I’m Coming Out as Neuroqueer

Yesterday, in conversation with a couple of fellow board members, I found myself getting hung up on a word that came up: “intuitive”. When I asked them to define it, they kept going back to experience and knowledge and contexts that, to my mind, weren’t intuitive but experiential — you can’t figure them out without deliberate training or practice. The thing is, I don’t have any of their experience, so it’s possible that our standards of “minimal” or “intuitive” may be very different. I’ve never been in the corporate world, the arts, or the military, and the nonprofit world where I cut my teeth is 1300 miles and two decades away from where we are now. This has been my first time on a board and the learning curve can be steep without training or practice, but I (and presumably everyone who voted me in) trusted my analytical thinking would help me compensate for other skills and experiences outside my purview. Instead, I fear it has made things unintentionally more difficult. I cannot function any other way than how I am, but I can be vulnerable and perhaps give context. After all, systems thinking is only as good as its data.

So this morning I decided to come out. Not as genderfluid or bi/pansexual (I hoped that had been established) but as neuroqueer. Neuroqueer is the intersection of being neurodivergent and genderqueer, a state where one’s relationship with gender manifests (if it manifests at all) outside the man/woman binary because of neurocognitive traits that themselves fall outside the sort of normalized expectations that comfortably establish gender for others. I suppose being neurodivergent is something I’ve still been coming to terms with myself, but it’s too relevant to my work and to how I work to ignore any longer.

Researchers have begun to identify a significant overlap between people with neurodivergent traits and transgender adults and children; the overlap is also present to a lesser extent throughout the entire LGBTQ+ umbrella. No neurodivergent trait is an inherent problem, only a distinct way of interacting with the world, problematized when its scope of intuitiveness and explication conflicts with those society tells us to expect of one another (such as, for example, a discrete, binary, and biomedically essentialist gender identity or an ability to monitor surroundings while focused). Like the LGBTQ+ umbrella, neurodivergent (ND) folks are still figuring ourselves out — individually and collectively — and being transformed by what we find. Neurodivergence on the macro scale is sometimes called neurodiversity; as with all constructs of diversity, it challenges a binary of right and wrong and instead puts forth that nothing is a strength or weakness except in context.

Individually, my neurodivergent traits have allowed me to conceptualize the social and physical world as far more fluid than I was ever taught; this makes me excellent at problem-solving but terrible at tradition. My traits are largely sub-clinical — that is, even in the increasingly outdated pathological model of neurodivergence, my symptoms might not meet the standard for formal diagnosis — but that is because I work with and around them to affirm myself and others. My traits are most visible when I feel stressed, but I’ve spent my entire life honing ways to not feel stressed. When challenged, I’ve repeatedly turned my weaknesses into special interests, but I or someone else had to disclose that it was a weakness in the first place. It’s been this way so long I have trouble understanding that which is rigid or binary without explanation, yet I’m also a systems thinker so I tend to see it eventually. I draw joy from perceiving the social world and, through my analyses, I have developed people skills that comfort and heal.

Most of the time, my traits are subtle and circuitous: doing familiar things in a different way or for a different reason from others. Like my dietary challenges (which often co-occur with neurodivergence) or my pronouns, I try not to make them anyone else’s problem if there isn’t a functional reason to do so (not because they don’t matter, but because there’s the amount of nuance belies casual involvement). And as with my genderfluidity, I blended in for a long time because I wasn’t significantly uncomfortable going with the flow, thanks to a complex and distinct mixture of enthusiastic adaptation, privilege, and luck that I’m still unpacking (e.g., through autoethnography).

My devotion to connection and humanity is incomplete, and it is does not appear to be common. I often find myself in conflict with other neurodivergent folks because their ND traits and coping skills differ from my ND traits and coping skills, yet I often find myself in conflict with allistic people because I unwittingly and unceasingly challenge their assumptions. When I ask too many questions, it’s out of feeling “stuck” rather than deliberate antagonism. (If I ever stop asking questions, it’s because I believe someone has shut down lines of communication that only they can reopen.) In the grander scheme of things, it just means — as we have learned with gender and sexual orientation — not taking for granted that what is common or assumed is universal. This isn’t even new; it’s just being recognized and defined for the first time in our cultural memory.

The first thing I did when I awoke today was download and read an excellent article that succinctly introduces “neuroqueer” and the broader neurodiversity paradigm better than I could. It will be my go-to reference for a while and helped clarify this topic, personally and professionally. 


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