I don’t feel like a person. 

This seems like a strange sentence. Odd, equally in its meaningless and peculiarity. If I have a body – two arms, two legs, and a bunch of stuff in between – doesn’t that make me a person? Or, alternatively, if I have a brain with thoughts, opinions, and ideas, then aren’t I personified in that consciousness? There isn’t an answer. This isn’t some sort of deep philosophical pondering. Whereby every fundamental thought I had about the universe and existence is hung out to dry, translucent in the sunlight, exposed and twisting; this is more of an internal yearning for cohesion. 

I am multiple identities. I am a collage of things, pasted down on cardboard, some of the edges peeling and others aged into one with the base. I take these things as they come and try to arrange them in ways that make sense. There are the basics. I am a musician. I love dogs. I have small handwriting. These are non-negotiable. They are ever-present, not quite stagnant so much as they are reliable. I fall upon these when my world is swirling, tumbling, tossing its contents like a tumble-dryer. Then there are the things that change. This week I have green hair, but next week it might be purple. My favourite tea used to be raspberry-flavoured, before it was discontinued. Now, it has to be gingerbread-flavoured. I sometimes feel like my attachment to these frivolous things is slight, almost meaningless, and that it has less to do with me as a person than it does with a force of habit and ritualistic repetitions. But the more tiny things I lose, the more I feel like I have to let myself have these as a part of me. To have them taken away, without consent, feels like ripping off a fingernail. However small a fingernail may be, it is still me

In context, though, all of these are somewhat easy. They’re not incongruent, or hard to place. I can think of these, and sit with them, and not frantically try and redirect my train of thought somewhere else. If I take my consciousness out, and look at these through the third person, I can piece together something that makes sense. I can go ‘hey, that right there, that’s a person’. If I put myself back in, I see these things as patches sewn in to conceal the gaps. Where I’ve tried to pull things out and shove them down and make them less there. Where I’m ashamed, defeated, humiliated, anxious, and something sharp in my guts tells me that to be that much is too much. 

When I take a step back, though, at the core of everything, are two identities that make up almost everything. I am queer. I am autistic. 

There’s a funny thing that humans do, where we like to put everything in boxes. Neat, clear, stackable ones, like you find at Muji, or the market section of Ikea. We label these boxes, put each person in their own little cube, and let that label be a definition. Every person we see, we try to figure out what their label is. For a lot of people, the colour of their skin is the one and only label that matters. For many disabled people, their visual disability is where observers both stop and start. It’s easy to avoid labels when they don’t dictate your day to day life. It’s infinitely more comfortable to shut it out, ignore it, and claim to ‘not follow politics’ when the ‘politics’ isn’t a debate about your very humanity. But none of this is okay. We know Bla(c)k, Indigenous, and People of Colour are subject to systemic racism, abuse, and violence on every conceivable level. We know that disabled people are underestimated, physically unaccommodated for and discriminated against. But for the more privileged person, the system becomes a game they can play. I have privilege, white privilege. There are parts of my life that are inherently easier because the way structural racism works benefits me in a multitude of ways. But there are still rules I never learned. I don’t get to play the game. 

I was never taught how to manipulate perception. Clothes, posture, accent, makeup, mannerisms. I’ve always wondered how people make these tools work in their favour. Is it a matter of having no identity except for what suits your needs, or are you so comfortable in a solidified sense of self that things can change on the outside, while some sort of core stays the same? I tried to learn, but it feels like neurotypical people are speaking a whole other language where they’re aware of the expectations. Adjusting constantly: minute switches every second, ticking over and reacting to a social story I don’t know the language to. When I tried to add ‘Neurotypical’ to my collage it refused to stick, flaking at the corners like I used one of those old, dried-out glue sticks that no one wants to use but can’t be bothered to throw out. 

