How “queer” is “neuroqueer”?

by Rowan Potter

For this position paper, I want to explore the use of queer, queering, and neuroqueer in Yergeau’s argument. How can we best leave open the possibility of collaboration and solidarity in the use of “queer,” which is clearly theoretically generative, while keeping track of the particular power dynamics of queer theory, queer history, homophobia and transphobia? Or, to borrow from Sedgwick, how do we balance the universalizing and minoritizing properties?


My “position” is that we need to attend more carefully to the minoritizing force of queer, and its implications for power, while we’re exploring its universalizing possibilities. But what I’m most interested in here is using this question to think about power in multiple, possibly conflicting ways.


Just as a brief context — personally, I’m not a fan of the trend in academia to use “queer” and “queering” as a very metaphorical/generic sense of disruption or subversion. I think the ideas of queer theory can be very useful to other fields (and vice versa), and it’s important to consider the multiplicity of oppression and identity. This isn’t an issue of disciplinary purity for me. The problem is that a generic use of “queering” can actually write out the reality of actually queer people; if e.g. language can be “queered” by something that has nothing to do with gendered power, it’s easy to assume that that takes care of queer representation, but then not all subversions of power that get called “queer” will actually attend to the dynamics of homophobia/transphobia.  For every metaphorically “queer” subversion of power, there’s someone who does that same thing while also being impacted by homophobia and transphobia.

My suspicion/skepticism of this does in part come from the context of internet identity politics, with its weird valorization of oppression that leads to straight people calling themselves queer as a particular kind of social capital. Straight kinksters is the most common example of this that I see. If we’re going to talk about BDSM as a queering project or discuss the queer theory of BDSM, in my opinion it should be to center queer people’s relationship to BDSM scenes — not because we “own” queer in an abstract sense, but very specifically in order to actually talk about the effects of homophobia and transphobia. If a project is described as queer or queering, it should actually address the power structures that “queer” historically and contemporaneously invokes, and actively center our experiences under them.


So, what does that mean for Yergeau’s use of the term neuroqueer? I really like Yergeau’s book and many of the arguments she makes. I’m not sure how much my issues with queer are really “just” on the level of language, and how much it might involve a deeper questioning of the neuroqueer framework (I hope that’s something we can talk about!). Using neuroqueer clearly does a lot of helpful work for her, and she grounds it in the theories of hope and futurity and motion from Muñoz and Alexander that are also very powerful and generative towards her arguments (18-20). I also want to be clear that I’m not challenging her “right” to identify with a term that is so clearly important — her project emphasizes getting to author our own stories, getting to insist that we have stories to author, and “neuroqueer” is how she’s authoring hers.


What I find most persuasive about neuroqueer is where Yergeau lists the very real and material connections and overlaps between autism and queerness. She points out ABA’s history as not just gay conversion therapy, but also a “treatment” for specifically the “cross-gender identification” of autistic children once it began to be applied to autism, an association / “symptom” / framework that continues to this day (26). In talking about the violent history of ABA, Yergeau identifies the power structures that those interlocking histories rely on:

“But these moments remain iconic, for they reify heterocentric conceptions of gender and sexuality, while concurrently assuming that autistics are fundamentally, deviantly, and neurologically queer.” (30).

It was unclear to me if Yergeau meant here that autistic people are (assumed to be) neurologically wired to be gender-deviant, or if she was referring more to the rhetorical queerness / non-normativity & asociality that needs correcting. I suppose that’s part of the work that neuroqueer does for her — is ABA targeting the gayness? the autistic-ness? the autistic-ness that makes us look gay when we couldn’t possibly have enough humanity to just be gay? The answer is yes, all, and ABA theory is probably not even sure itself. This use of neuroqueer is very clearly helping us to understand how power is acting on both heterosexist and ableist/sanist vectors.


