AJ: Full Interview
This interview is provided in the format of a written transcript, which can be accessed by clicking the button below marked ‘READ THE TRANSCRIPT’.
Interviewed by Jill Crawshaw
4 June 2019
Gill Crawshaw: This is Gill Crawshaw for West Yorkshire Queer Stories. I’m here with AJ on the fourth of June 2019. And I will hand over to AJ now.
AJ: Had to think about that one didn’t you? [Laughs]. Yeah, I’m AJ, my pronouns are they/them. I’m 26. I, I moved to Leeds when I was 18, I grew up in East Anglia. [Pause]. And I live in Leeds still now, and I identify as genderqueer. For sexuality I’d say queer...on the aromantic spectrum... and I also identify as disabled, I have, I have some disabilities that aren’t diagnosed, but I have, I have chronic fatigue, and autism. I don’t have a diagnosis for either of those. And then I have depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress as well. [Pause]. That’s all of that stuff [laughs].
GC: Ok, thank you. Thank you. Ok, well let’s, let’s start with thinking about identity and how some of those different issues intersect, your experience of that.
AJ: Yeah, I think it’s been a weird one for me because a lot of it is stuff that I’ve only really come to fully understand in the last few years. [Pause]. You know, I... I came to sort of, my understanding of my sexuality when I was a teenager… but, you know, I, effectively I grew up as an autistic child with no awareness or support, either from anyone around me or even for myself, I didn’t know that was an issue. And so I grew up with a lot of anxiety. I think that was probably also something to do with – I grew up in an abusive household… but I think, you know, those two things together, made things really hard for me because I’d often have experiences where I’d find I had done something that was considered to be weird, even if it was just in a small way, but I would feel mortified because I didn’t understand why.
And it also sort of affected the way that I, I behave around other people, that I learnt – basically that I learnt from – how to behave around other by people by sort of mimicking how they’re behaving in a certain environment. And that was sort of basically means that the first time I go into a new environment with new people, and new situation, I would always be very very anxious because I didn’t, I didn’t know how to be as a person socially in that environment, it doesn’t carry over. So, as a kid that was very difficult because obviously you’re having experiences of new situations all the time. I’ve mostly, again – only in the last few years that’s sort of become sort of less of an issue because, as I get more used to things – like, I’ve been to doctors enough times now that I know, I know how that works. I’ve done small talk with strangers enough that I know how that works, but I never understood those things when I was younger, and it made things very uncomfortable. But I do still have it now, it’s a lot rarer now but sometimes I will be going into a new situation, and then I have the same thing again and that’s kind of bizarre as well, because most of the time… I have – you know, I do have more confidence now and I feel like I do know how to hold myself, and sort of… the, the sort of social rules for different kind of environments, because it is that kind of thing where people think ‘oh there aren’t any rules’ and it’s like, actually, there really are! Like, we do behave differently in different environments, but it’s just most people it happens naturally and they don’t have to think about it. So that does make it more difficult for me to go into new situations, especially with larger groups of people, especially if I don’t know anyone who’s already there, and that is a barrier for me.
GC: Particularly, what about queer spaces? Do you have any issues there?
AJ: Yeah, I think I’ve had issues on both sides with those intersections both with the sort of queer identities that I hold and sort of the disability stuff, sort of not feeling welcome or included. I think even before I was really aware of any of my disability stuff, I didn’t really feel... - like, the first LGBT spaces that I found when I moved to Leeds I didn’t really feel welcome there, because it was all based around, sort of, sex and drinking, and all those kinds of things, which I wasn’t necessarily averse to but the other thing was that, it felt much more like kind of a – I would call it an ‘LG’ space, it called itself an LGBT space, but it was sort of… if you were lucky as a bisexual you would fit in, but certainly I didn’t feel like there was much awareness of anything beyond that. So especially when I started exploring my identities and sort of being maybe on the aromantic and maybe even on the asexual spectrum as well, I just felt like there was no awareness of that and there was no sort of support for that, you know, again because it – and it’s understandable why that space was focused around like sexuality and, sort of, the sex side of sexuality, but it does leave some people out.
