Content note: brief mention of cyber assault and suicide
I find myself wondering how Frida Kahlo became such an icon. After all, not everyone can claim they are disabled, bisexual female artists of Mexican descent who attempt to live their truth. But I can. Her talent and willingness in displaying her personal pain on canvas has garnered her worldwide appreciation. She has even been commercialised to the extent that you can find her in the form of Halloween costumes, keychains, and stickers (okay, I’m guilty of that one). Yet I hardly believe that everyone appreciates her experiences behind the art as intimately as someone like myself. Because if so, there would be much less marginalization of women like us. People seem to want to enjoy Kahlo’s paintings on the easel, but not ease her pain.
We celebrate Kahlo’s original take on portraiture and surrealism, her boldness and vulnerability in choice and content, her politics, her lifestyle, and how this all culminates into being an inspiration, symbol and even hero, for women, artists, the disabled, the LGBT community, the Mexican people, and so forth.
But the reality is Kahlo did not achieve half this renown until many years after her death. Like others who have broken barriers and challenged the status quo, her discomfort in life is the reason some of us are comfortable in her death. During her life, she was known as Diego Rivera’s wife, whose art took a backseat to his. I’ve read it was supposedly Rivera who wanted her to maintain and accentuate her famous unibrow and upper-lip hair. A woman’s looks are rarely hers to have autonomy over, and despite Kahlo’s famous facial features, only a few women today are bold enough to completely neglect hair removal, as people will either fetishize it or be disgusted. While I digress a bit, this leads me to my main point.
The truth is I don’t agree with everything Kahlo did or believed. What I’m more interested in is the fact that Kahlo’s unique identity and struggles are actually still taboo and traumatic to women like myself. In fact, a lot of her super-fame is proof of the type of dehumanization bisexual, disabled, creative women like me still face. We’re put on pedestals only if and when the right people decide our work is interesting enough. We’re claimed as role-models and representatives for every marginalised group, even if said group would never accept us in reality.
Once while naively trusting a dating website, I matched with someone who I thought was a lesbian woman with mutual interest. Believing this was a person whom I could trust at first, I had confessed that I have Autism, and attempted to unabashedly be myself around them, at least online. It turned out this was a predatory man who combined pictures of my face with pictures of other naked women from the neck down and placed them on a revenge porn website. Written above the photos were my full name, city and state, as well as the following: “she is the craziest person ever”, and a “fake bisexual to get attention from men.” This cyber-assault was one of many incidences in my life where I’ve pondered suicide.
It’s somewhat shocking to me that things like this happen in a day and age where LGBT, Autistic and mentally ill people’s issues are becoming more mainstream in awareness. It’s doubly shocking and ironic when the #metoo movement exists, as well as the increasing acceptance of non-monogamy/polyamory, and the sex industry being rife with performative bisexuality that people pay for.
But this kind of invalidation and abuse is no stranger to women like myself. And this isn’t even anecdotal; statistical reports have shown bisexual women are more likely to be physically and sexually abused, and many LGBT people report higher rates of mental health problems. Bisexuality is still labeled as a phase or confusion by some, including gays and lesbians. It’s awful to be gaslighted by people who you assume would accept you more than anyone else. It’s also awful when these individuals idolise people like Frida Kahlo who was bisexual and engaged in non-binary behavior before it became a recognized identity.
For anyone who isn’t accepted and experiences abuse because of who they are, hiding it may allow them blend in to an extent. But as the saying goes, there are three things that don’t remain hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.
My grandfather changed his last name, anglicised his first name, and never spoke of his real father from Mexico, whose disappearance lead to a cascade of unbelievably tragic events in his life. I assumed he figured this would lessen the bullying and isolation he faced because of it in 1930’s small-town USA. Yet Spanish was spoken by relatives, some people told me I looked Hispanic, and upon taking a DNA test after my grandfather’s passing, my mother decided to sit me down and show me the real family tree. But I have been told I am not really Mexican because I didn’t grow up in the culture, am only a small fraction, etc., even with a DNA test and ancestral records to prove it.
Kahlo dressed a certain way to conceal her physical disability. Autistic women learn to conceal our struggles in a particular way. This is known as masking. I learned as a child that my deep sensitivity, bluntness, clumsiness, and naivete was unacceptable and led to being bullied. Even without the diagnosis of Autism just yet, I became an expert at covering up certain traits and mimicking “normal” people. I retreated into my imagination and creativity as a coping mechanism and outlet to escape abuse of all kinds at home, school, and eventually the workforce, with roommates and in the dating world.
It’s not easy to be a woman, period. Then you add being Autistic to that, with immense difficulties in almost every area necessary to just exist in the modern world: from executive function and sensory issues, to social miscommunication and comorbid physical and mental disorders, (to name just a few), daily life is often overwhelming and traumatic for us. And then you add on a “debatable” sexuality, a non-white-Anglo-Saxon ethnic background, (which in the US means trans-generational trauma) and your talents and skills (or lack thereof) being best suited for creative endeavours outside the 9-5, and WHAM: you’re on the fringes of society.
We all know why the term “starving artist” exists. A career, or attempt at one, even for gifted people like Kahlo and me, is no guarantee of success or even an income. I am a good singer, actress, comedienne, writer, and more. But being Autistic and undiagnosed until nearly 30, with one personal trauma after another, along with the chronic rejection and demands of the soul-sucking sensory nightmares of New York City and Los Angeles—where they say you should go to “make it”, but where it is impossible to be a poor, disabled artist with dignity—has led me to total burn-out.
Many of us are not eligible for disability and can’t figure out how to access social welfare programs. And even when we do, the amount we get is not enough to survive on. We are reminded in one way or another by society that we are not valued and don’t deserve basic necessities. One way I was able to survive was earning money through stripping. I’m far from the only Autistic woman who has done this.
Women like myself seem to be valued only insofar as to how our bodies and minds can satisfy and affirm perverse carnal urges, assumptions, curiosity, mockery and scorn. We’re not allowed to exist in the multiple dimensions we do, to own fully own our sexuality, our experiences, our inherent humanity.
Kahlo made a name for herself by using her trauma in her art. Yet in conversation with numerous people, including those with similar experiences as well as a certified therapist, I have been told to stop defining myself by my Autism and trauma. I have also been told I am not Autistic, not mentally ill, should just “move on”, stop focusing on what is “wrong” with me, etc. If Kahlo had listened to guidance like this, I’m not sure any of her art would exist. No matter what we do, we never satisfy societal conventions. Masked or unmasked, my personal truth is not comfortable for others, so I am in turn, uncomfortable, and to be blunt, especially after this pandemic, I’m ready to leave at any time.
As Frida Kahlo said, “I hope the ending is joyful, and I hope to never return.”