Growing up gay and autistic: One man's journey to overcoming bullying and finding acceptance

"I was a double target and kids did not miss hitting me"

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Names have been changed to protect identities.

A person wearing a backwards hat that says Equality with the Pride flag

“I knew I was gay before I knew I was autistic. I wish it had been the other way around,” said Julian, a 27-year-old theater actor who identifies as a gay man with Asperger syndrome, diagnosed at age 12 before it was folded into the broader autism spectrum disorder. “If I worked on my communication earlier, I would have been able to stick up for myself and would have found acceptance sooner.”

Research shows that autistic people are more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ than the general population. Those who live at this intersectionality are also more likely to experience bullying. Julian knows this all too well. “I was a double target and kids didn’t miss hitting me,” he said about his middle and high school years. 

Julian's story

Julian recalls knowing he was gay as early as kindergarten, even though he didn't have the name for it yet. One of his earliest memories is only wanting to give Valentine cards out to the boys that he wanted to marry. He didn’t have the words then to tell his mom what he was feeling. He didn’t talk much and his mom, quiet-natured herself, didn’t push him. She assumed he wanted stereotypical boy-themed cards and got him a variety pack with different athletes. Julian distinctly remembers how his Valentines were a hit among some of the boys.

“For most of my school years that was the only time I remember feeling like I belonged,” he said. “In middle school I used to wish I could like sports so I could go back to that feeling of fitting in. I tried, but the only thing I liked were the boys playing the sports.”

Another formative memory Julian has of kindergarten is playing house with the girls in his class, and how he hoped one boy, Jesse, would join in and be his husband. Julian doesn’t know which came first: him liking Jesse or him becoming aware of Jesse because he repeatedly would ask him why he was playing house with girls. But he distinctly remembers being upset when one of the girls told Jesse to “stop it” and that he would be all alone one day. 

That was the start of Julian waiting for the the day to come for Jesse to be all alone. Then, he thought, he and Jesse would become friends and eventually marry. By fourth grade though this innocent infatuation became a concerning routine. Julian would mimic and follow Jesse, especially at recess, without reciprocation. Then one day Jesse wasn’t at school. Julian had what he now calls his first panic attack. He remembers crying, being given a trash can to throw up in and then being sent to the nurse. His mom filled in his memory for him -- he was crying that Jesse wasn’t there and froze when it was time to go to recess. 

“That was what they call the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae for the school to be concerned about my behavior,” said Julian. “My teacher was already worried I was hyper-focused on checking the time and the schedule on our board, wasn’t talking at all in class and wasn’t socializing with other kids, except if you count following Jesse around.”

The school referred Julian for a child study evaluation, and he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. He said he had no idea what that meant. No one explained it to him, or his mom, he says, who was a native Spanish speaker and had no translation for Asperger's. But the school said he would need speech and occupational therapy (OT), which sounded fine to them. His mom wanted him to learn better English, and blamed herself for speaking in Spanish to him, thinking maybe that was why he wasn’t confident speaking in class. Julian remembers thinking it would help him “learn to talk to boys.” 

Both of them were disappointed. After his first panic attack over Jesse, Julian says he experienced them over everything and consequently became “the weirdo” of the class – teased, picked last for teams, told he couldn’t be in a group or sit in a certain seat on the bus. In sixth grade he had developed a love of Harry Potter. He would watch the movies on repeat, reciting the characters lines as they said them. At some point this turned into him adopting a British accent, which gave him courage to speak in class. He didn’t mind that kids in class laughed at him for this, but his speech therapist thought he should learn to speak without the accent. Trying only made him stutter, which only made the kids laugh more. 

“I didn’t know why I couldn’t [use] the accent if it helped me speak. So I stopped talking in school even to my therapist,” said Julian. “The one good thing is my mom liked my accent and even tried it herself. We had a lot of conversations as if we were at Hogwarts which she said helped her with her English.”

But his mom wasn’t there when teasing turned into physical bullying, like when his Harry Potter keychains were stolen off his school bag. Or, when during a school assembly, a boy pulled his folding chair out from behind him and referenced a character in Harry Potter who stutters. Or, when another boy reached his hand out to help him up and then pulled his hand away at the last second for some more laughs. When a teacher came and asked what was going on, Julian just kept saying “ow” only pretending to be hurt so he could go to the nurse. “I was in pain but my body was fine,” he said. “As an adult I think the words for the horrible feelings I had were humiliation and rejection.”

Julian was a good student, always did his homework and got good grades. By high school he no longer had speech or OT, which he quickly realized had given him much-needed breaks from his peers in middle school and alerted his teachers of his Asperger's. Now he felt like he was on his own and that none of his HS teachers knew him. He recalls getting in trouble by one teacher for not being able to answer when he was called on because of nerves. The teacher threatened him that he was going to keep calling on him every day to make sure he was awake. Another teacher made a game out of making him repeatedly read a poem out loud to see how many times it would take for him to get it out with the fewest stutters. 

