Intersectional identities are tricky. According to Kimberlé Crenshaw, my identity is much like a traffic accident at an intersection; cars come from multiple directions and sometimes you can’t tell who made the hit. In “I’d Rather be a Cyborg Than a Goddess” Jasbir Puar comments, “identification is an encounter, an event, an accident, in fact. Identities are multicausal, multidirectional, liminal.” If identities are multicausal and multidirectional accidents, how can we even begin to explain what it’s like to live them? How might we learn to navigate them better?
I’m not positive my identity is intersectional, but there is some use in temporarily assuming it is. The different parts of my identity, summed up by seemingly simple words like asexual, vegan-feminist, agender, panromantic, and so forth, intersect. Together they coalesce, shift, and overlap to make me myself. In theory this sounds pretty good so far, but I don’t know how to keep it together in practice.
How do I find my place in a community while being intersectional? Even if the community accepts me, do I really belong? I’ve self-identified as asexual for about six years and for many reasons I’ve been on the fringes of the community. One of those reasons is cake.
Starting from cake is interesting to me because, well, it’s cake; cake being a gatekeeper to my asexual identity sounds farfetched enough to laugh at. Humour helps, so I do laugh. Simultaneously though, cake is also a symbolic representation of what asexuality is supposed to be in a way that does not include my whole intersectional self. Language is powerful, so while I can laugh at a pixelated baked good, I also think about the place it’s played in my isolation.
As asexuals many of us give cake because it is better than sex. I post in AVEN’s welcome forum and I am greeted with cake. If I post something particularly thought provoking, clever, or important, I am rewarded with cake.
Cake says that you and I are alike because we share an inside joke that cake is better than sex. This joke is important because sex is usually seen as better than cake everywhere else, so here, in these asexual spaces, we can be ourselves and prefer cake. Thus, offering cake is a symbolic appreciation of how alike we are. Cake fosters community and a sense of belonging. It brings us closer together.
Many self-identified asexuals might stop here. I never can. Every time I am offered cake I am reminded that I am not the intended receiver of this symbolic exchange. Luckily, I am not the first to voice my displeasure of cake, but it is still worth discussing here because cake maps onto my intersectional identity in a unique way. Furthermore, even though cake is challenged in some asexual spaces, it remains an important cultural currency in others.
First, I am a sex-favourable asexual (see issue 25 of AVENues for my article on this). I fit into AVEN’s definition of asexuality, but I don’t fit into how many people talk about asexuality. When someone offers me cake I can’t laugh at the inside joke because I am not on the inside. Even when people offer cake with the best of intentions, it feels like they are upholding gatekeeping practices to weed out those who don’t really belong.
How do you say to someone who was just being nice, ‘well, actually, cake does not represent all asexual people and you assuming that it represents me makes me feel excluded’? You don’t. Or, well, I don’t (except I just did, consider this a rare brave moment). I usually squish my shoulders in a little closer and feel bad about not fitting into the very narrow asexual identity box.
It’s also worth noting that even if some self-identified asexuals fit into the box, the box itself might not be accurate. QueenieOfAces points out that liking cake (or disliking pizza) does not have the same effects on your life as having an asexual identity. She writes, “comparing my ‘lack of attraction’ to pizza to my lack of sexual attraction minimizes the impact of my asexuality on virtually every facet of my life.” Acetheist also wrote about the inaccuracy of food metaphors and asexuality. Like Acetheist and QueenieOfAces I’m also concerned about food metaphors in general, but my intersectional identity takes me in a different direction and I have different critiques.
I publicly identify as a vegan-feminist. Abolitionist would be a more accurate label, but I’m currently skeptical about what it means to you when I claim it because it’s so far from the public consciousness. To further confuse you, not all vegan-feminists would be bothered by cake, but I am. Let’s move on from the word games! In short, people offering me cake on and offline is a very uncomfortable experience and this has something to do with veganism.
Once again, someone offering me cake is being nice, but the bottom of my stomach is dropping and I’m suddenly not breathing. I’m panicking. A non-human person I never knew was treated like an object to make this ‘food’ and I have no idea what to do about it. I don’t want to be angry, but I feel terrible. Someone was hurt, and they will die, as property. If I say nothing I betray their suffering. I am complicit with the silence that allows this to be done to them. If I say something, well, you probably already know how people take it.
‘Food’ metaphors are complicated because ‘food’ means different things to different people. Notice my scare quotes. I don’t consider cake to be ‘food,’ which is where I take a different direction than other self-identified aces who write on this topic. Cake doesn’t register for me as edible. I do eat cake, but I’ll bake it myself or read the ingredients list five times before I touch it. I call it vegan cake, or cake made from plant ingredients, because differences are important and repeating them serves political purposes.
When I see real or pixelated cake I first think of a history of pain and oppression and feel frustrated because cake is supposed to stand in as a metaphor for asexual community. My metaphor for community comes at the expense of an individual cow and chicken. Even if they weren’t physically harmed, because cake is just an icon on a forum, metaphors uphold culture.
Since metaphors uphold culture cake might also brings to mind unintended histories, lives, and experiences for people who are not vegan-feminists. At the moment I’m thinking of people who live with, or have had, what our culture calls an eating disorder. I’m sure there are many other identities where this is true as well. I can’t speak to these experiences, but I’d be remiss to overlook them completely.
Part of me worries you’ll think I’m looking into this too deeply, but that’s also the point. Cake functions as ‘food’ in our culture because it’s ‘normal’ to eat the bodies and secretions of other animals. This makes people who only eat plants the marked Other. When some asexuals use cake as a metaphor the normalcy of eating cake goes unquestioned and I definitely think it’s something we need to be questioning (at the very least).
How do you even begin to navigate all of this in an interaction with another person?
Some days I just want to say ‘thank you for the cake,’ and I probably have, but that only works if I pretend I’m just asexual. I’m not.
True to Crenshaw’s metaphor of a traffic accident for intersectional identities, identities are also messy. It makes me feel uncomfortable to write this post because I know how important the symbol of cake is to some parts of the asexual community, but I also know I am not just asexual. I feel excluded from the asexual community when we use metaphors that assume and uphold the idea that all asexual people prefer cake to sex and that it’s unproblematic to eat ‘food’ that requires seeing some animals as objects.
In spite of these concerns I don’t think cake will go away anytime soon. Even if it did, cake is not the only ‘problem.’ Cake is not the only reason I struggle to exist within the asexual community. It’s one piece of a much larger puzzle, but importantly, talking about it might help us one day piece together the complete puzzle.
I don’t know how to have an intersectional identity and function in a community, but that’s hardly an excuse to stop trying. Maybe I’ll figure something out along the way. As Anthony J. Nocella II and others state in the introduction to Defining Critical Animal Studies, oppression is intersectional. If identities and oppression are both intersectional, maybe the ‘way out’ of oppression has something to do with ‘getting in’ to social movements whole.