“The more you try to erase me the more I will appear.” -Thom Yorke, “The Eraser”
“And out there, living in the sun/give me one day out there/all I ask is one to hold forever” -Quasimodo, “Out There”
It’s getting more and more difficult to just exist when your identities intersect. In the wake of the current administration’s announcement that a Department of Health and Human Services memo will set their own definition of what gender and sex are in a way that invalidates all of the transgender and gender-nonconforming citizen’s rights is a call to claim those civil rights back from the hands of, let’s face it, bedfellows with fascism. The battleground for basic human rights is no longer in restrooms or locker rooms but in every single public space you can imagine. The very concept of gender identity that doesn’t rigidly adhere to the binary will be considered taboo and unmentionable in the eyes of officials and even then, it’s still a popular topic if you wander down the dangerous YouTube rabbit hole of anti-feminism, hot takes and hashtags on how diversity is forced in the latest film, “cringe” compilations trying to exhibit how these “SJWS ARE PROVEN WRONG”, and the hijacking of the “red pill” concept from the Wachowski sisters in the grubby hands of those who scream societal oppression because they can’t get laid (I refuse to call them by their preferred term of “incel” since the full term “involuntary celibacy” is a contradiction of terms).
Every time this happens, my mind recalls two important film quotes: the “I’m mad as hell” speech from Network and The Elephant Man loudly declaring “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” This applies to not only the trans community and the LGBT community as a whole but also the autism community. And really, how hard is that to grasp? Apparently, you need several doctorates to include these kinds of characters in movies because having one or the other takes a lot of teeth-pulling and having them intersect is nothing but a pipe dream. Heck, according to GLAAD’s 2018 Studio Responsibility Index, there were zero transgender-inclusive films from the seven major studios in 2017. There were more films with autistic characters in 2017 from the seven major studios (the only one that comes to mind was Power Rangers which also had some queer characters as well but failed the Vito Russo test according to GLAAD) than trans-inclusive films. In 2018, we got Please Stand By and The Predator for autistic characters and then the year’s critical queer darlings, Love, Simon and the upcoming Boy Erased, as well as roughly thirty other films that were screened in America. But we need more, as GLAAD has mentioned in a section on queer intersectional identities.
Look, it’s no secret that I’m queer. I’ve been in a loving relationship with my partner for well over a year and a half. He’s been with me as I’ve explored my gender identity multiple times and trying so hard to use my preferred pronouns. My friends, the majority of whom are queer in one way or another, are also supportive in this manner. I also help run a Discord server for autistic people and there’s an overwhelming majority of those who are trans and gender-nonconforming. I’ve even asked them for help on this article because there are several things to unpack here in regard to Hollywood’s problem with queer representation and autism.
The “twin rainbows” that I titled this article in question stem from an Advocate article by Louis Molnar, a gay autistic man. In it, he discusses some of the parallels that queer people and autistic people go through and how there’s more in common than what some think. Quoting his research:
Gary Gates of the University of California, Los Angeles’s Williams Institute estimates that 3.5 percent of the population is LGBTQI+, and in 2013 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1 in 50, or 2 percent, of the population is autistic. That means 3.5 percent of 2 percent of the entire world population is under the double rainbow. That represents over 5 million people, but spread over the entire globe — in every country, of every race and sex.
Five million people internationally is by no means a small number. That’s five million people who only see a part of themselves on the screen but not both. It’s a demographic that’s worth tapping into but how do we get there? Let’s start with Hollywood’s track record of autism. It’s been spotty at best, no thanks to the recent release of The Predator (which I’ve spoken of at length).
Since Rain Man made waves in the late 1980’s and cementing itself in the public consciousness, it’s been shorthand for autism for several decades until The Big Bang Theory supplanted it with Sheldon Cooper. The character we got was someone with exceptional math abilities who was used by his morally questionable younger brother to win money. One of the scenes in the casino is when Iris, a casino patron, tries to chat with Raymond at the bar while Charlie is away. She asks him if he’s looking for a date and Charlie thankfully intervenes before things get out of hand. An inappropriate question on prescription drug use sends her packing and the “date” is off. We wouldn’t get a queer version of this until the second season of Community when a gay sci-fi fan tries to ask Abed to have sex with him. The punchline here is that Abed knows that he was being hit on and would rather talk about Farscape and wormholes than gloryholes. In Rain Man, the humor is placed on Iris because she tried to potentially take Raymond away for some (most likely non-consensual) sex with a dash of theft with the casino winnings.
