We’re here. We’re weird. Get used to it.
There are a lot of reasons why I like the word ‘queer’, and a lot of reasons why some people don’t. One reason for both is that in a literal sense, ‘queer’ just means ‘weird’. Not everyone who isn’t straight and cisgender is weird in any other sense — but, well, many of us are. Recognising that is key to dealing with much of the abuse that queer people get. It also helps us draw important connections between what we might call queerphobic bullying, and other types of oppression.
Part of the reason I’ve been thinking about all this lately is because I’ve been seeing so many weird, queer and wonderful characters in TV mainly aimed at young people. I’ve rarely seen a character whose school experiences resonated as much with mine as Cole from the latest Anne of Green Gables adaptation. It made me wonder what exactly it is about this creative, hyperfocusing, masculinity-rejecting kid that gets the bullies so riled.
It may not have been Cole-level bad, but I did not have an easy time at school in the 1980s and 90s. The academic side of it was mostly fine, but I was a target for bullies both in my peer group and among teachers. I was weird: I know now that I’m autistic, bisexual and genderqueer, but I didn’t know any of that then, and neither did the bullies. They didn’t need to; they could see that I didn’t conform with the norms they wanted to police, and that was enough.
I started growing my hair long at the age of about nine, and decided that I liked it and wanted to keep it. There wasn’t much more to it than that, really; when people asked, I told them I liked the feeling of my hair on my back. That was largely true, but I think a big part of why I kept my hair long was just that I’d made a decision, and I was going to stick to it unless I could see a very good reason not to. Nobody ever gave me one, and the fact they had a problem with it anyway made me more determined to keep it. My hair attracted a lot of hostility and incomprehension from people I would never have got on with anyway; I came to appreciate how quickly arseholes made themselves known by attacking me for it. It saves time.
I wonder — how much did they even care about what was behind my decision to grow my hair long, and my general disregard for masculine norms? We could call it homophobic, but I don’t think crushes on boys were ever part of the picture. We could call it transphobic, but I wasn’t exactly presenting as a gender other than the one I’d been assigned. We could call it sexist, if sexism against people perceived as male counts. We could call it ableist, if we understand that my gender non-conformity is impossible to separate from my autistic inability to even pretend to respect conventions that make no damn sense. If you want me to conform to something, you’d better have a bloody good reason why.
At the training I went to last weekend, run by LGBT Youth for my union, they explained how they often talk about homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying together (they called it ‘HBT’ bullying, rather than ‘queerphobic’, probably because some people object to ‘queer’). They’ve always been difficult to separate; gender and sexuality may be fundamentally different things, but not being straight always means crossing gender barriers — at the very least, the assumption of heterosexuality that’s still built into common ideas about what it means to be male or female. In practice, some gay people are otherwise very gender-conforming, but many are not. The association of sexuality with gender expression has a long history, and many of the stereotypes and stigmatised behaviours of gay men and lesbians have to do with transgressing people’s ideas about gender. Gay communities have often gelled by flouting gender norms.
We can’t get very far talking about the root of queerphobic bullying, then, without bringing in sexism. Part of queerness is about defying binary gender. Not everyone who does that is queer, but everyone who does will have faced similar attacks. The system of relations that we call the patriarchy is built on dividing people into two classes of people, male and female, each with assigned roles and acceptable ways of presenting. This gets policed by men and women, boys and girls alike, often by telling someone something is ‘gay’ and hence, presumably, wrong. Another way is just to describe things as ‘unladylike’ or ‘unmanly’. Often, those who don’t conform are just quietly excluded.
If you know any autistic people, you will probably be aware that being excluded for failure to conform is an extremely common autistic experience. Autistic people tend to struggle to get our heads round social norms, and refuse to be put off things we like just because other people don’t get it. Given how much of everything is gendered in 21st century society, it is no surprise we often end up being at least a bit gender non-conforming, by default, whatever our own feelings about gender. Perhaps part of the reason that so many autistic people identify as members of gender and sexual minorities is because we’re forced to face questions about these things early on: once you realise you don’t really fit the boxes you’ve been assigned at birth, you’re probably going to want to spend a while looking for somewhere you do fit. Maybe fewer autistic people are straight or cis, or maybe we’re just more likely to accept and admit that we’re not.
