11 October 2012

The Politics of Coming Out

What does it mean when Autistic people say that they are "out" as Autistic or "closeted Autistics?" The language is borrowed from the queer community, as anyone familiar with LGBTQQIA issues may know. It means to be publicly Autistic, to acknowledge one's Autisticness to one's community, to take some pride in being Autistic. It means identifying as Autistic outside safe space, and thus, accepting the potential consequences of being known as Autistic—accepting the risk of assault and victimization, silencing and erasure, paternalism and patronization, infantilization, ostracism, de-legitimization, sub-speciating, harassment, and retaliation. It also means publicly acknowledging one's membership in a particular community and affinity to a particular culture—an Autistic community, an Autistic culture, an Autistic aesthetic, an Autistic way of living and being.

Some Autistics can only be partially out or out only in some places or among some people or communities; there are many factors that can cause this to happen. Sometimes, Autistics may be out in the broader Autistic or disability communities, but may not be out at work or at school for fear of retaliation, harassment, bullying, or direct assault. Some Autistics who've identified as Autistic as adults but who may not have been identified as Autistic as youth or children may be out to their friends but not to their families for fear of misunderstanding, gaslighting, or blatant, flagrant ableism.

It's National Coming Out Day for the queer community, for those who identify as lesbian or gay or bisexual or pansexual or demisexual or polysexual or asexual or trans or genderqueer or intersex or non-binary or androgynous or agender or questioning or queer in general (or any combination of the above). So let's talk about coming out.

We had a fantastic event at Georgetown two nights ago called Undocuqueer: Undoing Borders & Queering the Undocumented Narrative, during which four undocuqueer activists spoke of the intersectionality between the queer and undocumented communities, and the political, legal, cultural, and social ramifications of coming out as queer, undocumented, and undocuqueer. One of the speakers, Julio Salgado, spoke of the awakening  to the plight and experiences of queers that some straight undocumented people had when they began to adopt the language of "coming out" to refer to publicly identifying themselves as undocumented. They began to understand on a deeply emotional level the personal consequences for queers of coming out because they faced many barriers and dangers in identifying publicly as undocumented, analogous barriers in many ways to those faced by the queer community. This personal investment in coming out serves a means of improving understanding of the kind of coming out for members of another marginalized community.

There is a real danger in analogizing that can undo movements, hint of appropriation, and lead down the path of ranking oppressions. At the same time, there is value in drawing analogies in order to better understand, examine, challenge, and change the systems of oppression and hierarchies of privilege that impact not only all people who belong to any of a number of historically marginalized groups but also all people who are privileged by having these unearned advantages in society. The Autistic rights movement that has been emergent for the last two decades draws much from the Deaf community and the broader disability rights movement. The disability civil rights movement draws much from the Black and African American civil rights movement, though both arose around the same time. The queer rights movement draws much from the Black and African American civil rights movement as well as the women's rights movement. The intersectionalities are broad, enormous, and many. They leave a lot of room, a lot of space, much of it unexplored, particularly where three or more identities converge.

In the Autistic community, and in the Autistic rights movement in particular, we use a lot of borrowed language. Is this wrong and appropriative in itself? If the origins of the terms we use are not recognized and understood, and if the histories of the other oppressed groups from which we've borrowed them are not acknowledged as lending these bits of language to us, then yes, it is appropriative. But in the context of a holistic understanding of the societal hierarchies of privilege, power, oppression, and marginalization, the use of these borrowed terms can become empowering and liberating.

I've heard words and phrases like "autdar" (analogous to "gaydar," or the ability that many Autistics have to identify other Autistics, even among strangers), "flaming Autistic" (meaning someone who presents as obviously Autistic), "self-advocacy" (drawn from the community of people with intellectual disabilities), "Autistic" with the capital A (analogous to "Deaf" with the capital D to denote someone or something related to or part of Deaf culture and identity), and "Autistic space" (analogous to "Deaf space," or space specifically designed around the communication and access needs of Autistics). And of course, there are the ever-present "closeted" and "out," and infinite variations thereof. These terms may be borrowed, but they are accurate in their descriptions of the experiences we've had. They are as analogous as they can be—recognizing the similarities in the experiences while respecting the different circumstances and intersections of privilege and power.

Some Autistics will not come out because they have legitimate fears of losing their jobs or credibility at their schools—these fears are founded on the plethora of such incidents that not only occur but that are justified and permitted in the context of an ableist society that dismisses Autistics as incompetent, incapable, eternally naive and infantile, and therefore undeserving of the same opportunities as the neurotypical. To come out is a revolutionary act that challenges this ableist framework, yet we live in societies that perpetuate complicity with ableism, in societies that are not conducive to allowing Autistic culture and Autistic communities to flourish. The resilience that is necessary to exist in a society that frequently dehumanizes and devalues Autistic lives and the Autistic experience often demands coming out, but cannot compel it. And in far too many cases, the rampant ableism of our world suppresses untold numbers of Autistics who are terrified of the consequences of coming out.

