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We’re Lesbians on the Autism Spectrum. Stop Telling Us to Become Men
J. Peters – 23 January 2022 – 13 minutes read
If there was ever a case for a trans child, I was it. Let’s take a look at the DSM-5 guidelines and its diagnostic definition of gender dysphoria, followed by descriptions of my own experience:
A strong desire to be of the other gender or insistence that one is the other gender.
When I was in kindergarten, my teacher called home to express serious concern that I was developmentally confused, due to my insistence on lining up with the boys to go to the bathroom. Well into adolescence, I went to great pains to “pass” as a boy and even got reprimanded for going into women’s restrooms. I liked this, considering it a sign of my success.
A strong preference for wearing clothes typical of the opposite gender.
When I was in first grade, I began refusing to wear my hair long or to dress in anything other than boys’ blue jeans and polo shirts, or similar attire. This “phase” lasted through my junior year of high school, when I finally accepted (following a long and arduous puberty) that I would never “pass” again.
A strong preference for cross-gender roles in make-believe play or fantasy play.
I had a rich internal fantasy world in which I pretended to be male characters from my favorite books and movies. I dressed as male characters for Halloween every year between the ages of six and 16. When I imagined myself interacting with my friends or the kids from school, I always saw myself as a boy. Even now, when imagining myself, I often involuntarily see a man.
A strong preference for the toys, games, or activities stereotypically used or engaged in by the other gender.
My favorite toys were action figures, dinosaur figurines, sports equipment, and fake weapons.
A strong preference for playmates of the other gender.
All of my chosen friends were boys. The girls frightened me, always seeming to communicate in some kind of secret language.
A strong rejection of toys, games and activities typical of one’s assigned gender.
The one time I owned a Barbie doll, I dismembered it Dexter-style within an hour of removing it from its packaging—a signal to my parents that classically-feminine toys were unacceptable to me.
A strong dislike of one’s sexual anatomy.
As I began to grow breasts, I took to wearing sports bras several sizes too small, in a painful attempt to flatten my chest. This “phase” lasted until I graduated college.
A strong desire for the physical sex characteristics that match one’s experienced gender.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve stared at well-dressed men and perused men’s fashion sites, not because I find these men sexually attractive, but because I so desperately want to be like them. To have a beautifully flat chest, narrow hips, and a strong jawline. Long, powerful arms and legs, and dark stubble on my face. I wish I had been born in a better body, one that would never turn against me and bleed at the worst moment. One that would enable me to move through the world more gracefully, unencumbered by male attention or by my own physical ineptness. One that would be more attractive to other women. I have yet to grow out of this “phase.” I doubt that I ever will.
There are probably many of you out there reading this, nodding along. Likely, many of you are teenage girls or young women around my age. Others, likely teenage boys or young men in their 20s, are probably feeling that this list would apply perfectly to you, if only the sex and gender roles involved were reversed. You perhaps identify as trans, or non-binary, or at least gender-questioning.
And I don’t blame you. When I first discovered the DSM-5 guidelines, it was jaw-dropping, so much so that it’s one of those moments that imprinted itself in my mind forever. I still remember where I was, what I was wearing, and the exact texture of the rock that was stuck in my shoe.
This is likely where mine and my readers’ personal narratives begin to diverge. While their reactions to reading these guidelines, or discovering a trans Internet forum, or stumbling upon a trans group at school, were likely of relief at finally finding an “answer,” mine could never be that simple. The analytical wheels of my brain started turning, wondering how something so common as a tomboy could become a psychiatric diagnosis.
Of course, as the astute reader will point out, I was way beyond a mere tomboy. But let’s put a pin in that for a minute. I promise we’ll get back to it.
Here’s the thing: I was saved by the grace of discovering this phenomenon too late. By then, I was 20 years old, and had already found ways to cope with my so-called gender dysphoria that didn’t involve turning myself into a lifelong pharmaceutical patient, or subjecting my already fragile body to more and more unnecessary surgeries.
You see, even at 20 I knew what that meant in a way most people don’t. I was already a lifelong pharmaceutical patient who’d been through multiple (unrelated) invasive and damaging surgeries due to factors beyond my control. The idea that anyone would do this to themselves—or worse, to their child—for the simple sin of not conforming to gender norms in the Year of Our Lord 2016 was beyond my comprehension. (If you think I was disturbed by this, you can imagine my dismay when I discovered “Body Integrity Identity Disorder” not much later.)
So I quietly began mulling all this over, gently dipping my toe into these waters with those I considered like-minded at school. I was pleased to soon learn that the trans community doesn’t actually like the DSM-5 guidelines, and that being trans is “way more complicated than that,” according to one of my particularly woke friends at the time. I figured they must see what I see, and the psychiatrists were the ones who got it wrong.
That fantasy was a brief one: I shortly realized that the reason the trans community on campus disliked the guidelines wasn’t because they were overly broad, but because they were apparently oppressively narrow, withholding lifesaving medical interventions from an already vulnerable population. And the emphasis here was on medical interventions, i.e., puberty blockers, hormones, and surgeries. It struck me that these individuals didn’t seem concerned with actual psychological treatment.
