Prioritizing identity

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!

About queenieofaces

QueenieOfAces is a graduate student in the U.S. studying Japanese religion. She is a queer asexual. She also blogs over at Concept Awesome and runs Resources for Ace Survivors. She is never quite sure what to write in these introduction things, but this one time she accidentally got a short story on asexuality published in an erotica magazine.
This entry was posted in Intersectionality, LGBT. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Prioritizing identity

  1. caelesti says:

    Bisexual here- being someone who is sometimes excluded from gay/lesbian spaces I’m pretty sympathetic to asexuals. What I think is a little silly is that people are framing things as if a ton of asexuals are trying to take over movements/organizations/gay bars (or what?) when asexuals are a relatively small minority, and *out, politically organized aces are an even smaller minority. Once again, I think people’s perspective are being distorted by the internet.
    If you experience sexuality in such a way that is ignored/erased/stigmatized by society, and you’re proud out of your identity and don’t want to compromise it for other people’s comfort levels, to me that qualifies as “queer”. Better to band together than exclude people if they need support and want community.

  2. acetheist says:

    “Group 1: Aces who consider their romantic orientation more important than their sexual orientation.”

    I haven’t been in the community very long, but the one person I can remember feeling strongly about this was, interestingly enough, an aromantic ace, who explained they felt that anti-aro bias was more prevalent + aromanticism more maligned and ignored than the same went with their sexual orientation. Funny how that’s also a group that these debators often neglect to consider. If an aro ace prioritizes their romantic orientation, do they get let through the doors? Probably not unless they’re dating someone.

    “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.”

    That was unexpectedly poetic oh my gosh.

    “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?”

    …I’d always thought this one was kind of obvious, but since people are questioning it now, I’ll throw out my theory here so that someone can correct me if I’m wrong.

    I’d presumed that many homoromantic ace women choose the word “lesbian” for themselves in order to express the idea that they by and large feel a connection to that community and set of experiences, moreso than, say, heteroromantics, who are more likely to avoid the word “straight” for themselves because they don’t feel like they have the “straight experience”/aren’t allowed to have all the same comforts that straight people are afforded in regard to their orientation (and the reason folks don’t notice this dynamic so much with biromantic and panromantic folks is that the slang/less formal words for bisexual and pansexual are… bi and pan, so it’d be the same either way). Calling oneself a lesbian says that one is a target of much of the same crap that’s thrown at lesbians in general, so it makes sense. In contrast with aromantics (who have no pre-established terminology) and heteroromantics (many of whom feel that “straight” says something untrue about them), homoromantic aces may find “lesbian” as a concept suits a lot of them just fine because it says all they need it to in fewer letters than homoromantic and it already has some accurate(-ish) cultural precedent.

    • queenieofaces says:

      I’ve seen one or two aro aces in Group 1, but I see waaaaay more of them in Group 3. (That might just be a question of whose blogs I follow, though!)
      The debaters tend to ignore aromantic aces entirely…or else…try to argue that they’re straight? Because no attraction is basically like being a straight person, I guess? But then again, this is the same group of people that has argued that A. you’re not really queer unless you’re in a same-sex relationship, B. transphobia is just a type of homophobia, and C. heteroromantic bisexuals are actually straight, so…

      I’ve already gotten one response to the lesbian asexual thing: http://adventures-in-asexuality.tumblr.com/post/94645478933/prioritizing-identity
      I guess my question is not “why are there more asexual lesbians than straight asexuals or bi asexuals?” but “why do male homoromantics tend to self-describe as homoromantic rather than gay?” Because almost all the female homoromantic aces I know self-describe as asexual lesbians, but very few of the men self-describe as gay asexuals.

      • acetheist says:

        Oh, I see. Welp, I’ve got even less of a clue about that then.

      • Siggy says:

        I identify as gay (I’m gray-A though, not homoromantic asexual), and I’m really curious why this isn’t more common among homoromantic asexual men.

        • queenieofaces says:

          Yeah, you were the first person I thought of! And then I tried to think of others…and failed. (I know some folks who describe as “gay-ish,” but I don’t think that’s quite the same.)

          • sablin27 says:

            I suspect “lesbian” is more culturally tied to romantic behaviour and “gay” to sexual. (Because we all know women want lovey-dovey stuff and men want to score.) I don’t know how much that set of priorities is reflected in community discourse, but even if it’s only mainstream society that holds those expectations, that’s a whole bunch of people who understand your labels better.

      • Sciatrix says:

        Most of the non-male aces I know who are only interested in non-dudes are complicated by nonbinary things–either being nonbinary themselves or also potentially interested in nonbinary people. And many of the aces I happen to personally know in that category fall into the “what the hell is romance” category–I know way more people confused about romance who are primarily interested in same-gender people than I do people who are primarily interested in opposite-gender people,

        (That may actually be a thing worth interrogating, in fact. If you’re roughly oriented towards developing close, committed nonsexual relationships with people in the opposite gender from you, heteronormativity says that fits kind of like a romantic relationship, especially when “men and women can’t REALLY be friends!” If you’re roughly oriented towards same-gender people, then you often have a rather more difficult time accessing models about how that fits into romantic relationships, AND you have competing friendship models to conceptualize your relationships into. Which may lead to some of the confusion, particularly for women and people socialized as women who are often encouraged more to develop very close friendships.)

