy, neutrois, and more. The more people explore what gender means to them outside of the binary, the more terms we find to be fitting. This does not lessen the validity of binary genders (cis or trans), but instead expands our understanding of what gender is at large. Gender is a spectrum, after all (and it gets less linear everyday). The one thing I will point out in disagreement with the picture above, is that genderqueer is more of a synonym for transgender than it is an identity under the nonbinary umbrella. Genderqueer is often used as its own umbrella term, describing people’s “non-normative experience with their gender,” which can encompass anyone under the transgender umbrella, binary or nonbinary. In saying this, however, one can and many do use genderqueer as a stand-alone identity, often depicting their nonbinary gender.

To me, ‘genderqueer’ represents a queering of gender, so to speak. It’s a deliberate playing with gender in a very political sense, and being provocative around gender norms to highlight the gender stereotypes of our culture.

– Laura A. Jacobs, an LGBTQ+ psychotherapist in an interview with VICE

Are Nonbinary and Transgender Interchangeable?

They can be! Because transgender begets nonbinary (as in the umbrella model), many nonbinary folx use trans and nonbinary interchangeably, myself included. But many nonbinary people do not identify as trans, and that’s okay. It all comes down to individual preferences.

I am also now learning that “nonbinary” can be used to further qualify cisgender identity as in “I am a nonbinary woman,” which is where my aside from before comes back into the conversation. Despite normative rhetoric, we CAN be multiple genders. Us humans are beautiful in our complexity! When it comes to being nonbinary, an individual who identifies as such can also identify as bigender, poly-gender, or some other multiple-gender concept that includes their assigned gender at birth (AGAB) to be at least one of those identities, as is the case for the aforementioned nonbinary woman.

Many nonbinary folks may not be bothered by their assigned gender at birth and feel like it still describes them in some way so they don’t want to fully adopt the trans label.

– a queer Facebook commenter
  • Some nonbinary people will not claim trans for themselves because of internalized transphobia (whether they realize it or not).
  • Some nonbinary people will not claim trans for themselves due to not feeling “trans enough” (which, let me be clear, if you’re gender non-conforming in identity, and you want to be a part of the trans community, you ARE trans enough).
  • Some nonbinary people will not claim trans for themselves because they still identify with their AGAB as the quote above describes. This can be conflated with demigirl/boy identities.

For me, it depends on the situation. Sometimes it’s just easier to use trans as a shorthand, as I can feel vulnerable in getting specific about my gender identity. Sometimes I use trans for the shock value, as most people misgender me. “Trans” empowers me to stand in my identity because I feel the support of the whole community behind me when I use it (not that nonbinary doesn’t do that too, but most people know what trans is, whereas not everyone knows with nonbinary is). Other times nonbinary is more fitting because I feel too vulnerable saying trans in fear of being the recipient of transphobia, as if nonbinary is less in-your-face trans? That definitely plays into my own internalized transphobia, but the fear of external transphobia is real, and this is how my brain rationalizes things in order to deal with them.

Nonbinary is under the trans umbrella because it is rejecting the binary as we traditionally know it.

– Me, in my post Nonbinary and Me

I’ll admit now that “rejecting the binary” was not the best way to phrase things. Not all nonbinary people reject the binary, as bigender people exist, as well as genderqueer/genderfluid folx who play with gender within the binary. This is only amplified more when we consider nonbinary cisgendered people. To be transgender, then, is to participate within the gender binary in untraditional, counter-normative ways, with the possibility to reject the binary altogether.

Humans are WAY too complex for us to say anything in our lives is a paradox. “We contain multitudes.”

– same queer Facebook commenter

There is so much nuance when it comes to human identity and the words we use to describe ourselves. As time progresses, we’re relearning just how expansive humanity can be. We do not fit neatly into the same few boxes! And even when we do, those boxes are often subjected to change or overlap, over time.

So are transgender and nonbinary synonymous? It all comes down to the individual at hand, so always ask before you assume!

It’s time we stop pathologizing different neurotypes and get to the root of the problem: we all need individualized care.

Instead of putting the onus of “functionality” on the individual, we need to really evaluate how the systems we have in place (this capitalist, white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchy) put us all at disadvantages depending on the identities we hold. No two autistic people are the same, just as no two neurotypicals are the same.