Around the same time Julian’s feelings for boys overwhelmed him. Physical education and changing into his gym uniform was particularly uncomfortable. He got caught staring at one boy who screamed, “What are you gay?” Julian blurted out with relief, “yes,” thinking, finally, someone realized what was so obvious to him. 

It was the beginning of being called Gay Potter, punched and pushed around in the locker room. The gym teacher heard and did nothing about it. Other teachers heard in the halls, in the cafeteria and in class. No one stuck up for Julian and he didn’t stick up for himself. 

In the Fall of his junior year, Julian decided he was going to end his life. He had a plan. He would do it after the New Year, after Three Kings Day. 

Preoccupied with suicidal thoughts, Julian said the month of October passed without him knowing. His mother filled in his memory and recalls he stopped eating, stopped showering, stopped calling his father and then stopped speaking to her. She went to the school with another friend whose first language was English to demand to know what was going on. She heard how Julian was being called homophobic slurs. Worse, what she didn't hear was anyone doing anything about it. Her friend happened to be married to a lawyer and threatened a discrimination lawsuit. 

Note: If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. It is free and confidential. Call or text 988 on your phone. Línea de Prevención del Suicidio y Crisis: 1-888-628-9454.

Julian knew none of this until years later. He didn't care or question why he was moved to different teachers and why a guidance counselor was suddenly present in the locker room and in the cafeteria, library or any place where he was that was unsupervised. But he said he does remember it helped him wake him up to his surroundings, which is how he became friends with Laz, who he credits for helping save his life.

Laz was a senior and out and proud, per Julian. He usually wore black lipstick and platform shoes making him stand larger than his six feet three inch frame. But that's not what Julian noticed. He said he saw Laz had a Harry Potter pin on his backpack and would stare at it to keep from thinking about dying. Laz noticed and said he tried for days to speak to Julian but never got a response. So one morning he stopped by Julian's locker and handed him a flyer that said "Wanted" on it. It was for stage crew, sound, costumes and make-up for the upcoming school play. Laz said, "I'm gay. You're gay. Let's be gay together." Julian signed up.  

The play proved the outlet Julian needed. November flew by without him knowing, this time because, as he said, "I was bitten by the theater bug." Whatever task the cast and crew needed, Julian did it. He was going to school early and staying late to paint backdrops. He helped create and print the playbill. He became an extra just walking on stage a few times in different scenes, just to help the play seem more lively. He discovered his talents, he discovered his love for being in front of an audience and he discovered that he had value. 

Laz, who had become his ride to and from school, reminded him of this daily. As Julian put it, "he was always boosting my confidence." On the way home after a cast party after the last show, Laz confided in Julian that when he was a freshman, he was beat up for being gay and that he contemplated suicide. Julian confessed he did too and told him he was going to do it after the holidays. Laz walked Julian into his apartment that night. He told Julian to tell his mom what he had just said. Julian said it was like the time he was asked he was gay. He just blurted out the truth to his mom.

When she cried, he assumed it was because he was gay and apologized for that. When she said she knew that all along, it was his turn to shed tears. "She didn't care that I was gay. She just wanted me alive. I had never realized how much I mattered to my mom," he said.

In addition to intense individual and family therapy, Julian and his mom started attending support groups and socials at the local gay and lesbian community center. They developed a crisis plan for Julian if he had any suicidal ideation. They joined a gym together. They volunteered at a soup kitchen once a month. "My mom didn't just help save my life, she helped me continue to live life."  

What about the bullying at school? "The play helped me find people who supported me, even other people who liked speaking in a British accent," said Julian. "It let me know that different can be good." 

"People still called me Gay Potter but it didn't hurt as much anymore. I started thinking about how I could be Gay Potter in a real play. And by senior year I started responding back with lines from Potter in my British accent."

Through connections at the community center Julian was hired by the local community theater where he spent most of his time outside of high school. The theater awarded him a scholarship to study the arts at a local college, where Laz had enrolled the year earlier. They were roommates until Laz graduated and moved for a job at a theater in another state. 

"The gay community taught me that I was fine the way I was, both gay and autistic," said Julian. "The theater has taught me that whatever my voice, use it and to the best of my ability. I wish I met Laz earlier. I wish he had introduced me to theater earlier."

Julian now acts in local theaters and volunteers at his local LGBTQ+ community center. Five years ago he started a social group for those who identified as both LGBTQ+ and autistic. He was expecting a group of five or so. There was standing room only. 

"Our social group is the biggest and most active in the community center," said Julian. "So if you are reading this and are bullied or feeling like I did in high school, you need to know it does get better. You need to know you are not alone. There are a lot of us. I beg you to come find us."

For more information, check out the following LGBTQ+ autistic resources:

Read more LGBTQ+ autistic stories here:

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