Happy Pride once again! I hope you’re well! I had a lot of fun last Monday talking to Edinburgh University Press. However, the event at Bristol SU didn’t happen due to the organiser catching Covid – no problem at all. There’ll be others. I didn’t lose the chance to have lunch with my friend Alex when I was in Bristol yesterday – we went for a walk and I got veeeerrry sunburned. Hence the picture. I have sunburned eyelids, somehow. I suffer for you people, I really do.
This week’s blog is about accessibility to autistic people in queer spaces. The vast majority of autistic people identify as somewhere on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. This means that we will look for support, friendships and relationships with people who are too.
Content Warnings: for grown-ass conversations about grown-ass things. Maybe a little eugenics as well. Oh, can’t forget eugenics! It’s always there when we don’t need it. Like a rash that won’t go away and isn’t Monkeypox, Martha! I’m fine!
The first queer organisation I joined, back in 2016, was the Oxford LGBT+ book club. They’re still going and they’re wonderful, though since moving away I’ve let my attendance slip. Before I moved to the UK, I was horrified to even be seen around anything gay. Despite really wanting to, I avoided the gay bookshop in Amsterdam like the plague. I was horrified to be seen as what I really was and too invested in the mask to do anything about it. I moved to Brighton in 2010 for a year abroad, but chose the destination due to its proximity to London and comedy gigs in grotty rooms above pubs. I did get flirted with by men quite a bit, though I tried very hard to not pay attention to that. I believed that if I just worked hard enough, I could present as a mentally healthy straight man whose only oddness was a talent for stand-up comedy.
Instead, I was a dickhead living in a permanent state of ironic disassociation, hey how are you?
Initially, I didn’t even identify as gay, but as bisexual, until well into 2015. I have absolutely no interest in women sexually, just in men. My partner and a few of my friends are bisexual and they do, very much. I respect what they like, and know that it’s just not for me. I also know that my attraction to men is not that of a ciswoman’s, or that of a straight transwoman. I am attracted to men and a man, at least, mostly.
I describe myself as queer because I’m definitely gay, but not 100% cis. I am not nonbinary and I’m not a binary transwoman, though I have great friends who are. But my sense of gender, while relatively settled, is something that edges against the limits of masculinity. There are great gender-nonconforming and trans autistics who can talk about their own experiences. Be that as it may, I did have periods where my body dysmorphia was pretty serious and my own disgust of my body made me have a very non-gendered affect. I wasn’t trans or n/b then, I was just revolted by myself. It took me a three-year relationship with Harry for me to understand and validate my own masculinity, if that’s what it is. I’m very happy now, though still have days where I feel like the underside of an inflating hovercraft. We all do, right? Right?
I bought an issue of Attitude Magazine when I was in psych ward, in 2012, before I was beaten up for being a fag. I was on benzos then, so my emotional development was quite stunted during those three years. I never used grindr or other hookup apps before a stint on OKCupid in early 2014 where I met with women and men. The first man I ever hooked up with was a very nice German PhD student in London. He taught me what I needed to know. I was 26. You’ve got to learn sometime.
I moved to Oxford in 2016 and, having given up comedy in disgust after the EU Referendum (I’ve blogged about this before), I was looking for something to do outside of my relationship. I joined book club. There I made firm friends, including Roísín Moriarty (find her here). We’ve been motivating each other to write ever since.
I learned a lot about myself and about my history there, as well as events in Oxford, including the Natural History Museum and the Museum of Oxford. I started Teeming just before going to Book Club. I would be there at every meeting for the next couple of years. I don’t regret it in the slightest.
Book Club also meant that I’d be at the local gay pub, The Jolly Farmer’s, at least once a month. Having not drunk alcohol since March 2012, I was in no danger of relapsing, but it was odd being sober in a gay venue.
In June 2017, Harry and I broke up, after 3 years together. We needed to. This led to me finding myself in Oxford’s gay scene a lot more. I went out with others, I went on dates, I made friends. I was in Outdoorlads, which was a gay walking group. In July 2017, I joined the Oxford Writers’ Circle, which does what it says on the tin. It’s not an LGBTQIA+ organisation per sé, though many of its members are. Their meetings were held not in a pub but in a bookshop, after which many people would go to the pub.
I wasn’t in the best way mentally for much of 2017. I had a rough time for a lot of the year (I’ve spoken about it before) and it showed. I was quite vulnerable. I did have meltdowns at the pub. The then-barman Neil was wonderful. He sometimes needed to defend me and keep me safe. On a Friday August of 2017, I’d just been at work all week, teaching at two different EFL schools, I then went out for drinks with people I met through Outdoorlads, ending up at The Jolly Farmer’s. I should have been home by midnight, but I stayed out.
I got chatting to two Dutch people. Because I was vulnerable and my brain wasn’t able to parse much, I answered their questions about me being autistic and queer in Dutch. The woman was funny. The guy was blonde and attractive. Even though I’d decided not to seek out hookups or relationships with Dutch speakers (which I’m getting over) I let that slide that evening. The woman was asking slightly inappropriate questions about my sexuality. The guy was touching my hand and holding me, touching my thigh, going through all the motions that neurotypicals flirt (I read a book, trust me on this). He even nearly kissed me.
