“No romo” is an aromantic meme, a play on an older expression, “no homo”. “No romo” is often used as a jokey hashtag, or an art motif, and usually there’s not enough context to give it further meaning. It’s mostly just a snappy way to say “no romance”.
I’ve also heard people complain about the meme. To alloromantic aces, as well as aro-spec people who aren’t aromantic, sometimes it can seem like something more sinister, an expression of aromantic elitism.
I’m here to sweep away all that, and say you’re all missing the elephant in the room. The “no romo” meme is just a speck of dust in a much larger meme pool.
A brief history of “no homo”
To learn the history of “no homo”, a decent place to start is the Know Your Meme page, and this article on Slate. The expression originates as East Harlem slang in the 90s. It entered the popular consciousness in 2006-2009, when several popular rap artists incorporated it into their lyrics, most notably Cam’ron, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West. From there, the meme mutated, repeatedly.
I would identify three distinct ways that “no homo” is used, which I will label as unironic, ironic, and post-ironic.
Unironic – “No homo” is an homophobic expression that distances oneself from homoeroticism. “No homo” is added after a homoerotic double-entendre, as a pre-emptive disavowal of the homoerotic interpretation.
Ironic – “No homo” is a way of mocking straight fragility by exaggerating how quick people are to deny being gay. For example, you might insert “no homo” into a conversation repeatedly, often following comments that nobody would have thought to interpret as gay to begin with.
Post-ironic – “No homo” is a way of mocking straight fragility, by exaggerating the ineffectiveness of people’s denials that they are gay. It often builds on the popular narrative that homophobes are secretly closeted, by portraying people who are engaged in obviously gay activities, but try to chase away the gay with the magic words, “no homo”.
I use “unironic”, “ironic”, and “post-ironic” in a way that suggests a timeline of development, but all three meanings have blended and coexisted for a long time.
I’m really skeptical that the unironic meaning has ever been very prevalent. I mean, when it comes to rap lyrics, the artists obviously could have just removed the double-entendres. Deliberately inserting homoerotic double-entendres into your music is not really the behavior of someone who’s primary concern is to avoid appearing gay. A 2009 video describes “no homo” in rap as “a never-ending contest to see who could use it the most often and in the most outlandish ways”. The Slate article also argues this point, but points out that “no homo” is not so much about mocking homophobia, as it is about pushing the boundaries of masculinity.
In my research, I did find evidence of unironic usage, but it looked very different from how it’s usually portrayed. In an episode of Boondocks called “Pause”, it’s portrayed as a game where if someone else makes an unintentional double-entendre, then you say “pause”, and then they have to say “no homo” to prove they’re not gay.
The ironic usage of “no homo”, like in the rap lyrics, paints a narrative of people using “no homo” in a unironic way. But in the end that’s just a narrative. It is true that many straight people have been quick to deny being gay, but usually not in the particular way that the narrative suggests.
But in differentiating the ironic usage of “no homo” from the unironic usage, I do not mean to argue that “no homo” is acceptable when used ironically. On the contrary, I would argue that if you have ever found “no homo” to be too homophobic, it was likely the ironic usage that you had an issue with. The problem with the ironic usage of “no homo” is that it’s intended to mock masculine fragility or homophobia, but too easily turns into a sincere (and deniable) expression of both. The ironic version wants to distance itself from an imaginary insecure homophobe, but when we look around for the insecure homophobes, all we see are the people who think they’re being ironic.
Now let’s turn to the post-ironic meaning of “no homo”. I’m going to ruin one of these memes by describing it in clinical terms. The meme begins with the word “When” and subsequently tells a story in second person, where you’re having sex with a man. (It is presumed that you too are a man.) You’re anxious because he still hasn’t said “no homo”, and as an expression of that anxiety, the meme presents the following image of you as a sweating Jordan Peele
The post-ironic usage of “no homo” conveys a fictional narrative, this time about about closeted people using “no homo” in an unironic way. I don’t think this narrative has much basis in fact, although it’s common knowledge among gay/bi men that some people on gay hookup apps claim to be straight (and pssst… some of them might even have good reasons).
The problem with post-ironic “no homo” memes, is that they still reinforce the idea that being gay is something to be ashamed of.