We are more than the discursive and rhetorical constructs of autism and ability and disability. To be Autistic is not to be defective or deficient or ill—to be Disabled is not to be less than or inferior or incapable. Autistic culture is more than a passing, perfunctory phrase wrapped in a convenient package. Disability culture is more than an odd turn of phrase, unfamiliar and uncomfortable to those with able-bodied and neurotypical privilege, or to those who have internalized ableism and internalized their oppression. Most disabled people, most Autistic people have never been exposed to Autistic culture or disability culture. Our history is not taught or acknowledged. Our leaders, pioneers, and innovators exist on the margins of mainstream society, politics, and history. We are so commonly erased that many disabled people only learn that our communities are vibrant and widespread after they've already become adults.

To come out is to challenge the cultural norms that tell us we should remain in the closet. That is true whether one comes out as queer or undocumented or disabled—or anything else, for that matter. Not everyone can come out, not yet. But for those who can, each voice, each face, each name, each person, represents whole swaths of people whom society has told do not deserve to have an identity in which they can take pride and find community.

Left to right: James Saucedo, Julia Maddera, Lydia Brown, Sivagami (Shiva) Subbaraman, and M. Ferguson

Five people wearing matching pink short-sleeved t-shirts with big black letters that say "i am." on the front. James is a light-skinned man with short brown hair. Julia is a blonde-haired white woman who is also wearing a rainbow scarf. Lydia (me) is an east asian person with black hair and a blue lanyard around their neck. Shiva is a Desi (South Asian) woman with short-cropped grey hair. M. is a white person with brown hair in a ponytail and sunglasses. In front of the five people is a twenty-eight layer rainbow-colored cake with frosting on top of a table covered in a rainbow pride flag. Behind them is a brick wall covered in various college flyers.


  1. I'm both autistic and transgender, and my life is getting pretty terrible. Do you have any recomendations?

    1. Reach out to queer Autistics and queers with other disabilities near you -- you can send out feelers through Facebook or Tumblr if you don't know of anyone offhand, but the community is large and growing. Be around people who understand, people to whom you don't have to explain yourself and people who you don't have to educate -- have those people as your support network. Distant support can be good too, but if possible, find folks near you -- that could make a huge difference. If you want to contact me off-site, my email address is on the left-hand margin.

    2. Erika, what state do you live in? I might be able to help you find some stuff depending on where you are. If you contact Lydia, I can have her give you my email address to talk off-site as well. I work with LGBTQ youth at a health center and most of the patients I work with are transgender and I am Autistic myself. Let me know if there is anything I can help with.

    3. tennessee but i may soon move to montana. how do i contact lydia?

    4. You can email me at lydia.brown@autismeducationproject.org.

  2. That cake is beautiful. So MANY COLORS! Also, great piece. Of writing, that is.

  3. I cover well.
    The autistic equivalent of a lipstick lesbian or being in deep stealth all the time, I guess.
    The thing I'm sick of hearing when I finally choose to come out as autistic is people say, "You don't seem like you are - are you sure?"
    Imagine saying that to someone who just told you they're gay.
    Or being told that after coming out as being gay. "You don't seem gay, are you sure you are?"
    Um,... yep. It's really obvious to me, being that I"m me and all and have worked really hard for years so that no one knew this about me. That, and the several hundred dollars I've sunk into a medical diagnosis. My psychiatrist is sure too. Do I need a doctor's note to continue this discussion or can we get back to acting like adults here?
    Hiding it is really hard work. Thanks for rewarding my trust in you with a stab in the heart.

  4. I never really had the option of keeping my diagnosis undisclosed due to being diagnosed as a child and having needed help as an adult, the majority of my friends are autistic and although people in the street don't know my exact diagnosis there do definately notice something different.

    You write "..most Autistic people have never been exposed to Autistic culture or disability culture." Most haven't been exposed to the most recent developments that have grown very fast on the internet your right.. But when I was in residential school, most of the teens there hadn't either but many very clearly had a culture they had created and passed down between each other which was definately an autistic culture and had many similarities.. This will have been happening anywhere autistic people were gathered together (sometimes in great numbers in the UK at least with old 'asylums' and even in some disciplines of the old universities), also many families have generations of autistics going back as far as they are able to gather information for- those families will have had some sort of autistic culture.. They won't have had a word for it but its definatly autistic and its definately a culture similar (but obviously not identical or as connected as now), when you spend your life in services at least in the UK its amazing how many people you can meet and how much people are moved from area to area as needs and resources change.. its different, but its really important to recognise our autistic culture and community is not the first, only one ever or the only availible one..