When I asked what they were doing here, she said “Oh, we’re here for the weekend.” I asked whether they were gay or bisexual. She said “No, definitely not. He’s my boyfriend.” He said: “Yeah, I don’t know what you were thinking of, but, yeah. I’m straight.” They then laughed at me.
I needed to go away. I made my excuses and left. I was the victim of an unexpected honey trap. I was boiling with rage and embarrassment. I tried not to have a meltdown, but before I knew it, I was biting myself and banging my head. That’s a thing that happens when I’m in a bad state of overload. When that happens, I need rest instead, but I wasn’t getting that. I was kicked out of the pub. My friends from Outdoorlads had, by that point, left. I was made to leave by the doorman and shouted at by one patron who told me I was a drunk and was giving gay people a bad name – especially to these two people who’d come all the way from Holland to just have a nice time. Me saying that I was Dutch too didn’t help – he just didn’t believe me.
On the way home, I met my friend from Outdoorlads, stumbling home, a bit tipsy. I’d been crying a lot. We walked along the Cowley Road, when a few lads pointed at me, laughed and said I was the mentalist from the gay pub. I cried. I went home alone that night, feeling as humiliated as was intended.
Queer Spaces aren’t Always Friendly
Obviously, gay bars are places that are not aimed at autistic queer people. Pubs and bars are there to make people spend money and fuck each other. In the conception of pub owners, these people are always neurotypical. There’s too many lights, too loud music. However, this doesn’t count for all of us – some of us love loud music. I struggle with it, but I’m not everyone does. I know I have to be in the right kind of mood for it, with the right kind of people. If not, it’s a no-go.
I know now that I can’t go to a pub to relax. I know I have to be in the right kind of mood for it, with the right kind of people. If not, it’s a no-go. If I go without preparing, it’s a significant energy investment for which I will likely get little back. But that doesn’t mean I don’t value the space and the history of queer people meeting each other. I presented a paper in 2015 about how Queer people were unsafe in spaces back in the 18th century. This history, of Molly Houses, is now well known around the queer community due to queer historians utilising social media for positive outcomes, for once!
In the right mood, though, I can have a brilliant time. I’ve made amazing friends in gay pubs and bars. I’ve had amazing conversations and left feeling fulfilled. And I mean that in a wholly-above board kind of way. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that.
Gay clubs are also not the greatest for most autistic people – the same thing that’s true for pubs is true here: lights, sounds, physical proximity to other people, smells, horrible body image issues ruining my day. There are some times where I can go out dancing and have a great time, but, again, it’s important to go with the right people. When dancing, I get really self-conscious and I’m usually in a state of high alert anyway, so letting go is something that comes with great irregularity. I have been on some amazing nights out, including at Oxford Pride 2019, with my friend Chris, three years ago now (Oh hey!).
Again, clubs and discos run on alcohol sales. If you don’t drink, tough, you’re going to find it tough to be with people who are. It’s less bad than it was in 2010-11 when I was first here. But still, I know people who’ve had a really tough time with alcohol and drugs and queer venues being built around the consumption of alcohol and the underhand sales of drugs did not do anyone with addictive personalities any favours. Many autistic people find themselves dealing with addiction issues (see my blog on alcoholism from March). There need to be better ways of engaging with one another.
We have a dream of one day, in the streets of Bath, being co-owners of a café-cum-bookshop that functions as a meeting place for queer autistic people, with a quiet room at the back for studying. The back room will be well-lit – don’t get any ideas! – definitely not with fluorescent lighting. If one of my friends has their way, we’d be selling edibles once those become legal – I said only if the place won’t reek of weed.
We’d carry books, both new and second-hand, and make excellent coffee. Though that would mostly be my partner’s job. He’s working in a café now and loves it deeply. He would be very happy running it and writing, I would do the business’ taxes and checking in once in a while. That’s a future of some sort. It would be open during the daytime, so there would be a place that caters to queer autistic people’s needs first and foremost. Others are also welcome, but not to the exclusion of those of us who find interacting on cishet/neurotypical bases difficult. In the late afternoons/evenings, we’d host writing groups, book clubs and political meetings. We’d also stock really good books.
Hookups and Dates
I always have boring dates and unfulfilling hookups with neurotypicals. Sex just isn’t as good if you have to do all the work (oh yeah we’re going there). It’s the constant need to intuit someone else’s desires. If you don’t share the same intuitive system and neurotype as that person, you’re going to have to work constantly to not break the other person’s enjoyment, to the detriment of your own. Neurotypicals don’t have that, they just assume that they’ll be understood.
I always have boring dates and unfulfilling hookups with neurotypicals. It’s like doing work and I don’t even get paid for it. With autistics it’s different. We connect, link up, form bonds together. We can make each other laugh, and feel and think. I’ve had deep friendship develops out of hookups with guys that were actually just a Grindr match. There’s a nervousness at first, but it’s so, so vital. Next week, as I’ll discuss poly relationships, I will talk about how, within my queer autistic family, the boundary between friends, lovers and friends with benefits is actually relatively thin.
