We need to talk about straight aces

I’m continuing my series on “The Discourse”, that big flame war that occurs on Tumblr regarding the inclusion of aces in LGBTQ spaces. I wish to strip away euphemism, so I’m calling it “The Ace Flame War” rather than “The Discourse”.

Of all the consequences of the Ace Flame War, one of the strangest to watch was the transformation of the word “straight”. It used to be that some aces would identify as straight, just as some would identify as gay or lesbian. But aces identifying as straight became taboo. A lot of aces seem to prefer “heteroromantic” or simply “hetero”. And to this day, if I ever mention straight aces I get people telling me off for implying that straight aces exist.

You know, I run this survey and I know very well that many aces still identify as straight when prompted.

What happened? As I’ve discussed before, the Ace Flame War was nominally about whether aces should be included in the queer community. And “queer” was set up in opposition to “straight”. Aces wanted to argue that they were queer, and therefore argued that aces cannot be straight–no, not even the heteroromantics.

A few people pointed out that that “queer” and “straight” were never mutually exclusive in the first place, but that rhetoric never gained traction.

As I see it, this was just one move in a word game, and I’m not sure it was a good move. After establishing that hetero aces were not straight, we saw the rise of the term “cishet”, which groups together hetero aces with hetero allos regardless of where we stand on the whole “straight” issue.

A most illuminating article on the subject, is one that compared English to Dutch. In Dutch, there is no word for “straight”. The nearest equivalent is “hetero”. As you might imagine, there is no way to deny that heteroromantic aces are hetero. So this whole word game that people played in English wasn’t even possible in some other languages.

I know that most people around here don’t identify as straight or hetero, and certainly I’m not in that category either. But, as an exercise in empathy, let’s put ourselves into the shoes of straight/hetero aces to answer these questions:

  1. Why might some hetero aces choose to identify as “straight”?
  2. How might the relative absence of hetero aces on Tumblr have contributed to the taboo-ification of “straight”?
  3. What are some unique issues faced by hetero aces that we have avoided by playing word games instead?

My own brief answers are as follows.

1. I imagine aces identify as straight for similar reasons why aces like me identify as gay. Sexual orientation labels like “gay”, “lesbian”, “bisexual”, and “straight” precede any romantic/sexual split. These words can refer to any kind of attraction or attraction-like-emotions.

Although “straight” bothers some aces as a consequence of The Flame War, Tumblr is not the whole world, and many other aces are not cognizant of The Flame War, and therefore don’t care. Other aces might be cognizant of The Flame War, but have little investment in trying to identify as queer.

2. Heteroromantic aces, out of all aces, are least likely to want access to queer spaces. So is the taboo-ification of “straight” about addressing the needs of hetero aces, or is it more about making them politically digestible for the benefit of the rest of us? If there were more straight aces around, I suspect there would have been more discussion of queerness as something individuals opt into.

3. Hetero aces likely face different forms of heteronormativity. For example, they may have to deal with expectations about what the man and the woman are each supposed to do in a straight relationship. For some hetero aces this might just be too difficult, so they avoid relationships entirely, possibly rendering their romantic orientation moot.

Now, let’s step back from our empathy game, and talk about the impact hetero aces have on the rest of us.

I think the reason people argue over who counts as queer is because they want to draw a line between people we should listen to because they have direct experience with oppression; and people we shouldn’t listen to, because they know nothing. But this is a false dichotomy. People who have experienced oppression can still say garbage stuff, either as a reaction to oppression, or for the same reasons anyone else talks garbage. We see this, for example, in the queer people who harass aces in the context of the Flame War. And we can see it in hetero aces, who are sometimes insensitive about queer issues.

Before the Ace Flame War, before ace Tumblr, I used to fight with hetero aces. I used to educate people at queer conferences about asexuality, and some aces, predominantly heteroromantic aces, would tell me I shouldn’t, because they didn’t want to be confused with the gays. Heteronormativity can sometimes impact hetero aces in such a way that they participate in its perpetuation. Not all hetero aces, of course, but this was a real thing.

