In Conversation With
This Pride season, we pay homage to the activists—past, present and future—speaking out for LGBTQ+ liberation and equal rights. Sef Cavendish is an autistic writer, survivor of behavior conversion therapy, student and critic of Psychology and self-described gender anarchist encouraging folks to think and act beyond the oppressive systems that make up our world, whether they’re harmful narratives we’ve internalized or power structures from which we benefit.
How did you get to where you are today?
Spark notes of my life’s story: I was always in gifted/honor’s programs in school growing up, but I was an exceptionally sensitive, picky, forgetful, hyper and very “unladylike” kid, so I was criticized more frequently and more harshly as a result. It felt like I was only ever too much or not enough, and the only thing my self-worth was based on was my grades. I became so anxious and depressed, by the time I started college, I was too burnt out to keep up the performance, and I failed out. It really felt like I just wasn’t cut out for this world. I was in the most life-threatening depressive episode of my life, and I remember thinking, “I could die, or I could buy myself some time until I figure something out.”
I found a random job working with autistic kids because it seemed fun and easy. I had no idea how drastically it would change my life. I started watching the training videos for the job, and when I heard the company’s claim that this therapy could “make kids indistinguishable from their peers,” I was flooded with traumatic memories of a social skills program I was placed in as a kid. I paused the video in tears and started ravenously consuming anything I could find about autistic people. I learned, due to a long history of sexism and racism in the study and categorization of psychiatric labels, that there was a huge community online of people who’d struggled their whole lives not knowing that there was an explanation for their differences and solutions for their problems until it was almost too late. After my diagnosis, I wanted to help people have access to this understanding of themselves because it had quite literally saved my life.
Why did you start making and sharing content on social media?
Compared to other veins of social justice, the neurodivergent community isn’t even on the map. You can’t deny that homophobia exists, but to this day I hear people discredit the existence of ableism because they don't know anything about it or our experiences. Hell, if I hadn’t applied to that job, I might still not know anything about myself! Those of us who are identified/diagnosed early in life only have access to a bleak narrative that frames us as fundamentally flawed, a story queer people with homophobic parents know all too well. Constantly encountering messages that you are “cringe” or “too sensitive” or simply not wanted around contributes to the tragically inflated suicide rates of our communities. For queer and neurodivergent people, shame is quite literally killing us.
At that behavior therapy job, which in time I learned was inspired by many of the mechanisms behind gay conversion therapy, I was seeing the same traumatizing practices that I had blocked out of my childhood memories. I tried to speak up, but I wasn’t being listened to, and I ultimately had to leave the field because I realized there was nothing more I could do to protect those kids. I decided to go back to school to try to make a bigger difference, but it was taking too long. People are suffering right now. I knew I didn’t have the people skills for public policy, and I was too easily overwhelmed to march in a protest, but being disabled taught me to focus less on what I can't do and focus more on what I can, so I started writing online. With my phone as a megaphone, I called on autistic people to take up more space in public, let themselves stim, unapologetically enjoy their “cringe” interests, and start to just infodump at anyone who questions us. I remember thinking, “I really hope that this goes viral.” The fact that a 30-second video which boils down to “it’s actually okay to be yourself” had a life-changing impact on over a million people didn’t make me feel proud of my efforts; it horrified me to learn just how starved my community was for any scrap of hope. I don’t spend my days feeling worthless and lost anymore, I’ve found purpose in dedicating my life and career to challenging the narrative of flaw and pathology and replacing it with one of positive self-identity.
Who are people the who helped pave the way for you to be here today?
I found my footing because of one person. After I failed out of school, before I found the behavior technician job, I was a closeted queer person in a committed relationship with a cishet man. He had just got his PhD and we were about to move across the country, so I was working at a little vegan restaurant to pass the time.
One of my coworkers was a trans woman, the first openly trans person I had ever met. One day we had a closing shift together, and when everyone else clocked out, she came up to me and asked what my pronouns were. I froze up and told her that I didn’t know. I’d recently gotten an undercut and she was like, “that haircut… honey, I do.” And that was it. I just needed someone to really see me as queer, to give me permission to identify within that narrative. In conversations we had over our time working together, she queered my perception of queerness itself, and I think that’s what I seek to do with the construct of autism.
You're extremely vocal on a range of issues, including neurodiversity and queerness. How do these intersect for you?
I think the nature of being autistic is inherently ‘queer’ in many ways. If autistic people’s brains are wired to experience social settings differently, and gender and sexuality are social experiences, the ways we construct our identities are going to look very different as well, even if you do happen to be cis and straight. Most people put things in boxes and categories to make sense of the world, but autistic people are especially known for thinking in strict binaries. The fact that I can’t fit myself into one of two categories is simultaneously frustrating and freeing, because it forces me to define myself outside of the narratives provided to me.
