The Intersection of Queerness and Disability

For Part 2 of this topic, check out my article The Crossroads of Being Autistic and Queer on Neuroclastic.

I find some very unfortunate parallels between queerness and disability. Specifically, the way other people assume things about our bodies. Both being disabled and trans/nonbinary, I’m dependent upon the people around me to believe me. I need other people to change their perspective of me, and it’s not something I have any control over.

Disabled people in society to abled people:

  • don’t “look disabled”
  • “look normal”
  • are told we can’t do anything on the basis of our disability
  • are told we can’t do anything based on how we move, walk, think, or be.
  • are “not disabled enough” to need X accommodation

Most people who interact with me likely assume I am abled. I often felt like an impostor, as I walk typically and rarely use mobility aids. What they don’t see is how little I walk everyday, or how much pain I am in up to a week later because I decided to do an errand that day, or take a walk for my mental health. They don’t see the knife being poked into my eardrum from the loud noise. They just see a white cis woman telling someone to be quiet, who is being rude, or who is wearing headphones and clearly “not paying attention.”

The Trans/Nonbinary Gender Parallel

Nonbinary people in society are seen as:

  • “transtrenders”
  • attention-seeking
  • not “trans enough”
  • annoying
  • “just confused”
  • “just gay or gender nonconforming”

Most people who interact with me assume I am cis. I often don’t blame them. However, I have a short masculine haircut, wear baggy cargo shorts, baggy shirts, rectangular glasses, and have a relatively high-pitched voice. I’ve socially changed my name to a more masculine one. I use they/she pronouns. At the very least, people may assume I’m a butch lesbian, which I’m not. I’ve only gotten misgendered as a “sir” a few times as an adult, only before they hear my voice.

I don’t go around telling people I’m nonbinary, the same way I don’t go around telling people I’m disabled. People would in all likelihood consider this to be attention-seeking, and I don’t want to be attention-seeking, of course!

I am nonbinary. I’m not a woman, and I’m not a man. I often don’t feel “trans enough” just how I often didn’t feel “autistic enough” three years ago. I don’t feel like I’ve earned the right to speak up for myself, especially regarding my gender. I feel like an attention-seeker. I feel like I’m asking too much, and I’m told time and time again that I am asking too much by the people around me, implicitly or explicitly, regarding my name and pronouns. I’ve also been sent this message when I speak up about inaccessibility. That it’s just too difficult to implement, or that there “aren’t many physically disabled people here anyway,” so we don’t need to worry about accommodating them (they did not know I had a physical disability).

I often put down Female for medical appointments even if there’s a Nonbinary option, as I don’t want to “confuse” them. It’s just easier for everyone, I think. I worry about backlash I would receive, or the confused looks I would get if I put down Nonbinary. I think about people tiptoeing around my gender. I can’t deal with even more self-advocacy in a medical visit as an autistic person, so it’s just not worth it, I think. I’m reminded of the time I carried folding crutches to my unrelated medical appointment. Both the staff and doctor asked me why I brought crutches when I was “walking normally.” I had to explain that I needed them on my walk back for my foot pain. Both explaining my disability and explaining my gender – explaining the assumptions around my body is exhausting.

The Pronoun Conundrum

Asking cis and binary people to use they/them pronouns feels like asking them to climb a mountain:

  • “They/them is ungrammatical”
  • “But they/them refers to multiple people, not one!”
  • “It’s really hard to get used to, just give us a break, we’re trying.”

I let everyone know when I changed my name, that it’s okay, she pronouns are still fine. A few months later, I put (they/them, she/her) pronouns in my email signature. I used only they/them in my anonymous online profiles, which the autistic community has been quite good at respecting.

Let’s be clear – I am terrified of asking people to use they/them pronouns for me, especially in my real life. I have tried so hard to be okay with she/her pronouns. However, she/her pronouns come with another issue. Even when I say I use they/she pronouns, people simply don’t assume I can be nonbinary, which is honestly quite frustrating. I use she/her pronouns to accommodate cis and binary people, yet this accommodation means my gender isn’t recognized.

If binary people have a binary option for pronouns, they will pick the binary option. There’s an uncomfortableness when binary people use “they” to refer to one person, just like when abled people use “handicapable” and “differently abled” to refer to disabled people, to prevent them from having to grapple with the word “disabled” which they may judge as offensive for no apparent reason.

It’s the discomfort, and potential judgment from other people that makes abled or binary people use the “safe” option, even if that’s the wrong one for that person.

In some ways, it’s almost easier to pretend I’m making the choice to use they/she pronouns, so I don’t have to watch people dismiss my pronouns over and over again. Well, I did say I use she pronouns, so I guess that’s fine, I think. It would hurt more if I only used “they/them” pronouns, and yet they were still ignored. So I choose to “accommodate” binary people with she/her pronouns. They need that accommodation, because using “they/them” pronouns is just too much. It’s like I’m just trying to be difficult to them! Even writing this paragraph, I feel like I shouldn’t be complaining about this. And that’s part of the problem. Both disabled people and trans/nonbinary people bend to other people’s will so often. It’s so engrained in us to continue living life this way because it seems easier, but this often leads to the slow erosion of our souls.