I count myself lucky to have started exploring my sexuality when I did. I’m happy that OKCupid and, later, Grindr were about. Cruising would have been horrible for me. I’m really quickly bothered that I’m doing or saying the wrong thing. I’m terrified of upsetting anyone. If I’d been around in the 1960s, that might have stopped me from dating altogether. Plus I’m not that hot for sex in toilets. They’re not nice places! Not all autistic people are like me though. Alan Turing was wonderfully direct with men. He’d go to cruising spots, talk about computers for a bit and then ask the guy if they’d like to fuck. Then they would. Sensible guy.
I’ve found Grindr to be very useful. It takes the work out of exhausting real-life flirting. I can’t do it. I’m constantly terrified I’ll be seen as inappropriate, or, conversely, insulting to someone who finds me attractive. I genuinely don’t have the skills to chat someone up in reality. I actually never have. I have had relationships be born out of friendship and I’ve met people online. That’s it. Tinder was never one for me, too straight. I say that I’m autistic right upfront. It gets rid of people who aren’t into me and saves me whole lot of work.
Now here’s the rub. And slap. And tickle.
In a previous blog, I spoke about the need for enthusiastic, verbalised consent being necessary for autistic people, if we want to feel like we can have sex with people. That Supreme Court decision was pretty dodgy and could be used against us having sex with people at all. Some of us won’t want to, some have other interests. Many of us do, though.
Amy Pearson is a psychologist who works at Sunderland University and has co-authored many excellent works on Autistic people. When I spoke to her in 2019, she was planning on doing work on Autistic people in the Kink scene. I personally regret never going to the Autscape meeting on Kink, when I was first there in 2019.
When it comes to kink, I’ve not been as interested as I once was, before the pandemic. But I enjoy dominating people, being at the centre of attention and being admired. Essentially, a big fuck-you to anyone who thought I should be kept away from people – and a big ‘fuck me’ from those who think I should not. That may not be grammatically correct, but dammit it’s hilarious.
I like some forms of sensory play, though many leave me cold. I don’t like leather or rubber or wearing hoods and masks. I’m not into blood or feet or bodily fluids. I don’t like hurting people, but I like wrestling and nibbling into people’s neck – no marks though, I’m vegan. My partner’s into getting tickled by me. He never used to like hugs, but adores them now. That’s not so much a kink, more of a sensory need. For us, sensory needs are a way in. I use my pinwheel sometimes for the purposes of de-escalating from exhaustion and overload. Not all sensory needs are sexual, not everything that’s considered kink in neurotypicals is kinky for us. But, again, the lines are blurry.
Essentially, I need to get back into this particular interest, beyond just watching Watt’s the Safeword episodes every week when they come out. Though I did just buy a harness off Etsy, like a scene gay from 2009. I look forward to receiving it and wearing it just around the house, or under a suit, feeling the support. I might go out in it when we go to Paris in September. Might. I mean I definitely will. I’ll take it out to Bristol or London, if I’m in good company and I have the spoons.
When I went to Berlin in 2018, to do research on Marinus van der Lubbe, for Teeming, I scoured the bookshops and libraries I was allowed into, and raced around the city on my friend Reuben’s bike. In the evenings, I went to Schöneberg and went out on the gay scene. Me being autistic was actually a positive boon – a few guys connected with me exactly because they appreciated being with other Autistics.
We went to Tom’s Bar – a historically important leather bar and current darkroom. I was with another autistic guy – we were visible for everyone to see. The lights were down low, the music was bass-heavy but not too blaringly loud. There was the smell of poppers but, again, not too overwhelmingly intense. It was, well, pretty amazing. I wanted to do it again as soon as I could. I did two nights later.
I went to Berghain. It was one of the most overwhelming experiences of my life. Everyone was naked apart from their shoes. The lights and smells were blaring and the bass went through my bones. I’d met up with a French guy who was also on his way, to have a chaperone, because I wanted to feel safe. I lost him along the way, because I was, for the first time, one of the popular kids. I was thirty.
If I ever did anything to deal with trauma responses and sexuality, this was it. I joke about the fact I was hunted for my flesh but, well; I was. When it comes to size, let’s say, I’m in the upper quintile. I am 6’4″ and have size 16 feet which will explain that; I’ve heard of no study that says Autistic men have bigger cocks than others. Although it would be hilarious for some gay to start that study. I’ll happily contribute, as long as it’s not funded by Autism $peaks or involves Simon Baron Cohen, I’m down.
When I was finished, I had massive sensory overload. The entirety of the atmosphere that night, from the conversations had in queues to the sheer amount of bodies, the need for me, verbally expressed by over a dozen men that I was able to meet – it was pretty incredible. I remember sitting on a low wall just outside Berghain and shaking, for about 5 minutes, as I slowly got back to myself. I wasn’t upset, just allowing my brain to deal with the overload. When I was cycling back, I reminded myself that, back in 1998, my father had been to Berlin. We had no idea what he ever did here, he died not long after. There were different concerns. I do know that whatever he got up to, I definitely had more fun.
So I win.
I’ll see you next week.