Yergeau goes from there to talk about her personal relationship to neuro/queer identity:

“Of course, these rhetorical webs of autism and queerness are not just notable for their horrors. They invoke all the tough, meaty questions that any kind of intersectionality demands. How do we account for where queerness begins and disability ends? It may well be that I am queer only because my neurological disability predisposes me to queerness. But does that matter? What are the consequences of saying that I’m queer because I’m autistic–or, conversely, that I’m autistic because I’m queer?” (30)

What I find interesting about this paragraph is that I relate to it a lot, but follow it to a different conclusion. As an autistic lesbian, I definitely agree that what “causes” autism or queerness is an irrelevant or actively dangerous question, especially in biological science research (the search for the gay gene). Being autistic is inseparable from the way I exist as a lesbian, and being a lesbian inseparable from how I am autistic. But for me, that makes it very important to insist that both are true and different things, even as they’re so interlocked. I couldn’t say whether I’m queer because I’m autistic or autistic because I’m queer, but I can say that being queer and being autistic are still distinct. I know because I’m both, and because I know people who are one and not the other.


I can feel in autistic spaces how different my experience of autism is from that of autistic men, especially autistic straight men — while they might relate to being perceived as non-rhetorical and asocial, and have something important to contribute to those powerful dynamics of Yergeau’s neuroqueerness, I don’t think it’s useful to say that they “queer” sociality or rhetoric when they also reproduce heterosexuality in those same spaces, with a very tangible impact for me & other autistic queer women. The ABA people are wrong; autistic people aren’t inherently queer, either in identity or politics, and I feel that using “neuroqueer” to describe the general autistic frame of resisting rhetorical definition will erase the way that some of us are neurologically queer in both the minoritizing and universal senses.

(linking here to a Lydia X.Z. Brown article about sexual harrassment that includes trying to navigate men’s often racialized romantic advances in autism meetups — there’s a bigger conversation to have here about autistic sexuality, which I’d love to have at some point, that is also potentially really interesting in terms of taking even further the neuro/queer concept. What does (non)rhetoricity mean for specifically queer women in both autistic and non-autistic spaces?)


So, again, what do we do with the theoretically generative neuroqueer possibilities Yergeau offers? Obviously we shouldn’t ignore the important resonances that queer autistics can identify and relate to between queerness and autism just because some autistic people are straight. Yergeau writes, “Madness and mental disability are inextricable from queer histories” (30). To me, that feels like a powerful way to consider neuro/queer overlap without suggesting that all mad/mentally disabled people become queer or access queerness automatically. Perhaps it’s as simple as preserving that degree of separation — I’ve found myself more comfortable with “neuro/queer” even in writing this essay, though it’s not Yergeau’s convention — after all, rhetoric matters.


In her chapter overview, Yergeau writes similarly that chapter one will explore the demi-rhetorical as a framework that can be reclaimed to expand autistic possibilities of responding to dehumanization via rhetoric, writing, “here I also suggest that autism’s queer potentials–or entelechies–lie in their defiance and reclamation of the residually rhetorical.” Autism’s queer potentials — that, to me, communicates an ability to hold the related power structures of ableism and heterosexism as intertwined rather than synonymous. We can queer language with a demi-rhetoricity: pronoun use is a convincing example for me. Are mismatched pronouns an autistic refusal of rhetorical expectations or a queer refusal of gendered agreement? Both! But it’s a possibility opened up by autism for us to pursue, not a conclusion. That feels very resonant with Muñoz’s frames of motion, futurity, possibility.


I’m still personally unconvinced that “queering” is the right way to describe how autistic people in general subvert, refuse, explode, are harmed by, reinvent or ignore language & (non)rhetoric. I have to admit that “queer” is effective for conciseness if nothing else — I knew/feel exactly what Yergeau meant by it, and it is hard to capture all of those possible meanings without the nebulous universal use of “queer”. I think there are particularly powerful observations that neuroqueer allows us to make about how specifically queer neuroqueer people (is that a useful framework?) navigate these spaces and power dynamics.

I’m not sure the best way to maintain the distinction between those with lived experience of the minoritizing sense of queerness, while still balancing the potentials of its political coalition. I guess my ultimate position is the same as Yergeau’s: “I don’t know what to do with this stuff anymore” (30). I’d be really interested to hear others’ thoughts on the use of queer and neuroqueer, and see how examining those terms helps us find other ways and/or obstacles into Yergeau’s larger argument about autistic people’s relationship to (non)rhetoric and society.


Yergeau, Melanie. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2018.