Yeah, and then obviously as, sort of, my disabilities, become more of an issue, then that creates a lot of barriers to me entering those spaces. Like I’ve said, even just a new place I’ve never been to before, new people I’ve never met before, that already is very hard for me. And then with my fatigue as well it’s sort of, ‘do I have the energy, both to do that, but then also to get to that place and to get home from that place?’ And a lot of the time the answer is just ‘no, I don’t’. So it’s quite hard to find spaces that are accessible to me, and that are welcoming to me, both on the disability side and the LGBT side. The spaces that I had, I have found have been through people I already know, and they’ve been, they’ve been trans spaces usually, especially non-binary trans specific, because that is something that again, it – I think often gets missed out.
Even if an LGBT space is open to trans people, there’s usually more awareness of binary trans than non-binary trans, and I think that’s not necessarily a bad thing because often, binary trans people are more likely to, you know, have dysphoria and need to go through physical transition and stuff like that, and that is very difficult, especially with the way that that works with, within the medical system at the moment, and people do need a lot of support. But, sometimes that can come at sort of, the detriment to sort of there not being any support for the other side of people who are also trans but don’t have that experience.
GC: And what about relationships? Is... you know, is there, is it – yeah, what’s your experience of making relationships?
AJ: Hmm, yeah, I think… - I would say that’s been... initially sort of was affected by, sort of growing up in an abusive household, my first boyfriend was abusive, and unfortunately... I was with him for quite a long time as well, from the age of 15 to about 19. That means that sort of the whole of my, my developmental, my main developmental period of my life I was experiencing abuse and that’s made it very difficult for me to, to know how to form relationships that are healthy, both in terms of knowing what – how it’s reasonable for me to behave, and what’s reasonable to expect from other people, and that’s something that I’ve only really started to learn now, in the last few years... And that’s been very difficult for me, and that’s sort of – yeah, so I suppose that’s mostly on the... on the... disability side, but it’s also been that there have been barriers to me accessing the support that I needed for my mental health because I was worried about them not understanding the LGBT stuff. You know, I was like, I – there was a period when I was thinking maybe I should get counselling and then I thought, ‘oh, but, I don’t know if they’ll ok – you know, they’ll understand, and I don’t want to talk to somebody who doesn’t understand that part of me’. Especially with being polyamorous as well.
Yeah, so I do feel like... I’ve basically, I’ve grown up needing a lot of support that I haven’t received. And I feel like I’m really... playing catch-up now. So I have a lot of support now, I still need a lot more than I have, and I am kind of getting to the point where I’m really sick of not having the support that I need as I come to, as I come to realise that it’s not something that’s wrong with me, and it is actually that I need support, because it used to just kind of manifest as anxiety and low self-esteem of just feeling like, you know, ‘everything else can do these things, why can’t I do these things, what’s wrong with me’. Like, ‘I’m not good enough’. And as I start to realise, ‘actually, no, I need support that I’m not receiving’, then I feel better about myself but I still feel bad about my situation because I’m still not getting that support that I need. Yeah.
GC: Where, where would you like that support to come from?
AJ: My – at the moment, the thing that – the big thing that I need that I don’t have is a carer. So I already, I have quite a lot of mental health support, I’ve got a counsellor who’s LGBT-friendly, I’ve got a support group that’s LGBT-friendly, I do meditation which I find very helpful, so on that side of things, I’ve kind of… - it’s one of those things where I feel like I could always use more support with my mental health because there is a lot that I’m having to process, but I’m pretty well...accounted for in that area, but the area that I don’t have support in, and that I’ve never had support in, is for my autism, and for, for fatigue that I’ve now developed because I’ve gone so long without support. And that’s – it’s in the works, but it’s a very long process, I first asked about it maybe in October last year, and I’m still waiting. You know, things have been progressing, but I haven’t yet got to the point where I have a carer [laughs]. And that does make things difficult. [Pause].
