Social identity and not fitting in

I’m trying to make sense of myself to figure out how to navigate life in ways that are more comfortable for me. In recent years, I’ve had quite a few people suggest to me that I might be autistic, and it’s something I’ve been looking at, because there are certainly areas of overlap.

I struggle with social situations. As a child I could see there were rules for interaction but had no idea what they were. As a teen I did a bit better in geek spaces, and favoured spaces where music or dance dominated, because these are things I can do. I’m fine if the structure is overt – as in a class or a folk club. I’m fine running a space because then I know who to be and what to do. Curiously, the social spaces I don’t find stressful are steampunk ones, and that may have given me the key to unlocking this, because at the same time, spaces dominated by straight women terrify me.

I have never known how to perform femininity. I wasn’t taught how to do it as a child, or given any of the usual props – no pretty shoes, no toys targeted at girls etc. My mother and grandmother did not perform femininity either so I didn’t learn it from my environment. All of the gender based aspects of social interaction made no sense to me as a child, but I also didn’t know that was something I was struggling with. I also wasn’t a tomboy, I didn’t have any idea how to perform ‘boy’ either. 

Many of the unspoken rules for social spaces involve gender performance. Those performances change over time for young humans, especially around how your gender is supposed to interact with the other gender. The child who cannot perform gender appears weird and incomprehensible to the children whose sense of self already has a strong gender identity wired in, and a strong binary sense of what gender means. I didn’t want the things little girls were supposed to want, or the things the little boys were supposed to want. I had missed all the gender stereotyping memos. I had no idea how to interact with anyone else.

Steampunk spaces are remarkably uninformed by gender. People wear what they like, enthuse about whatever they like, there’s not much social performance of gender, no expectation based on apparent gender. You might think with the dresses and corsets that there would be, but mostly, there isn’t. How I present socially actually works in a steampunk space.

I recognise and empathise with things autistic people say about navigating neurotypical spaces and the stress this causes. But I think for me the issue has been the way in which so much social interaction is underpinned by the expectation of, and performance of binary gender identities. I never understood what the rules might be, to be honest I still don’t really get how any of it works. I have no idea whether social interactions based on gender binaries are intrinsic for some people, or just constructs that they get along with – and perhaps it doesn’t matter. What I need for my own wellbeing are the spaces where gender performance isn’t a key part of social interaction, and if I’ve got that, I’m good.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

5 responses to “Social identity and not fitting in

  • bish

    I dislike labels – even druid. As a ‘wholly unqualified to comment’ commenter I prefer to look at descriptions of ourselves and divide them less rigorously but perhaps more helpfully into whether whatever we are holding physically or mentally restricts our ability to be functioning within whatever society we live in. And if there are restrictions, how they might be mitigated or overcome, or even if society itself is the sticking point. 🙂

  • Helen Bell

    Labels serve a purpose in a society that expects everyone to conform to some mythical normal person. On a purely practical level, it’s difficult to access help and services without the “right” label. They can also help you make sense of yourself in the context of said “normal” society. As long as you see them as a tool. I speak as someone who was diagnosed with ASD late in my life. The stereotypes around autism don’t help either and especially for women and girls. Also, there are many many neurodiverse people who don’t identify with gender norms.

    • Nimue Brown

      I very much agree with what you’re saying about labels. they’re also helpful for finding people with similar experiences and in most things, insight from people dealing with it is more use for navigating than ‘professional’ assessments based on observation, not experience.

  • Yvonne Aburrow

    I resonate so hard with most of this post.

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