For me, style is also a tool I use to quietly challenge ableism and cisheteronormativity
In your video, you described style as armor. What does this mean?
Facing the world as a marginalized person is like navigating a minefield of microaggressions. As a hypersensitive person, this combined with sensory challenges can trigger my agoraphobia. I needed to find ways to fight back, so the way I adorn myself can do that for me in a lot of ways. In certain environments, my body needs pressure to calm me, and I’ll use skinny jeans and super-tight turtlenecks as compression garments along with braces for my hyper flexible joints. Other days I might be especially sensitive, and I’ll wear a hoodie to dull sound and light, one with extra long sleeves so I don’t have to touch things with my hands. I accessorize with blue-light blocking glasses and various sound protection. For me, style is also a tool I use to quietly challenge ableism and cisheteronormativity in every environment I exist in throughout my day.
There are times when discrete earplugs would serve their purpose just fine, but if I'm going into a new space, I’ll feel more comfortable if my presence as an autistic person is known, and I’ll wear neon yellow over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones. It communicates to people that I am here, and I am different. The world is a scary and unpredictable place, but there’s something very empowering about an outfit you feel confident in. It adds an unmistakable aura of confidence in each step you take into unknown territory, whether you’re in combat boots or stilettos.
On the note of using your body as a billboard… Can we talk about that bold neon Trucker Jacket you customized to say “Stop calling me a girl”?
The first day after I made that jacket, I tried to wear it to school. In the safety of my room, it felt like such a good idea, but I was too frozen with anxiety to get out of the car, and I missed all of my classes that day. I took pictures of it in the bathroom instead, and people online loved it, so last week, I wore it in public for the first time—just a regular grocery store trip. As I was walking in, a man yelled out his car window, “Get institutionalized!” I was really shaken up, so I drove to a different store. As I walked through the automatic doors, someone walking out of the store turned around to gawk at me, saw my jacket, and shouted “Girl!” just to antagonize me.
My presence made those men so uncomfortable that they attempted to persuade me to remove myself from society and restore “order.” I can spiral pretty quickly, so I had to find a way to swing the pendulum the other way. I told myself, “Wow, my existence is so powerful that I threaten the very fabric of society simply by being gay in the grocery store.”
My pocket of silver linings is deep because it has to be.
What do you do to incite change in your everyday life?
The tricky thing about change is that it’s not always people we’re fighting, it’s systems held up by bigoted ideas, and sometimes those ideas live within ourselves. I may not yet be at a point in my career where I have the power to incite structural change, but for now, I help autistic and other neurodivergent people fight the very first battle against oppression: simply learning to like yourself. I also happen to be a nitpicky little social justice warrior who isn’t afraid to politely let people know when something they’ve said perpetuates harmful ideology. Being this way does not make you a lot of friends, but even if you annoy someone or trigger their guilt or fragility, your words will stick with them and make it easier for the next person to get through to them.
Someday I want to meet a child that was born into a world of acceptance, and I want to have to explain to them what “the closet” used to mean.
What are some conversations you want the community to have more of as we work towards queer liberation?
I’ve heard quite a few binary trans people admit that their fears that the non-binary community, especially those who use neopronouns, are giving the trans community a bad name, or that people will take trans rights less seriously if people with “weird” genders are accepted. I need the queer community to acknowledge the fact that this is exactly what cis queer people said to trans people in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The fact is, somewhere around 70% of the autistic community identifies as “nonheterosexual” (the language used in the study.) The majority of the weird queer people you label as “cringe” are literally just neurodivergent people who you are bullying. If your social movement for liberation rests on ensuring that everyone involved is socially acceptable, you’re completely missing the point.
The perfect segue into my final question... What legacy do you want to leave behind?
I want to give people in my communities the gift of an understanding of themselves that isn’t rooted in oppression. I want people with all varying privileges to understand that defensiveness prevents growth, and guilt prevents you from leveraging your privileges for true allyship. Hell, I just want my dad to bother to learn how to use my pronouns in a sentence. But most of all—and mark my words this will happen, even if I am very, very old—someday I want to meet a child who was born into a world of acceptance, and I want to have to explain to them what “the closet” used to mean. That is when I’ll know I’ve done everything I can, and I can rest peacefully with the knowledge that the people who come after me will pick up wherever I leave off. Just like we have for the queer elders who came before us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.