By and large, a good portion of autism representation since then has focused on children. On television, they’re relegated to Very Special Episodes and never seen again, save for Arthur where Carl has shown up in a few episodes since his debut in “When Carl Met George” or Sesame Street with the introduction of Julia from digital resources to television screens. If you’re an adult, you’re one of three things: the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock (even with some queerbaiting in an early episode), the Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory (a clearly autistic-coded character but never really mentions the A-word and is seen as comic relief), or Abed from Community where the character is an active part of the group and has character growth. Abed is the best option of the three although it should be noted that we need more female autistic representation as well. The major difference between the kids and adults is that one group is allowed to be sexual and the other should clearly not exhibit those behaviors. At the very least for kids, the work can explore romantic themes like homoromantic, panromantic, aromantic and more. Adults are allowed to explore their sexual side if they so choose but it rarely happens with autistic adults on screen.
Before we move forward, I want to state that the following examples for the next few paragraphs are within the realms of fiction. There are a couple of documentaries that do touch on (Life, Animated features a brief sequence involving the discussion of Disney porn) or exclusively focus on autism and dating (Autism in Love). There’s also the 1975 short film “The ABC of Sex Education for Trainables” which is a fascinating look into what is still sadly considered a radical concept, even if it’s just discussion and dramatized classroom sessions (I’m very firm on the idea that proper sexual education is for everyone but that’s another story for another time). So, let’s talk about sexual orientations.
Nine times out of ten, the autistic character is portrayed as asexual/aromantic without character agency, falling into the binary of either being a Rain Man character where they cannot reasonably consent to sex or are placed in situations where they cannot read between the lines and are deemed too incompetent. Now, I know a good deal of autistics that do fall somewhere along the ace spectrum and they have insight to their feelings as well as agency, even if their parents have difficulty understanding why. And, just like any other human, those that are on the ace spectrum have different ways of expressing that. Some may be asexual and panromantic, some aromantic and demisexual, or even asexual and aromantic (and I’m only talking about sexual and romantic orientations since gender orientation adds a whole other layer to the rainbow). All of them are still valid and loved, which is apparently a difficult concept to grasp in LGBTQ spaces. And, I cannot stress this enough, they have agency of their own orientations, something Hollywood can’t understand.
And the other one out of ten? The sex is framed as a pure and tender moment because the autistic character is Pure and Innocent and experiencing the taste of carnal pleasures for the first time. The mere concept of a disabled person having sex is so alien to people when the other depictions provide no character agency in that aspect. In the 2009 film Adam, there is awkward dialogue with the title character and his love interest where he asks her if she was “sexually excited” in the park because he was. Adam then explains the concept of mind-blindness to her and so gives the audience a logically sound explanation for that exchange. They do indeed have sex later in the film but the camera tastefully pans away (it’s PG-13 after all). In the Hulu series “Claws”, Dean Simms, a black autistic man, does have sex with his girlfriend Virginia but it later turns out to create unintended problems later on. If you’re looking for autism/autism stuff, there’s 2006’s Mozart and the Whale. The scene in question involving our main couple has this exchange:
Donald Morton: You know how in the jungle, they say that some elephants have longer trunks and some of them have shorter ones. Yeah.
Isabelle Sorenson: Well, I don’t care how long the elephant’s trunk is… as long as his dick’s okay.
(If you really want to get technical, one of the first notable depictions of sex between two disabled partners in a feature film would be in 1993’s Benny and Joon although it should be noted that Sam (playing to one particular type by Johnny Depp) does not have a specified disability but does have some autistic traits. I hesitate to include this film because his disability is not entirely specified as opposed to the other films I’ve mentioned and even then, it has some baggage.)
