Book Bitches
5 min

Rise of the neuroqueers

Inside the polysexual history of autism

Back in 2010, we had a lot of fun kicking George Alan Rekers when he was down.

The psychiatrist and co-founder of anti-gay lobbying groups the Family Research Council and the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality had been caught travelling in Europe with a handsome young male companion he hired on As Rekers piteously explained to the gleeful press, “I had surgery, and I can’t lift luggage. That’s why I hired him.” But he’d been photographed carrying his own bags and suddenly, the phrase “lifting your luggage” became a giggly new catchphrase as yet another relentless homophobe was exposed as a hypocrite.

But after the jokes, people began discussing Reker’s horrible history, how the author of the 1982 book Growing Up Straight: What Every Family Should Know About Homosexuality had spent the 1970s working on the “Feminine Boy Project,” an attempt to “cure” non-masculine boys that led to the heartbreaking suicide of Kirk Murphy, Reker’s poster boy for his “treatment.”

The sordid history of what’s been called “the sissy-boy experiment” is among the chapters in the fascinating new book NeuroTribes, gay journalist Steve Silberman’s history of autism, in which he documents how Rekers based his work on stopping “feminine” mannerisms like limp wrists, swishy gaits and fussy speech in boys on the work of his UCLA colleague O Ivor Lovaas, who believed he could cure autism through physical punishment. Throughout the past century, autistic people and homosexuals alike have been subjected to electric shocks and ice-water baths in institutions aiming to “fix” them. Rekers and Lovaas were carrying on a long and ugly tradition of torturing people into becoming “normal.”

It was a young neurologist named Oliver Sacks who began to speak up against this increasingly common “therapeutic punishment” in hospitals and began writing about the hidden but rich culture of autistic people in bestselling books like The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. Before his death earlier this year, Sacks discussed his own life in the memoir On the Move, surprisingly many who hadn’t known he was gay.

“I don’t think it’s an accident that three of the writers who have foregrounded the humanity of people with autism rather than focusing exclusively on pathology — Oliver Sacks, Andrew Solomon and me — are or were gay,” Silberman says. “Like autistic people, our way of being was classified as a mental illness for decades. Both gay people and autistic people have been subjected to brutal forms of “treatment” by the psychiatric establishment, such as aversive therapy, that are akin to torture. Mothers were cruelly blamed for the genesis of both conditions in their children for most of the 20th century. Both groups know well what it feels like to be bullied, marginalized, caricatured in the media, and erased from history.”

Like gay people, Silberman says, “autistic people have always been here in large numbers, but invisible,” one of the largest minorities in the world. Sometimes this link is direct — there have been celebrated gay autistic men like Daniel Tammet and possibly Alan Turing but also horror stories like the fate of Steven Simpson, set on fire at his own birthday party — and, as with sexuality, autism exists on a spectrum.  

“One interesting phenomenon that is still relatively unexplored by science,” says Silberman, “is the huge number of autistic young people who identify as sexually fluid, non-binary gendered, asexual, polyamorous or some other non-standard identity. Is it biological? Is it because autistic people are somewhat ‘immune’ to socialization?”

There have been intriguing studies showing greater numbers of autistic people identifying as queer than in the “neurotypical” population, as well as a higher rate of autism among trans people than among cisgender people. Given these links and shared history, I ask Silberman for some concrete ways neurotypical LGBT people can help their autistic friends. He has plenty.

“Just as it’s important for a straight person to never assume that the person they’re talking to is straight, don’t assume that everyone around you is neurotypical, even if their disability is invisible to you,” Silberman suggests, “There are many people on the spectrum who are capable of ‘passing’ as neurotypical, but it takes a lot out of them, just as having to pass for straight, say, in the workplace, is very debilitating to gay people. 

Similarly, if an autistic friend comes out to you, be supportive without being pitying, and avoid saying things like, ‘You can’t be autistic — you make eye contact!’ or ‘You don’t seem autistic!’ That’s the same sort of poisonous compliment as telling a gay man that he could pass for straight — it reinforces stereotypes.”

Facebook and social media have been an enormous boon to autistic people, helping them communicate and connect like all of us, but Silberman hates the misinformation that’s so easily spread: “If you’re posting a video on Facebook about how vaccines, pesticides, wi-fi or any other factor in the modern world is creating an “epidemic” of autism, you may think you’re performing a public service (after all, who doesn’t hate Monsanto and big pharma?) but it means you’re uninformed and spreading stigma in the guise of compassionate concern.”

Silberman recommends the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (with chapters in Canada) as an example of “great support organizations run by autistic people that aim to empower autistic people, rather than organizations that increase the stigma of autism by playing on parental fears or hyping the non-existent ‘epidemic’” and he recommends reading “superb autistic writers like Julia Bascom and Nick Walker to get a taste of what autistic life is like from the inside. Would you only read straight writers on the gay experience?” he asks. “Learning about autism only from clinical sources is apt to leave you with the notion that autistic people are little more than the sum of their deficits and impairments. Don’t believe it.”

While there are “crucial differences between being gay and being autistic that makes the metaphor an imperfect one,” Silberman says, “both groups have a lot to learn from each other in terms of learning to be proud of one’s eccentricities and shaking off burdens of shame inflicted by mainstream society. Both groups are, now, after decades of disempowerment, taking control of their own destinies and influencing the formulation of public policy. And both gay people and autistic people have found the phrase “coming out” to be useful to describe a process of living openly and authentically and refusing to be considered ‘less than.’” Just as queer people fought for our rights, autistic people are now working for theirs and Silberman describes how “young radicals on the spectrum have come up with the term ‘neuroqueer’ to talk about the intersection between the LGBT and autistic communities. I can’t wait to see the future that these young warriors are creating.”