The Problem with Gatekeeping Identity
In my 40’s, I started to realise I was probably autistic (as well as having ADHD), which eventually was confirmed by a diagnosis. I wasn’t weird after all… well maybe a little. I embraced my identity as an autistic person and my life started to make more sense. I felt elated following the diagnosis, more confident to speak up about what my needs are. The euphoria lasted about a week, and then it started. “You don’t look autistic” or the indirect, “I never would have known.” I wasn’t sure if these were backhanded compliments, meant to make me feel like I’d made it. I’d appeared neurotypical all along. A stealth autist. That’s good, right?
Except that all these years, I have been masking my traits. I’ve suppressed my stims, forced myself to socialise when it’s exhausting, hidden meltdowns, sensory overload, and much more. Not for my comfort, but for the comfort of others. Not only is the “you don’t look autistic” comment a microaggression, but it is also an attempt to police my identity. Just because I’m not like that autistic person on TV or your cousin’s son who is non-verbal, does not mean I’m neurotypical. There are many ways to be autistic, and some of us have got to boss levels of masking to the point we’ve hidden our autistic traits from ourselves.
Gatekeeping Identity in the queer community
Unfortunately, this gatekeeping of my identity sounded all too familiar. I came out as a lesbian in the early 00s after graduating from university. I was a regular on Canal Street at the weekends. Not that I could get into all the bars there. “Members only”, or “regulars only” was the usual line fed to me by an intimidating-looking bouncer. These bars had no such membership scheme or clear door policy. What they meant was that I didn’t look like a lesbian. One bar started providing cards for their regulars, to avoid being turned away. A queer ID card, if you will. The cards stated, “the following person has been verified by staff and deemed gay.” I’m not quite sure what the verification process involved, as I refused to carry such a card, but I hoped it was at least fun for all involved.
It wasn’t just door staff either. People in the queer community often assumed I was straight; told me I was being silly and wasn’t a lesbian at all. They could somehow “just tell”, apparently. I wore dresses and heels, clearly the preserve of heterosexuals. In my 30’s, when my partner transitioned to male, some work colleagues and friends insisted I was now straight and in a “straight relationship”. I labelled myself as queer in my 30’s. I was frequently asked why I was with a partner who identified as transmasculine. Both straight and queer people expected me to justify my identity on a regular basis. It was tedious and tiring.
I honestly believed that by 2022, everything would be different. That the right for a person to identify as they saw fit would be respected. That there would be no pressure to conform to a stereotype or even for a person to come out if they didn’t want to. How wrong I was.
The term queerbaiting was appropriated for use whenever the queer community didn’t feel someone conformed to our stereotypes or didn’t want to label themselves at all. A prime example of actual queerbaiting from my youth was the Russian pop duo, t.A.T.u. They were cleverly marketed as a lesbian couple in love, and their music video kisses in school attire caused outrage in the gutter press. The queer community lapped it up and bought their CDs for a while until it was later revealed that they were, in fact, straight. Years later, one member of the duo reportedly made homophobic comments about not wanting her child to be queer, despite the money they made from the queer community. This is queer baiting.
Now the term is used liberally and applied to anyone famous who doesn’t want to label themselves or come out publicly, but who doesn’t conform to the stereotypical heterosexual norms, and/ or for artists taking on queer roles. It’s a combination of the age-old assumption that if you don’t publicly come out, then you must be straight, and gatekeeping by the queer community.
Unless you spent 2022 in a cave, you will be aware that it was accusations of queerbaiting that led to Kit Connor from Netflix’s Heartstopper being forced to out himself as bisexual. Before the days of social media, we left it to the gutter press to out people in the public eye. Now our own community is forcing 18 year olds to come out through a misguided gatekeeping process and, frankly, erasure of bisexual identities. The government and media are relentlessly attacking trans people, yet certain parts of our community are focusing their anger on the perceived need to know an 18-year-old’s dating and sexual history, to verify their rightful place in the queer community? Just like with being autistic, there are many ways to be queer. Publicly or privately.
Gatekeeping identity in autism
To receive a formal diagnosis of autism generally involves some form of gatekeeping, usually by a neurotypical clinician. Just like in the queer community, there is gatekeeping within the autistic community. Many people choose to self-identify because getting a diagnosis can be a lengthy process if you even get past the GP’s gatekeeping and/ or are taken seriously, particularly as an adult. Some people self-identify because being autistic is a difference and not an illness. Clinician and self-diagnosis are both just as valid, yet not everyone is accepted into the autistic community with open arms, and some are told they don’t appear autistic enough. Oh, and if one more neurotypical person tells me, “Everyone’s a little bit autistic,” then I will scream. You either are or aren’t, just like you can’t be “a little bit” queer.
Instead of gatekeeping, can’t we just welcome people into our communities with open arms based on their own definitions of identity, not our own narrow criteria of whether we feel they fit in? And, if they don’t want to, or aren’t ready to label themselves, then maybe we should just leave them alone and respect their journey.
This piece was written by Sarah Thompson-Cook (She/Her)
Originally from a coal mining town in County Durham and Salford-based, I’m an academic, Mental Health Nurse, and part-time PhD student. Having dreams of writing for years, I started writing editorials recently to give me a break from academic writing, and as a creative outlet. I enjoy open-water swimming even in the winter months, and I’m obsessed with stationery. I like writing about my own experiences, particularly around queer and autistic/ neurodiverse identities. I’m currently working on a semi-autobiographical novel about growing up as autistic and queer. I doubt anyone will ever read it, but if they do, I hope to earn enough money to outsource all the tedious stuff, such as cleaning, paperwork, and shopping. I have my own blog at myadhdphd.com where I occasionally write about navigating life, work, and a PhD as a neurodiverse person.