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:
- Why might some hetero aces choose to identify as “straight”?
- How might the relative absence of hetero aces on Tumblr have contributed to the taboo-ification of “straight”?
- 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.