One under-analyzed aspect of this history is race. “No homo” originated in a predominantly Black and Latino area, and was popularized by Black male artists. It is now dominated by ironic and post-ironic memes that mock the “original” unironic usage, even though the rap artists meant it ironically too. And it is true enough that even when it was ironic it was still homophobic; however, the critique is dated. Hip hop is in a different place today, and it’s irresponsible to talk about its homophobia without mentioning any of the queer hip hop artists that are popular today, such as Frank Ocean or Azealia Banks. I’m not going to tell anyone how to feel about this, but it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.
A brief history of “no romo”
“No romo” has a much shorter history, but it also seems to have its origin in music. The earliest mention I can find (excluding mentions relating to X-files or Tony Romo), is a playlist on 8tracks dated to June 2014. The playlist is called “No Romo”, and features an image that says “I love you you piece of shit”. Tags and context confirm aromantic associations.
Later in November 2014, someone else made another “No Romo” playlist on 8tracks, which appears to have made the rounds on tumblr. I believe the creator is allo-aro, so tentatively I would credit this meme to the aro proto-community.
The playlists don’t provide much for textual interpretation, so I would refer to a 2015 discussion on AVEN. What I get out of this thread, is that there is not much meaning to it, and it’s mostly just “fun”. However, there are a couple comments that suggest that “no romo” is mocking the unironic usage of “no homo”. One person says the intention was
Basicly to sorta mock the “no homo” thing that some cis heterosexual men say. Sometimes I say it to my partner, just so, you know, he won’t get the wrong idea or anything, I’m not romantic, got nothin’ against, just ain’t my thing, no romo, bruh.
Another person expressed annoyance with “no homo”, saying:
if it’s “OMG don’t think I meant the things I said that way”, it’s utterly stupid.
A glance at recent tumblr posts tagged “no romo” suggests that this meaning has not changed. Sometimes it’s just a fun phrase or an art motif, and sometimes it’s used as in “I love you, no romo”.
But this is not an analysis, it’s an overanalysis, so let’s read deeper.
When used unironically, “no romo” is a way of differentiating oneself from alloromantics (and expressing pride about this difference). There’s certainly a need for this when an alloromantic person can imply their orientation by simply mentioning a partner, but mentioning a lack of a partner doesn’t imply anything. And aro people who do have partners are in the position of always being mistaken as alloromantic. “No romo” is a sincere expression of aro fragility–a fragility imposed by a society that sees romance in everything.
But “no romo” also has an ironic meaning. It’s not just an expression of aro fragility, it’s a way of making light of aro fragility. “I love you, no romo” raises the question of why “I love you” is seen as a romantic phrase, and why an aromantic person feels the need to reassert their identity after saying it. It helps the person defuse their own insecurities by pointing out that those insecurities are just a little bit ridiculous.
Where does this leave us?
Some people fear that “no romo” is an expression of aromantic elitism, but I don’t think this is the case. To the extent that “no romo” is about differentiating oneself from the other, it’s not because they believe the other is bad, but because aros have lived in a world that repeatedly negates their aromanticism.
And to the extent that “no romo” is an ironic expression, the joke isn’t really on anyone but themselves. It’s self-deprecatory humor. I love you, and isn’t it silly that I feel the need to say it’s not romantic?
But I also want to problematize “no romo”. That’s not to say that it’s “””problematic””” and therefore should be banned. I’m just saying, there are problems and they’re interesting to think about:
- “No romo” users are unaware of how common “no homo” still is today. The commenters in the AVEN thread only refer to the unironic usage of “no homo”, which is not the most common meaning.
- The ironic and post-ironic meanings of “no homo” both try to mock and deny the homophobia expressed in the unironic meaning, but they still end up expressing homophobia in their own ways. If aros create their own spin on the meme, what makes them think they can do better?
- If “no romo” were ever used in a post-ironic way, aros might not like it. Aros are sometimes accused of engaging in activities that are just romance under another name, and a post-ironic version of “no romo” would repeat and validate that accusation.
- *whispers ominously* race
For my own part, my reaction to “no romo” has always been “wow, there sure aren’t many gay men around here.” I’m gay, so the post-ironic meaning of “no homo” was the one I was most familiar with, and aros always seemed blissfully unaware of it. And it’s funny how words that even obliquely reference a lesbian concept tend to get torn apart on Tumblr, but when a meme is ripped straight from gay men nobody bats an eye. Not that I want to see “no romo” get torn apart.
I hope I didn’t ruin the joke by explaining it.