Hi! As you may or may not know, I’m trans (and I started my transition at the end of 2021). In this second part of Autism, transness, & gender identity, I will continue to talk about my experience of being trans and how my gender identity evolved over the years.
Switching gender roles
As I mentioned in part 1, I thought I just wanted to appear feminine, rather than switching gender roles. I desperately wanted to escape the constraints of the male gender role as they didn’t suit me, but I had no intention escaping from one gender prison and stepping into another one. In hindsight, that’s quite a silly thought, because how did I think I could possibly reject stepping into a female gender role if people would see me as female? I guess I could go for a more androgynous presentation, but I imagine that would mean experiencing aspects of both sets of binary gender roles.
What I imagined would happen is that looking female would grant me more liberties in self-expression. I could wear nail polish without getting strange looks and being judged. I could wear a dress one day, and pants another day, without anyone thinking anything of it. With a male presentation, I didn’t have the freedom to wear pretty much whatever I liked.
But I was truly ignorant of how gender roles are imposed based on how others perceive you. Yes, I can wear whatever I like now that I’ve transitioned, but I can’t really choose how people treat me and perceive me; people treat me as female regardless. And honestly, I like it! While I thought I wanted to avoid trading one set of gender constraints for another, I’ve come to realize that I feel entirely comfortable living within the “constraints” of female gender schema. In fact, they don’t feel constraining to me at all. If anything, I derive comfort from them. I guess that’s because my authentic self naturally exists in this gendered space. I don’t even feel the need to dress more androgynously to explore the boundaries of the female gender schema. I’m just comfortable here!
Although I reject the idea that autistic people have a weak sense of self, what does seem to be true is that we tend to have a weaker sense of gender conformity, which could result in a more fluid or more androgynous gender. Maybe differences in neurology and brain anatomy contribute to this as well, as several studies have indicated that the autistic brain is less gendered—that is to say, it shows several features associated with the opposite sex compared to neurotypical brains:
- The autistic male brain shows a shift-towards-femaleness mostly occurring in the somatomotor network, associated with lower-order sensory-motor processesNetwork-specific sex differentiation of intrinsic brain function in males with autism (Floris et al., 2018)
- The autistic male brain shows highly consistent patterns of hypo-connectivity (compared to typical males), reflecting a shift towards the (low) typical feminine connectivity patterns (i.e. neural feminization)Sex differences in autism: a resting-state fMRI investigation of functional brain connectivity in males and females (Alaerts, Swinnen, & Wenderoth, 2016)
- The autistic female brain shows hyper-connectivity (compared to typical females), which reflects a shift towards the (high) connectivity levels seen in typical males (i.e. neural masculinization)
- Sex differences in autism: a resting-state fMRI investigation of functional brain connectivity in males and females (Alaerts, Swinnen, & Wenderoth, 2016)
- The autistic female brain shows substantial overlap with areas that were sexually dimorphic in neurotypical controls, in both grey and white matter (suggesting neural ‘masculinization’)Biological sex affects the neurobiology of autism (Lai et al., 2013)
Whether less gendered brain functioning contributes to our sense of gendered self or not, anecdotally I have certainly observed more autistic people describing themselves as non-binary or genderless. Between myself and my two best friends, I have observed the following variations on a genderless self:
- Hailey describes herself as having no distinct gender, although she has a definite feminine gender expression. She also doesn’t feel strong enough about her lack of a sense of gender to identify as non-binary or agender, however
- Jade also has a feminine gender expression, but they do explicitly identify as non-binary or agender, and they use they/them pronouns
- I used to think of myself as ‘transgender’ not only in the conventional sense of the word, but as ‘transcending genders’, as I didn’t identify strongly with either gender. I may even have identified as non-binary or agender if that vocabulary was available to me many years ago
My gender identity no longer seems so nebulous, however. I think I used to feel like I was in a gender limbo because the male experience didn’t resonate with me, and although I had female proclivities and preferences, I felt I had no right to identify as female, so I was left resisting both binary gender constructs. Now that I’ve transitioned, I feel my sense of self and my gender expression are definitely feminine, so I have no problem identifying as female rather than non-binary or agender.
Today I realized that there are three different instances of gendered pronouns: based on sex, appearance, and sense of self. Somehow that strikes me as a significant realization, because I’ve noticed transphobes like to be pedantic about gendered pronouns being intrinsically linked to sex; whereas trans people tend to use pronouns to fit their gendered sense of self. So conflict arises between those two instances of gendered pronouns, but I don’t think one convention is more correct than the other. And let’s acknowledge that these are just linguistic conventions; they don’t denote reality per se. And insofar as they do model reality, one convention models the reality of sex, while the other models the reality of gender. Both sex and gender are demonstrably real.
But here is something interesting about which instances of gendered pronouns I used to resonate with and reject, versus which I resonate with and reject now:
- I used to identify as ‘he’ based on my sex and appearance, and felt I had no right identifying as ‘she’ due to physically presenting as male. I felt I had no right to identify with the word, despite feeling I was female in soul and spirit.
- Whereas now, ‘she’ feels appropriate based on my appearance/presentation and my sense of self, and I reject ‘he’ despite that pronoun arguably being appropriate to my sex.
