Ace exclusionists and gender

Recently, I expressed a desire to talk about “The Discourse”, that big flame war that occurs on Tumblr regarding the inclusion of aces in LGBT spaces. I wish to strip away euphemism, so I’m going to switch to calling it “The Ace Flame War”, with the understanding that I’m referring to that flame war, and not one of the numerous flame wars that occur elsewhere. My article received a mixed response, because many readers felt it would be unproductive to get down into the trenches of The Ace Flame War. To this I say, that’s moot because it’s not likely to happen. My style is is to instead make bird’s eye observations.

So, let’s make some observations of gender. Tumblr mostly consists of women. This is especially true of the ace parts of Tumblr, where women outnumber nonbinary people, who outnumber men. I believe it is also true of the “exclusionists”–the opposing side of the Flame War.

I’m a cis guy, and so this is a really glaring aspect of The Ace Flame War, that it’s primarily an argument between women and other women–with nonbinary people playing a significant supporting role of course. This leaves me in the position of seeing certain… ideas… that participants in the Flame War take for granted, but seem highly unusual to me.

It has often been remarked that ace exclusionists are highly analogous to TERFs (trans-exclusive radical feminists). Many exclusionist arguments are copied directly from TERFs. And many exclusionists are also literally TERFs who alternate between acephobia and transphobia, and biphobia as well.

But what is a TERF? These days, many people use TERF as a generic term for transphobia, but that is not what it is. TERFism is a specific variety of transphobia, whose roots can be traced to radical feminism in the 70s. Whether TERFs are actually feminists is a fraught question (one that I recently discussed with other bloggers), and a full treatment is beyond the scope of this post. But suffice it to say that most TERFs are women who at least think of themselves as feminists. They see themselves as guardians of women’s spaces from “male” trans invaders.

This is quite different from men’s spaces. The typical pathology of a men’s space, is that it proclaims its desire to be inclusive, while turning a blind eye towards the male harassers in their midst. This is a different variety of exclusionism, enforced not by self-proclaimed gatekeepers, but by an oppressive culture.

These two narratives–the gatekept women’s space, and the oppressive men’s space–are quite reductive. Not all men’s spaces or women’s spaces fit. I only claim that the latter narrative applies to my own experience.

I started out in queer undergrad organizations that were well-mixed in terms of gender. But my post-undergraduate experience has been almost entirely with male-dominated spaces (excluding ace groups). There was a queer grad student organization, a queer support group, queer themed housing, gay bars, gay clubs, and of course several gay friend-circles. Women were welcome in most of these spaces, but not sought out, and sometimes treated poorly, and thus mostly absent. My experience with queer women’s spaces is nil, because it is understood that if you’re a man, you must never go there. It is forbidden. You don’t go there in curiosity, you don’t go there in solidarity, you don’t go there at all.

My experience as an ace in non-ace queer spaces, is that nobody ever questioned whether I belong there. The whole exclusionism vs inclusionism question that occupies The Ace Flame War was a complete non-issue, and bafflingly out of touch.

If anything, the problem was the opposite, that some people seemed to believe that I belonged in those queer spaces even more than I let on. In other words, they believed I was just gay. The problem was not gatekeeping, but rather ignorance, assumptions–and sometimes a lack of consent culture. This was true of the mixed-gender student orgs, and became even more true as I moved towards more male-dominated spaces.

Why do gay men think everyone else is gay? Homophobes are gay. Bisexuals are gay. Aces are gay. The babadook is gay. Do lesbians ever do the same? I get the sense that lesbians would rather just kick everyone out who isn’t unequivocally lesbian. Thus we have TERFs, ace exclusionists, and narratives of bisexual traitors.

I reiterate that I have absolutely no experience in queer women’s spaces. I’ve been told that this is only a problem in certain kinds of women’s spaces, and ace exclusionists only represent a slice. (And what about trans and nonbinary spaces? I haven’t forgotten about them, I just don’t presume to know anything about them.)

So I’ll leave it to the commenters to analyze the tendency towards gatekeeping in queer women’s spaces.  I’ll analyze the tendency towards assimilation in queer men’s spaces.

Queer men understand that the more things they can make gay, the more acceptable it is to be gay. Put another way, there is more space to be gay.

Got that?  More people = more space.

While this idea gets applied in misguided ways, I think it has a lot of merit. “Space” is not a precious natural resource, it is an artificial resource created and consumed by humans. This is even more true nowadays, when all you have to do to create space is make a website, write a blog, create a group on social media. And wowee, aces are really good at creating spaces. To the extent that there is an ace culture, it revolves around creating spaces. Sometimes it’s all we talk about. The idea that the inclusion of aces will take up space, rather than creating space, that doesn’t make sense to me.

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.
This entry was posted in Articles, asexual politics, Community, LGBT and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Ace exclusionists and gender

  1. In the trans&nonbinary spaces i’ve been, cis people have usually been included, and may even become important members if they demostrate commitment and help out organizing protests, events and meetups.