For the following two years, I aggressively researched the topic. Not one for social media, I never made my way to “Gender Critical” or “TERF” sources or forums (in fact, for most of this time, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what those terms meant), as they were never offered up to me by Google algorithms. Instead, I read studies on trans people, attended trans-supportive academic talks, studied more psychiatric guidelines, and read LGBT+ activist websites and testimonials from trans people themselves.
In short, I did exactly what the trans community was telling me to do: I educated myself, using their preferred sources and their firsthand reports of their experiences.
The result, however, was not what they intended. The more sources I read, the more questions I had, with none of my previous questions being answered in the process. No one seemed to be able to define terms such as trans, gender dysphoria, non-binary, or gendered soul without using what struck me as obvious gender stereotypes. No one could define the word woman, either. In fact, I started being reprimanded for even daring to use the word woman or making any references to female biology in a political context at school.
I’m the kind of person who takes forever to make my mind up about something. Righteous anger on behalf of any viewpoint isn’t my strong suit; in fact, I find it grating, and usually indicative of a lack of even-handed thought on any given topic. So I kept assuming I must be missing something. That this whole thing wasn’t homophobic or sexist, that it was just a misunderstood phenomenon, and that if I just stuck it out with my good old-fashioned epistemic humility, the answers I wanted would come in due time.
They didn’t. And then my closest friend in the whole word, a classically masculine straight computer nerd obsessed with sci-fi and video games, told me he was a lesbian. After that, he moved back into his childhood bedroom, stopped pursuing further education or employment, and began a series of invasive medical interventions all while engaging in some rather disturbing roleplay in which he was a 12-year-old anime girl. Apparently, this was my breaking point.
There are a couple of things I’ve left out of this chapter in my life, and it’s time we go back and unpinned that “way beyond a tomboy” part from earlier, because I think those of us girls and women who were truly gender-nonconforming in a socially-unacceptable way throughout our childhoods (and even continue to experience some dysphoria into adulthood, rejecting the premise that this was all a “phase”) often get lost—or worse, sacrificed—in this debate.
At the same time I was doing all this research into the trans movement, I was struggling a lot with two distinct but related personal issues: the unusual way my brain works and my sexual orientation. I’ll start with the former.
I don’t much relate to the accounts of transitioning girls and young women in Abigail Shrier’s (impeccably-researched) book, Irreversible Damage, though I feel deep concern for them, and for the cohort of girls that will no doubt follow them. In the case of girls, these stories often involve social contagion. Ironic as it is, I relate far more to the stories of the solitary, introverted, inward-looking boys documented in Angus Fox’s seven-part 2021 Quillette series, “When Sons Become Daughters”. Perhaps this is because I’m a pretty textbook case of what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome, though I wasn’t diagnosed until college due to the insistence of an adolescent psychologist that I had OCD instead.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) tend to present differently in girls, and some of this is explored in Shrier’s book. Because ASD is a mostly male phenomenon, psychologists often don’t know what symptoms to look for in their female patients. In fact, many psychologists simply don’t look for any symptoms of ASD in women and girls at all, and attribute even classic symptoms to other conditions, even when those conditions aren’t as good a fit.
When I finally found a specialist to assess me for ASD in adulthood, however, I was pegged very quickly. All of a sudden, the horrible tantrums that lasted well into my teens, the obsession with order (coupled with a lack of basic organizational skills), my lack of social success both in friendship and romance, my academic giftedness, and the sensory sensitivities and physical clumsiness I’d dealt with all my life, coalesced around a single explanation. At some point, I’d seen at least one doctor for each of these issues in my childhood, but never did anyone suggest that they might all be related.
So when I read about those young boys in Fox’s article series, left out of social events and milestones for reasons they don’t understand, capable of achieving high test scores and academic success while simultaneously being unable to turn in assignments or show up for class on time, and looking at the girls like some mystical and unattainable alien species speaking a whole different language and engaging in a whole different culture from their own, I saw myself in them. Not just myself, in fact, but also my closest friends, all of them male and similarly academically gifted, and many of them now identifying as some brand of trans.
Here’s the thing about ASD: One of its hallmark symptoms is discomfort in one’s own body, and with the physical world more generally. Especially in this day and age of self-diagnosis, and the sea of misleading “autism” memes on social media, it’s hard to realize that there’s more to the condition than social anxiety. In fact, I’d argue if you’re hyper-aware of your own social ineptness, especially in childhood, you probably aren’t on the spectrum. The issue here is social obliviousness, not social anxiety. Sure, the anxiety often comes along later, when you finally realize you’re doing something wrong, but it’s not the source of the problem.
For people like this, not at home in their own bodies and unable to pick up on the social cues and socialization that surround issues of gender, sexuality, and romance, it’s easy to see how they would identify with the trans movement. Add in black-and-white thinking and an obsession with categorization (also common ASD characteristics), and Houston, we have a problem. To these kids, a transgender identity presents a straightforward and treatable solution to their lifelong pain, and who wouldn’t want that? Even many trans activists now recognize the high number of ASD sufferers who are transitioning.