GC: Do you feel that you’re part of a community?
AJ: [Pause]. Yeah, I’d say I feel part of the queer community. [Pause]. And... yeah, that I, I see, I, I kind of think of there as being a big difference between the LGBT community and the queer community. Especially as a trans person. You know, I’ve… - there are certain groups of gay people who are not ok with trans people. You know, especially, like, political lesbians, which is again, is one of those things where like I can see where they were coming from at that time and that movement in our sort of, history, but... it seems that a lot of them when you try to explain, will just kind of double down, and basically will treat trans women generally, specifically, as a sort of an enemy and like, men who are just trying to get into women’s spaces to make things unsafe for everyone. Which is obviously not something I believe, and then, obviously because of that, in order to sort of, justify that then they’re not really welcoming to any trans people. So that’s always something that unfortunately has coloured my, kind of expectations of people who’re, who’re gay especially. That, it’s one of those things where, they could be fine, but I can’t know that they’re gonna be fine, and I don’t want to take that risk. In, in the same way that you might think the same about a man, where it’s like, a stranger who you’ve never where it’s like, he could be fine or he could be a rapist, you don’t know. Unfortunately because of, sort of, the worst people in that group, it does mean that you kind of have to be careful of everyone in that group, in order to keep yourself safe.
And like I’ve said before, I have had experiences of LGBT communities that have felt more like, LG and maybe B if you’re lucky [laughs]... whereas with the queer community I feel like, you know, a lot of people who self-identify as queer it’s because they’ve had similar issues of feeling like they don’t – they’re not really welcome in what I would call kind of the mainstream LGBT community, and because of that they tend to be more open and welcoming, and sort of open to the idea that there might be things other people experience that we haven’t even found words for yet. And that’s sort of something that resonates with me a lot more [laughs].
Yeah, and I would say, at the moment I don’t really feel part of the disabled community, and I do have sort of anxieties around whether my disabilities are, like, enough. Which I think is a similar thing that people who haven’t really found their space in LGBT communities also feel, I feel like it’s very similar, but I think that it’s something that could be really helpful for me because I think, in the same way that being part of queer communities has kind of made me feel more comfortable in myself, and come to understand what is and isn’t ok from other people, and to get somewhere where I’m comfortable, I think I could really benefit from the same on the disability side, especially like I said because I kind of missed out on having any support earlier in my life, so I’m in a position where I don’t, I don’t even know what accommodations I could ask for, or what I need, because I’ve never had the opportunity to even think about what I need before because it’s just not been an option. Yeah.
And to go off on a tangent from that [laughs], I sort of also wanted to bring up that – the other thing that I’ve been experiencing with being autistic and having not been diagnosed is that... I do feel like there’s a lot of adult skills that I’ve never learnt and that it’s much harder for me to learn without support. And that has sort of... had sort of various negative effects on me sort of throughout my life where I felt embarrassed that I didn’t know how to do something that other people my age knew how to do. Often it’s, you know, things like cleaning or [pause] I don’t know, calling people up on the phone I still find really hard, you know, little things like that where, because nobody taught me and because, with my autism it’s harder for me to learn new skills without support... I’ve just ended up not knowing – like I only just started learning how to cook meat a few months ago and it’s because my partner’s been helping me with that, and because he was happy to kind of take that extra time. And because he wasn’t weird about it, he wasn’t like ‘how can you not know how to do this?’, and, you know, because a lot of people would just be like ‘oh everyone can do that’, you know, I had the same thing with... with trying to find jobs and stuff. Where I’d never had a job, and I didn’t even really feel confident that I knew how to write a CV and certainly not a cover letter. And it was only through getting sort of specialised support that is aimed at disabled people, that I was able to do that in a way where I didn’t feel condescended to, but I also felt like I had the support that I needed, which was more support than other people need [laughs]. Because a lot of people, you, you know, it’s just like ‘go look on the internet and find a template and then do it’ and for me that wasn’t, that wasn’t enough. I didn’t understand why it wasn’t enough at the time. Yeah, so that’s my tangent, so I’m still learning stuff that a lot of people learn as kids [laughs].
