Neuroqueer: An Introduction

May 2, 2015

The term neuroqueer was coined independently and more or less simultaneously by Elizabeth J. (Ibby) Grace, Michael Scott Monje Jr., and myself. Having coined it, all three of us managed to spend a few years not getting around to using it in any published work, even though the set of concepts and practices represented by the term came to heavily inform our thinking. I almost used Neuroqueer as the title for my blog, but decided to go with the title Neurocosmopolitanism instead. Michael almost used Neuroqueer as the title for a novel, but decided to go with the title Defiant instead.

It wasn’t until Michael mentioned this last fact, in an online conversation in which she and Ibby and I were all involved, that we discovered that all three of us had been playing around with the same term. Happily, though we were all approaching it from different angles, our various interpretations of neuroqueer (or neuroqueerness, or neuroqueering) were in no way incompatible. In the same conversation, we learned that another friend and colleague of ours, Melanie Yergeau, while she hadn’t yet stumbled upon the word neuroqueer, had been thinking along quite similar and compatible lines in playing with the concept of neurological queerness; Melanie’s contributions have been extensive enough that even if she didn’t come up with the actual word, I consider her – along with Ibby, Michael, and myself – to be one of originators of the concept of neuroqueer (or neuroqueerness, or neuroqueering).

All four of us – Ibby, Michael, Melanie, and I – emerged from that conversation freshly inspired to begin introducing the term, and the set of concepts and practices it describes, into our public work and into our communities and the broader culture. Since then, we’ve been following through on that intention in various exciting ways. Ibby, Michael, and I, along with Bridget Allen, founded the independent publishing house Autonomous Press, to publish books in which neuroqueerness of one sort or another tends to play a prominent role. In fact, as of 2016, Autonomous Press has an imprint called NeuroQueer Books, helmed by Ian Nicholson and specifically dedicated to neuroqueer-related material.

Meanwhile, the term is catching on in various circles and communities, taking on a life of its own, as terms and concepts tend to do when the time is right for them. It’s showing up in academic papers and conference presentations, creative projects, Facebook communities, blogs and Tumblr accounts and all manner of social media platforms. It’s been adopted by a whole lot of people I don’t know – and when a new term/concept spreads beyond the social circles of its originators, that’s generally a sign that it’s “got legs,” as they say. In other words, it’s a term that you’re likely to be hearing a lot more of in the years to come.

(The day before I wrote this piece, I was at California Institute of Integral Studies for the first meeting of a course I teach called Critical Perspectives on Autism and Neurodiversity. I was introducing my students to basic neurodiversity-related terminology like neurotypical and neurodivergent, when a young undergraduate excitedly asked me, “Have you heard of the term neuroqueer?”)

I’ve already seen a lot of interpretations of neuroqueer and attempts at definition from folks who’ve adopted the term. Some of those interpretations miss the point, sometimes in ways that are truly facepalm-worthy. Other interpretations are more on-point but overly narrow, such that Ibby, Michael, Melanie, and I look at them and say, “Yeah, that’s part of what we were getting at… but only part of it…”

So what were we getting at? What is neuroqueer (or neuroqueerness, or neuroqueering)?

I should first of all acknowledge that any effort to establish an “authoritative” definition of neuroqueer is in some sense inherently doomed and ridiculous, simply because the sort of people who identify as neuroqueer and engage in neuroqueering tend to be the sort of people who delight in subverting definitions, concepts, and anything “authoritative.”

That said, the definition that follows is as close to an “authoritative” definition of neuroqueer (and neuroqueerness, and neuroqueering) as is ever likely to exist. I wrote it with the input and approval of the other three originators of the concept. So it’s the one definition out there that all four of the originators of neuroqueer have agreed is not only accurate, but also inclusive of all of the various practices and ways-of-being that any of the four of us ever intended neuroqueer to encompass.

Neuroqueer is both a verb and an adjective. As a verb, it refers to a broad range of interrelated practices. As an adjective it describes things that are associated with those practices or that result from those practices: neuroqueer theory, neuroqueer perspectives, neuroqueer narratives, neuroqueer literature, neuroqueer art, neuroqueer culture, neuroqueer community. And as an adjective, neuroqueer can also serve as a label of social identity, just like such labels as queer, gay, lesbian, straight, black, white, hapa, Deaf, or Autistic (to name just a small sampling).

A neuroqueer individual is an individual whose identity has in some way been shaped by their engagement in practices of neuroqueering. Or, to put it more concisely (but perhaps more confusingly): you’re neuroqueer if you neuroqueer.

So what does it mean to neuroqueer, as a verb? What are the various practices that fall within the definition of neuroqueering?

  1. Being neurodivergent and approaching one’s neurodivergence as a form of queerness (e.g., by understanding and approaching neurodivergence in ways that are inspired by, or similar to, the ways in which queerness is understood and approached in Queer Theory, Gender Studies, and/or queer activism).

  2. Being both neurodivergent and queer, with some degree of conscious awareness and/or active exploration around how these two aspects of one’s identity intersect and interact.

  3. Being neurodivergent and actively choosing to embody and express one’s neurodivergence (or refusing to suppress one’s embodiment and expression of neurodivergence) in ways that “queer” one’s performance of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, occupation, and/or other aspects of one’s identity.

  4. Engaging in the “queering” of one’s own neurocognitive processes (and one’s outward embodiment and expression of those processes) by intentionally altering them in ways that create significant and lasting increase in one’s divergence from dominant neurological, cognitive, and behavioral norms.

  5. Engaging in practices intended to “undo” one’s cultural conditioning toward conformity and compliance with dominant norms, with the aim of reclaiming one’s capacity to give more full expression to one’s neurodivergence and/or one’s uniquely weird personal potentials and inclinations.

  6. Identifying as neuroqueer due to one’s engagement in any of the above practices.

  7. Being neurodivergent and producing literature and/or other cultural artifacts that foreground neurodivergent experiences and perspectives.

  8. Being neurodivergent and producing critical responses to literature and/or other cultural artifacts, focusing on intentional or unintentional characterizations of neurodivergence and how those characterizations illuminate and/or are illuminated by the lived experiences of actual neurodivergent people.

  9. Working to transform social and cultural environments in order to create spaces and communities – and ultimately a society – in which engagement in any or all of the above practices is permitted, accepted, supported, and encouraged.

So there you have it, from the people who brought you the term. This definition is, again, not an authoritative “last word” on the subject, because that would be a silly thing to attempt. Rather, I hope this will be taken as a “first word” – a broad “working definition” from which further theory, practice, and play will proceed.

Happy neuroqueering!

 

NeuroFly

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