Disability and Gender – Navigating Society’s Assumptions

In the same way I don’t tell people I’m nonbinary, I often don’t tell people why I’m autistic. The most common response is “but you must be so high functioning!” and “Really? You don’t look autistic!” and “But you’re so verbal!”

It’s exhausting to combat stereotypes to make sure allistic people aren’t assuming negative things about me. I have to make sure they understand that I am competent. I have to explain that I have auditory sensitivity. I have to explain that functioning labels are problematic, and that I really can’t talk when I have a shutdown. But honestly, I don’t think they “get it” very often, even if I try to explain as best I can. I don’t think they believe I can’t talk sometimes. They haven’t seen it, so therefore it doesn’t exist.
I think that’s why people look at me and assume I’m a woman. They haven’t seen an openly nonbinary person, therefore they don’t exist. To them, I “look like” a cis woman and I “talk like” a cis woman, so wouldn’t I be a cis woman? That’s just how assuming gender works, right?

Just like there’s no look to an autistic person, there is no look to a nonbinary person either.

Even when I have told people I’m nonbinary, I’m still in message threads that start with “Hey ladies!” It’s somehow worse that they know I’m nonbinary. Otherwise it could be explained by thinking, Oh, well they just didn’t know! My brain finds that thought much more comforting than the other possibility. That they just don’t care. That’s a very big intersect between being nonbinary/trans and being disabled – It really feels like sometimes people really Just Don’t Care.

Just like there’s no look to an autistic person, there is no look to a nonbinary person either.

Society’s Innate Discomfort With Our Identities

No matter what, people will make assumptions. Both ableism and cisnormativity are baked into our brains and our society. The things people have to do to accommodate us and acknowledge us involves unlearning their preconceptions. Society really doesn’t want us to do that. This is why there is so much defensiveness for both providing accommodations and acknowledging someone’s gender, pronouns, and name. People don’t want to do that work. They don’t want to be confronted with structural changes, the issue of gender norms, and the problems that disabled people face every day. They just want to go on with their lives because it’s easier to them. It’s easier for them to ignore our identities.

I hate that other people can play a large part in ruining my day via inaccessibility, ableist language, deadnaming, or misgendering me. I hate that I have to advocate for my right to exist in the world. I hate that nonbinary identities and disability identities aren’t normalized in our society. I hate that my existence to other people is seen as extra, an accommodation, a nicety, or an add-on to the default.

A Message To Abled Binary People

Learn to sit with that discomfort. Question your defensiveness. Respect us, because we’re not going anywhere.

We are enough. We are not extra. We are not attention-seeking. We are who we say we are.

And again, we are not going anywhere.

My name is Ira, and my pronouns are they/them (an occasional she/her is okay, but not all the time).

6 Replies to “The Intersection of Queerness and Disability”

  1. I feel this so much. I’m trans and autistic and I feel so often that people get annoyed or angry with me just for being myself. Especially when I was a kid, there was so much pressure for me to look/act/be a certain way, and it made me hate myself for a long time. I just wish people were more accepting of those who are different, because I don’t really think any of my queer/neurodiverse traits are bad, and I’d rather just be myself without having to worry so much about what society thinks of me.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. From my own experience and observation, we are SO intensely trained, at a young age, on pronoun use that it’s intensely difficult for most people to let go of the “rules” which were ingrained into them. Once I realized they’re nothing more than labels, and already felt it’s not my business to label people, it became very easy to be fluid and respect people’s preferences – so long as I remembered them.

    One of the most fun convos I ever had was discussing my now female former boyfriend with a coworker who’s brother had transitioned… swapping pronouns depending upon which identity (past or present) we were talking about. We understood each other just fine but coworkers were completely confused!

    For your ear’s sake, I hope you’re never within earshot of me as most every human on earth feels compelled to tell me I’m LOUD. Yeah, thanks… I’ve been told. I’d control it if I could but I don’t hear it. Oddly, I have sensitive hearing (people are shocked that I hear virtually all private/whispered convos).. but I believe that’s part of what’s going on.. I hear loud, but don’t hear my own voice and *think* I’m talking at the same level. On the bright side, I don’t need a megaphone to get attention!

    My knees quit working a few years back. Like you, I can sometimes be fine going to a place but unable to walk back. I find myself over playing my disability when I park, knowing how much people judge.

    I don’t really think about my gender. I was born female but feel equally male. I accept that this is the body I got and the gender identity I was raised with. But it only defines me to othets, not myself. Even that is too much for most people’s brains to process. I can’t begin to imagine the pushback you must experience.

    I’m sorry society is so caught up in “everything has to be exactly as I expect it.” And I hope you find

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Just piping in to say that nonbinary people can be gay and lesbians. At some point it felt like you were creating a false dychotomy and – not on purpose,I’m sure- invalindating these identities/intersections.
    In any case, I related very much to the accomodating my identity thing -especially when someone includes me while speaking about women, as if our issues couldn’t possibly be similar, while still retaning my identity as outside the binary

    Liked by 1 person

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