Asexual activism in the Israeli military: an interview with Gaia Steinberg

 Gaia Steinberg is an activist in Israel.  They have done many talks about asexuality, primarily for the LGBT community, and lead the asexual contingent in Pride Tel-Aviv for three years.  But they first got involved in activism during their mandatory service to the Israeli military in 2008-2010.  They blog at The Queer Ace.  I asked them about their experience, as part of our International Voices series.

Gaia adds the following disclaimer: “This post should not be taken as support of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) or the Israeli occupation. My participation in the army was due to mandatory conscription. This post does not go into this in detail in order to focus at the topic at hand.”

What are the biggest issues you had as an asexual activist in the military?

The biggest issue was probably being isolated from my friends, who were my accepting support network. From a reality of talking every day to people who knew about asexuality and accepted it, and knew about the difficulties I was going through because of my aceness – I was forced full-time into an environment in which allosexuality was a given, and the difficulties that come with allosexuality were a given. My life story suddenly became invisible, again.

What made things worse is that being in a closed base (in which you are not allowed out except for certain weekends) made people miss sex. In the first couple of months, I was doing a course that had 90% girls in it, and their approach to sexuality at the time reminds me of “America’s Next Top Model”. For those of you who haven’t watched the show, the models live in a house together for weeks, and every time they work with a male model they always squeal with excitement and say, “finally – it’s time for some testosterone here!”. In my army experience, this happened in the form of all of the girls being in love with one of our male commanders and being very vocal about how much they want to have sex with him. And every time we had a special lecture by a man who was considered to be “good looking”, they would all talk about how much he’s hot. Some girls would shave their legs the last night before going home for the weekend, saying in excitement that they’re preparing themselves for having sex with their boyfriends at home.

I felt very lonely.

At the time, I was afraid to never find intimacy because I was asexual. I was afraid people would always perceive their relationship with me as less meaningful because of the lack of sex.

Being around girls that constantly reminded me how much sex is important and wonderful and THE thing was very, very difficult. We get drafted at 18, so we’re basically still teenagers – and so teenage horniness ruled the discussions. I should also mention that they probably talked about other things as well… But the sex-talk was so foreign to me and made me feel so alone that I remember it in more detail. And because I was there 24/7, I was alone 24/7.

So after a short while (a week or two) I decided to come out. I wanted them to know that I’m not going to drool with them over hot officers and that for me, sex isn’t obvious at all. In my eyes, it was kinda like telling them I’m gay if they said “that’s so gay” a lot. They wouldn’t stop saying it, but after coming out – every time it’s said, there’s this tension in the air, because people know exactly how that might hurt someone around them. During sex talks, people would look at me – and the loneliness I felt was suddenly out there for everyone to recognize. They couldn’t keep sex as such an obvious goal when I was around anymore, and I enjoyed the visibility. I enjoyed fucking with their plan to get excited nods from everyone around.

At some point, I was considering coming out to one of my officers, because I knew he was openly gay and active in different LGBT organizations. I wanted to talk to him about the difficulties I was having with the girls, and how isolated I felt – assuming he has gone through similar things himself. But I couldn’t. I was too petrified that he wouldn’t know what asexuality is and therefor wouldn’t take me seriously, or wouldn’t understand the connection between asexuality and LGBT oppression. So I never talked to him about it. Eventually, when the course ended and we became Facebook-friends, he messaged me after my coming-out status and we talked about it. In hindsight, I could have talked to him during the course – but I didn’t know it at the time.

Things got better once the course ended and I was based in an open-base (in which most people sleep at home and not at the base). This allowed people more freedom and they were less sexually constricted – and therefore the hyper-sexual environment that was in the course didn’t exist as much.

Did the culture there cause you any problems with asexuality? Or perhaps it caused problems with the very idea of activism?

The army actually gave me my first chance to experiment with activism. After the course, the main part of my service started. The people at the base I was stationed at were pretty open minded. They’ve never heard about asexuality before… But I started slowly educating them on the topic.

The first big change happened about a year into my service. My department had a tradition in which once a month, someone did a talk about a subject that has nothing to do with our army-work (like Freudian psychology, The Beatles and so on). When it was my turn, I decided to give a talk about asexuality. Now, usually these talks are mandatory for the whole department, but the day before my talk my officer sat me down and told me that mine is going to be optional. Apparently, there were people in the department who didn’t feel comfortable with the subject I have chosen and didn’t want to attend. To this day I don’t know if the issue was that people didn’t feel comfortable attending a talk that had explicit sexual content, or if people thought I was trying to “recruit” and decided it was unsuitable. In any case, only 8 out of the 25-30 soldiers in my department came.

I remember that talk vividly. I was having a lot of trouble finding friends in the army and bonding with other people, and this was the first time that they were on my turf – and suddenly I was interesting. On a personal level, it was great. I had something to talk about with them, and I truly felt like I was changing their outlook on asexuality (and possibly on sexuality as a result).

What surprised me the most, though, was that it didn’t end there.

The rumor started spreading. Other soldiers from the department heard how the talk went, and some wanted me to do another one. Even soldiers from other departments have heard about the talk and wanted to attend too. A few weeks later I did a second talk in front of about 15 people. By the time I got out of the army, a year later, I did about 6 talks, and the last talk was in front of about 50 people, including soldiers from different units in my base. When I’d happen to meet people who were in my department before I was and I had no idea who they were – they knew about my asexuality, and knew what asexuality was. People around me started talking about it. At lunch, I’d get dragged once in a while to a different table to explain about asexuality to someone I didn’t know (while using silverware as props to demonstrate attraction spectrums).

This was my little activism lab. I gained a lot of experience in giving talks about asexuality, and I had loads of fun doing it. I couldn’t find my place there socially anyway, and so turning into “that asexual chick” was something I really enjoyed at the time.

The one time when the army really got in the way of my activism was around pride 2010. I was in the last three months of my service, and I was organizing the first ever asexual group to march in Tel-Aviv’s pride parade. In honor of this special occasion, I was trying to get the press interested in the group. The problem was when the press got back to me… As a soldier, I wasn’t allowed to be interviewed to anything, even if it had nothing to do with the army. I tried to get special approval, but got a negative answer. One of the internet news sites ended up doing an anonymous interview with me. They took all my answers and instead of writing that “Gaia Steinberg, organizer of the asexual group in the parade says…” they wrote “key members of the community say…”. Someone commented on it saying – “if they’re so proud of who they are and they’re marching in pride and all, why isn’t anyone identifying with their name?”. That crushed me. I wanted to respond saying that I would have gladly given my name, only I couldn’t because of the army – but I couldn’t even write that, because of the army!

However, that was the only time, really, when the army actively got in the way of my activism. Other than that, my army service was surprisingly the place where my activism started and thrived.

I do feel the need to mention, though, that my experience of talking about my sexual identity in the army is greatly different from the experiences of a lot of other LGBTQA people. I happened to be in a place that allowed me to do that, both because of the people I served with (who were generally more open) and because of the space given to me (where I could just book the conference room for a talk about asexuality). This is very different from the experience of a lot of other LGBTQA people in the army – and in a lot of ways, I was very, very lucky.

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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