Often, the ‘realising you don’t fit’ bit is easier than putting a name to where you do fit; even understanding why and how you don’t fit can be quite a journey. This is part of the value of the term ‘queer’; there’s a vagueness built into it that acknowledges how complex and sometimes fluid these things can be, and how much of the time none of that matters to the bullies anyway. It points to the struggles shared by so many, where a string of letters like ‘LGBTIA+’ can’t help but divide us into a discrete set of categories.
I don’t want to say ‘I’m LGBTIA+’ when I’m only one or two of those, and it’s unwieldy to say anyway. That makes it awkward to talk about as a shared identity, and while we need to make sure not to assume we understand someone else’s experiences because they fall in the same very broad category as us, it’s also incredibly helpful to connect with people who do have some things in common. I’m comfortable saying I’m queer, and that I see myself as part of a queer community. For me, the term fits for a key part of my life experience: some people find me, my sexuality, and my gender expression, weird. I’m okay with that — for my part, I accepted my weirdness early in life, and concluded that all the most interesting people are pretty weird anyway, so that’s fine.
Not everyone sees it that way. Some see themselves as perfectly normal, just gay or trans, and that’s okay. While in my life I’ve heard ‘gay’ used as a term of abuse far more often than ‘queer’, many people have also had bad experiences with the term ‘queer’ being used against them, so there are still problems with using ‘queer’ as an umbrella term, especially if it’s coming from someone who’s not part of any queer community themself. Even so, I see ‘queerphobia’ as an appropriate term for much of the hatred and exclusion we face. People fear what they can’t categorise.
To the extent that queerphobia is about the persecution of those perceived as different, it is a type of weirdmisia, a category of hatred that I think we need to start naming: hate for the weird.
Again, our persecutors don’t always care much about the nuance. I doubt it ever entered my bullies’ heads to wonder if my social oddity might be disability-related. It’s not wrong to file this kind of exclusion under ‘ableism’, but it doesn’t really capture it. There are plenty of reasons people are seen as weird, and made to suffer for it, besides disabilities.
Those of us whose weirdness is directly related to autism, or other forms of neurodivergence and disability, ought to make common cause with those who are seen as weird for other reasons. We face a common problem, whatever the additional challenges associated with each way of being different. Autism acceptance and queer liberation are both out of the question in a society that is hostile to difference in general. Rigid social norms don’t mix well with cultural diversity, either — demands for social conformity are bad news for ethnic minorities, as well as members of subcultures. Life is always better if you’re around people who accept and appreciate you for who you are.
When my mum first made herself a Weird Pride badge, my response was HELL YES. It put a name to something I’d felt since an early age.
Weird Pride means refusing to accept that our weirdness is something we should hide or train ourselves out of. It means standing up for the value of diversity, standing against the stigma being someone who doesn’t quite fit, and standing with others who’ve had similar experiences. I’m proud to be queer, I’m proud to be autistic, and I’m proud to be a damn weirdo. I didn’t choose to be who I am, but I choose to live with it.
I choose not to be ashamed.
- Education Institute Scotland has some great resources on challenging homophobia, and LGBT Youth Scotland is a wellspring.
- My own Autism Tips for Teachers are published by Tes, as are Luke Beardon’s Three Golden Rules and Ian Rivers’ Bullying is a Political Issue.
- Almost all of my writing on autism is here.
- Grace Petrie’s Black Tie is something that everyone who’s ever been a queer kid needs to hear; Pride is important too.
- I wrote a little about autistic pride for AMASE’s picnic which I helped organise.
- Sonny wrote about their experiences of gender in Being Comfortable in my Body.
- Delightfully queer telly I’ve been watching in recent years includes the new She-Ra, Steven Universe, Anne with an E and Everything Sucks. The best explicitly-autistic TV I’ve seen is Pablo, which is aimed at young kids, but you shouldn’t let that stop you.
- Joanne Limburg discusses her experiences as a writer and proposes that we need ‘weird theory’ alongside ‘queer theory’ and ‘crip theory’, an idea that I endorse, in The Shape of the Problem.
- Nick Walker’s thoughts on being neuroqueer are useful and interesting; see also The Aspergian’s Introduction to Neuroqueer Theory, as well as their articles on bullying and abuse.
- The Autism, Gender, Sexuality 2018 conference in Birmingham has videos of almost all of the talks online, many of them excellent.