What does it mean to say asexuals are queer?

Perhaps inspired by the Vice article, there has been some renewed interest in the question “Are asexuals queer?”  My answer to this question has slowly developed over time, from “Yes, obviously!” to “Let’s think a moment what that question even means.”

Some people think it means, “Do asexuals fit under the definition of queer?”  On one side you have people saying, “Queer means any non-normative gender or sexual orientation, so asexuals are queer.”  On the other side, you have people saying, “Queer just means LGBT, and I don’t see any asexuality in the L, G, B, or T.”  Both of these arguments are missing the point.

The meaning of the words isn’t the point.  Words don’t have feelings.  People have feelings.

To call asexuals queer is to execute a political strategy.  It’s similar to the joining of LGB and T.  By joining LGB and T together, we’re saying, “If you accept LGB, you better accept the T as well (and vice versa).”  Of course, that doesn’t actually stop LGB people from being transphobic, but the idea is that it discourages such attitudes.

You don’t have to be a transphobic gay person or a homophobic trans person to argue that the union of LGB and T is a bad idea.  For instance, you could argue that it leads many people to think they already got trans issues covered when they don’t.  But the consensus is that they are best together.  What do you think are the political costs and benefits of joining together LGBT and A?

To call asexuals queer is also a community guideline.  It tells us that it is okay for asexuals to join LGBT communities, and not simply as allies.  That is, they can talk about their own issues, and not just about helping other people in the community.  The question is, is this a net gain for everyone?

My own experience, participating in university student groups, tells me that it is a net gain.  A lot of asexuals who need a bit of friendly contact don’t know where to go offline, and the local LGBT center is the best they can think of.  That’s what I did, and I found that non-ace LGBT people were able to fulfill my social needs.  I also found that many people in that community were unhappy with the way that cis gay men tended to dominate the space, others were constantly bored with the same set of topics over and over, and others were annoyed by the over-sexualization of the space.  To these people, I added some much needed diversity and balance.

On the other hand, that’s just one particular kind of LGBT community, in one particular region of the US.  It’s hard to generalize across all kinds of LGBT communities, and in fact I do not think asexuals belong in all kinds of LGBT communities.

For instance, what about national activist organizations?  Are asexuals part of the HRC?  It’s hard to say that they are, since it seems like the HRC can’t even keep trans issues on their agenda properly.  How about the Trevor Project?  Suicide is pretty clearly one of the issues asexuals have in common with LGBT people, so it makes sense.

I can also imagine some queer communities where most people are really embattled for their identities, talking about serious discrimination and hate all the time.  If you’re an asexual who has it relatively easy (or a well-to-do gay person for that matter), maybe you don’t belong there.  And if you’re not trans, you may not belong in a transwomen’s group, and if you’re not bi, you may not belong in a bisexual’s group.

So it doesn’t just depend on the kind of LGBT community, it also depends on the person.  Most heteroromantics (87%) and aromantics (69%) don’t identify with the LGBT community, so maybe that means that there is no net gain for them.  Or it means they feel pushed out of the LGBT community.  Or that they interpreted the question literally.

There may also be instances where asexuals do belong, but not by virtue of being asexual.  I’ve participated in a gay/bi men’s group for instance, but I clearly belonged there as a gay man, not as an asexual.  I brought up asexuality once or twice, but it was as an identity that strongly intersects with being gay, not its own thing (the same way queer people of color might bring up ethnicity even though ethnicity isn’t part of LGBT).

———————–

The bottom line is that some asexuals belong in some LGBT communities in some circumstances.  Putting it another way, asexuals are sometimes queer.  To say “asexuals are queer” or “asexuals aren’t queer” just doesn’t work.

About Siggy

Siggy is a physics grad student in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and makes amateur attempts at asexual activism. His interests include godlessness, scientific skepticism, and math. While not working or blogging, he plays video and board games with his boyfriend, and folds colored squares.
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23 Responses to What does it mean to say asexuals are queer?

  1. hotpot says:

    Good post. To your question, what do you think are the benefits of joining LGBT and A? I struggle to see what the benefits are, because if you define ‘political’ as something that can be addressed politically through legislation, I didn’t think we had a political agenda. Am I wrong?

    • Gonna throw some potential answers/talking points out around this:
      My definition of political is normally ‘anything to do with people’. I don’t reckon Siggy’s definition in this post was anywhere near ‘to do with legislation’, I think it was more about acknowledging that definitions are more about social structures than they are about semantics, but:
      a) there is legislation needed to protect aces, anti-discrimination legislation in employment, housing, etc, a repeal of consummation laws, other smaller things.
      b) the really crucial goal of the ace community, as I see it, is to get the word out there so no-one has to think they’re broken and alone. That’s the main ‘political’ goal, and it’s one which can be achieved much more readily with the help of LGBTQ groups.
      c) entirely outside of those ‘political’ considerations, Siggy identifies one of the core benefits of joining LGBT and A in this post- the fact that some asexuals can be both helpful to and helped by the LGBTQ community. That’s the long and the short of why they belong in the LGBTQ community.