It should also be noted that the majority of these actors in feature films are not autistic whatsoever. The lack of representation there in terms of actually autistic actors is astounding in the same way that you have cisgender people trying to play roles of transgender people as we saw earlier this year with Scarlett Johansson and her debacle over playing a trans man in Rub and Tug. Thankfully, she dropped out of the project but not without leaving a bad taste on everyone’s tongues and the film’s development in limbo. As for autistic people, you have those like Daryl Hannah and Anthony Hopkins who reveal their diagnosis decades in the waning years of their career. Younger actors that reveal their diagnosis? That’s still a work in progress, mostly since autistic roles for children and teens heavily skew toward neurotypical actors. Autistic people are used as “consultants” or “research” but rarely actually in the roles despite people wanting their depiction of autism to be as accurate as possible.
But Zephyr, surely something you’re looking for does exist, right? Why yes it does, thanks to independent and self-publishers. These authors are primarily in that intersection of queer and autistic or otherwise disabled and they go the extra mile to make sure that their characters are fleshed out and believable, mostly in science fiction and fantasy genres. Now, these stories will have a niche audience and cater to them but the odds of having them fall in the laps of Hollywood producers are very slim. So, we’re stuck settling for meager attempts at one or the other and rarely giving praise when it’s done right. And when either identity is not explicit? We make headcanons.
If we do get films that are intersectional, you’re most likely to find them on the indie circuit or Vimeo if you’re lucky. Obviously, there are some exceptions to the rule as we’ve seen with Moonlight and The Shape of Water but part of that is due to distributors, talent, and money. For the rest of the filmmaking hopefuls, there are more hurdles involved. The amount of time it takes to work on a script, let alone an entire short or feature film, is overwhelming, especially when you want to make sure that the characters act in a certain way that reflects one identity or the other. Not to mention auditioning people that specifically fit the role, providing accommodations, working around everyone’s schedule, etc. And, that’s if you’re being generous since time is money and investors want to see a finished product as soon as possible. Sadly, that’s one of the gatekeepers to making films for the large screen and why both communities are fed meager bones every now and then.
Rather than saying “it’s 20XX” as a shorthand complaint, it’s better to be more direct and continue to ask for more inclusive films. The Academy is slowly working towards including more women and minorities on their board. However, since the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite has trended with each year black actors and films are overlooked, it’s a slow go. Inclusion is not going to happen overnight and I get that. It just needs to be accelerated with more studios greenlighting projects that are more diverse. The easiest way to do that is to take your money to diverse movies in terms of cast, story, or both. Of course, diverse does not always equal quality, make no mistake. However, it’s a start. Just don’t include it for the sake of inclusion and winning brownie points in the eyes of the public; that’s just insulting and irresponsible.
It’s still a battle to be recognized as a human being if you’re queer and autistic. Now, more than ever, it’s important to stand up and scream to be recognized, much like in Horton Hears a Who. We’ve seen the power of the consumer tip both ways from the box-office successes of Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians for their own racial representation to The Predator tanking after the sex offender controversy weeks before the film’s release. And with Oscar season starting up, we have the fourth version of A Star is Born with Lady Gaga, Bohemian Rhapsody and all that entails with Freddie Mercury, and Boy Erased with the coming-of-age tale involving gay conversion therapy. On the autism front? Nothing.
I know this is a lot to take in and it can be very exhausting. I’m only one person occupying their small patch of dirt but I know that I matter and want to see my identity on film. I know I’m not alone in these desires. Just give me a film with a wide release that deals with these topics in a realistic light. All I ask is one to hold forever. Give me something, even if I have to spend years making it myself. Give support to others who are making these stories. And, most importantly, support trans and autistic people. As John Farnham sang in “You’re the Voice”, “We’re not gonna sit in silence. We’re not gonna live with fear.”
The Intersectionality of Autism and Homosexuality: https://www.advocate.com/commentary/2017/3/10/intersectionality-autism-and-homosexuality
GLAAD’s 2018 Studio Responsibility Index: https://www.glaad.org/files/2018%20GLAAD%20Studio%20Responsibility%20Index.pdf