(Content warnings in article for suicide, bullying, ableism and transphobia.)
Note: The book itself also contains discussion of drugs and abusive situations (including sexual abuse) but neither of those are mentioned in this review.
When you are either trans, gay or autistic, there are a lot of ways those identities can impact on somebody’s life whether they realise it or not. There is a need for information and support as to how best to live life with these identities. To the credit of the wider world, there is existing resources for those identities separately. However, there is a huge lack of resources out there about how these identities intersect.
This was something I noticed as well as I came out as transgender and started my transition. How does being autistic impact being transgender? And how does being gay come into that as well? (Even though, full disclaimer I’m actually bisexual but can’t feasibly see myself dating a cis man). Essentially, people with this particular intersection are trying to learn about this with no real support.
In the first published book of its kind by a reputable publisher, Uncomfortable Labels is the first widespread resource for fellow autistic trans people and their support networks to learn from. The author, Laura Kate Dale, came out and transitioned in early adulthood to her mid twenties. Additionally, she was also diagnosed with Aspergers (now folded into the overall “autistic spectrum disorder” diagnosis) in early adulthood. These key facts shape both the book’s structure and her story.
There are three parts to this book. The first section covers Laura’s childhood and life pre-transition and pre-diagnosis. Some topics discussed here are quite surprising such as how Laura stimmed as a baby. However other experiences are not so surprising such as bullying she encountered from her peers. I say surprising as this kind of intimate detail is something I haven’t seen in a book for a long time especially from somebody who is so out in the public eye.
Many of these experiences were things I could personally relate to such as feeling uncomfortable with sexist rhetoric by cis men as well as being shunned by girls due to presenting as male (despite feeling more socially connected with them). The most notable part for me though was the following quote:
“So much of what society told me about being gay, trans or having autism painted a terrible picture of my future.”
This is because I had the same thoughts at the age of 20 in 2018. So even though there was a sizable timeframe between Laura feeling this and me feeling this, it goes to show that not much has changed for it to be significant. It actually reminds me of a recent survey put out with regards to disability in general. As a result, this really helped maximise the overall impact the book had on me and I doubt I am alone in this.
The second section addresses Laura’s life through transitioning and getting diagnosed with Aspergers. She addresses issues trans autistic people face accessing NHS healthcare such as the long waiting times (which have only gotten worse as of late). Things like socially transitioning are also touched upon too specifically about building a wardrobe, dealing with facial hair and wearing makeup (some things I struggle with too).
I particularly liked how Laura mentioned little about how she medically transitioned and sees it as unimportant but for anyone but herself. This is a very good approach because it goes against the transphobic ideas many cis people have about feeling entitled to know intimate details about a trans person’s transition. This section closes out with some positivity towards trans women who cannot pass which is something that is needed in general (using media representations of trans women as an example).
The final section is less a memoir and more a collection of essays that discuss certain aspects of being autistic and trans. This section is perhaps the most hard hitting of the book as one chapter discusses how Laura has had to learn to deal with her friends dying (usually by suicide) due to how discrimination against LGBT people is still rampant in modern society. Furthermore, Laura mentions how so many of her family and friends abandoned her upon coming out or were not fully supportive if they did.
On a more positive note, Laura also discusses access issues autistic LGBT people have when it comes to events like Pride and nightclubs, including conflicting access needs (note: this term was not directly used, but it’s what she describes). Examples include sensory overload and dealing with safety issues at events. This is something that needs to be discussed as the mainstream LGBT culture excludes so many autistic trans people.
The analogy of autism friendly cinema screenings was a very effective way of communicating this. Calling for a wider variety of LGBT spaces like cafes was a very good call. This is something I support because I don’t have much interest in attending current LGBT events due to the loud and rowdy nature of many of them. We deserve quieter spaces too. Laura also mentions her very positive experiences in roller derby having been fully included in the sport by all her teammates. It was by far one of the most heartwarming part of the book.
Even better, Laura frames many traits of being autistic in a positive way in a later chapter, saying “”I think it’s important we [talk about positives of being trans/autistic]… if people start to see trans status and autism as having positives rather than negative.. ..maybe it’d become apparent why there’s such a need for society to adapt and accommodate our existence.” This is exactly the kind of positivity we need and this book mostly delivers (I say mostly, I’ll elaborate a little later).
Additionally, there is also a prologue at the start at the book which very helpfully explains key concepts of being autistic and transgender in an accessible manner.
One of the best parts of the book is how Laura called out many of the myths about autism. For example, she calls out Simon Baron-Cohen’s controversial “extreme male brain” theory which has been detrimental to understanding autism in feminine presenting people. Later on, she also calls out the myth that autistic people don’t have empathy (when in reality most of us do, it is only a sizable minority of us that don’t).
Similarly, she also does the same with regards to transgender myths. The myth that being trans is a trend is one of the myths called out. She correctly states that it’s transphobic beliefs that lead to trans people ending their lives, not as a result of pressure by wider society to be trans (which doesn’t exist).
There are a couple of caveats though, Firstly, there isn’t much discussion of how being gay impacts things compared to being autistic and trans. However, as the impacts of being gay are already understood more than being autistic and/or trans, this isn’t a big loss.
More notably, I found some of the terminology used to be a mixed bag. While a lot of the transgender terms were accurate (ie. Assigned male at birth) I noticed a few missteps with autism related terms. Person first language (ie. With autism) is used over identity first (ie. Autistic). This is fine if it’s Laura’s individual personal preference. However, as many autistic community prefer “autistic” it feels a bit out of touch for a major published book. I think both terms should be used interchangeably as has been the case in other published books. Here is more information on the subject.
At one point in Chapter 6, the phrase “suffers from autism” was used. The usage of this term perpetrates a harmful myth that being autistic leads to suffering when in reality ableism from others is what leads to suffering. Considering Laura calls out transphobic myths that argues the same thing but for being transgender, isn’t that a bit strange? This is something that should have been caught out in editing and slightly soured the book for me for a while.
For the first book of its kind, it’s overall an excellent start. So much said in this book is correct and vital to add to the conversation. With a little bit of polish with regards to the terminology, this book would be perfect. However there needs to be more books covering a similar area so that others whom have different experiences to Laura can themselves find someone to relate to and learn from. Hopefully this happens sooner rather than later and for that to happen, I encourage people with the means to buy this book.
That’s all for today.