On Queerness and Disability: Lydia X. Z. Brown Comes to Pittsburgh

QueerPGH: Thank you so much for agreeing to do an interview with QueerPGH ahead of your speaking engagement at University of Pittsburgh as well as for the work you do. On a personal note, I am really grateful for your writing at autistichoya. I got my autism diagnosis late in life and looking for resources for adults in general, not to mention queer ones, is challenging at best. There’s so much that you write that resonates with me, and I thank you. First off, could you tell us a bit about your intersections?

Lydia Brown: Like many people, I experience both a lot of marginalization or targeting, and a lot of privilege and access to resources, which create particular experiences with oppression, power, and domination.

I am a genderqueer/non-binary person somewhere on the asexual spectrum (aspec and demi-panromantic, though queer works just fine for me), autistic and multiply-disabled with other cognitive and psychosocial disabilities, and an East Asian person of color and Chinese American transracial/transnational adoptee raised by culturally working-class parents.

At the same time, I’m also a U.S. citizen fluent and literate in English, with a college education and almost done with a law degree, raised in a family middle-class by income, stability, and resources, with some of the trappings of the upper-middle class (went to a private high school, though on scholarship; parents are homeowners, with one earning far more money than I expect to ever receive in my lifetime, though still far below that of the wealthy upper-middle class), light-skinned and white adjacent with situational white passing privilege, and mostly physically able-bodied as well as sighted, hearing, and non-stuttering oral language user.

I’ve experienced intense racism, ableism, and gendered violence from supervisors, professors, and community peers, but I also know that my privilege has shielded me from other types of violence and targeting. I spent an entire academic term being micromanaged, condescended to, having my work reassigned to others, and scolded, in clearly racist, ableist, and gendered ways, and was targeted by abuse from administrators that resulted in suicidality and desire to drop out. At the same time, I’ll never be targeted for police violence or over-surveillance in airports because of the color of my skin either, nor will I ever be profiled as a sex worker for walking in public as many Black, Indigenous, and Latina trans women are (though sex workers should of course be supported and decriminalized!).

Photo of Lydia Brown, standing, reading from a paper.
Photo credit: Spectrum Boston

QueerPGH: Are there unique challenges to being queer and autistic?

Brown: Many people, even in queer communities, assume that being autistic invalidates my queerness, based on the idea that mental disability makes a person less competent to understand reality, make decisions, or define their own experiences. This is deeply ableist.

Queer spaces are often inaccessible to all disabled people, too, including those of us who are autistic. Queer social activities that assume all queer people are into intense, loud parties with lots of alcohol, blasting music, and flashing lights exclude many autistic people from the chance to participate in queer social life (and worse for autistic people with photosensitive epilepsy). They also assume that all queer people have enough wealth or income to afford nights out at clubs, dances, restaurants, dungeons, or other places of ticketed entry. Queer resource centers and health providers where staff assume that people with mental disabilities can’t make decisions, exercise bodily autonomy, or communicate as peers, shut out queer autistic people from receiving services that would only be affirming of one aspect of our experiences.

At the same time, many resources about autism and relationships and sexuality (where they exist, in the face of the pervasive desexualization of disabled people) assume that every autistic person is heterosexual and has a binary gender. A queer autistic person seeking romantic and/or sexual intimacy, let alone sex education materials that take into account both autism and queerness, often has to look for resources among peers instead. That’s not automatically a bad thing, but it would be great if it were possible to find support and resources from sexuality professionals who understand and respect all of our experiences.

Queer and autistic people share some very specific historical, collective traumas, too. Conversion therapy as used against queer and trans people, and behavioral interventions as used mostly on autistic children and youth, share their roots in the early aversive behavioral experiments conducted by Ole Ivar Lovaas, who one year devised a program of punishment and reward for young children assigned male and perceived as effeminate, and another year, devised a floor that delivered painful electric shocks to an autistic child’s bare feet in a thin layer of water. This, too, contributes to the contemporary violences we face.

QueerPGH: Do you feel like autistic people are more likely to be queer or vice/versa?

Brown: There is actually research from the past several years indicating that autistic people are more likely than the overall population to identify as transgender, including as non-binary, genderqueer, and genderless. I wouldn’t be surprised if autistic people were also more likely than the overall population to identify as queer.

Many of us have speculated that because autistic people already face intense ostracism, stigma, shame, and social isolation and exclusion from a young age, that we may either care less about conforming to gender and sexual norms, or be more oblivious to them. I suspect it’s a bit of both, depending on the specific queer or trans autistic person.

In my essay on the gendervague experience, I talked about how many of us may feel that how neurotypical people define and understand gender just doesn’t make any sense to us, and that the categories of woman and man don’t match as a result.

It’s also worth noting (going back a bit to the last question) that even though autistic people may be more likely to be trans or queer than the overall population, not all of us come to that realization quickly or at a young age (even though some definitely do). That doesn’t make our queer or trans identities incorrect either. Some of us may take longer to realize that we are queer or trans, because we do not fit stereotypes (both external, anti-queer, anti-trans stereotypes, as well as in-group community stereotypes) or are unsure how to define our own (a)sexualities and genders.

Photo of Lydia Brown, standing, talking, in front of a slide presentation with the text "ABLEISM WORKS ACROSS SYSTEMS" "CLASSISM ABLEISM RACISM HETEROSEXISM TRANSMISOGYNY AGEISM"
Photo credit: Kelsey Kent

QueerPGH: What advice can you give for people living at the intersection of disability and queerness?

Brown: Figure out what queerness means to you, and whether it’s important or not for you to seek out community spaces. Queercrip community can be amazingly supportive, refreshing, powerful, and informative, but it can also be a space where abuse, violence, and repeated harm proliferate. No group or community is exempt from the capacity to hurt others. Participating in community doesn’t mean that everything will be perfect, but it can mean meeting and building relationships with people who share your experiences and understand at a deep, personal level the traumas and the triumphs alike.

If you choose to seek out community, know that you can find spaces in-person (depending on where you are) as well as online. There are groups like Out of Order Philadelphia (a queer and trans disability justice group) that meet in person, and Sick and Disabled Queers and its companion Sick and Disabled Queers – People of Color and Mixed Race People online (those are both on Facebook). There are cultural projects like Sins Invalid, which is a disability justice performance group centering queer and trans disabled people and disabled people of color.

Whether or not you choose to seek out community, know that you are valuable and valid. You deserve to be loved and to be cared for. You deserve to exist. Your bodymind is not wrong. You are precious and worthy. You are desirable. You deserve pleasure and joy. You are worth it, especially when other people or your own brain try to tell you that you are not. You deserve to be here.

QueerPGH: What can people expect from your talk at the University of Pittsburgh?

Brown: I will be discussing the principles and practice of disability justice, intersectionality as a framework and an imperative (drawing from Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s path-breaking work bringing the term to public discourse), and supporting and affirming one another at intersections of disability, race, and queerness.

Lydia X. Z. Brown is a queer and autistic writer, speaker, educator, and activist who publishes the blog Autistic Hoya. They will be speaking at the University of Pittsburgh on February 18th, and at the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Public Library on February 19th.

This article originally appeared on QueerPgh.com. This article is preserved as a part of the Q Archives project. Please consider donating to help preserve Pittsburgh’s Queer history.