The Unbroken Spectrum: The Shared Closet

Inveterate list maker Lili Marlene has carved out another instructive subset from her still growing referenced list of now “… 174 famous or important people diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition or subject of published speculation about whether they are or were on the autistic spectrum.”  This time it’s a copiously referenced set of Famous possibly autistic people who have also been the subject of unfounded speculation that they were homosexual.

Which brings up an opportunity to make another entry in my occasional series looking at various ways autism blends into and becomes invisible in society, so that its unbroken connection to society disappears from view. Adding to Shift Journal’s collection of geographical models for various neurotypes, I’ll remind here that while it’s long been possible to see Russia from Alaska, it has at times also been possible to walk to Russia across what we know as the Bering Strait, when sea levels were low enough to reveal the connecting land.  What Lili Marlene’s lists do, and what this series attempts to do, is to lower the “sea levels” enough so that we can begin to see the unbroken connection between autistics and everyone else.

Lili presents her data here without comment, in confidence that it can speak for itself.  The five examples documented merely establish that people have a way of looking at autism, and seeing homosexuality—and to my mind, this says far more about society than it does about autism.  For one thing, it suggests that while it may have been not so long ago that homosexuality was “the love which dare not speak its name,” autism remains far more powerfully tabooed, certainly when it appears outside the sanctioned boundaries of the medically certified “disabled.”

To place these five examples in the Bering Straight, it’s as if over on its western shore, we have the certified autistic folks; on the eastern shore we have everyone else, and if anyone should appear chest-, waist-, knee-, or ankle-deep in the sea somewhere between them—acting as, say, army officers, pianists, politicians, scientists, or revolutionaries—why, they must be “swimming” we say, and are sure to return to “our” shore, however queer their tendency to go off together and swim.  They’re in the water after all; what else could they be doing?  Just please, for the love of God, don’t acknowledge that there are people out there walking around—getting things done, living their lives, changing our lives—out between there and here.  [shiver] We don’t even have a word for that.

And it’s true, we don’t have a word for that thousand-mile-wide “strip” of land between autism and non-autism.  That’s a lot of the problem, right there.

This series, at any rate, has touched on the way both autism and homosexuality are projected onto others, and the fact is that there are many ways in which closeted or clueless autistics do provide an inviting screen on which to project a little free-floating homosexuality.  Now, the agonizingly confusing experience of growing up gay or bisexual while not even knowing there’s a vocabulary, a language, a history, and a community which provide context for and make sense of one’s sexuality—this has largely been done away with, I would guess and hope, by the internet.  Not so, ironically enough, for the clueless, unaware autistic, who may be very much at home on the internet.

This is changing, of course, as it’s arguably “clueless autistics” who’ve built the internet in the first place, and have been building communities on it ever since.  Here’s the thing though.  Comedian Norm MacDonald does a painfully hilarious “historic re-enactment” of the moment gay sex was “invented” in 1954 by two sexually frustrated men while they were sitting around watching a football game on tv.  And computer/internet culture, shot through with autism as it may be, has just as little awareness of its own larger context and history as do MacDonald’s farcical “World’s First Two Gay Guys.”  Our calendar starts in 1958 with ARPANET, as if our kind had never influenced history or had family or even walked this earth until the moment we sprung fully formed from the immaculate forehead of Vint Cerf. But I rant (and make notes for another post).

Having spent over three decades, in any case, as a clueless, unaware autistic—most of it during the same era in which Lili’s five examples lived—and having observed and thought about this a good deal over the years, I can suggest that for many pre-internet autistics who’ve had no clue about how to understand or explain themselves, most of life may have made as little sense to them as the sense sexuality alone may have made to a young gay person who had no clue there was such a thing as homosexuality.

Might we behave similarly then, autistics and gays, in the face of typical expectations for socializing and pair-bonding?  Hell yes.  Might we both give the impression we are hiding certain things about ourselves, perhaps shameful things?  Hell yes.  Might we avoid or give up on intimacy with the opposite sex during the prime of our young lives and beyond, even as that avoidance may make us into curiosities and trophy conquests?  Hell yes.  Might we be grateful for partners—and they do exist—who see us as we are and to whom we need explain nothing?  Hell yes.

Though on a final, darker note:  should a man who is either autistic or gay marry a woman who is of a mind to love the sinner and hate the sin (be that sin autism or homosexuality), does such a woman become a uniquely powerful beard, one who holds all the high cards in the relationship, til death do they part?  Hello misandry, and hell, unfortunately, yes—at least so long as all involved buy into the notion of these conditions being a shameful missing-of-the-mark for an otherwise worthwhile human being.  I suggest that both these types of marriage happen more often than we think.

So to my mind anyway, there’s not a lot of mystery as to why these sets of behaviors, from two very different groups, are so similar.  What is remarkable, I believe, is the profound failure of imagination, the tragicomic, cheerfully misguided “help” that’s on offer, and the lack of meaningful compassion and respect that come from people who can imagine nothing except gay as the reason for those behaviors.  All thanks to the assumption that the problems described here are located in the person who suffers from them, rather than in the society that fails to embrace its own diversity.

The autistic walk among us though, much as do the gay.  Maybe the significant difference is that closeted gays know they’re in the closet, while unaware autistics have yet to realize there even is such a thing as “out of the closet.”

Different people.  Same closet.  Pass it on.

related:  The Unbroken Spectrum: Ridicule

related:  The Unbroken Spectrum: Projection

related:  The Unbroken Spectrum: Self-Hatred

related:  The Unbroken Spectrum: Stockholm Syndrome

related: Enhanced Gaydar

on 09/17/10 in featured, Society | 1 Comment | Read More

Comments (1)


  1. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Comments on this entry were inadvertently turned off when it was posted; they are back on now.

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