GC: And do you think that’s the sort of experience that maybe other, other queer disabled people particularly share?
AJ: I think quite possibly, yeah. I think, you know, it’s worth bearing in mind that... a disproportionate number of homeless people are LGBT. And a lot of them are made homeless as teenagers or as young people. And those people maybe have never had the opportunity to learn a lot of those adult skills. Like, looking after a house, looking after a budget. You know, all those things that...they come a little bit later in adulthood and often with the support of adults around you, if you don’t have that then you’re not gonna have those skills. So I think it can kind of come from both sides of like, not having the support that you need as disabled person or not having the support that you need as a queer person, or obviously both if you have both of those experiences. And yeah – and then, and then it’s because of those intersections as well, there’s more barriers to you learning those things as well, because you have to find a space where you feel safe. And that’s, you know, it’s less likely to be somewhere safe and accessible to you, than say someone who’s cis and straight and doesn’t have a disability.
GC: AJ are there any other issues that you’d like to raise now?
AJ: Yeah, I think [pause]. I think I wanted to talk about how being disabled does affect how I have sex. You know, we were talking in the group interview about how, you know, people assume that you, you can’t do that and like, all that kind of thing, and I’ve, I’ve had less of that experience and more of the kind of... people assuming that I’m fine. And people assuming that there isn’t anything that I need, I think because my disabilities are sort of less visible and it is the kind of thing where I think, because they’re less visible, people don’t know what’s going on with me unless I tell them, and I don’t always have the words to tell them. And that has caused a lot of problems for me with, sort of sexual experiences.
And it, it does limit my dating pool, a lot [laughs] because, you know, I need someone who’s mature enough and I need someone who has a really really really robust understanding of consent, and who is able to, sort of take extra steps, to help keep me safe, in a sexual situation because one of the – one thing is that I, because I have post-traumatic stress, is that I can... get a flashback or get into a panic in a sexual situation, and I need someone who’s able to handle that. And then the other thing is alongside that, my fatigue, and my autism, it slows down my processing. And so sometimes, I don’t realise straight away that I’m not having a great time. Or sometimes, it happens to a point where I’m having so much of a not-good time that I’m not able to say anything about it, or I don’t know how to because I’ve already – my brain’s too full of that, to have any space left to, to verbalise, so that’s something that I have to negotiate very carefully with partners, especially at the beginning of a relationship because I feel less safe because I don’t know them as well. Where, and – I, have to sort get someone to, like, ask me quite often, like ‘would you like to take a break?’ and things like that, and that whole kind of thing of like...taking breaks, sometimes because it gives me the time to realise that I wasn’t happy with what was going on. And sometimes just... to give the opportunity to – for my processing to catch so that I know that I’m ok rather than being like ‘I hope I’m ok!’ [laughs].
Yeah, so that’s been sort of... a difficult situation for me to navigate. Yeah, I – and I would say that... in my experience people who aren’t part of the queer community are less likely to have such a robust kind of understanding of these things. I think because... once you’re queer you’re already throwing away a lot of like the societal handbook on like, how sex works because it’s already not relevant... cos, like a lot of the societal messages that we get aren’t great, especially around consent. And then also around like, what sex is and what counts as sex. Cos there was a long period of time where I just wasn’t comfortable with... PIV sex, sort of... penis in vagina intercourse. Just, I wasn’t comfortable with it, but I wouldn’t say I wasn’t having sex... But I think, certainly, I can’t imagine a straight man being ok with that [laughs]. Whereas you know, my partner is a bisexual man and he was totally fine with that, he was like ‘yeah there’s loads of ways to have sex that don’t involve us doing that’. And now we do do that but it’s because, we spent a lot of time together that I feel comfortable with him, cos I didn’t know if I ever would feel comfortable enough to do that, ever, again, but I feel safe with him because, we’ve had so many experiences where something has happened and he’s handled it well, that it’s come to sort of make me feel more... like I can trust that that’ll continue to be the case. And the sort of queering of our sex in general, kind of makes that easier as well, in that even when we do have that kind of sex now it’s still not like the be-all-and-end-all, where everything else is just leading up to that and that’s the main event, it’s like, no, that’s just a part of our sexual experience and we do loads of other things as well and I think that’s a lot better for me. It kind of really takes the pressure off, and makes it more relaxed and also that we can just kind of like stop and start a lot more, which I think it more common in sort of queer sex. [Laughs]. Yeah, than it would be in straight sex.