Let’s start a conversation about what is actually needed: comprehensive universal healthcare and social infrastructure that evaluates the individual’s needs and accommodates appropriately. There is no such thing as a “high” or “low” functioning human. There are only humans who need a more accommodating/understanding/patient environment. Whatever “level” humans operate at, makes them just that—human. Functioning labels serve no one but those who feel the need to “organize” for hierarchy’s sake.

I consider myself disabled due to the combination of my chronic disease and neurodivergence (autism w/ADHD). This means that even though you’ll see me dancing and often “functioning” at the expected level in most social situations, there are days where I can barely get out of bed, let alone get to the store or talk with people in any meaningful way. Social and sensory triggers play a HUGE role in my “functionality,” on top of having a body that fights itself on a daily basis.

Not my words, but relatable AF

Autism is not a condition or disorder.

But it CAN be a disability when needs aren’t met. When the metric for disability is based in how an individual is able to “perform” socially, or independently, suddenly a whole lot of people are either “low functioning” or are able to mask super well which causes its own problems. It’s degrading. We are all worthy of love, dignity, and respect.

When it comes to disabilities that can only be accommodated for so far (from executive functioning issues to having seizures), we have the opportunity to see disability as a non-linear spectrum, as we see autism. Certain disabilities will put a person at a disadvantage compared to others in whatever environment. This is why it’s even more crucial that we have individualized care. And when accommodating for one disability impedes someone else with a different disability, a compromise must be reached.

We are humans of great capacity!

We literally have ALL the power to make our society inclusive and accommodating for *everyone*. We accommodate for everything we can, we do better when we learn better, and we interact with each other with dignity and respect. It all comes down to compassionate communication and individual needs (which is not to say similar needs can’t be serviced collectively, just that systems need to operate on a more personal level than they do now).

So why don’t we make this shift happen? Because the way things are now keep people poor and dependent and allows those in power to stay in power by exploiting others. We can start dismantling these awful structures by changing our language to be more compassionate and inclusive. Will you join me?

What is “high” and “low” functioning?

According to the levels in the DSM-5, high functioning people use spoken language to communicate, are more likely to manage the expectations of an academic setting, and more likely to be aware of social conventions. Basically, they are able to pass as “normal” or “typical” in most areas of life.

Low functioning people are described to look and sound different from their typical peers with their disability being more visually and orally obvious, and are less likely to engage in typical classes or activities.

Why is this a problem?

The “high functioning” or “low functioning” dichotomy came from eugenics (a movement aimed at selectively breeding desirable traits and out-breeding neurodiverse individuals [among other marginalized identities]). It is based off a person’s ability to produce capitalistic value or not which is inherently wrong.

The distinctions between low and high functioning individuals is artificial and not absolute. This is because autistic people behave differently in different situations and every individual has a range of strengths and challenges.

For example, a “high functioning” person who appears “normal” (or even exceptional) in a classroom may find it impossible to function at a party or concert. Meanwhile, a “low functioning” person who can’t use spoken language to communicate may be more than capable to lead an online conversation.

Why is this a problem?

Autistic people labelled as “high functioning” often receive less care and support from communities, peers, and medical professionals because they are deemed capable of functioning “normally” in society without assistance. This becomes an issue once they are no longer capable of functioning “normally” due to sensory overload or any other triggers. This idea also promotes the harmful and excessive use of “masking” where autistic individuals prevent themselves from stimming or a meltdown to maintain the expectations of a “high functioning” person.

On the other hand, autistic people labelled as “low functioning” are deemed of less value than their “high functioning” and neurotypical peers. They are often excluded and isolated from social circles, are underpaid, and denied workplace rights and healthcare rights.

What should we say instead of “high” and “low” functioning?

Nothing.

Focusing on people’s functioning gets us nowhere. Autistic people’s needs and experiences are too varied to fit into any dichotomy, no matter what you call it. The conversation should be focused on the amount of access to care rather than the amount they “function.” Obviously some people need more care and different forms of care than others but labelling autistic people on “high” and “low” functioning is the opposite of supportive.

Simply approach each autistic individual with an open mind and kind heart without forcing us into restrictive and demeaning boxes. 

Sources:

healthline.com/health/high-functioning-autism

http://spectrumnews.org/…/large-study-supports…/

http://autismawareness.com.au/…/why-we-should-stop…/

also a huge thank you to all my fellow peers from the autistic community for sharing your thoughts and opinions on this issue with me [heart emoji] -@safehaven.activists

Thanks to @safehaven.activists for the awesome info slides. Read my commentary here in High vs. Low Functioning Labels for Autism, Part 2.