So why does this matter? Why not just let these kids transition if they think it will alleviate their pain? Because, and this bears repeating, gender identity is not the source of the problem. The source of the problem is gendered social norms that shouldn’t exist, paired with kids who have a legitimate neurological condition—a neurological condition that won’t go away after they transition.
Refer back to my comments under the final listed DSM guideline, on wishing to become a member of the opposite sex. What is it that I want to become? I don’t just want to become a man per se. “Man” is a pretty big category, after all. I want to become a conventionally attractive, socially and romantically successful man who has a lot of physical grace. And this is often the image that is sold to us in the trans-affirmative discourse. The trans role models held up as most desirable are often the ones who both “pass,” and seem to have quite a bit of sexual and professional success.
This is a very small sub-category. Let’s just face it: if I were a man, I wouldn’t be Chris Evans in The Avengers; I would be Steve Carrell in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin. This is all assuming that I could even become a man in the first place, a premise that relies on a particularly faulty brand of Cartesian dualism that rivals the worst historical impulses of the Roman Catholic Church (“intrinsically disordered”, anyone?).
But I digress. My point is that what these young people are being sold is a lie, a lie that the mind and the body are separable, and that there is a magic-bullet solution to a lifelong problem. And it isn’t a white lie, either; it’s a lie that brings along with it a lifetime of medicalization, possibly a shortened lifetime at that, and the neglect of the root-cause issues at play, not to mention a permanently hyper-limited dating pool.
That ever-astute reader will note that I still haven’t spoken about the other major issue going on in my life while I was researching the trans movement: my sexual orientation. Thank you for keeping me honest, ever-astute reader, for I would be remiss not to bring you closure on that point.
Asperger’s isn’t the only area of my life in which I find the idea of a quick solution attractive. When Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg pronounced in a 2019 speech that if there had been a pill to make him straight when he was a teenager in the ‘90s, he would’ve taken it, I remember my progressive mom murmuring in shock and horror. I shrunk down in my chair next to her, thinking that I’d take that pill then and there, in 2019. I couldn’t say that out loud, though, even to myself, because I was so deep in the closet that I could almost see Narnia.
Here are, in no particular order, the reasons I would take the Buttigieg Pill: Often, it feels like “lesbian” is more a porn category for men than anything else these days; a significant number of men treat those few women who do call themselves lesbians as if they are themselves walking porn categories; many of the actual women in my dating pool are either injecting testosterone or in a relationship with a man and looking for a sidepiece or a threesome; some of the small number of women out there who are also lesbians and agree with me on the trans issue are self-identified “radical feminists” who would probably hold it against me that I’m not also a radical feminist; I dislike cats (which are apparently required to be a card-carrying lesbian); I find women far more difficult to communicate with than men (and that’s saying something); I find women far more difficult to relate to than men (ditto); the rest of my dating pool seems to consist of either dudes in fetish gear pretending to be women, or emotionally needy and stunted dudes who think they’re women; and if I dare to say anything about any of this out loud, or under my real name, I will be cannon-blasted into unemployment.
So, the day my best friend in the world told me he was a lesbian was the day I resigned myself to being in the closet forever, because that was when I realized once and for all that being myself isn’t okay in the modern western world, and that coming out doesn’t matter because that giant list in the previous paragraph means I’m going to be single for the rest of my life anyway. Narnia beckons.
After reading all this, ask yourself: Is it any wonder that any young gay person would prefer testosterone injections or estrogen pills over living her or his life authentically?
Given what we know about autism, is it really that surprising that this movement is spreading like wildfire?
For that matter, given what we know about the multi-faceted nature of being a human, is it any wonder that if we define the categories of “man” and “woman” using absurdly strict gender roles, most people who buy into those definitions won’t consider themselves men or women anymore?
What I really want to do here is tell any teenagers or young adults dealing with dysphoria, or who are questioning their gender, that they’re not alone. It’s okay. If you’re dysphoric, it will probably go away, or at least alleviate with time. Even if it doesn’t, there are non-medicalized strategies to cope. If you’re not dysphoric, and you just want to belong, I get it. My heart aches for you just as it aches for myself. I want what you want, and I’ll be honest with you in a way your parents may not: I’m not sure if I’ll ever find it. But a plastic apple isn’t going to feed you.
If you’re already transitioning, you don’t have to keep going. There are thousands of people like you, and their numbers are growing every day. If you don’t want to desist yet, that’s okay, too. I’m not here to antagonize you (well, I’m not here solely to antagonize you). I just want you to know that there are other options, and that anyone who tells you not to think or read anything for yourself doesn’t have your best interests at heart.
I hope something in my experience has been useful to someone else; that will have made it all worth it. My worst fear is that the children who come after me won’t fare any better than I did. We have a responsibility to truth for their sake, if not for our own.
We thank J. Peters and Quillette for the permission they have granted us to publish this heartfelt and enlightening testimony.
The original can be found at Quillette: We’re Lesbians on the Autism Spectrum. Stop Telling Us to Become Men
J. Peters is the pseudonym of an author who lives in the United States. You can contact her at email@example.com.