Earlier this month, I was asked to be part of a panel of young queer folk who were visiting a luncheon for LGBT seniors. It was the beginning of a conversation between generations in which youth and elders got to share their stories and to work to understand and honor the differences among their experiences.
Before the panel started, everyone was asked to share a brief bio outlining who they were, where they came from, and what identities they used to describe themselves. I wondered whether, when I introduced myself, I should mention my asexuality. I was nervous about doing so when the panel was on queerness. Eventually, I decided that I had been asked there as a queer and trans person, not as an ace person, and so I would leave asexuality out of this particular discussion.
I didn’t mention I was asexual when I introduced myself, but when we got to the Q&A part of the panel, one man asked how we experience our sexualities if we are attracted to all genders. He spoke of his physical attraction to men, their particular bodies and smell, and how that had defined his sexuality as a gay person from a young age. What was it about the people we were attracted to that we liked, he wondered?
My heart sped up. Should I pass when the microphone came to me? Or should I tell my personal answer? The microphone was passed down the line. I believe everyone spoke of their attraction to people’s personalities foremost, and whether those personalities meshed with their own, in addition to finding both masculinity and femininity pleasing. It was my turn.
“Well, I have a slightly different perspective. I’m asexual, which means I don’t experience sexual attraction to anyone. But I also have two partners whom I love very much. We kiss and cuddle and do all the things partners generally do. I am just not sexual with them. So when I say I’m queer, I mean I am attracted to all different bodies and personalities, but sexuality doesn’t come into it for me.”
The microphone was passed along. I breathed a sigh of relief. No one looked too confused or outraged.
But why did I feel so nervous about bringing up my asexuality? This wasn’t the first time I’d felt that anxiety in queer spaces. If I bring up my asexuality, I feel like I’m derailing the discussion. I think, This space is about queerness, not asexuality! Something inside of me whispers that I shouldn’t be too loudly asexual in a space set aside for being queer.
Some of this internal voice has come from online discussions about asexuality and queerness. The question of whether asexuality belongs in the LGBTQ+ acronym is a contentious one. At the very least, heteroromantic asexuals don’t belong, it is argued. They don’t experience the discrimination specific to queer people, so they are not queer. They identify as hetero, so they are not queer.
I am asexual and queer, in that I am romantically attracted to people of all genders, but I struggle with where to place asexuality by itself in the LGBTQ+ community. I feel I straddle a line between the two, when I want them to be united. So when I go to the queer community, I want to feel welcomed as my whole self, asexuality included, rather than having my asexuality eclipsed and subordinate.
I don’t think that asexual is synonymous with queer, but I think they hold enough similarities to be friends. I want them to be comfortable in a room together.
Asexuality is a marginalized sexuality, and asexual people do face discrimination. In this way, I believe it does belong in the LGBTQ+ acronym, even if it is not yet or ever will be a part of the label queer. Opponents of asexuality refuse to believe it exists, or else pathologize it as a hormonal issue or as the result of abuse. (It’s important to note that there are asexual people who are asexual for these reasons, and that these reasons do not invalidate their asexuality.) There are also issues the queer community faces that the asexual community does not. As far as I know, being asexual has never cost someone a job or housing. But although they are not synonymous, I think they share common ground.
To me, queerness is about breaking the expectations of relationships, love, and sexuality that have been placed on us by interlocking systems of power expressed through oppressive expectations and norms. It means that, whatever you expect of me, I’m going to turn your definitions on their head. In this way, I feel asexuality and aromanticism have a place in or near the queer community. To me, asexuality and aromanticism can mean “My definition of a relationship (or love, or sexuality, or friendship) pushes on the boundaries of your definitions.” But I also understand that queerness has a specific, violent and turbulent history that should be respected and honored. Although it is an amorphous term, it holds incredible importance for the community that it has been used against. The question is, how far do we stretch our acronym and what benefits or drawbacks come from excluding certain groups through our definitions?
Although I never want to take away the ability and right to label ourselves – finding the term asexual helped me immensely, after all – I do feel the need to discuss the blurry line between asexuality and allosexuality (a term coined to mean the opposite of asexual, much like cisgender was created to mirror transgender). There is an important distinction, but neither are stable points on opposite ends of a line. Both are spectrums of experience, and as the asexual community coins terms to describe this spectrum (i.e. demisexual, grey-ace), so too I think we should recognize that allosexuality is a spectrum.
I sometimes feel like the odd one out because I can’t relate to sexual experiences or riff about sex. In those cases, it is important to me to have ace peers I can talk about my feelings with. Otherwise, I risk falling into self-loathing over my lack of sexuality. But it’s important to be aware of the places in which these labels exclude people who have nuanced and complex relationships with sexuality, including people of color who are hyper- or de-sexualized, disabled people who are made out to be asexual no matter their feelings on the subject, and trauma survivors who have their own history and relationship with their sexuality. Many of these nuanced identities fall within the queer community.
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While it is important for many of us to have these words to describe ourselves, there is also much cross-over, and it can only be good to explore and discuss those nuances, rather than to solidify the lines between communities. As labels grow more solid, they have a habit of excluding people. Sometimes this is a good thing; it provides us with a community with solid walls and history, a place where we feel at home. But sometimes, it’s good to take stock and see who we’ve left outside and whether we should welcome them in. The answers are different for every community and every situation, but these are always good questions to ask.