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Making Masks: An Autistic Perspective On Gender Constructs

In the autistic community, we talk about the concept of “masking". A mask is a set of behaviours we use to appear neurotypical, or at least to offset our more obvious autistic traits. Above all, a mask is a survival tactic. When I go out and smile and laugh at people's jokes, or give conversationally-appropriate levels of information without bringing up my special interests, or try to maintain correct levels of eye-contact, it's all a mask.

My journey to understand my gender identity has been tightly interwoven with masking. Society has strict rules as to what makes someone a “proper” girl or boy, many of which involve certain behaviours and personality traits. For people who were assigned female at birth (AFAB), these rules create a picture of what a woman is supposed to be. Every AFAB person (and indeed, every woman who wasn't assigned female at birth), is expected to contort themselves to fit into this socially-acceptable female box. It's all incredibly performative – and every performance requires its own mask.

While I never really understood the social trappings of gender, I still masked in order to try and meet their requirements. For most of my life, I existed torn between extreme apathy towards "girly things" and the constant feeling that I was failing at being a girl. I liked it when people called me "lad" or "mate", or when they perceived me as male, but I knew it wasn’t what people expected of me. And failure to meet those expectations meant that I had, in some abstract but unforgivable way, failed in the task of existing.

When it was time to choose which high school I wanted to attend, I chose the all-girl's high school. Everyone who knew me was shocked. I was a tomboy! What on earth could possibly appeal to me about a school for girls? I made up some vague but believable reasons about the good curriculum, about liking the feel and the atmosphere, and about a reprieve from boy drama (this one was at least partially true). In time, everyone came to accept it. I think they thought I was growing out of my tomboy phase and finally becoming a young woman. Even now that I've been out and openly identifying as trans man/non-binary for over four years, the question of "If you feel like a boy, why did you go to an all-girl’s school?" still comes up in a "gotcha!"-esque fashion. As if the asker expects me to break down and confess that I am a girl, really! I was just confused! You’ve found out my secret!

(Shockingly, I never do.)

Attending that school wasn't about feeling like a girl (whatever that means). It was about wanting to feel normal. I remember staring up at the roll-out projector screen in my middle school's assembly hall during a presentation from the then-head teacher of the girl's high school. Something inside me clicked like a broken bone sliding back into place. Those girls on the wavering projector screen were laughing, learning, doing makeup, talking to one another, and playing sports in an entirely normal fashion. Clearly, that was where I could find the answers to all my problems. All I needed to do was become the perfect girl.

I made my "girl mask" as strong as I could bring myself to, but it was useless. My peers smelled the otherness on me like sharks scenting blood. People dated, made friends, broke up, argued, joined clubs, formed cliques – and the girl mask didn't help with any of it. I was still bewildered, still lagging behind everyone in the areas of personal relationships, still too different.

By the time I reached Year Ten, I'd learned about being transgender. It didn’t help explain everything, but it certainly helped explain some things. I came out to the entire school as a transgender boy and got permission to wear trousers instead of the uniform skirt. I cut my hair as short I could without violating school uniform rules, threw out every single item of womenswear, and wore suitably masculine clothes when not in uniform. Instead of the girl mask, I used a boy mask, clinging to it like a lifeline – and if I found conforming to male standards just as uncomfortable as female ones, well, it was a large learning curve. Some difficulty adjusting could only be expected.

It wasn’t until I heard Eddie Izzard talking on the radio about her experiences with gender that I had an epiphany. I thought I had successfully thrown off the weight of society’s expectations of my gender – and I had. But I’d created a new trap for myself in the process. Instead of feeling smothered by social expectations of femininity, I was now twisting myself into knots trying to fit some cisgender notion of a “perfect” transgender man. All I’d really done was throw away some of my favourite clothes and stop myself from exploring my own identity, and for what? To please a society that was never going accept me without a fight? It was, in hindsight, all completely absurd.

Getting diagnosed with autism in my first year of college was the final piece. I realised I’d spent my whole life trying to please a world that was inherently hostile towards me, and I was utterly fed up with it. If feeling normal meant that I had to break myself in order to fit into someone else’s box, then I wasn’t interested. It’s taken me years of examining and unlearning internalised bigotry, but I’m happier in my skin that I’ve ever been. I still experience gender dysphoria with my body, but it no longer feels like a sign that I’ve failed on some existential level. The dysphoria is all mine, to process as I see fit, and nobody else gets a say in it. Least of all society.

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