In case you missed it, there was yet another “are asexuals queer” kerfuffle on tumblr a couple of months back. I’m pretty bored with this whole argument so I’m not going to bother addressing it in any depth here; if you want to read a whole bunch of aces’ opinions on it, you can always read all these posts (plus this one). What I do want to address, though, is an idea that I’ve seen come up multiple times in these debates: if aces want access to LGB* communities, they have to identify as LGB first and as asexual second. In fact, this idea that gender-related romantic orientation should overrule (a)sexual orientation has come up quite a bit in the “are aces queer” debate–it comes up in the tendencies to divide aces up by romantic orientation and to consider [romantic orientation] aces “[sexual orientation] Lite.”**
That got me thinking: do any aces actually consider their romantic orientation more important than their sexual orientation? The answer, of course, is that it depends on the ace. From what I’ve seen, you can divide aces into four groups:
- Group 1: Aces who consider their romantic orientation more important than their sexual orientation.
- Group 2: Aces who consider their sexual orientation more important than their romantic orientation.
- Group 3: Aces who consider their sexual and romantic orientations equally important or who prioritize different orientations at different times.
- Group 4: Aces who don’t identify with a romantic orientation and thus consider this whole categorization system boring and pointless.
Let’s get Group 4 out of the way first, because they’re the easiest to address. Some aces don’t consider themselves to have a romantic orientation. Additionally, some aces may not identify with a gender-related romantic orientation. Some aces have fraught relationships with romantic orientation. When you’re trying to restrict access to certain spaces by looking at the prefix on -romantic, Group 4 causes all sorts of computation errors.
That’s Group 4 out of the way, so let’s talk about Group 2. In case you haven’t already guessed, a lot of people in Group 4 are also hanging out in Group 2! All the heteroromantic aces I know are in Group 2, probably because heteroromantic aces tend to not have experiences “like” straight people. (That might be why some people don’t want Group 2 in LGBT+ spaces.) Also in Group 2 are the people whose asexuality has caused more friction in their lives than their romantic orientation, whether that friction has come in the form of bullying, isolation, alienation, feelings of brokenness, reparative therapy, harassment, failed relationships, threats of or actual violence, etc.
Group 1, in my experience, is actually the smallest group, and tends to be populated mostly by older aces who identified as LGB before discovering asexuality, people who are grey-asexual (and have experienced limited friction in their lives because of their sexual orientation), and a strangely large number of homoromantic women, many of whom identify as either “asexual lesbians” or “lesbian asexuals.”*** Maybe part of the reason why Group 1 is so small is because (surprise!) people who don’t identify strongly with asexuality tend not to hang out in ace communities. Often people in Group 1 have experienced more friction in their lives because they are LGB than because they are asexual–I know asexual lesbians who have been disowned by parents or threatened with reparative therapy–and thus they prioritize their romantic orientation over their sexual orientation. Obviously they still think that asexuality is an important facet of their identities, though, otherwise they wouldn’t identify as ace. I’m not sure I know any heteroromantic aces in Group 1, which might be why the “are aces queer” debaters tend to be willing to let Group 1 in.
Finally we get to Group 3, which, conveniently, is the group in which I hang out. It’s also, in my experience, a very large group (if not the largest). We’re the folks who identify strongly with both our sexual orientation and our romantic orientation, who can’t disconnect our experience of one from the other, or who find that both identities are salient, albeit at different times.
I’m asexual and I’m queer, and which of those identities is more important to me at a given time really depends on the day, the context, and my surroundings. I knew I was romantically attracted to girls when I was 15, and spent a little while identifying as lesbian and then bisexual, and yet the fact that I passed through those identities to reach an asexual identity means that neither of them was a perfect fit for me, despite the “biromantic basically just means you’re Bisexual Lite” arguments.**** For a long time, I belonged to Group 2 simply because I had spent so long without words to describe my experience that having words felt so important. Additionally, I was unsure whether I was “queer enough” to “count”; since I’m romantically attracted to more than one gender (and have been in relationships that could pass as het), I face similar issues to bi and pan folks who are trying to figure out whether they’re “queer enough” to enter LGb(t) spaces.
Nowadays, which identity is more important to me fluctuates from day to day. Queerness tends to be a more visible identity, while asexuality tends to cause more friction for me in my day-to-day life. Lunchtime conversations are often a gentle reminder that I don’t experience things that most of my peers do, but when my girlfriend and I get harassed on the street, it’s pretty hard to forget that I’m romantically pretty queer. In ace spaces, I feel queer, and in LGBT spaces, I feel flamingly ace. (In general, though, I tend to feel that ace spaces are better at accommodating more of my identities than LGBT spaces.) I get more harassment from strangers for being queer, but the vast majority of the violence, invalidation, and harassment I have experienced from acquaintances has been because of my asexuality.
Now you may be sitting there thinking, Well, okay, but isn’t that what intersectionality for? Yes! This situation is, in fact, exactly what intersectionality is for! And yet the people involved in the “are aces queer” debates seem to forget that intersectionality exists, or else seem to think that asexuality isn’t an important enough identity that intersectionality should even be an issue, despite the fact that it kind of is. I should not be asked to pick one identity and discard the others in order to belong to a community, and neither should any of the other folks in Group 3. If I belong to a community, I want to belong to that community as a whole person, and I can’t disconnect my asexuality from my queerness any more than I can disconnect my queerness from my asexuality. I am queer and asexual, not queer then asexual, and pressuring me to prioritize one identity over the other is a great way to drive me out of your space.
Maybe that’s the point, though. Maybe people think membership in LGB spaces should be determined by standing next to a sign that says “you must prioritize your LGB identity this much to enter.” But, geez, if you want to restrict membership to your spaces that way, you’re going to drive away a lot more people than just those pesky invading aces. It can be difficult to disentangle race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, romantic orientation, gender identity, etc., because the tangle itself is as much a part of your identity as the individual strands. Plus, I think most people would rather not take a pair of pruning shears to their identities just to be welcome in a particular space.
*Trans aces are somehow conveniently forgotten in these discussions!
**There’s also the related tendency to prioritize whichever orientation is “straighter” when someone has a mixed orientation–so aromantic heterosexuals are straight, heteroromantic asexuals are straight, heteroromantic bisexuals are straight, biromantic heterosexuals are straight, etc. That’s beyond the scope of this post, though, so I shall leave it to someone else (or a later time).
***Ace in Translation has written some cool commentary on why some people may identify as “gay asexual,” “lesbian asexual,” etc. Even with the introduction of -romantic for romantic orientation in 2005, though, there still seem to be a disproportionately large number of self-identified “asexual lesbians.” Does anyone happen to know why?
****Of course, identifying as LGB before identifying as asexual is not exactly uncommon, even for aromantic aces. People trying to get aces to identify with their romantic orientation over their sexual orientation seem to forget that, hey, actually, a lot of us already tried that, and it didn’t work!