When I was eight, a psychologist told my parents and me that I showed signs of Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition on the high-functioning end of the Autism spectrum. Having Asperger’s is a bit like being in cognitive limbo. I am privileged compared to people with more low-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders, but not neurotypical to the point of fitting in with my classmates and other kids my age. I got nervous being around people, had a horrible stutter, and sometimes unintentionally upset others with my words or tone of voice, because at the time, I couldn’t process emotions and social norms like other people could. I was so ashamed of it that I never told anyone. And so, for the majority of elementary and middle school, I was the weird kid. And that made me a target.
But my story differs from many others who grow up with a developmental disorder, because at the same time, I was also finding my way as a young gay man.
My parents were neither LGBTQ allies nor were they explicitly homophobic—they simply never taught me that it was even a thing to be queer. Until the eighth grade, I thought that gay meant stupid, and had no exposure to the concept of anything other than heterosexuality. This combined with my struggle to learn how to understand my emotions and those of the people around me led to me having a very confusing, uncomfortable childhood.
— GLAAD (@glaad) October 17, 2019
When the guys in my class talked about girls, I was totally unable to relate to them, and I attributed that to my own disorder, because I couldn’t think of any other reason. I slowly developed a fear that I wouldn’t be able to be in a relationship, to love someone that strongly, because I hadn’t felt that feeling before.
In ninth grade, I became friends with this boy, and right off the bat, I felt different about him. I kept searching for the word to describe how I thought of him, and I couldn’t understand the word I kept thinking of, so I kept looking. I helped him with homework, we played games, stayed up really late on Friday nights. One of those nights, without thinking, I blurted out that word I’d been shying away from. I told him he was so cute. And he laughed and said he knew that I was gay, and that he was too.
My friendship with him didn’t last, but his impact did. I suddenly started feeling funny around certain guys, a weird, gut feeling that I had never experienced before. At night, I whispered it to myself, not fully believing it. “I’m gay.” It sounded so alien to me, I still recoiled a bit from it, remembering its negative connotation among the people I grew up around.
I could hardly admit to myself that I was gay, let alone tell my parents. In the summer before tenth grade, I felt pressured by some in my friend group to get a girlfriend, so I asked out this girl from my theatre class. The summer eventually became the school year, and I was growing increasingly unhappy. Eventually, before things went too far, I confessed to her that I thought I might be gay, and—oh boy—that did not go well.
For a long time, I went into a decline because I felt that I kept unintentionally hurting the feelings of the people I cared about: my parents, my peers, and now my ex-girlfriend. I didn’t think I could ever be in a long-term relationship, and the negative stereotypes about gay relationships not lasting didn’t help. I was alone with my thoughts for a while, save for the two close friends who always supported me.
Halfway through the summer of 2018, I met a boy and immediately, my heart melted. He was so nice to me, had soft brown hair, and a contagious laugh. The floodgates that had held back my emotions finally opened, and I felt everything at once. I fell so hard for him, and after a few dates, I realized that it was serious—that I was truly able to care about someone in such a deep, powerful way. And once I finally learned what it was like to do that, it was like a domino effect for everyone else in my life. My empathy for them finally manifested—I felt what my friends and family felt, in my gut and in my heart.
But while I was finally able to accept myself as a gay man, I found that I couldn’t bring myself to tell my own partner about my disorders. I felt embarrassed by them, and thought he wouldn’t understand; that he might get overwhelmed by it and call it quits. I kept it hidden, but as people say, the truth always comes out.
Sometimes it would be little things, like when he’d be driving us down a back road at 90 miles an hour, laughing, while I gripped my seatbelt with white knuckles, my anxiety flaring up. It’s easy for me to be brought to tears, even if I’m happy. When we were at Homecoming, I embarrassed him by singing Ed Sheeran’s Perfect to him in front of people. It was little emotional cues, little differences in values and personalities on either side that I wasn’t able to pick up on, because my brain is wired in a different way. And, as had been the case at school, because I tried so hard to be seen through the lens of being neurotypical, all of my quirks and flaws were magnified, and without context, we were always miscommunicating. Eventually, we ended up separating, and looking back, I was not being fully open about myself. I learned then probably the most painful lesson of my life: no relationship can survive without complete honesty, even if it means telling hard truths—things you’ve never told anyone. If you try and hide who you are from the person you love, they will grow to love a fictional character, devoid of any flaws. I am not that character—nobody is.
For so long, I was embarrassed of being gay, but it paled in comparison to my shame of having Asperger’s. I had always tried to hide it, to minimize it, cursing whatever it was that gave it to me. But I’ve learned that to have Asperger’s does not mean to feel nothing. It means to feel everything differently. It means that you have to work harder to make connections, to understand yourself and others. And when you put in that work, you never, ever take those connections for granted.
To all of those who have a queer person in their lives, I urge empathy. Our community is the most diverse group of people you’ll meet, full of people with wildly different personalities. People from our community are more likely to face the challenges of being atypical, more likely to suffer from depression, and more likely to feel alone. Reach out your hand, no matter how difficult or awkward, and trust that person to talk to you in their own time. Do your part to help create a community of trust, where everybody feels comfortable sharing their emotions, flaws, and self-doubts.
And to any LGBTQ people living with developmental disorders, I want my message to be one of patience and optimism. You are not less queer, less beautiful, less human for feeling things differently than others. You can and will find a way to make sense of your different identities and experiences, and how they influence each other. For me, a relationship may have been the summit—where I finally began to understand myself—but it came after years of slow, confusing, and painful climbing. For you, it might be different. For all of us, there are many more mountains to climb. But throughout your journey, never, ever be ashamed of being atypical. I’m proud to be a gay man, and I’m proud to be living with Asperger’s.
Austin Houck is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and sophomore at University of Virgina studying computer science. Austin is the founder and CEO of Homoglobin, a nonprofit dedicated to furthering equality in healthcare and education for the LGBTQ community. He is currently a GLAAD Campus Ambassador Leader serving on the Organizing Team.