GC: And, just a final question. [Pause] Yeah, what’re your hopes for the future, AJ?
AJ: [Pause]. Hmmmmm. [Pause]. That’s a big question [laughs]. Erm [pause]. I think... sort of the smaller hopes that I have for myself are that I get the disability support that I need. And that alongside that… - because a lot of my disabilities... are you know, made a lot worse by the fact that I don’t have the support that I need – that a lot of those will improve further... Ideally that I’ll get to a point where my fatigue is a lot more manageable... where my mental health is a lot more stable, and, just things aren’t as difficult for me all the time would be nice. Yeah, and where I’m able to sort of form and maintain more relationships, both sort of romantic and sexual and friendships, cos I don’t have that many friends either, for the same reason that it’s very hard to, to find people that I feel comfortable with, and who are able to accommodate my needs.
And then sort of, on a wider scale [pause] I don’t really have much hope that this will happen, but I would hope [laughs] that that the treatment of disabled and LGBTQ people in this country would get a lot better. Certainly the benefits system is absolutely appalling. I’ve found generally the council, Leeds City Council, to be quite good, in terms of benefits and in terms of not making me feel terrible [laughs]. And not making me feel like I’m being suspected of being a fraudster at all times, and that the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] has been awful and that I would say, amongst the other trauma that I have, I now also have trauma related to having to go through the DWP to get benefits, because... they just treat you as if, everything you say is probably a lie. And, like, nobody’s really disabled [laughs], and then what they do is they, they make you take an assessment and then they say you’ve failed the assessment, and those are the words that they use. And that you’re not disabled and therefore they’re not gonna give you any money, and then you’re on a waiting list – if you choose to go to appeal, you’re on a waiting list until that happens and in the meantime – the first time you fail the assessment, you get the appeal rate, which is slightly less than the regular rate... And then after that, you don’t. And so, if I didn’t have parents who can financially support me, I’d be very worried about that because, even I won the first appeal eventually they’d take – bring me to another assessment, they’d tell me I wasn’t disabled and then they’d stop my money. And it’s like, what are going – what are you gonna do at that point? If you don’t have any other recourse, like it’s one of those things where they talk about ‘oh, you know, it encourages people to get into work’ and it’s like, you’re not wrong, but, that doesn’t help the people who can’t. They probably still really want to because they want to be out of the system, but if they can’t then what happens is that they just don’t have enough money to live on and then they die. And a lot of people have died, especially in the last few years with the, with austerity. So I would, I would hope for that to change [laughs]. And I would hope also for policies around housing, and homelessness to change because I think it’s appalling that anyone should have to be homeless in this day and age. It’s not like we don’t have the money to be able to accommodate people, and often... homeless people cost the state more money on the street than they would if they were in housing because, they’re more likely to have big health problems, and things like that [laughs]. So I would like to see that change as well, you know, I’ve, I’ve talked to so many people who’re out on the streets who… - it’s one of those things where it’s, it’s just little things, like I’ve talked to someone who said, ‘you know, I used to work for McDonald’s and they said once I have a place I can come back immediately, but they need me to have a place so that I can take a shower’ and that’s it, if they could take a shower they could go back to work, and if they went back to work, they could have a place. But they can’t have a place because they don’t have a job, and it just doesn’t work. So yeah, there’s a lot of things I would hope for that don’t seem that likely at the moment, but it would be nice if they happened [laughs]. Yeah.
GC: Ok, thank you very much AJ.