    • Siggy says:

      Agree with Slightlymetaphysical. By political, I do not mean legislation. I mean more in terms of the public rhetoric used to change attitudes.

      When the public talks about LGBT politics, they mostly talk about marriage equality, but I think this is a pretty small part of it. I think marriage equality is overemphasized simply because it is concrete legislation and therefore more tractable. It’s easier to publicly advocate for a specific change in law than it is to advocate for squishy changes in attitude.

  2. I read a little bit of the recent tumblr argument, and it struck me even more forcefully than before that the definition from oppression is a really sucky definition of queer.
    For one, I don’t think it’s a definition which keeps asexuals out, since it seems people at the intersections of gay/bi/pan and ace, the only people who can stand any hope of answering how difficult it is to be ace compared to gay/bi/pan, tend to be very much in favour of asexuality being automatically queer (personally, in my specific culture, class, circumstances and society, it is SO MUCH EASIER being kinda-gay than kinda-ace. SO MUCH).

    But for two, eugh. Communities based around oppression. I think all that can lead to is guarding your oppression against other people on the internet like a jerk. It strikes me as ultimately creating negative, goalless communities or communities that are inefficient at reaching their goals. The thing I like about this post is that it emphasises *positive* definitions of queer, as well as situational ones.
    EG. A university GSA has the primary aim of creating a space for people who identify outside of the norms (with the secondary aim of encouraging reform). Asexuals benefit from that, and help that (in terms of bringing new discussion, bringing diversity, being an extra placard at the rally) therefore they fit into the aims of that group.
    An inner-city queer youth group deals with issues around partner abuse and the pressure for oversexualisation- maybe the same asexuals who were both helped by and helpful to the university GSA are neither helped nor helpful here.
    One ‘gay bar’ has a focus on cross-label community-building and a friendly atmosphere. The average asexual is helped by and helpful to the goals of that community. The gay bar across the street is a place for gay men to go to hook up. The average asexual is neither helped by nor helpful to that community.

    It’s adapting the idea that if it’s useful, use the word asexual. Where it’s useful, use the word queer, go be in queer spaces. Which leads to your conclusion- it’s situational depending on both the community and the asexual (I’m sure there are aces who would benefit from the inner-city queer youth group, there are probably a very tiny number of aces who might benefit from the hook-up bar). But, positive definitions. Nobody loses, everyone wins, and no-one has to play stupid oppression olympics to keep hold of their hard-earned underdogness.

    • Siggy says:

      In practice, not all LGBT communities are based on oppression (in other words, they’re not all support groups). When people on tumblr complain that asexuals are so privileged that they don’t belong under the queer label, I wonder if such people are only involved in the LGBT community for the support. If that’s all they know, maybe it’s reasonable to conclude that most aces don’t belong there.

      On the other hand, even in a support group, it is inappropriate to draw a sharp line between what is “sufficiently oppressed” and what isn’t. Similarly, in a Asian group, it is a bad idea to draw a sharp line between people who have sufficient Asian ancestry, and people who are too white. Let people decide for themselves whether they fit.

      • See, in my head, ‘support group’ was a positive definition. It’s a community goal, and it’s one which any specific asexual’s sexuality might or might not gel with. When you’ve expressly identified that as one of your community’s goals, you can figure out how asexuality fits with that.

        The reason the definition from oppression on tumblr annoys me is because it’s goalless, negative and because it doesn’t really happen in real life. There’s *always* a positive goal, however embittered or oppressed. There might be spaces where someone saying ‘Oh, woe is me, everyone LOVES the idea of me having sex with my opposite sex partner but I JUST DON’T WANT TO’ isn’t helpful, but that’s only coincidentally because they fit into a different privilege box, it’s mostly because they aren’t right for the community.

        • Keep in mind that the the people behind the Tumblr “argument” are a very small group of very loud, hate-filled trolls. They’re not actually interested in any kind of constructive dialog or resolving any issues. They’ve been recycling the same nonsense for at least a year, probably far longer, popping up to repost it every couple of months when the userbase of the tags has turned over and there’s fresh faces who’ll bite. Invariably, one of these newbies on the ace tags will get sucked into the fight and goaded into saying something stupid and insensitive about gay people in general, which the trolls will then use as “evidence” of how terrible and horrible every single asexual person is for the next three or four years.
          So, this month it was “Asexuals aren’t queer!”, which means that next month on the schedule will be “Demisexuality is slut-shaming!”, followed by an encore of either “They think we’re all sex-crazed sexy-sexuals that sex all the time!” or “Asexuality doesn’t have a coherent definition so it can’t be real!”.