        So maybe that’s one of the reasons that identifying as a lesbian even if you yourself are female or female-ish and only interested in female people might *not* be so popular for some people? I’m not sure. I actually hadn’t encountered anyone self-identifying as a lesbian asexual until you mentioned it since I saw the old, defunct Asexual Lesbians forum when I was looking for historical ace communities. And certainly “homoromantic asexual” has always been a very small contingent in community surveys as compared to things like bi and panromantic aces. I find it really interesting that you find as many people willing to identify as homoromantic as you do willing to identify as monoromantic but neither homoromantic nor heteroromantic.

  3. Aromantic ace here. I fall into Group 2, considering my sexual orientation more important than my romantic orientation. This became clearer to me after seeing some attempts to create an “aromantic community” that would include both asexuals and allosexuals. I don’t feel I have very much in common with aromantic allosexuals, but I do with alloromantic asexuals.

    In a way, I feel like my romantic orientation is important more for what it’s not than for what it is. I assume that my life might be different if I were alloromantic and wanted to form romantic relationships with others. But I don’t know if that’s true or not and it’s hard for me to imagine that hypothetical.

    I’m also at a stage now where I feel like my sex aversion may actually be the most relevant to my identity though I don’t have enough of a sample size to say for sure if I would identify more with sex-averse allosexuals than with sex-favorable aces.

  4. Aqua says:

    Of the four groups, both groups 2 and 4 are what fit me the closest. I’m unsure if I experience feelings that count as romantic attraction, not sure if I’m an aromantic in denial, or only do experience a limited degree of romantic attraction, and even then, I can’t tell which gender(s) it’s towards. Romantic orientation isn’t a very useful concept for me personally. I’ve identified as gray-romantic only because it seems like the closest thing, but I don’t identify with it strongly, because of the uncertainty.

    I feel like if my romantic orientation were more clear-cut, I’d be more willing to identify with it.

    However, I identify with the rejection of sex and being sex-averse first, asexuality second, and I have before, and since I found the asexual community. I’ve met sex-averse allosexuals, and I feel like I can relate to them a lot, and understand their experiences more easily than the experiences of sex-indifferent and favorable asexuals who have sex. But I wonder how much of that is shaped by the fact that I didn’t find the asexual community first, and how would my experiences be different if I did instead?

  5. Siggy says:

    I don’t really identify with a romantic orientation, because my sexual and romantic orientations are matched (they’re both gray-homo-). However, I would say that I strongly identify with the particular direction of my gray attractions. Being homo really is different from being hetero. I’m not sure I would say that the direction is more important than being gray-A, just that it is important.

    Sometimes I think asexuals diminish the importance of homo/bi/hetero distinctions, just because there aren’t many homo-oriented men around. Like, it’s easier to say that race distinctions don’t matter when you’re white, and it’s easier to say orientation distinctions don’t matter when you’re hetero. That’s the cynical take.

    On the other hand, I identify strongly with my homo orientation because I’m in a same-sex relationship, and hang out with lots of gay people (whereas many homoromantic asexuals I’ve met don’t do that). It’s a chicken and egg question: did my gay identification make me more comfortable in gay spaces, or did my participation in gay spaces increase my gay identification?

    • Siggy says:

      To clarify, it’s fine with me if hetero people do not identify strongly with the hetero label, and it even makes a lot of sense. I’m just defensive about people saying that hetero/bi/homo distinctions don’t matter in general. Actually, maybe no one really says that, but I imagine people saying it and I get peeved at those imaginary people.

    • queenieofaces says:

      Yeah, I once had an experience where I was in a group of aces, all of whom were heteroromantic and all of whom had different gender partners, and that was probably the one time that I’ve been in an ace space and thought, “Wow, I am really, really queer, yikes.”

      I’ve actually seen a couple of people (most of whom are either homoromantic or same-gender-leaning) talking about how there should either be more differentiation by romantic orientation in ace spaces OR be more talk about being an ace in a same-gender relationship. When I think about it, it’s odd how little talk there is about being an ace in same-gender relationships, given that it’s not exactly uncommon. Maybe people don’t feel like ace communities are the place to talk about that, or maybe they’re seeking out LGBT communities instead. I don’t really know what’s going on.

      • Sciatrix says:

        There’s really not that much discussion of being an ace in any type of existing relationship, though, hetero or not! If anything I can think of more aces who are in same-sex or otherwise queer relationships talking about their relationships than I can heteroromantics. Most of the relationship discussion I’ve seen is theoretical in nature.