Those aces who complained about my efforts? I wasn’t doing it for them. It doesn’t matter if asexuality is inherently queer, it turns out that if you have a bad attitude, you don’t belong in queer spaces regardless of your orientation.

I would like to get to a point where we can talk about hetero aces–their unique issues and needs, how some of them identify as straight, and how some of them have ignorant attitudes towards LGBT people–without it being a Flame War issue. Because we can’t have a real conversation about it while everyone is just trying to score points in an argument.

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 identity, asexual politics, LGBT, romantic orientation and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to We need to talk about straight aces

  1. Coyote says:

    Something you touched on and seems germane to your point:

    Maybe I’m too uninformed to have the right impression, but it seems to me like downplaying the straightness of straight aces & flattening all aces as equally automatically* “queer” can make it harder to talk about differences among aces as an intracommunity issue. Like you said — sometimes straight aces have heteronormative ideas, and it’s not like their nonsexual het inclinations have nothing to do with that. We can say that while also acknowledging how heteronormativity negatively affects straight aces. These are not incompatible ideas. And something that’s dismaying to me about the homogenizing trend is that…. I’m concerned it may have made it harder for some aces to talk about heteronormativity/anti-lgbt sentiment in the ace community, apart from participating in (or being perceived as) just attacking aces as a whole.

    (So, I mean, to the people who crusade against the ace community in the name of fighting homophobia, teaching a lot of people to dismiss all such critiques preemptively because you’ve shown them those critiques are largely launched only in bad faith: great job breaking it, hero.)

    *I still see Tumblr urls & bio descriptions that say things like “all aces are queer” and “all aces are lgbt,” which I do not appreciate, as an ace who does not consider itself queer or “lgbt” (or straight, for that matter). I would really, really prefer more general acknowledgement that we don’t need to fit everyone into a “cishet or lgbtq” dichotomy. I would have thought that asexuality could be a good starting point for helping to point this out, and yet here we are.

    • Sennkestra says:

      Yeah, I think that the idea that there needs to be only one ingroup (LGBT/LGBTQIA+/Queer/whatever) and one outgroup (straight/cishet/whatever) is trying to reduce a complex multi-factorial thing into a single binary axis when it really doesn’t need to be.

      Overall, I think of LGBT/LGBTQIA/Queer the way i think of other coalitional umbrella terms like say, POC: It’s useful in some specific situations as an overall term for political coalition building and resource sharing (like, creating an LGBTQIA center or mailing list or political fund or whatever), but both terms contain such diverse and even contradictory experiences that when it comes to talking about actual individual experiences, it’s much more useful to talk in more specific terms. For example, while a cis heteroromantic ace person, a cis gay person, a cis bi person, and a straight trans person all have different experiences than a non-asexual cis straight person, their experiences differ from that non-asexual cis straight person (and from each other) in such different ways that it doesn’t necessarily make sense to group them all into one circle – instead you might need a venn diagram with several different circles to really get at a better understanding.

  2. Sennkestra says:

    What I find interesting is that the term “cishet” itself was initially developed not so much because of aces, but to address a similar (although not quite the same) dilemma that occurred as trans people were increasingly considered a core part of the “LGBT” community. (Before later being completely co-opted and rendered unusable on tumblr by the ace flame wars).

    “Not LGB = Straight” mostly made sense when only sexual orientation was considered, but once you add trans people into the mix to make “LGBT”, there are now two factors that must be considered – sexual orientation, and also gender identity. Since you now have straight trans people inside the community, “Not LGBT = Straight” didn’t work, since it only addressed one factor (sexual orientation)

    However, instead of trying to solve this by saying, “well, straight trans people aren’t *really* straight” like in the examples above, some people instead suggested a different antonym = “Not LGBT = cisgender heterosexual (cishet)”, which addressed both axes of difference, and didn’t erase the experiences of straight trans people.

    It’s an interesting contrast to when asexuality came along, and some places started using terms like “LGBTQA+” – effectively adding a third axis (or “queer”, which has a completely indeterminate number of axes). However, instead of suggesting a new label for “people not in the LGBTQA+ spectrum”, most of the arguments I have seen parallel what you describe above – arguing that straight/heteroromantic aces arent “really straight” or “really cishet” because they are hetero-*romantic*, and straight/cishet only means hetero-*sexual* (or other arguments along those lines).