So ‘she’ feels more true now, and I would be confused if anyone were to refer to me as ‘he’. It seems I now prioritize my phenomenological experience over my sex, whereas it used to be the opposite.
I feel this goes beyond the scope of this article, but my realization about gendered pronouns came after discussing the pronouns used in the sci-fi novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin with a friend. If you’re interested in what I have to say about that, have a look at my Facebook post.
My gendered experience
As a trans person who has undergone a social and medical transition, I feel I’ve gained some insights into what it’s like to be male and female. Okay, I have never been a masculine cis man, so I never had that experience. And I wasn’t born with a female body, so I lack experiences associated with the female sex. But I know what it’s like to be treated as a man, and I know what it’s like to be treated as a woman. And while I’ve always wanted to be a woman and it feels amazing that I’m finally treated as such, it’s not all positive. Let me offer four examples of how my gendered experience is different now—both good and bad:
Alone at night
A few months into my transition, while walking alone in a park at night with a headset on and not paying attention, I walked into a man who asked for help and ended up abusing my kind nature and naivety. To cut a long story short, he sexually assaulted me; he touched me inappropriately, made sexual remarks, and when I tried to get away, he followed me for a while. Once I finally got rid of him, I walked home in an indirect way—afraid that if he was still following me, I would lead him straight to my house—and once I was home, I broke down crying. That was one of the scariest and most violating experiences of my life. It taught me that with my current gender presentation, I can no longer afford not to pay attention to my surroundings at night. I have since been followed by cars at night, and I think there was one attempted kidnapping, but I’ve learned to stay safe by remaining aware of my surroundings, keeping my distance from men, and using my headset to my advantage by pretending I can’t hear them when they talk to me from their car.
But yes, this has been a definite shift in how I’m perceived and treated. Now and then, I’m quite literally being hunted by predatory men at night. I’m glad I know how to deal with that now, but it was painful to learn about this the hard way. I think trans women can be particularly vulnerable, because once they transition, they have yet to learn various things to stay safe which cis women have learned since they were little girls. I’m fine now, but I feel so sad that women have had to contend with this from a very young age, and that many women have experienced much worse than I have.
I’ve always longed to be desirable, and romanticized men telling women they’re pretty, and showing a sexual interest in them. Well, I experience that now, and it’s definitely not as great as I imagined. Yes, it’s nice when people tell me they find me pretty. But it feels awful when men only show interest in how I look, and aren’t at all interested in me as a person. What about my personality, my ideas, and my perspectives? Most men don’t care.
Pre-transition, people used to contact me to discuss ideas, and inquire about my knowledge on certain subjects. Wheras now, most people who contact me only focus on my appearance. And I’ve learned that even when men tell me I’m pretty in direct messages, I almost always perceive it as a potential threat. I mean, what is their motivation? Do they want to date me? Have sex with me? Scam me? I never know. I feel objectified and perceived as inferior; something to play with and exploit. It feels very vulnerable.
Mind you, I’m not complaining. Yes, these are not great experiences, but I’ve learned to just ignore these people. And it’s definitely still worth being female. But yeah, I definitely feel less respected than I did pre-transition.
No longer being a threat
One positive experience of being seen as female is that I am no longer perceived as a (male) threat. When I first changed my name and profile picture online to reflect my true self, several autistic women told me that they feel much safer around me now. Some of those women explained that they had prior trauma involving men, and so me presenting as male online created a boundary and prevented them from letting their guard down around me. I was quite shocked by that at the time. I’m a kind person, so how could others possibly perceive me as a threat? Could that also explain why I’ve often felt people kept their distance from me? It’s not just my autism, and it’s not just that some people have found me intimidating because of my intelligence; it’s also because I was a man.
I shared how I feel like I am less respected than I was pre-transition. On second reflection, I think that primarily applies to men. Women now find me less intimidating, and a lot more approachable. Women message me much more readily than before, and are more likely to open up to me. I do really appreciate that.
And finally, since I present as female, I’ve received so many more compliments! Pre-transition, I don’t recall getting many compliments, and the compliments I did receive were sometimes spaced years apart. Whereas now, I can hardly go a week without receiving a compliment. Usually it’s on my makeup, sometimes on my coat, a dress, or my nail color. One time a girl complimented me on my hair as I walked into the women’s restroom and she was on her way out. I never anticipated getting a compliment in a restroom!
And I now feel more free to give other women compliments as well. Pre-transition, I would never have dared doing that as I didn’t want to give off the sense that I was coming on to them. But now, I can express how much I like what someone wears or whatever without being perceived as a potential threat. That’s nice. I wish everyone could lift each other up with a compliment, without making women feel threatened, or making men feel you’re showing romantic or sexual interest. It’s certainly a much more pleasant way to live when you can exchange compliments. It makes me feel seen when someone notices something I wear, or the effort I put into my makeup, or how I coordinated the colors between my nails, my clothes, and my makeup.
Another aspect of my gendered experience is how my medication transition (i.e. the effects of HRT) changed me physically, emotionally, cognitively, behaviorally, and phenomenologically (i.e. how I experience the world). However, I feel that goes beyond the scope of this article. I will gladly explore that in a different article, if you’re interested in hearing more about that.