Being ‘Myself’ as a Neurodivergent, Gender-Fluid Person

This is not a piece by someone who has figured it all out. I’m still learning who I am. I haven’t arrived.

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We at gaurilankeshnews.com are publishing a series of articles about the multiplicity of issues, concerns and hopes of women, today, March 8, 2021, to mark the International Working Women’s Day. 

Suryatapa Mukherjee is a news reporter for Suno India, previously with Mojo Story and The Quint. She has written for Vice, Huffpost, Asia Times and others. Her poetry has been published in ‘Hiraeth Erzolirzoli: A Wales – Cameroon Anthology’. She chaired the Media Representation panel on Bi Pride UK 2020. You can find her on Instagramand Twitter

In college, my best friend came out to me as a trans man. They unbuttoned their shirt and showed me their binder, and I don’t think I have gasped with excitement like that since. I was the first person they came out to. And I really thought it was the best thing ever. But I also felt it necessary, you know, as a friend, to tell them what I really think about gender.

“Gender is fluid,” I told them. “Anybody can be a man or a woman, really. I mean, gender is a construct, right?” I told them that trans men and women are basically people who as children got mixed up about which gender they were meant to emulate. I know this is some grade A nonsense. But it made perfect sense in my genderfluid brain. I spent all my life feeling like some in-between thing. I chose to be a woman. But my friend’s coming out, unravelled my whole world.

Anybody can be a man or a woman, really. I mean, gender is a construct, right?

Before we go any further, it’s important to tell you about my other identity. The one I talk about less than I do about queerness. I am neurodivergent. Now, I have been diagnosed with ADHD. But my social communication is more similar to that of autistic people. ADHD and autism are caused by the same gene. In 2013, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders by the American Psychiatric Association, for the first time said that people can have both conditions. Previously, it said that it’s impossible for people to have both. So you can understand how under-researched this area is. ADHD and autism have a lot in common and a lot of differences. It’s not super clear what it looks like when someone has both.

This year I discovered ‘masking’ and understood my whole life. You see, I just did not know how to talk to people. I taught it to myself like a skill. Like poetry, journalism, comedy and anything else. If someone tells you to perform bharatanatyam, would it come naturally to you? You would first watch others. Memorise the steps. Emulate. You could, of course, just wing it. But it would probably look like a mess. Talking to people is the same for me. This is usually unbelievable for people I speak to now. But let me tell you I have been doing this since I was 9. I was sent to boarding school and suddenly, communicating with peers became essential for survival.

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The first step for talking to anyone is knowing them. Knowing what they’ll respond to. What they would like and what they wouldn’t. Especially for a kid trying to fit in at school and avoid being made fun of all the time.

When you get a little better at this art of talking to people, you can download whole personalities into your brain. Sometimes, I respond to things differently than neurotypical people expect. Sometimes, I take time to process the thing I’m supposed to respond to. Sometimes, I react but I don’t express it overtly enough for the other person to truly understand it. Here, taking on a whole personality helps. Especially a personality that the other person would gel with.

I have found the perfect one. She is bubbly and vivacious and excited for everything. A bit manic pixie dream girl. She’s also smooth and confident and graceful. Like every diva on screen ever. I read a Twitter thread about why trans women emulate hyperfeminine heroines to fit in. It read like my own story articulated in better words than I could express. I don’t know how to explain it but, growing up, I often felt like I wanted to be a woman but I just wasn’t. In class 6, my class teacher told me that I looked like ‘50-50’ in front of the whole class and laughed. So, I believed that others could see it too—my failure at being what I was supposed to be.

I read a Twitter thread about why trans women emulate hyperfeminine heroines to fit in.

Then I read somewhere that life is not a process of finding ourselves, but of creating ourselves. I made it my gospel. Puberty helped too. In class 10, I suddenly exploded in popularity. Like literally, I was the most coveted girl from girls’ school by the boys in the next-door boy’s school. I felt saved in some ways. Femininity gave me the kind of acceptance I always craved but never had till then. Screw being myself. I much preferred being hot. I spent the next years perfecting this art of desirable cishet womanhood.

Of all the personalities I keep in my brain catalogue, this one was a double success. I was not only emulating womanhood. I was emulating neurotypical womanhood. I was no longer ‘weird’ like neurodivergent people are. I was no longer ‘50-50’ like my gender really is.

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But of course, ‘masking’ is not a perfect art or science. I realised pretty recently that I am destined to be myself. I cannot outrun it. I realised that being desired is not the most essential kind of happiness. Sometimes, I do not know where I end and the mask begins. Sometimes I feel like the mask has become a part of me too. Or maybe I took a part of myself and amplified it till it was a mask. I do not know. I know that sometimes I am with friends and I want to stop performing but I can’t. Sometimes I get physically exhausted from performing, the engines halt and my face goes blank. Perhaps alarming to those used to my face constantly breaking into laughter.

Sometimes I get physically exhausted from performing, the engines halt and my face goes blank.

I went to visit my college best friend in their home country. Visiting the region had been a lifelong dream for me. This was after three years of knowing each other and I was secure and comfortable enough to let the mask slip a little. For every place and every new yummy food, I took my time to process. And reacted with “it’s interesting” instead of displays of joy. After a particular desert, they could no longer take it. They asked me distressed why I was so unhappy. Why I hated their place. Honestly, I was having the best time of my life. They just hadn’t seen me comfortable before. I didn’t gush and exclaim over everything. So, they thought this is what my misery looked like. I was simply showing them my home, as they were showing me theirs.

This is not a piece by someone who has figured it all out. I’m still learning who I am. I haven’t arrived. I am using this space to process my experiences and make sense of it. The pain of existing in intersections is that I am under-researched. The joy of it is that everything I feel, think and experience, is as valid as research. Psychologists and psychiatrists have so far failed to give me the answers I need. However, there are people like me sharing their thoughts, feelings and experiences online for this purpose.

For example, I never remember to take my meds. This can be a problem when you have had three surgeries in three years. I don’t mention it or talk about it because it’s trivial, right? I just have to try harder, right? Someone posted about it on an ADHD group I’m in and it has 53 comments. I just want you to think about that for a second. A person with ADHD posted about how they cannot remember to take their pills. And about 53 people with ADHD offered their solutions and strategies. I am not saved by mental health professionals. Or research. Or “objective” science. I am saved by people like me. By community.

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