Yesterday I did something I have wanted to do since I knew it was possible. I marched in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras alongside around 30 other Autistic people and allies. The group I was with was Aspect / Autism Spectrum Australia. I have wanted to have – and be part of – an autistic presence at Mardi Gras for many years and I finally got to do it. It more than lived up to expectations. In fact it counts as one of the best things I have ever one. I am writing this and getting positive flashbacks from last night – the cheers of the crowd, being amongst friends and sharing their happiness, giving high fives from the spectators including getting a high five from a police officer! It was an incredible night. This is why.
I grew up in the 1980s. Being any kind of non-heterosexual sexuality or being gender diverse were things which many people hid. Homophobia was rife. In my later years of high school I overheard some of the boys saying they were going ‘poofter bashing’. There seemed to be a lot more hate than love. People were so often in the closet because it simply wasn’t safe to be out. I had friends in town who were a lesbian couple. They were older than me. They were out to a very small number of people. I came out as gay in year 12 – finding it hard to keep such a big part of me secret form those I loved. As an out teen I received a lot of hatred and bigotry including physical violence on a few occasions. I didn’t understand this hatred. Who I chose to sleep with surely had no impact on my classmates.
At this time I did not know I was autistic. I had tried for years to ‘fit in’ and be socially accepted but it never seemed to work. I was a hated and bullied teen. I was so damaged by bullying that I hated myself. This was the case for many years. I had no concept of pride in who I was. Autistic pride would have seemed a joke to me then. I was desperate to be accepted and ‘act normal’ (however one is supposed to do that! I never figured it out.) So the world of my formative years was not a supportive or respectful one.
Gender, sexuality, neurodivergence. These things are an integral part of a person. These are things which go to our very being so the fact that there is hatred and bigotry for these reasons is particularly awful. If some one hated your shirt it would presumably be unpleasant but easy enough to brush off but when someone hates your very essence, well that is dangerous.
Pride – Queer, Autistic, Disabled, pride in belonging to any oppressed group, these are positive things. They are in fact things which challenge oppression. We are given messaging that we shouldn’t be proud and that we should hate ourselves and be ashamed to exist. This internalised hatred is a key part of oppression. So when oppressed people own their difference and speak of pride and respect then this is a radical and wonderful thing.
The initial Sydney Mardi Gras was a protest. It was 1978, a year when homosexuality was still illegal and considered a mental illness. Those activists literally fighting in 1978 have given us what we have now in terms of pride so respect is due them in a big way. Things are very different now largely because in the past people were willing to stand up and be counted. I mentioned to a friend last night that I loved how mainstream Mardi Gras is. How the City of Sydney put up rainbow things everywhere, how there were possibly hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets and cheering, how people smiled at me on the train in my rainbow wig and sequin shoes.
While the mainstreaming of Mardi Gras demonstrates a shift in societal thinking, there is still a lot more to be done. I want to see a world where everyone feels that they can be out – for sexuality, gender, neurodivergence – anything we are so frequently forced to hide away. A world where we don’t need a celebration like Mardi Gras because there is no bigotry and hate would be my goal but as it is, Mardi Gras is a great and necessary thing, a means of promoting pride and diversity and respect. It is also a whole load of fun and a great atmosphere. I think it would be impossible for me to have not been happy last night.
It was quite emotional yesterday. I did a lot of high fiving the crowd and they were so enthusiastically cheering our Autistic group. To be there in the eyes of the world, being gender diverse, queer, Autistic and proud and being cheered on by thousands of people…well it was pretty special. At one point I felt quite overwhelmed with positive emotion. One of this moments where the world is so poignant and beautiful it just takes you over.
Pride is such an important concept for us. Pride challenges and changes society’s views and also changes our views of ourselves. I used to be ashamed of being me, especially when it came to my autism. To confidently and proudly say ‘I am Autistic Queer and proud’ banishes a lot of my own demons while giving a message to the world which can change people’s perception. The Mardi Gras parade is filmed by SBS. I hadn’t intended to speak to media but they waved a microphone at me and, with great emotion, I said ‘We are Aspect. We are Autistic, Queer and very proud. Thank you.’ I think that sums it up.