I wanted to share some of my experiences of being trans and on the autism spectrum after talking about this to trans friends with an ASD diagnosis and after reading this article of another trans person with Asperger’s syndrome, which felt very true.
Transnormativity is the idea that there is One Narrative to rule them all as far as trans experiences go. This narrative goes more or less like this: Janet was assigned male at birth because of her genitals, but from her earliest memory, this felt wrong to her. In childhood, she cross-dressed and expressed that she was/wanted to be a girl, but no one listened to her. At puberty, she experienced traumatic changes in her body, which didn’t develop breast but did grow facial hair, etc. Eventually, probably because she’s desperate to the point where it’s either transition or suicide, she decides to make her body match her identity, so she makes a full transition that reaches its climax and long-awaited ending with SRS. After SRS, Janet is now a full woman and assimilates in the crowd of other (heterosexual) women.
(For the record, I used the trans woman example because trans men tend to be forgotten, even in trans environments — if this must describe normativity, let’s go all the way at erasing other experiences.)
This may be because many trans people have experiences that match this, and that’s perfectly fine, but it may also be reinforced by the very history of transgenderism and its relationship with health professionals. The earliest criteria (which often still apply in practice) for accessing medical or legal transition mandated to follow the normative path. Trans people had to remember being trans since forever, they needed to have indulged in gender transgressive behaviour as children, they had to follow this exact path and to aspire strongly for the same conclusion — surgery and invisibility. Trans people, not being stupid, knew that, so if they did not fit these restrictive criteria for whatever reason, they just invented a story that worked and lied so that they could access much-needed resources.
Some consequences of this are that 1) unsurprisingly, trans people tend to tell this story to health professionals 2) trans people who don’t fit well in it feel a sense of shame, of not being really trans, or of not being trans enough, or whatever. As the article linked to above says,
it seems as though that if this is the narrative other trans* people are judging themselves against th[e]n very likely, once again, those under different intersections that influence their experience may be feeling that their trans* journey is less legitimate or that they aren’t really trans*.
I don’t fit this normative discourse. Yes, I felt wrong from an early age,”the earliest I can remember”, but my being wrong was not gendered at that time. Not only is trying to force the narrative on me not going to work, but it denies the specific intersectional combination that makes my experience as an aspie trans girl radically different from that of other trans girls or trans people.
To explain this (and to give some hope to other aspie trans people or just trans people who don’t match transnormative discourses), I shall tell you a little story about myself.
My childhood is a bit shady. I have few memories before high school (and even then…), and we moved a lot when I was young — I lived outside the country between 2 and 6.
I did feel wrong from an early age. I have clear memories of it by age 9, but I think it was already there when I started school at 6. All the same, this was not a question of gender, but of basic functioning — looking people in the eye, understanding social cues, keeping relationships or friendships (or at least ones where I wasn’t exploited or mistreated). This was hard work for me. Part of this meant acting like a boy and doing boy things, which meant whatever other boys were doing, because doing that was normal, and I was not. As such, I had to stop creating my stories in my head, because it was not typical (i.e. feminine), I had to like sports and watch hockey, because it was masculine (i.e. normal). So that’s what I did.
As you see, I didn’t live two different spectrums of (neuro)typical/atypical and of masculine/feminine. It was one single spectrum, “abnormal”/masculine — I know abnormal is offensive, but that’s how I described these behaviours for myself. I did abnormal or “aspie” things which were wrong and had to be corrected despite my own desires, and I sought to do masculine things, which were right because people said they were normal for me. I was acutely aware of gender and of “normality”, because I had to make constant, active decisions (even if I acted them as non-decisions) involving both all the time.
I never strongly felt male or female when I was a child. I have no memories of that, at least — I have few early memories of anything. I do remember some instances of my behaviour being policed for gender conformity (I’m thinking of things like crying or liking arts and craft), and I was bullied in some gendered ways (my high-pitch voice was too feminine), but nothing more. I did not say anything to that effect.
I never felt the desire to wear female clothes, but I never felt the desire to wear male clothes either — in fact, I loathed it in many ways, yet I did what I had to do because I had to in order to function. I couldn’t bear the effort of buying clothes or even choosing them. It was completely overwhelming. Most of my clothes were very old and/or tattered, and except for my jeans and pants, most of them were gifts or clothes I got for free. I didn’t see this aversion as gendered either. In fact, I had next to no concern for my appearance beyond minimal hygiene. I didn’t want an external appearance, I didn’t care. My existence was entirely internal. There was no “me” outside my thoughts, because that outside “me” was alienating to me whenever I saw it.
This became more acute with puberty. Unlike what the standard narrative suggests, I never felt “betrayed by my body”, but all the same, everything that happened to my it was wrong and painful. My main strategy was to go even deeper into my own world and into denial of my body.
Facial hair was the most obvious case: in my mind, I did not have facial hair. Everyone would see it and propose that I start to shave, but no, I did not have facial hair, how could I? So I didn’t shave, because shaving was acknowledging I had facial hair, and I didn’t. Sometimes, I tried, but it was painful. It stabilized a few years before transition at shaving my whole beard about once a month, when the beard itself became annoying. However, when I did have a beard, I had a hard time knowing that the person I saw was me. In photos, I looked out for someone without a beard and could rarely find where I was in crowded scenes. After all, I didn’t have a beard. I felt more or less the same way with body hair, except I could be in denial more easily. However, from time to time, I “noticed” I had body hair, or more body hair than before. I generally panicked when that happened. Sometimes, I just shaved out of fear. But I never thought of that as sometime related to gender.