Every time I think I’ve figured out a new solution, the game changes. Need eye contact? Look at the eyebrows. Can’t stim in public? Wear oversized long sleeves, so no one can see your tapping fingers and hidden fidget cubes. Need to walk ‘normally’? Wear heavy platform boots and emulate the murder walk of Bucky Barnes from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and let people believe it’s a deliberate style choice to match your all-black attire. But then it gets complicated. People want to make extended conversation, invite me to get drinks after class, or there’s a group task in a tutorial. Then the pasted down layers peel all the way off and people see the chasms and gaps and the stuff I tried to hide away and suddenly I’m not one label anymore and I don’t know how to explain myself. That, at least, is the one thing I’m acutely aware of. The need to justify myself. Everything, from my awkward posture to my inability to pick up on the joke to when I’m overwhelmed and can barely focus but force myself to stutter out the socially appropriate scripts I’ve memorised, needs to be explained. It is not enough to exist outside the game’s manual.

The thing is, I very much look queer. Maybe it has something to do with the exhilaration of no longer being forced into a uniform of bottle green skirts and feminine blouses. Maybe it doesn’t. Either way, how I look puts me squarely in that Perspex tub. My hair is short. I wear a chest binder. In my high school sports uniform I was often mistaken as a young boy, and I’ve been asked if I’m ‘a boy or a girl’ too many times to count by kids at work. People my age, however, assume I’m a lesbian. It’s a nice, easy identity to understand, and for the most part even the more conservative-minded are at least outwardly tolerant. There’s a certain level of fear that keeps me from explaining that I am not a girl. I am non-binary. I use they/them pronouns. My name is not what is written on my birth certificate, or my ID, or my payslips, or my library card. 

But knowing that this doesn’t make sense to them makes me shove on another layer, hasty, ugly, and out of place, making less of myself. 

I’ve come to realise that this is the same as learning neurotypical mannerisms and suppressing my autistic ones. If I can’t be a normal-looking, neurotypical, straight cis law student, then I will be an odd-looking-but-cis, lesbian, neurotypical-but-anxious music student. In trying to find a middle ground between identities I’ve crafted an entirely new patchwork. Curating these neat squares feels easy. I can take myself out. I can create a character in a novel that plays a role that people recognise. A bit quirky, but almost endearing. There are no gaps. Everything is neatly stitched together, and the facade is seamless, a narrative that people see and consume and think no more of. Identities that can be boxed and moved on from. 

No one sees the underside of this quilt, this neatly stuck collage. No one sees me avoiding classmates to go message my friend about nothing, just so they’ll use my name and pronouns. No one sees when I have to leave a lecture because the lights are too bright and I end up crying and biting my hand in the disabled bathroom, trying to hold off a meltdown at least until I get home. No one notices my leg bouncing in discomfort when I agree that yeah, I am a lesbian. No one thinks twice when I don’t say hi back. They don’t know it’s because everything is too much and too loud and I can’t physically talk. And I can’t let them see it. I’m scared. 

To be honest, there’s times where I can’t let myself see it. There’s always been a lot of talk about whether non-binary genders are valid, and with J.K. Rowling’s less-than-inclusive contribution to the conversation, it feels too volatile to throw myself into the mix. After she published an essay and her following tweets on the legitimacy of trans people, specifically autistic people who were assigned female at birth, I spent hours on social media. Scrolling. So many people were angry, angry that these two identities could coexist in one body. Forcing myself to bear witness to this rage was weirdly compelling, having convinced myself that it was somehow my obligation to read on, regardless of how much it hurt. It felt like whatever progress I’d made in stitching these two massive fabrics of my life together was being picked apart, tweet by tweet. One can’t exist without the other, but one can’t exist with the other. 

On the other hand, if we completely discard that TERF of a woman and everything she stands for, maybe there’s something magical in places where identity doesn’t overlap and instead floods like watercolour on wet paper. Maybe there’s less to be said for shoving independent pieces together like a reject-shop Lego knockoff where nothing fits quite right, and more for just letting it be. Sit. Chill out for a little bit. My brain and physical manifestation are okay. Not amazing, not awful, but okay. Bits and pieces of all the identities swirling and tumbling and tossing. Even if there’s nothing holding them together, they’re all still here. 

I’m all here

︎Charlie is a second year music student and violinist who is best described as a ‘chaotic queer mess’. If they’re not alternating between studying and stress baking, they can most commonly be found gardening to an ambient soundtrack of anti-fascist 90s punk.︎

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