    I say usually, though, because i know of and have been in some spaces that include everyone… except cishet men, and i’ve never been quite sure how do they decide when a dude is cishet. The one time i saw someone being kicked out (during a general session at a small trans conference, by two persons starting a discussion about why he shouldn’t be there until he left crying) i never managed to figure out why they believed him to be cishet other that for not “looking queer”.

  2. Carmilla DeWinter says:

    That. Very true observations, at least from my experience.
    Apart from TERF stuff and the gatekeeping you mentioned, I sometimes get the feeling that people are either overwhelmed by having to learn yet more words or worried about having to share public attention. They seem to worry that adding a new issue will detract attention from their issues, which seems reasonable at first glance. But I believe it isn’t all that true, especially in the age of the internet, and ignores that people can have more than one political interest. (Which reminds me of other arguments along the same lines. But, guess what, I can care about furthering gender equality and reducing my ecological footprint at the same time.)

  3. Rivers says:

    Good post. I definitely think it is interesting to see the differences between spaces depending on the dominating gender. It might be worthwhile to see this dissected even further.

  4. epochryphal says:

    My main mood is bitter at feeling like I have so few trans (sometimes & non-binary) spaces to draw on, despite having been actively looking and at a UC and then the SF Bay Area for ten years.

    One flavor of trans/non-binary space, the kind I gravitate to and tried to cultivate, is the “hey, even if you think you’re probably cis, you could probably benefit from coming, so you’re welcome as long as you respect people.” I’m not sure though how this would cope with say an influx of bad faith actors.

    Another flavor is “you must say you are trans/non-binary to be in this space, and we will take your word for it unless-and-until you, like, brag about lying to get in or otherwise are shitty to people, when we will expel you based on your actions not a conclusion about your identity.” I like those the most.

    A very popular one is “trans people are centric, but everybody is welcome!” This tends to end up being shitty for non-binary folks and gender non-conforming trans folks because there is rarely enforcement of respect around pronouns/misgendering of people who don’t Look The Archetype. It can also be shitty for trans folks because it attracts chasers, who are often excused as well-meaning and are not expelled. I haven’t seen a space like this with solid policies that make it feel respectful/accessible/somewhere I would ever want to be if I wasn’t desperate, honestly.

    The flavor I am most conflicted and 😡 about is the “women and non-binary” spaces. One, they rarely specify whether trans men are welcome, but often act confused and say “of course they are,” which feels a little icky and positioning them as not-really-men; also, they sometimes outright say “well, they might get some questions or looks if people think they’re cis, but if they’re okay with that!” which… is A Flavor. (I think I’ve heard of one trans man having someone demand he show his genitals to stay in a space. Ew.)

    But even leaving trans men aside, “women and non-binary” spaces tend to be… extremely cis-woman-centric and use that language and assume everyone is cool with it, while also thinking they’re so inclusive and progressive and awesome. (They similarly do tend to be lesbian-centric and ignore non-lesbians – or straight-centric and ignore non-straight folks.) This isn’t great for trans women either, as there’s a lot of body assumptions and experience assumptions – and yeah there’s still a lot of judging by appearance whether someone “really” is an identity to be Admitted.

    I’ve gone to a few gay/queer men’s spaces and they definitely do seem to match your description, Siggy (helped by us being geographically proximal, I’m sure). They tend to assume I’m a lesbian at first and also generally be bemused by my presence but are pretty friendly. They definitely use Gay for everything and I’ve noticed some of the consent culture differences as well.

    As a final note I’ll just complain that my least favorite is “pan” spaces that are straight-default and basically mean “anybody! we’re so forward-thinking!” without doing anything to disrupt assumptions that people are cis and straight (not! pan! pan still isn’t their default whatever they call the space!) until they tell you otherwise. Stop iiiiit.

    • Coyote says:

      As a final note I’ll just complain that my least favorite is “pan” spaces that are straight-default and basically mean “anybody! we’re so forward-thinking!” without doing anything to disrupt assumptions that people are cis and straight (not! pan! pan still isn’t their default whatever they call the space!) until they tell you otherwise. Stop iiiiit.

      I’ve heard people using “pansexual” for the Scene this way before, which was definitely confusing to me. Does it happen outside those contexts as well? Asking because that’s the only context I’ve heard it used this way before.

      • epochryphal says:

        Nah that’s basically the only context I see it in. I think they’ve taken this weird interpretation of “well, we’re a sexual space” (bleh) “and pan means everyone, and we want to welcome everyone, so we’re a pansexual space!” Like… no, though.

        • Sennkestra says:

          The most confusing part is that “pansexual” scene spaces and events are usually referred to as such to distinguish themselves from the more common gay-male-oriented spaces (i.e. as a way to indicate that straight people are also catered to), and as such will tend to end up overwhelmingly full of heterosexual people. Which is like, almost the opposite of what anyone not in the know might expect from a “pansexual” event…

    • Siggy says:

      Awesome reply, these narratives are very helpful.

      The “women and non-binary” space is interesting because it’s an example of a space that’s supposedly inclusive, but oppressive in practice. So, it’s not just men’s spaces that follow that pattern, women’s spaces sometimes do it too.

