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(CN for mention of misgendering)
Autistic LGBTQ+ people struggle to integrate into LGBTQ+ spaces for a variety of reasons. One of these reasons is to how inaccessible dedicated clubs and spaces for LGBTQ+ people can be due to sensory overload. However as someone who is at the start trying to integrate into these spaces to help me become comfortable with myself (as I am still in the closet) I am hitting the first hurdle and I’d like to talk about that a bit today. The hurdle is the very question used to help introduce people into LGBTQ+ spaces so people know how others want to be identified and that is…
“What’s your name and pronouns?”
Now before I continue I want to make it crystal clear that I fully support trans issues as well as the normalisation of pronouns. In other words – all the motives behind this question. I myself am trans and I don’t identify with any gender on a deep level however I do wish to be treated and seen as feminine hence the need to disclose pronouns.
Disclosing pronouns makes it easy for trans people to work out who is safe to be around as many people who do not disclose pronouns aren’t allies to trans people. Furthermore, as gender is different for everyone and there are more than two there is the need for language to change and reflect this (or be normalised in the case of the singular pronoun “they”).
However, I do think in certain situations the way this question is asked can potentially make LGBTQ+ spaces inaccessible for autistic people – and by extension those that have anxiety. Hence this is something I’d like to talk about today.
Imagine this – you are an autistic person whom has just realised they are LGBTQ+ and need to seek friends in real life for support. You’re not fully out to the world and you need to get a bigger support network who will lift you up rather than put you down. You managed to get to one of these groups overcoming deep anxiety and fear of the unknown. Will you be accepted? Can you trust the people here to keep your secret safe until you’re ready to show the world?
You are too anxious to talk to others. There are so many people here talking to each other. Some people are out whereas others are in the closet. This environment is unfamiliar and you are getting exhausted due to all the sensory input. You feel like you could be welcomed and accepted here – but also very anxious at the possibility of having to deal with awkward situations with the other people there until you feel comfortable opening up. The anxiety won’t go away until you feel comfortable trusting them with your orientations.
You want to trust others here but you know it will take time and effort on your part and theirs. They may be willing to play ball so you’re going to give it a chance. But for now you only feel comfortable passively participating in the events. In other words – say what you feel comfortable saying and don’t pressure yourself.
You hear the organiser say “So before we begin we are going to go round and ask everyone’s names and pronouns.” Oh no. You’re going to have to out myself to other people before you’re ready. The reasons are perfectly understandable but is only heightening your anxiety. This goes against the mental plan you had in mind and may only make things harder for you in the long run.
People start responding to the question in order around the way you were all sitting. There’s so many different names and pronouns. You can’t go by how people present so you have to try to remember what they say even though it is difficult for you due to your anxiety. It got overwhelming. There is no way you are able to remember them all. Then the question finally got to you.
“Erm…I don’t really feel comfortable answering that,” you meekly say with visible anxiety in your voice.
It feels like a cop-out. You want to say “Hi I’m [redacted] and my pronouns are [pronoun 1/pronoun 2] but the nerves are just too much. You’re too shy and you wonder if other people feel that you aren’t interested in engaging or whether you aren’t safe because you aren’t disclosing your pronouns.
This was me at my first LGBTQ+ event. So in short – the pronouns question is giving me anxiety because it is putting me on the spot before I am ready to give the answers. This is because I am shy and am finding the unfamiliar situation overwhelming for me.
On social networking sites like Twitter disclosing pronouns is much easier. The pressure is off as users putting pronouns in their bio gets around asking the questions directly. Not to mention online spaces are often the only place somebody can be themselves before they are able to out themselves in real life.
Transferring this idea of having name/pronouns written down in real life support groups would be a good idea. Having stickers with your name and pronouns written on them would greatly help people like me better remember how to address people properly and avoid misgendering or calling people the wrong names by accident.
Similar systems are used at some left-wing conferences where pronoun stickers are given out to the guests for free as well as colour coded lanyards to indicate whether somebody is OK with strangers talking to them or not. This is one common way to improve accessibility for disabled people and would be worth transferring into communities outside of disability and left-wing environments as well. This would also help people who find it difficult to remember individual names and pronouns due to anxiety, cognitive disabilities and other reasons.
Another idea that I feel is worth suggesting could be simply just saying “you don’t have to answer if you don’t feel comfortable” in group-based situations. I had this happen when I was talking to individuals and it greatly helped my confidence. I can come out of my shell in my own time and express myself more freely when I felt comfortable. In that context I was known as someone “with no name or pronoun” which was fine by me. This is how it should be in general. In LGBTQ+ spaces this is important and also in neurodiverse spaces too. Not having that contributed to my anxiety in the group environment.
Maybe as time goes on and I integrate into these circles more and build a support network I will make some friends and this initial barrier will lower. The barriers are lower however right now it is a formidable obstacle and I need to do my best to find a way to overcome it. I am still at the start of my journey and I’d wager my view will deepen as I gain more knowledge about LGBTQ+ issues. In the meantime, I’ll likely produce labels and badges myself to take the pressure off me a bit as I can simply direct others to my labels.
LGBTQ+ circles – please think about how establishing names and pronouns could add accessibility barriers for autistic LGBTQ+ people. More autistic people are LGBTQ+ than the general population so you’re missing out on a lot of us if you don’t make your spaces accessible.
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