Coming out again… and again… and again…
Life seems to involve constantly revealing yourself to others. As an author of LGBTQ fiction, I know that many of my readers will remember a time when they came out. And coming out isn’t a one and done situation. Coming out is an endless journey that spans your entire life. From meeting a new work colleague to a tradesperson coming to your house to a new medical professional, we are often forced into revealing a part of ourselves.
I’m very lucky because I live in a country, and in a part of my country, that is open and welcoming of myself and my wife. We’ve recently moved to a new area and each time I come out to someone new, because it’s a never-ending process, I’m pleased to report that hardly a blink is registered before conversation continues.
I’ve known I was bisexual since I was young and I have been having the coming out conversation with people for more than twenty years so I’m relatively comfortable with it. However, it does irk me that sometimes I need to come out at all. An assumption of a husband I might want to speak with before making a decision is always going to anger me from a feminist position and from a queer one.
But sexuality isn’t the only thing that society forces us to reveal. In fact, over the last few months I have been struggling with something that I am slowly but surely being forced to talk about. It’s not something I’m ashamed of, it’s not even something that private. I resent the fact that I need to make a statement about it only because of the false assumptions surrounding it. In much the same way I want to roll my eyes at the contractor who wants me to talk about a quote with my non-existent husband, the assumptions frustrate me to such an extent that I now feel compelled to say something about a topic which I feel is no one’s business but my own.
Eight months ago I received a four star review for a book I’d recently released. Now, on the whole, I don’t read my reviews. I believe that reviews are for readers and most definitely not for authors. However, now and then a review gets highlighted to me or I happen to come across it somehow.
I’ve received both glowing praise and hurtful scorn. Every star available, for every one of my twenty-plus books. But this particular review sat heavy on my heart because the title of it was “A pretty good attempt at writing autism from a non-autistic author”.
This review sits at the top of the nearly two hundred reviews on Amazon on that particular book and it has sat at the back of my mind for eight months. You see, I am autistic. I don’t shout from the rooftops about it, in fact I hardly ever mention it. Like many women of my age, my diagnosis came later in life and aspects of my autism and how I cope with it are uncovered in my every day life all the time.
I don’t hide my autism either. I mention it in my Twitter biography, have spoken openly about it at author events, and often write characters with autistic traits. Although I will say that many of my characters on the spectrum are labelled by the community as “ice queens” and this is fine, once I have written and released a book it is no longer my property. If a reader thinks a character is an ice queen then that is their distinction to make, I’m not going to correct anyone. But frequently when I write a character with certain tendencies, I’m personally considering them to be neurodivergent, even though I know that they will be tagged as ice queens unless I specifically say otherwise.
But back to that review. For eight months I have wondered if I should make a statement. Part of me thought I shouldn’t, reviews are for readers after all. Part of me couldn’t face the idea as part of my autism manifests itself as exhaustion when dealing with topics relating to my personal life. Part of me is aware that it could open floodgates where I will be forced to justify myself, my writing, my characters, and even my autism. You see, am I autistic enough? Own voices is a powerful term right now. Authenticity is demanded from authors. But what if my specific autistic experience doesn’t match up to someone else’s? Am I a fraud? Some would say so.
I am a voice of one. I can only speak for myself. Do I represent every single woman in the world? No. Every single bisexual woman? No. We’re all different and we slot into our different communities in very different ways. My autistic experience may not be representative of someone else’s, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t authentic.
Let me be clear, I hold no ill will towards the person who wrote that review. They say within the review that they are autistic themselves and I assume that their experience is different to that of my characters and so an assumption was made. I can see how this can happen and it’s an easy mistake to make. But the fact that the insinuation is circling that I write autistic characters despite not being on the spectrum myself is problematic to me. And so, here I am again, coming out. I’m autistic and it displays in a variety of ways, many of which are hidden from most people.
Like some of my characters, my autism manifests itself in food issues, anxiety, a need for routine, and sometimes social difficulties. Unlike my characters, my autism also manifests itself in acute exhaustion when thinking of certain topics, an inability to read fiction or focus on more than one thing at a time, and auditory processing issues.
Because autism is a spectrum and is experienced differently by many. Also, as a woman, I’m very comfortable with masking my symptoms and have spent years knowing when and how to ignore any underlying discomfort in order to fit into a business or social situation. I’m very aware that I don’t fit perfectly into the autistic framework but I’m unapologetic for that as I’m simply living my life.
So, there you have it, a blog post eight months in the making. One which I debated long and hard about. A post that I wish I never had to write but felt compelled to do so. Another form of coming out, another label.
I know I could have avoided it all by never putting neurodiverse characters in my work but I’ll never do that because I believe it’s important to see us. I receive a lot of messages from people thanking me for including characters on the spectrum in my stories. Readers say that they feel seen and understood and that makes it all worthwhile.