Autistic Pride

On 18 June I’m very excited to be going to London for my first ever Autistic Pride. Well, excited and a little scared. I’m not new to Prides – I went to my first Gay Pride in London in 1993 age 22. I identified as bisexual at the time, although I hadn’t had any kind of relationship and actually had no idea what I was. Three of us travelled up from Cambridge for the weekend; myself, a woman from the animal rights group and a young professor who was very active in the LGBT and feminist scene. I didn’t really know either of them but thought they were the coolest people and by hanging out with them some of their coolness would rub off on me! It was quite clear from the start I was the extra third party. They went round holding hands, although at least one was allegedly going out with a man at the time, and I tagged along behind. The whole experience was overwhelming: the noise, the crowds, the confusion. It was hard seeing happy people in couples and friendship groups. I didn’t feel I fit in with any of it. But I went again the next year, alone, travelling down from the north where I was now living. By this time I’d had some experience with men, and still believed I was bisexual. I got a little enterprise going selling homemade vegan banana cakes to the marchers. It was pretty successful. Having something to do helped a little, but I still couldn’t wait to leave. Someone suggested I stay on to the after-party. Er, thanks but no thanks. When the whole day had been an endurance test, I didn’t want more of the same.
For many years I didn’t attend another Pride. I came out as lesbian in 1997. I went to Manchester Pride, well mainly just the march part, in ’99 with my girlfriend at the time. It felt good to finally be properly out and with a same-sex lover, but again there was this feeling I couldn’t cope – the noise, the crowds, the drunkenness and bad behaviour, so we left early.
Fast forward a few years, and my home city, like many other parts of the UK, started its own Pride which I wanted to support. I even got to perform at it last year, my own songs, with my soon-to-be wife on bass. We were in a small tent with hardly any audience but it was still a great honour. In the last 3 years we’ve also been to Prides at Brighton and Manchester twice, to hear my favourite singer – but have decided, no more. I love the idea of Gay Pride: being in a majority for one day instead of a sexual minority, standing up as one against the homophobic atrocities that still happen in all parts of the world, seeing people being themselves and being happy. But the reality is that most Prides are the opposite of autism-friendly, and I’d rather avoid total sensory overload and shutdown.
So this year the only Pride I will be going to is Autistic Pride. Some people might ask: why would anyone be proud to be autistic? After all, many see it as a deficiency or disorder. I don’t; I see it as a neurological difference. The opposite of pride is shame, and countless times we are made to feel ashamed because we are different from the majority. The roots of the word shame come from “to cover” & hide who we really are. Shame reduces our ability to be true to ourselves and connect with others. Why should I be ashamed of who I am? I am hoping that, by standing up and saying, yes I’m autistic and proud, others who maybe are just stating their journeys towards diagnosis and/or self-acceptance will see us and say, yes I have this difference but I don’t need to be ashamed. Many of us were bullied at school and have had a hard time forging friendships. Many of us have suffered from low self-esteem and poor mental health as a result. We don’t need to resign ourselves to saying, this is just how it is. We can be the change we want to see. It feels like a political act to attend Pride, any sort of Pride. In an ideal world, no minority groups would need a Pride because we would not be oppressed. But we are so far from that ideal.
Autistic Pride may not be right for me. I can’t assume I’ll feel comfortable there because they are “my” people. I don’t know how welcoming they’ll be of quiet, late-diagnosed, middle-aged lesbians. I may not fit in at all. There aren’t many places where I do fit – but I’m willing to give it a go. Happy Pride!
(With thanks to Vicky Beeching and Phyll Opoku-Gyimah for their very insightful articles on Pride in the June edition of Diva magazine)