Why the “Are Asexuals Queer?” Question is Incoherent

The following is a guest post by Captain Heartless.

Recently at an ace meet up, someone brought up the “are asexuals queer?” question and made me realize I’d never fully fleshed out some of the assumptions behind the question. Siggy has explained some of the ambiguity in that question before, arguing that calling asexuals queer acts as either a community guideline or political strategy. And a long time ago I certainly spent my time in the tumblr trenches adamantly arguing that asexuals are queer*. But rather than argue the merits of the question itself, more and more I’ve been leaning towards rejecting the idea that this is a question that can be answered, and we should instead start taking the community guideline approach- and asking “are asexuals part of X group?”** instead of “are asexuals queer?”.

There are two assumptions in that question that bother me: 1) that groups as a whole can be described as “queer”, and 2) that there is a single coherent “queer” community.

The first assumption is basically a category error. Technically speaking, I would say asexuals are not queer- because no group is. Individual people are queer, not everyone with a particular sexual orientation. For example, there are gay men who do not identify as queer, for a variety of reasons (since it’s a reclaimed word that has a different impact or meaning for different people, for example). But of course, some gay men do identify as queer- and so I’d say those gay men are queer. But are “gay men”, as a category, queer? No, because that would imply that something about being gay and/or a man necessarily makes someone queer, and therefore all gay men are queer. I would never want to imply someone who recoils in horror at the word queer must in fact identify as such. Individuals are queer; groups are not- unless everyone in the group happens to identify as queer, which probably isn’t going to be true of any group (except for “the group of all people who identify as queer”, or tautologies like that).

The second assumption- that there is a single coherent queer community- is pretty straightforward.There is no single “queer community”. Every campus center, every meet up, and so on are their own queer communities, and I’m a lot more comfortable asking the question of each group individually, similar to Siggy’s approach in the previously mentioned post.

The point of all of this is that I feel like the reason the “Are asexuals queer?” question keeps getting brought up and never dies is because it’s not a coherent question. The better question is to look at a specific group or community, and then ask the question about that group.

This isn’t to say we must ignore broad level discussions about queer groups. My complaint is based on the ambiguity in the meaning of the word “queer”, and how that leads to arguments where each side is answering a different question. If we ask the question “Are asexuals part of X set of groups?”, that removes the ambiguity (as long as the set of groups is clearly defined), and makes it obvious that we aren’t talking about a monolithic queer community.

-Captain Heartless


*In the framework I used there, note that I’m now leaning more towards a “queer people are people who identify as queer” definition (but in reality I’m likely to use some kind of combination of definitions).

**Group X puns unintended, but intentionally left in

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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9 Responses to Why the “Are Asexuals Queer?” Question is Incoherent

  1. Seth says:

    What this argument seems to imply is that rather than ‘queer’ having a small number of agreed-upon definitions, as is generally the case with words, everyone has their own private definition. If that’s true, it’s not just the question that’s incoherent; the very language we are using to pose it is incoherent. That strikes me as problematic, and – again, if it’s true – I’d say we need to either fix the problem by clearly defining the term, or else stop using ‘queer’ entirely to avoid inevitable miscommunication.

    As I see it, ‘queer’ is – or at least could be – useful as an umbrella term for all who are not cis and straight: synonymous with GSRM, similarly avoiding the alphabet soup problem, yet more pronounceable and commonly recognized. Under that definition, assumption one is actually correct: ‘queer’ is a clearly defined category that does include aces. Assumption two remains false, but that’s irrelevant since being queer and being part of the queer community are two different things entirely.

    • I certainly agree that the main problem is that queer has many definitions. I wouldn’t go as far as to say everyone has their own private definition- just that there are probably at least a dozen or more definitions, and it’s never really clear which one anyone is using. Certainly in different contexts I’m sure the same people (myself included) use the word to mean different things.

      Certainly defining queer as “not cis and straight” would solve that, but then the battle is over whether or not queer actually means that. Part of my problem is that I’m uncomfortable ending up in the position of having to tell someone, effectively, “I know you don’t think you are queer, but you really are whether you admit it or not”. Given the controversial history of queer- and any reclaimed identity- I feel like any definition needs some kind of “out”, where it ends up being akin to “[insert definition], excluding individuals who don’t identify as such”. But that is obviously my own personal position- theory and definitions would be far simpler for me if I didn’t mind assigning the term “queer” on to other people.

      I suppose in many ways my real problem is that the question just becomes “What is queer?”, and once you’ve defined that then whether or not asexuality is included (or can be included) becomes obvious or definitional. But since people don’t agree on what is queer, having an answer hinge on that opens up a big can of worms. By focusing instead on whether asexuals belong to specific groups (social or otherwise), or should belong to them, I feel like it side steps the issue and gets at what we are usually really asking- but maybe my intuitions are off here; I don’t really expect this to be an easy or clear issue.

  2. Victrix says:

    My opinion on are asexuals queer? is I don’t care. However when asked this question I will point out that what I care about is the acknowledgement of an overlap of issues that require the same resources to address them from all parties and I see it as a waste, given the communities limited resources and expertise not to work together regardless of the answer to the original question. Examples of this is mental health support or more topical marriage, whilst distracting from the same-sex debate a bit, from an asexual view point, consummation laws really need to be considered at the same time as it will be hard to bring the debate back to marriage once one issue has been dealt with, however it brings more parties into the debate with other things to be considered. More issues will also become apparent as visibility increases too.
    I’ve found that this can actually have more impact on people, especially those in queer leadership positions, than the are asexuals queer debate.

  3. Pingback: Why I no longer engage the “Are aces queer?” question | The Asexual Agenda

  4. Siggy says:

    I think a notable difference between my approach and yours is that I am far more willing to draw broad generalizations, even if not every individual is part of those generalizations. General statements are guidelines.

    Gay men are queer. That means that if there’s a gay man and they’re wondering whether they should identify as queer, I would advise that they should (and they should take this advice with a grain of salt, given that I’m not taking into account any of their personal circumstances). If there’s a gay man, and they’re wondering if they really *have* to stand with all these other queer minorities–well no they don’t, but they should. They should, because of similar problems and goals, etc. But the soundbite way of saying it is because gay men are queer.

    • I think it’s not just a generalization thing- it’s generalizations using reclaimed words as an umbrella term, which realistically only comes up with the word queer.

      It’s probably because I tend to be really uncomfortable using reclaimed words, even when they have been used against me (and I’m not sure queer has- I tended to get “freak” a lot more, but that might be because queer has already been pretty thoroughly reclaimed in basically every context I’ve been in).

  5. emhjorth says:

    Reblogged this on queer deer and commented:
    A very good response to a debate I’ve seen pop up a lot!

  6. Pingback: The context of queer asexuality, or Why I am a reactionary | The Asexual Agenda

  7. Pingback: 4 Ways the Inclusion/Exclusion Axis is Failing Us | The Ace Theist

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