        That being said, my current string of relationship problems are all considerably more relevant to the fact that my partners are same-sex than they are to the fact that we’re ace. (And by ‘problems’ I mean shit I’m dealing with from extended family, worrying about extending medical benefits to the partner I’m sponsoring for immigration, trying to figure out what my marriage status is legally for the asshole state I live in is at the moment, that kind of thing.) Which is one of the reasons I haven’t bothered writing about it. Although now that I think about it, there may be something to be said about family members using a label of “asexuality” to attempt to avoid having to deal with “real gayness” or whatever. I’ve known a lot of aces whose parents “forgot” after they outed themselves, for example, which is an experience I think is less common among gay people and more common among bi women in particular, at least from my anecdata.

        • queenieofaces says:

          That’s a good point! I guess part of it is that I know a fair number of aces in person who are in different-gender relationships, so that is probably skewing my perception a bit. If you think about media coverage, though, it’s always people in het-seeming relationships…

          Also, yes, asexuality as a cover for “real gayness” is something I really want to talk about more. I know a couple of people whose families have latched onto their asexuality in order to discount their romantic orientation (You’re queer? No, no, you’re asexual, that just means you’re a late bloomer). Or, in one spectacularly weird case, a mom tried to convince her daughter not to date girls because she was asexual and she would just wind up disappointing them (but it was okay for her to date boys because, you never know, honey, you might meet the right one). Then you have the anti-ace brigade coming from the opposite direction, trying to convince us that we’re ALL using asexuality as a cover from real gayness. Basically, yes, more talk about being ace and queer, please.

  6. Ace in Translation says:

    as a group 3 person, I like this post, a lot. I don’t like how discourse happening – mostly – outside of asexual communities forces me to prioritize one identity over another. Though there is little discussion about intersections between romantic and sexual orientation within the ace communities, I don’t feel I have to choose one over the other in order to belong. I don’t have to worry about people questioning whether a discussion about my romantic orientation belongs in the asexual communities. Whereas that is a consideration if I enter/participate in LGb(t) communities that aren’t explicitly ace-inclusive.

    Also, from the perspective of my intertwined identities being equally important to me, I really dislike the idea of treating romantic and sexual orientation as two distinct concepts. They’re not distinct, they’re connected, influence eachother and are impossible to untangle. On top of that, because sexual orientation as an identity is prioritized not just in mainstream society (which doesn’t make a distinction) but also in ace communities (after all, our communities revolve around that one part of our identity), to me describing my bi-ness as a “romantic orientation” feels like a demotion to a second tier. Why can’t my sexual orientation be asexual and bi at the same time? Thought I have a lot of feelings and opinions about the term “sexual orientation” and its application to asexuality (but I will write about that in the next post of my language series).

    About asexual lesbians: I thought it was just the bias in my own bubble, but I noticed that too. Would definitely be interesting to hear from more asexual lesbians/lesbian asexuals why they label themselves the way they do. Is it perhaps a similar dynamic that makes lesbians in general identify more strongly with the lesbian label instead of the gay label? So the homoromantic label is read as being a male dominated/male specific term?

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  8. Oh gosh, this brings up a whole lot of thoughts for me! I think, like you say, that my sexual and romantic orientations are so entangled with one another that it would be impossible to really prioritize one over the other. I started IDing as bi before I even knew what asexuality or aromanticism were, based on the confusing evidence of my vague attractions. But that label never felt fully comfortable to me, even though I still consider it a part of my identity. I think it that discomfort may be due in part to the hypersexualization of bi people in the public imagination, when what I was really trying to get at was more about sensual attraction and a desire for emotionally intimate relationships. And of course the gray ace/gray aro part of my label constellation is much more descriptive if my relationship history and general state of being…it’s just not the whole story.

    • queenieofaces says:

      Have you read Tristifere’s excellent piece on being bi and ace? http://tristifere.tumblr.com/post/91274249234/sex-aversion-asexuality-and-identifying-as-bi It seems like there’s a lot of overlap in your experiences.

      It doesn’t seem like it’s uncommon for biromantic/aromantic/greyromantic folks to identify as bi before discovering asexuality/aromanticism; hopefully someone will write a post on that at some point! I identified as bi for a while because I had crushes on girls and crushes on guys, and I figured that crushes were as close to whatever everyone else was feeling as I could get. (Also, I operated under the Maybe I’m Secretly Demisexual hypothesis for a while, although I didn’t know the word “demisexual” at the time; I just figured that I would feel whatever everyone else felt when I was really, truly, completely in love with someone.)

      • Oh, I hadn’t seen that post! I’ve talked with tristifere about this before (I’m on Tumblr as bi-gray), but I hadn’t actually seen that post yet–I’ve been kind of living under a rock for the last month and half for a variety of reasons.

        I had my own variation on the Secretly Demisexual hypothesis: I seriously thought I must be feeling whatever everyone else was, but was really bad at noticing it. Second-guessing your knowledge of your own emotional experiences is the worst!

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