I was reading Queenie’s recent post about not being gay this week, and I (predictably) had a lot of feelings. And I got caught up in thinking about it. What does it mean to be asexual?
I spend a lot of time worried about asexual identity. I’ve been writing about asexuality online for years, and every week I go down to my local coffee shop and sit down and talk asexuality with my friends. I’ve stood up and talked to total strangers about my masturbatory habits and worse, my intimate emotions, in an effort to educate people about aces. I must have invested hours, days, weeks of time over the years trying to figure out how to be open about who and what I am. This identity means a lot to me.
And I’ve had a lot of disinterested and uncomfortable responses over the years when I try to talk about being ace. I’ve run into a lot of people who have gone “why do you care about this?” or who have in some way been confused about why this is an important identity for me. Do you know, when I told my mother about my relationships, the first thing she asked me was whether I’d been lying to her all this time about my identity? It didn’t seem to her that asexuality should be important enough to invest years of pushing at her to accept it, when I might have been using it as an excuse to hide my gayness.
So why am I trying so hard? What does it mean to be asexual? Why do I need people to know this about me? What kinds of things define asexual experience, anyway?
I don’t know. I talked a little bit about asexual culture when I mentioned how much we like labels and theories some time ago, and certainly those cultural influences—the way I think about sexuality and orientation, the way I automatically reach for certain concepts—those are important to me. They’re a part of me. I like to share that history with people, explain the lineage of the ideas I carry with me and how they have grown and changed over time, and ace culture is inextricably part of that. But cultural influence isn’t the whole of why I cling to my identity with such force.
Perhaps some of the rest of the problem has to do with perception. Right now, to most people, I present as some shade of ambiguously queer or outright gay, depending on whether I’ve mentioned my partner(s) recently and how much attention they’re paying and whether they’re thinking about my orientation. And I’m mostly fine with that. But… “gay” isn’t actually that much closer to my reality than “straight” is. I don’t meet people’s expectations for “lesbian” any better than I do their expectations for “straight woman,” is the thing. And uncomfortable, strange looks when I fail to behave and feel as expected are… well. Uncomfortable.
It’s important to me that people who are close enough to me to know about my personal life know why my relationships are a bit unconventional. Why, for example, I never had an abrupt transition from “non-dating” to “dating” with my partners. Why I never have anything like a crush to talk about, and why I so frequently get awkward when people start talking about how hard dating is. I want to cheer people on, but I don’t have anything to contribute in the way people frequently expect me to.
And it’s, paradoxically, important to me that people understand why I have such a hard time reaching out to non-aces. It’s important to me that people understand why I am conflicted about reaching out to LGBTQ groups, because I don’t have the luxury of automatically belonging in that acronym, and I have seen enough people explode with rage at the thought of including me that I’m not willing to assume I’m welcome. (I know that this is a skewed perception, and that views like this are more common online than in actual offline spaces. That doesn’t seem to help, and the experiences I’ve had that shaped that view are very ace-specific.)
Part of that’s because talking about it is difficult for me—90% of the time, I have to do some form of 101, and I am frequently trying to build relationships with people I really, really do not want to field questions about my masturbationary habits from. For example, my coworkers and other professional contacts are not people I want to have thinking of me as “that one woman with the weird sexual identity.” Outing myself is sufficiently difficult and involved that it’s often not even a feasible option. And even when I’ve outed myself already, discussing more involved aspects of my orientation–like how I can have committed relationships at all, or why I have gender preferences–involves wading through a thick, mucky swamp of confusion and ignorance. It doesn’t have to be maliciously meant to be exhausting.
And the remaining times I’ve tried to talk about my experiences, even when I’ve already explained what I am and what that means, people just… don’t want to hear about it. It’s not important. Things like my parents’ complete refusal to deal with my frustrating inability to be straight, or my problems making the gynecologist understand that no, I really am not having sex, and yes, I’m okay with that, and yes, I would still like to be on the Pill for other reasons. Things like body image issues, when like every woman on the face of the planet I worry whether I am fat, or ugly, or insufficiently groomed. Like worrying I will be alone for the rest of my life, or feeling uncomfortable and insulted when people tell me they wish they were ace, too. I have had friends I thought I could trust brush all of these off as unimportant because I was ace, and obviously asexual people don’t have real problems. I wish I was kidding.
Identifying as asexual is such an isolating experience, too. I’m very lucky in that I have an offline community, now. So when I’m having family problems or I’m trying to decide whether to lie to the gynecologist and maybe be believed or to tell the truth and be ignored, I have people I can go to and vent about that over scones and tea. Now, anyway.
But I grew up with literally no one off the internet who would have had any idea what I was talking about. I grew up feeling—if not completely alone, then detached from any meaningful form of community support. I was one of the lucky ones, because I knew I wasn’t broken and I knew that in theory, other people like me existed. It was just that they were so rare (are so rare) that I could never expect to actually meet and talk to them. I could find people like me on the internet, but no one to stand breathing in front of me. And even now, finding other people like me takes sustained work. I’ve built most of the offline community I’ve had access to. When I inevitably move in five or ten years, I expect to have to build a new community from scratch. And I’m still invisible in the broader culture.
It’s perhaps not a surprise that the queer narratives that resonate most strongly with me are those that come from times and places when people could not be open about their sexuality. Not because I’ve ever been afraid of physical beatings or the safety of my life—mostly, the people who are really viciously hateful about my sexuality save their vitriol for the internet, where I’m not sufficiently human to make them think about what they’re saying. But it’s an endless, subtle push to be silent, a society that has no concept that I exist, and a culture that doesn’t even have a box on the census form to allow for my existence.
I don’t like that isolation and silence are part of what asexuality means to me. I hope that in the future, that won’t be the case. I hope that people beginning to identify as ace now won’t carry the same kinds of baggage I do, and that they’ll find it easier to seek whatever support they find most useful. But for me, right now, those things are integral to what it means for me to be ace, along with all of the rest of it. And I want people to know these things about me, because I want to be known and understood by the people who matter to me.
Is that too much to ask?