Trans and Autistic: a tale of two Zoom meetings

Written by Kai Ash

The most common piece of advice I hear after coming out as trans is that I should try to make connections with the trans community.

“You need to meet other trans people,” I’m told again and again.

In those first few weeks, it’s easy to dismiss the advice. Joining groups has always been difficult for me and, in recent years, avoiding them has become habit. But after six months of being a lone trans person in a very cis world, I decide that the potential benefits of hearing from other trans people is worth any discomfort I may feel.

My newfound desire to reach out to the trans community coincides with the introduction of strict COVID-19 restrictions, which have forced all social gatherings to move online.

This is how I find myself, one cool Sunday afternoon, nervously arranging my desk space in preparation for my very first Zoom call with a trans-masculine community group. This week’s meeting has a theme and several people have volunteered ahead of time to share their experiences. Not me, though. I’m here to listen.

I count down the seconds to the start time and then immediately connect to the call. My hand only has the mildest of tremors and my body is only experiencing low-grade cold sweating, so I’m doing very well so far.

“Welcome, everybody,” says the host, and I smile at the camera, because everyone else does. “Let’s introduce ourselves,” they continue. “I’ll go first …”

I stop listening and instead enter Panic Mode.

My problem is that I have not prepared an introduction. I am in no way prepared to speak. Nothing on the Facebook event page said anything about everybody speaking, and I read it multiple times, both before committing to attending and in the hours leading up to this call.

The host calls on person after person. They each speak and I hear none of it. The muscles in my back and neck are aching, my hand is trembling so violently that I can no longer hold my pen, and let’s not even mention the sweating situation. My eyes are locked on the red button in the corner of the screen that says, “Leave Meeting.”

I want to press it. I need to press it. But I’m also terrified of pressing it, because what if I mess up and everyone notices me trying to leave? Or what if they notice me leaving even without messing it up? Will they think me rude? The trans community is so small, and my name is right there on display for all to see.

Then there’s the fact that I actually want to be here. The meeting’s topic is interesting to me, and I want to be part of this community.

Locked in my conflict, the words of others are just washing over me, until suddenly the host’s voice announces:

“Well, I think that’s everyone.”

Except, of course, it isn’t everyone. I’m right here still waiting to be called upon.

But I remain silent, because this may be my salvation. I’ve been missed, passed over, ignored, and I’m thrilled. My only fear is that a well-meaning person may notice and say something like, “Actually, we haven’t heard from that person.”

But no one does. The meeting goes on.

Slowly, ever so slowly, my neck and upper back muscles loosen. Not completely, because my trust in how this meeting is going to proceed has been blown to pieces and, as far I know, we may be called on to speak again. But I calm down enough to pick up my pen. By the end of the meeting my body aches, I’m so very drained and it’s time to change shirts, but my notebook contains some useful information, and that feels like an achievement – though I’m not sure that I’ll ever feel comfortable enough to risk attending this group’s meetings again.

The days roll on and I engage in all my usual routines, but something is different. It’s as if I’ve suddenly become aware of how isolated I am, and I don’t like it.

The feeling becomes so bad that I risk attending a different trans group meeting (having prepared a suitable introduction ahead of time), but it ends up being worse than the first, with two unexpected entreaties to share with the group, despite previous assurances that such sharing was voluntary. I feel terrible, and I want to give up the whole exercise of “reaching out” to others, but my newly awakened sense of loneliness won’t go away, so I decide to try once more.

This time I focus my search on my other community and manage to find a group for Autistic adults that looks promising. It’s not LGBTQIA+ specific, but the people there should at least be more understanding of my Autistic traits.

Three days before the group is set to meet, I get an email warning me that the meeting will begin with certain introductory questions (which are provided), and then told how to indicate to the host if I’d prefer not to speak. I immediately feel calmer and decide to prepare something to say. By the time of the meeting, my answers are written out in my notebook and I’m ready to go.

The meeting begins, I say my piece and we all move on happily.

But after about thirty minutes, things derail a little. A comment is made about gender and transness. It is related to an item number on the agenda, so it’s not completely unexpected, but I’m suddenly intensely aware that I’m the only obviously trans participant in the group (there may be others, but they’re not “out” in the same way that I am).

The discussion becomes increasingly heated, and I feel pressure growing in my chest. No one is calling on me to speak, but are they looking at me?

It’s hard to tell on a Zoom call, but I think everyone is looking at me, waiting for me to give my Authentic Trans Opinion. But I haven’t prepared an Authentic Trans Opinion. I have absolutely no Authentic Trans Opinion to give right now.

Panic Mode activated, I’m looking at that red “Leave Meeting” button again. Maybe I can press it and pretend I had a technical issue? But is that believable? Won’t they just assume I fled because I was upset or offended, and then they may get upset or offended, and I’ll never be able to show my face in this group again.

In the midst of my panic, I suddenly have an intense need to laugh. I feel my lips quirk up into a smile, which panics me even more, since now I’m worried the others will think I’m laughing at them, and that will definitely cause offence!

But I can’t help it, because this whole situation is hilarious.

I’ve struggled so much to engage with the trans community as an Autistic person. And yet now, here I am, on the cusp of fleeing this Autistic group because I’m trans.

What can I do but laugh? And try my best to hide the fact by biting the inside of my cheek as I count down the minutes left.

When it does finally end, I sign out and take a long breath in and then out. Slowly, I feel my body calm. Written in my notebook is the date and time of the next meeting and, while I’m not completely sure yet, I suspect that I will be going. Because, while not perfect, the meeting was manageable. And for now, that’s enough.

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