      I’ve never heard of “pan” spaces like that. D: Very early on when I was still figuring out which queer space fit me, I did attend a few meetings for a bisexual/fluid group, and it wasn’t much like that. I remember it was mostly queer women, and also it was the first time I saw a queer group spontaneously mention asexuality, which was amazing at the time.

    • Cracticus says:

      My local LARP created a women and non-binary Facebook group that, as an enby, I find works well. It certainly helps that one of the admins is queer and there are a number of trans women and non-binary people in it who are highly regarded. It advertises itself as a femme group and strictly enforces rules against transphobia, etc. The downside is it is primarily a women’s space and some people in the group will use female terms when addressing the entire group, though a lot of people are conscious of avoiding that.

      • epochryphal says:

        Yeah, exactly. And my constant sticking point with groups that bill themselves as “femmes” is what about femme trans men? (And also femme cis men, but they tend to self-select out / be uninterested, and maybe have more spaces to go to? That may be an unfounded assumption on my part, hm.)

        Like, I *do* ID as femme, but *not* as feminine or woman or female or lady or she, and those seem to get conflated by at least some attendees if not the organizers, and it makes me very apprehensive about approaching the space.

    • Rachel says:

      The problems you’ve pointed out concerning gender-exclusive spaces makes it increasingly clear to me that there is no such thing as an ideal gender-exclusive space. It just a pick-your-poison situation.

    • “But even leaving trans men aside, “women and non-binary” spaces tend to be… extremely cis-woman-centric and use that language and assume everyone is cool with it, while also thinking they’re so inclusive and progressive and awesome.”
      Yeah…I don’t have any experience with these kinds of places in meatspace but its something I see on Tumblr ALL THE TIME, usually in relation to the term “DFAB” (or one of its many variations). DFAB especially seems to be the “politically correct” way to misgender people : /.
      And it definitely contributes to this idea that “cis woman are the most oppressed” thing where other ideas about gender get extrapolated from that idea- so, trans women are oppressed because they are women, like cis women, and trans men and nonbinary people are oppressed because they are DFAB, like cis women (because of course, all nonbinary people are DFAB, right???? /big sarcasm).

  5. Rachel says:

    As someone who “follows the discourse” sporadically, I can attest anecdotally that the gender demographics is largely women. Whether this is a product of Tumblr’s demographics or a specific feature to radical-leaning feminist politics I can’t quite say. A mixture of the two? NB/trans and bi/pan people, in contrast, tend to be very ace-friendly on Tumblr because they know about getting hit with similar exclusionary BS.

    One blogger pointedly observed that the “resource” that aces were “stealing” was nothing more than Tumblr social capital. The more Oppression Points you have, the more opinions you are allowed to have. But we can’t have everyone claiming Oppression Points, now can we? Because that causes inflation and causes a drop in value. Because then you might have to listen to others and not just talk and talk and expect everyone to hang on your every word (*le gasp*). I postulate that this gets combined with a major empathy gap and a poorly understood sense of competing access needs (Aces claim persecution for the exact opposite thing that I am persecuted for? Impossible! Liars and secretly-straight infiltrators all of them!).

    I’m not a gay man (obviously), so I can’t speak well about how politics among gay men ties in with all of this, but I’m not convinced that gay men are really doing anyone besides themselves a service by claiming everyone they can under the gay banner. White, upperclass, abled, cis, anglophone gay men are at the top of the heap in the community, so it reads (to my cynical eyes) like “consolidating their power-base” more than a gesture of inclusiveness.

  6. demiandproud says:

    I recognise the dynamic you identify as gatekeeping. It’s also common in the workplace, as in, when you’re the first woman achieving a high position in a male-dominated company, the biggest risk you may run is being undermined by female colleagues. I’ve also come across it a lot in church. The enforcement of the female gender role is done by women, mostly.

    I’ve come to think of it as the Hungergames myth. The Capitol elite (cis, white men) is largely oblivious. The most privileged district (cis, white women) knows they have less privilege but buy into the system to the point of volunteering to play, trying to put down the rest because they believe they have to compete and only one can win. Career tributes.

    The only solution being for people to stop believing the myth, stop competing and start cooperating. For the Capitol folks that means raising awareness. For us career tributes it means refusing to play ugly games. So. Yeah.

    Maybe I’ve had too much time to think about this…

    I’ve found a lovely queer space so I figured I’d describe that as well: regular meetings surrounding a common interest/hobby. All genders and orientations welcome, but no pressure to disclose. However, there’s a clear policy for using gender-neutral language, clear rules to make it a safe space and a few senior members keeping an eye on making it so, that you can take aside to change things. It’s not perfect, in that there is still some cis/heteronormativity, but less than I’ve seen in other spaces. Both the active safeguarding and putting the focus on something other than queerness seems to help in this.

    • demiandproud says:

      Reading back on this I feel I should at least amend my description of the queer space: the way it helps, not having queerness front and center while still being a queer space, is that it helps me have a relaxed space I can both do something fun and feel I can be myself at the same time. I really oughtn’t talk about how effective it is for others. I don’t really know.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s