    What I haven’t seen is attempts to suggest entirely new terminology suggestions (allocishet?) – although to be fair, considering how “cishet” hasbeen twisted beyong recognition by the flame wars, which used is as a pejorative for all aces to the point where it’s not useless for it’s original purpose*, I don’t necessarily think that approach would be a good idea either; it’s just interesting to see the contrast in approaches.

    * specifically, I think it’s worth remembering that while ostensibly, people involved in the flame wars were using “cishet” to refer to the how the experiences of cisgender, heteroromantic aces from those of more LGBT aligned aces, in practice many of the people referred to as “cishet” during the flame wars were often not cis, not heteroromantic, or not either of those (in part due to the fact that, as you mentioned, the kind of people engaging in “should aces be in queer spaces” discussions on tumblr were less likely to identify as heteroromantic/straight anyway). Therefore, arguments about whether “cishet aces” are queer – both in defense and in opposition to that idea – are often not actually talking about heteroromantic aces at all, but using it as a poor proxy for a wider discussion about the place of aces overall. I think that’s also why, in reference to your second question, so many non-heteroromantic aces on tumblr are so invested in the not-straightness of heteroromantic aces – it’s because it’s not actually about the identities of heteroromantic aces at all, it’s more about feeling that their own queer identities are under attack – especially for aromantic aces who are often either ignored or lumped with heteroromantic aces as “basically straight” because it makes it easier to draw a straight vs. LGB dichotomy when you don’t have to account for a “none of the above” category).

    This has, of course, made it impossible to actually talk about the experiences of actual straight-identified and/or heteroromantic aces, as you mentioned above.

  3. mlevis1996 says:

    As someone who recently came out as Asexual, I have to say that I identify as a Straight-Ace. I could use the term Heteroromantic, but (and there is nothing wrong with this) I just do not feel comfortable using that larger word as it is more along the lines of LGBTQIA+ terminology, and I do not quite identify with that community. I am still coming to terms with the understanding of my own Asexuality and with that I am still learning.

    Also, I had been using the term Demisexual for a while (year and a half) and it kind of fit, but also not really.

  4. Cracticus says:

    I realised I was ace about a year and a half before I realised I’m also bi. So there was a time I was identifying as a heteroromantic ace. I learnt about asexuality and demisexuality from a group of mostly queer friends who from the start talked about those terms as “not straight”. That more than anything else influenced my choice in identity.

  5. Blue Ice-Tea says:

    Here’s a wrinkle for you: I’m an ace who also identifies as heterosexual. Demisexual, sure, but demisexual in a specifically hetero way. How does that affect the whole “aces are queer” argument?

    • Siggy says:

      Yeah, in the OP I used “hetero aces” instead of “heteroromantic aces” most of the time, because I wanted to leave open the possibility that it’s not just about heteroromanticism, but could be about heterosexual gray/demis, or people who don’t distinguish romantic and sexual attraction, or people who have hetero sensual attraction, and so on. I mean, I identify as gay not because of romantic attraction but because of both romantic and sexual.

      But I don’t want to say too much about where demi-heterosexual people fit in, because I’m sure I don’t know!

      I should be asking your perspective–if you’re willing to share. Do you find that people more likely to say you’re not queer? Do you feel any affinity with the “straight” label? Do you see aces defending your right to ID as queer?

      • Blue Ice-Tea says:

        Ha! I’m sure I don’t know, either!

        I think of myself as “straight” because “straight” is frequently used as a synonym for “heterosexual”. I haven’t really had much of either people telling me I’m not queer or telling me I am. I guess since I haven’t spent much time in non-ace queer spaces, it hasn’t become an issue. And personally I’m ambivalent about whether the word even fits me. I can see the arguments for and against, and I’m happy for other people to think of me as “queer” or “not queer” depending on their own personal understanding of “queerness”, but I don’t think it’s my place to say what that understanding should be.