My voice was the exception. I don’t think puberty changed it really much or at all, for which I am supremely glad today. But all the same, it was much more ambiguous back then. On the one hand, I was taken as female on the phone, which wasn’t unpleasant. On the other hand, I was bullied because of my voice (and other stuff, of course). I sometimes tried to make my voice more masculine, or felt I had too, because if I wasn’t masculine, I would be abnormal. I didn’t really put much effort into it, though.
Another aggravating factor in my case was that I went to an all male school. I don’t remember why I chose it. I have no memory of how the school being all-male affected the decision. I think the school’s prestige played an important part. Anyway, the prestige is why I never left it after, even though I always had frequent thoughts of leaving it after the first year — it was strongest in 2nd year, but I repressed it, and in 5th year, when I started to have strong suicidal thoughts. Anyway. Going to an all-male school aggravated the abnormal/masculine dichotomy, because the only permitted model of normality I saw was masculinity.
Starting in sec. 5, I was seeing more girls. Then, my two best friends, whom I met on the Internet, were girls, and (some) girls were allowed in school in senior year. I started to have models in my life of female behaviour beyond my family and from people of my own age, which changed how I understood gender. As a general rule, seeing more girls of my age made me adopt behaviours similar to theirs — slowly, but surely. My relationship to sports changed a lot, from playing often and watching even more to a more “girly” way of following sports and doing less physical activity to doing neither and feeling an aversion to sport in general (attitudes that are generally coded as feminine).
As life started to get slightly less horrible after high school, I didn’t feel as much need to repress my atypicality and my oddities — and it so happens that these often took the shape of feminine thoughts. The clearest example I remember is when I said publicly that I wanted to be pregnant. This is something I had wanted for a long time and still want today — I google “uterus transplant” every few weeks to see if anything has happened recently. But when I said that, I didn’t feel I was expressing a deep desire to be female as I would be now, I was just showing how charmingly excentric I could be as a person. Once again, it was abnormal vs. masculine. When framing myself as different from everyone else, I had to be female.
My mental health was also informed by this way to understand gender. Starting in my high school senior year, I started to self-harm and did that for years, and felt good about it in part because it’s framed as a feminine behaviour. Similarly, since I’m 18, I have an eating disorder (think “anorexia” or something like that), another girl’s problem, and it always felt right to me. Both started/intensified as my female identification grew (see below), so I saw more clearly that there was an issue of gender in play. However, once again, my feminine aspects could only exist by doing something that is otherwise “abnormal”, and coming back to normativity was coming back to masculinity. I self-harmed way longer than I should have because by that point, I cherished the little femininity I had and feared too much masculinity. Same with anorexia. I don’t think it’s coincidence that it’s only now that I’m fully asserting myself as a woman that I’m taking real steps to fight my eating disorder.
In cégep, I learned about the concept of “gender” and about trans people. Although the idea would slooooowly make its way from there, it changed nothing to my existence — unlike many trans people who follow the standard narrative and who seem to have an epiphany when they first heard to word “transgender”. At first, the idea of not acting as my birth assigned gender didn’t make sense to me. For years, even though my own way to understand myself changed, this was just impossible. I found every possible argument available to discredit this, from cost to society to trans-exclusive feminist rhetoric to “nature” nonsense, but only for me (because others could take their own decision and I respected that). I was the only one not allowed, because my daily script for not being bullied, harassed or whatever — for being seen as normal, for being accepted and thought worth living — was to act masculine. And we people with ASD don’t like changing scripts that much.
In the end, my gender and my ASD are so intertwined that I explored and discovered them both at the same time. My gender transition and my progress with ASD were two paths I followed concurrently for more or less the same reasons and causes, and moving on one path helped me on the other. In both cases, it’s a discovery of how I function in society that followed from attending university and meeting more and more people, and even bonding with them. ASD was the first candidate to explain “me” and my problems, which were very deep before I started to work on this.
However, having isolated this component of my person and identity, I realized it didn’t explain everything at all, and that my gender was also an issue. Actually, even my research on ASD was characteristic: I watched a lot of Youtube videos, but only those from female aspies. Slowly, I was making my old abnormal/masculine axis into two different axes: a less self-stigmatizing neurotypical/autistic one, and a masculine/feminine one. As I learn to understand myself, gender and social capacity becoming different things.
Although I rarely actively identify to my ASD, it was the first to make sense. But roughly at the same time as I started to look into ASD, perhaps a few months later, I also started to assert to myself that I didn’t have a gender, that I was in no category whatsoever. This was the first time I thought about my gender in any way. It never really worked, and slowly, I overcame part of my own internalized transmisogyny and ended up transitioning. Understanding that I was a woman strongly helped with autistic symptoms like not caring about appearance, etc. Now, I accept much better than I have a body and that it’s normal and not wrong, and that I should care for it and love it. Now, I can see myself as a physical being. I put more effort into my appearance, and feel much better about it and about myself. Similarly, I’m much better at social relationships now that other see me in a way I like — as a beautiful young woman.