Being gay has affected my life intrinsically, even if it hasn’t defined it. I realised that truth about myself the year I turned 25, over half my life-time ago.
I was gay before I realised it, of course. When I look back at my teens and early twenties I can see so many clues. I wrote about that journey in my essay published in the wonderful Queers Dig Time Lords.
My gayness intermingled with my mostly subconscious take on gender expression. I’ve never been girly, and because the butch/femme binary dominated the lesbian scene when and where I came out, I took on a vaguely butch aesthetic. It didn’t fit me quite right, which I think was partially to do with me wanting to fit in at work. Or, to be precise, I didn’t want to stand out at work even when I was out as gay.
I was well into my forties when I learned about gender queer ideas, and the concept of being non-binary fits me a lot more comfortably than anything else. For the record, I’m a woman. I’m a lesbian, but I prefer to describe myself as gay. My style, in so far as I have one, is casually masculine. I have no idea what my chromosomes actually are because I’ve not had those tests done. Understanding what they probably are is not the same thing as knowing for sure.
For most of my life, I attributed my awkwardness in social situations to my queerness, with a dash of societal sexism thrown in. For twenty years, I worked in the white cis het male-dominated field of law enforcement. I’m white, and haven’t experienced racism the way my co-workers from the diversity of non-white backgrounds did and do. I am the daughter of a Dutch migrant to Australia, and later became an EU migrant to the UK. I am now a naturalised Brit. I never hid my sexual orientation—why should I?—and in the UK advocated for the full inclusion of LGBTQIA people in workplaces.
Despite my attempts to blend in, I did stand out at work. My work with Stonewall and numerous co-workers gave me the strength to be my authentic self at work. I’ve written about that elsewhere.
I am also autistic. My formal diagnosis came through at the end of 2021. I have loads to unpack and re-assess about my life, and I am glad to have a terrific support network. I’ve debated about ‘coming out’ with my diagnosis, and for a lot of different reasons it feels right for me to do so.
The overlap with queerness is interesting even if not all queers are autistic, and not all autists are queer.
The history of autism and its definitions/diagnostic criteria is fascinating. I reviewed Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes back in June 2021, and found it to be a pretty comprehensive history of autism in the global west from the early 20th century to the time it was published in 2015. I highly recommend it as a good, solid introduction, written in an accessible style. Warning: large parts of the history is appalling—the US psych industry has a lot to answer for—and Silberman does not shy away from detailing it in a factual way. The chapter about early SF fandom in the USA is enlightening through this different lens. Silberman’s empathy and sympathy for autistic people, and their parents/families, shines through and the book ends on a hopeful note.
There are a lot of definitions out there, and one from Dr Nick Walker struck a cord with my experience. While I will link to her website version, written in 2014, I won’t cite it for the reasons given on her website.
The key point I took from Walker’s work, and Silberman’s, among others, is that autism is a neurological variant that begins in utero and influences an individual’s development on multiple levels throughout our life. It’s genetic, and affected by a variety of external influences that are unique to the individual. It manifests in both cognitive and sensory ways, but how much and in what ways depends on each person, even as we share a neurotype. It’s disabling for many people, but not everyone, and that can vary across time. Some of that disability lies in the ways in which societies are set up, but for many people that disability is intrinsic to particular traits. Diagnostic criteria, and the labels, have changed over time and diverge between countries—all of which are debated, even now.
It’s messy and complex, because human beings are messy and complex.
My formal diagnosis came from a clinical psychologist using the DSM-V and ICD 10 criteria, applied in an affirming and queer-friendly way. They also tested me as a 53-year-old adult, rather than a three-year-old child. The fact that such a practice exists is testament to how much progress has been made recently in this field, as uneven as that progress remains. I am immensely grateful to the growing numbers of people who have shared their own experiences and journeys—good, bad, and everything in between. I went for a formal diagnosis for my own reasons, and was able to do so. Not everyone can, but it is possible to work it out if you have access to a range of material available. It’s not easy to navigate the garbage out there, though. It’s painful to read through research material that somehow got ethics approval even as they deny a group of people their humanity.
There is so much more that I could write about all this here, but I’ll stop now. I know I will return to this subject again, with better understanding of it generally and personally. It is who I am and have always been, and since it’s the way my brain’s wired—to use a well-fitting analogy—it affects the way I view the world and write about it.21 February 2022
February is LGBTQIA+ History Month in the UK. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread and much of the UK has been in a ‘lock down’ for a second or third time, Channel 4 broadcast a five-part series called It’s A Sin, written by Russell T. Davies. I am going to assume that most of you reading this will have seen it. If you haven’t, there are spoilers in this piece.