        For my part, I’ll echo a sentiment expressed by others: I’m not a fan of trying to categorise everyone as either “queer” or “straight”. I prefer to think of “queer”, “straight”, and “ace” as three separate but overlapping umbrellas (with the various genders and romantic orientations probably constituting additional overlapping umbrellas). Some people seem really invested in the idea that the entire “ace” umbrella falls under the “queer” umbrella, and I can see the strategic value to conceptualising it this way. But I also think the “ace” umbrella is strong enough to stand on its own.

  6. demiandproud says:

    Ha! My language! (Sorry, I needed to cheer about that.)

    1. It didn’t used to be straight vs. queer. It used to be straight as opposed to bent, a British slur. Recht and krom, in Dutch. Right and crooked, if I back-translate. See what I’m getting at? It’s why I preferred hetero in English, even colloquially, but I ended up using straight anyway because it was so common.
    2. I identified as both straight and demi for three years. In those years, I understood the ace community seeking to share the already-established queer platform, rather than seek visibility independently. Still, I resented the potential for stigma I saw in that, especially when I moved to a more conservative place. Being ace contains less potential controversy if it’s not also queer, I thought.
    3. I came back from this when I saw how fundamentally different my demisexuality functioned from those with an abstinent or celibate lifestyle. We asexuals, women especially, expose the flaws in the rhetoric for institutions that seek to control our bodies, more fundamentally than your average gay or bi person. We are the zero to a system of roman numerals. We will upset the incels and other shitheads more and we will need protection when that explodes. So we’ll need what allies we can cultivate.
    4. “Heterodemisexual” remains my most googled blog post, even several years later. For me an indication the out-group would outnumber the in-group, if we can’t remain united across the line between hetero and not.

  7. Jen says:

    I contributed to some of the flame war and regret some of the attitudes I had in defending my queerness. I am very straight-passing because I’m not fully out of the closet when it comes to my nonbinary identity and I’m with a straight man. Furthermore, I’m a heteroromantic grey-a, and it’s really hard to explain where my queerness develops without starting to talk about my sex life. These days I’ll say that the “grey” part veers into pansexual territory without ever manifesting into something substantial. I also like to talk about different forms of attraction and how for some of us aesthetic and sensual attraction is a big thing, and for me, they are inclined towards more feminine bodies. I wish there was a term for aesthetic or sensual attraction, but at what point are terms not helpful?

  8. Summer says:

    The only ‘straight ace’ I really know since worked out they’re bi, and nonbinary. I dunno if that means anything.

  9. Do you think it might be worth talking about the idea of conditional straight privilege? Not straight-passing privilege, which implies that having your identity erased (and in some cases also being misgendered) is a good thing for you. But maybe talking about how, even with asexuality factoring into things, a bi ace or a gay ace is going to deal with issues a straight ace won’t. Same with aro-aces (whether or not you consider them queer).

    (bit of a tangent) I also think this concept would apply to heteroflexible people. I want to say it’s not an inherently biantagonistic/heterosexist label, but so far, the (admittedly small amount of) people I’ve seen use it have not been great about when it comes to addressing LGBT+ people.

    • Siggy says:

      I’m not a fan of privilege frameworks in general, but they particularly don’t work well when talking about more than two groups. A privilege is an advantage you have, that the other group does not have, but if there are three groups then maybe two groups have an advantage, or maybe each group has something different. I think it muddles things more than it helps.

      But otherwise, I do think it would be good to talk about differences in experiences. For example, I tell people I’m gay, everyone presumes I’m gay, my partner is gay, many of my friends are gay, that makes a huge difference. A hetero ace in an equivalent position would have a very different experience.

      But the caveat is, my experience isn’t necessarily typical. A lot of aces, both aromantic and alloromantic, aren’t in partnered relationships at all. In this case, we might have more subtle differences in self-conceptualization, presentation, and interaction with larger communities. And maybe for some people there’s almost no difference.

  10. CheerfulOptimistic says:

    Good points.

  11. Pingback: The allo aro intersection matters | The Asexual Agenda

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