  3. Z (odannygirl7 on tumblr) says:

    I think a big problem is conflating ‘queer’ with lgbt or gsm or any other ‘non heteronormative’ community. (and it’s something everyone does, which is, I think, part of why these fight keep happening) There’s a difference between asking if asexuals can be queer (the reclaimed slur) and asking if asexuals can be queer (part of the general lgb or gsm or non-heteronormative community). But no one bothers clarifying what they actually mean. Sometimes they mean both (they don’t want asexuals to be a part of any community), sometimes they mean only the first one. (and when I say asexuals, I mean the whole idea of asexuality… people might be welcome for their romantic orientation or for being trans*, but talking about asexuals issues wouldn’t be okay)

    • Siggy says:

      I think there are a lot of distinctions between different kinds of queer/LGBT communities, but I don’t think LGBT vs queer is the most useful way to distinguish between the different kinds. In my experience, I’ve seen university student groups, professional activist groups, regional community groups, and simple friend networks. These are all very different types of LGBT communities, but I would not say that the difference between them is that some are LGBT, some are GSM, and some are queer. Rather, the major differences are community structure, what roles they fulfill, and what social classes they draw from.

      This is unfortunate, since it basically means there is no easy way to tell, given any particular LGBT community, whether an asexual would fit or not.

      • Z (odannygirl7 on tumblr) says:

        *nods* I get that. Asexuals of any kind have a balancing act to do before they can figure out if they actually belong in a specific, real life group. (though, I would think that this might be the same for anyone? Like cis folks, no matter how gay, might not really fit with groups aimed more towards trans* folks despite those groups maybe being open to including everyone. Being under the lbgt/gsm umbrella shouldn’t be a ‘get into every safe space free’ card, and I’m not really sure when anyone thinks it is.)

        I sort of meant it more in the ‘say what you actually mean’ kind of way that causes confusion when ever this question comes up.
        Sometimes it’s actually ‘I don’t think cishetrom/aromantic asexuals should use queer (the reclaimed slur) because it hasn’t been historically used against them.’, but they say ‘asexuals aren’t queer.’ And sometimes it’s actually ‘asexuality in general shouldn’t be considered a separate sexual minority/orientation (because of what ever reason) that gets assistance from, or be included in, any lgbt/lgbt+/gsm focused organization’, but they say ‘asexuals aren’t queer.’

        One is being upset about possible improper offensive word usage and one is being upset about including a group in anything at all. Addressing the concerns of the first is much different than addressing the concerns of the second. And, of course, there’s tons of levels in between which makes it like pulling teeth to figure out what the problem actually is.

        I hope that makes more sense?

  4. Hannah says:

    Nice post. I’ve always defined “queer” as “not fitting the hetero-normative standard of sexuality.” It’s a much more traditional definition than “has sex with the same gender or is psychologically a different gender.” Thus, I, as an aromantic asexual, identify as queer- it’s never even been a question. I’d had experiences with LGB people (including my sister and my ex roommate) resisting the idea that asexuality can be considered queer or, indeed, worthy of any sort of consideration by queer OR hetero-normative people. That’s why joining my college’s LGBTQA group, Outspoken, was one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had as an ace. Every week, we talked about issues facing certain queer groups and we pulled together as a community with shared experiences and a shared fascination with each other. Not only was I welcomed, I was embraced enthusiastically as part of the queer community. It’s difficult to overstate the effect emotional validation can have on a queer person. I think it would be immensely valuable to include the asexual spectrum under the queer umbrella, not just for lonely, young, newly out aces, but for the rest of the LGBTQA community as well.

    Let’s put it this way: in my particular experience, it would have been a much smoother coming out had I been a lesbian, not only because my parents have lesbian friends and open minds about sexuality, but because there’s so much more information and support for parents of gay children. As it is, I’m ace- for the first year, my parents, lacking any readily-available information, were absolutely at a loss a how to understand my identity. They’ve since made up their own minds (that asexuality is just as valid as any other sexuality- I’m very lucky to have such an understanding support system), but my bisexual sister, for example, still thinks that asexuality is “a cop-out.” Were asexuality included in the queer umbrella, the process of acceptance would have been quicker, cleaner and undoubtedly my family would have a much more comprehensive set of resources than a couple of blogs and AVEN.

  5. Spoofmaster says:

    I do believe you’ve created the single most level-headed, well-reasoned exploration of this issue I have ever read. I’m saving this link, because I think this post is a great resource for when these arguments next rear their ugly heads. I’ve seen a lot of people speaking in absolutes on both sides, when what we’re talking about is something that can never be summed up with a single answer.

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