The series spans the decade 1981 to 1991, and traces the lives of a group of young people who move to London as students or apprentices or just to get out of their homes. They find a place to live together, which they call the Pink Palace. They party, have sex, and work/study. Their extensive circle of friends and acquaintances gravitate to the Pink Palace for parties, La! They’re a mixed bunch, a found family mostly in their early 20s, all eager to live the best lives they can. Only this is the 1980s and ‘the gay disease’, HIV/AIDS, ensures that while they grew up fast, not all of them grew old.
I am about five years younger than most of the fictional Pink Palace family, and aside from living a while in England during the first half of 1984, I did my growing up in Australia. I was at High School in Sydney, then university in Canberra, when HIV/AIDS arrived. I didn’t come out as gay until 1993. As a lesbian, I was never ‘illegal’ under New South Wales law, but ‘male homosexuality’ wasn’t decriminalised until 8 June 1984. The age of consent didn’t equalise until 2003. We never had Section 28 or any other similar stifling law (by intent or unintended consequence), but the 1980s and 1990s were characterised by violent homophobia—far too many ‘gay bashing’ incidents and murders, almost all of which targeted gay or bisexual men. In my teenage years I had boyfriends, one of whom I am fairly sure might have been murdered for his queerness if it wasn’t for my existence. I remember his mate grilling me about our relationship and I, wholly innocently, saying there was nothing wrong with him liking Boy George, Wham and Marilyn. We did love each other, but it was in a Platonic way, not that I told his mate that. Looking back, I think we both instinctively looked out for each other while trying to fit into an oppressively heteronormative society.
Australia wasn’t spared HIV/AIDS and much of its history follows the same patterns as in the UK, the USA, and all the countries that usually get lumped together for comparative purposes. However, where it differed was in how the federal and state governments responded quickly and well to the grass roots activism, mostly by sex workers, gay men and lesbians. It didn’t stop all the misinformation and fear, and later governments made some decisions based on highly dubious grounds, but it did curtail the infection rate and the response was, perhaps, more compassionate. Too many people still died from it, though, and I remember in the early 1990s reading the endless stream of obituaries and memorials to gay men in the gay press. I personally never knew anyone who died back then, but I do know people who knew people who had. I know people who live with HIV now, including a few from ‘back then’ who tested positive for the virus but never got sick as a result of it.
I came out in 1993. A bunch of us moved into a flat in the inner west of Sydney, which was our own Pink Palace. La! The 1990s was such a different time to the 1980s for us young queers, but that’s another story.
It’s A Sin is an extraordinary piece of television, and I think Russell’s best. It doesn’t show everything about those tumultuous and complex times, but no drama in five episodes of under an hour each could. What it does show it shows with no punches held back. It’s angry and painful and sad, yet also joyous. One of Russell’s strengths is using the minutiae of people’s lives and the multitude of inconsistencies we all have in our characters to show the big picture. Each and every one of the characters could have been a caricature in less-skilled hands, but a combination of the writing, direction, acting, and the design (aural and visual) made that impossible.
What I found to be most powerful about the series were the numbers of recognisable people doing recognisable things—wonderful, awful, and everything in between. I can’t hate Valerie because that would mean hating my own mother and the mothers of too many of my found family. My mother, and those others I knew, had the chance to get over their shame and ignorance, and they took that choice to do so. Richie’s choices meant that Valerie didn’t, and she reacts horrifically. Grief doesn’t bring out the rational in people, or compassion. Fear does the same thing, all too often. We’re seeing that all play out now globally with the different responses to another deadly viral disease. We are also seeing the opposite—humanity is complex.
It’s A Sin ends on a contemplatively optimistic note. Most of the Pink Palace residents survive and can commemorate those they lost, Roscoe reconciles with his father, and HIV prevalence, prognosis and treatment is nothing like what it was. I’ve restricted my comments on the series to the LGBTQIA+ elements for LGBTQIA+ History Month, but it’s Black History Month in the USA and It’s A Sin doesn’t hold back on racism either. There’s the overt instances of Roscoe and his Tory sugar daddy, but there’s also the unstated dynamic when Jill and Roscoe go to the Isle of Wight. Surely, part of Valerie’s rejection of them is based on them not being white. A tiny yet significant moment is Richie’s sister choosing to be with Jill and Roscoe, and them including her in their shared grief.
It’s A Sin is a drama about a particular time and place, and like all the great historical dramas it resonates with so much more than the obvious now. I know I’m not the only one still thinking about it, and I am not the only one reading with interest the range of responses to it.21 February 2021