When I first identified as asexual, I did not know a single other asexual person IRL, for over a year. There were no ace meetups in my city, despite being one of the largest in the US. I started going to the queer student group–actually several queer student groups–and most people hadn’t even heard of such a thing. The bisexual group mentioned it as a possibility, alongside other words that nobody seemed to use. I was the first one to use “asexual”, and I had to explain it to everyone I met.
My initial entry into ace activism was presenting the very first asexual workshops at the (now defunct) Western Regional LGBTQIA conference. In 2010, such workshops were not merely unusual for queer students, they were also unusual among ace activists. I made a point to share my presentation on AVEN, to inspire other activists to follow. I was breaking new ground.
Student groups would often call themselves queer, but would also use a variety of acronyms such as LGBT, LGBTQ, or LGBTQIA. When the “A” was included in the acronym, the “A” did in fact stand for ally. How could it stand for asexuality when hardly anybody had even heard of it? If it had stood for “asexual” all along, don’t you think a few more of the queer students might have known what it was? The claim is ridiculous on its face. Of course “A” stood for Ally. That’s historical fact.
When people say “A is not for Ally” or “A is for Asexual”, it’s a political statement, saying that asexuals ought to be included in LGBTQ discussions and events, and there ought to be an “A” in the acronym for us. However, it tends to be accompanied by inaccurate beliefs about historical fact. People falsely believe that the “A” stood for asexual, and that it was only later taken away from us.
This misconception became more common around 2015. At the time, GLAAD had launched a social media campaign targeted at allies. “Speak out as an LGBT Ally. Take the pledge. #GotYourBack”. And the tagline was “[A] is for Ally.” This slogan followed the common practice at the time, where the “A” stood for allies. But the common practice was precisely the problem. It stung that there was so little awareness of asexual, aromantic, and agender people, that even major activist organizations didn’t realize we wanted and deserved our own place in the acronym.
So ace activists did something about it. Most memorably, Rose coined the hashtag #GiveItBack. It was a demand that organizations give the “A” back to us, and a clever play on GLAAD’s #GotYourBack hashtag. #GiveItBack continued to be used in following years in response to other prominent examples of using the “A” exclusively for Ally.
I won’t say that I could have come up with a better hashtag. However, with the benefit of many years’ hindsight, I would like us to understand that #GiveItBack subtly promoted a misconception. The hashtag made it sound like we used to have the “A”, but it was taken away from us, thus our demand was “give it back”, rather than “give it.”
Here’s why I care. The historical absence of asexuality from LGBT groups was precisely what motivated me to get into activism. I was not motivated by a desire to return to an earlier status quo, I was there to break the status quo. Many younger activists seem to be more interested in restoring an imagined golden age, and I think it’s too meek, too backwards-looking.
A new interest in history
I’ve long been interested in asexual history. One of my best-known articles is a 2019 article about Lisa Orlando’s 1972 Asexual Manifesto. But my interest in history goes as far back as 2010, when I wrote the (now dated) “A brief history of antisexuality“.
But it’s not just the history itself that interests me, I’m also interested in how we use it, what we focus on. As I once remarked, in 2010 we were concerned with maintaining the integrity of the definition of asexuality. “A brief history of antisexuality” is reflective of that concern, being a history of conflicts with people who had alternative interpretations of what asexuality meant. Today, we are more concerned with establishing strong roots, to better withstand the headwinds from ace-antagonizing forces. This is reflected in my history of the asexuality in the 70s. That’s is history that we’ve technically known about since the publication of Fahs’ paper in 2010, but it was once rejected as too different from asexuality, and is now welcomed as another brick in our foundation.
It’s great to see a renewed passion for history, but this has also led to some very uncritical readings of history. For example:
some say that the A was added for allies and that it predates asexuality. But considering that the asexual manifesto was written back in 1972 — around the time asexuality started being used as a term — I have a hard time believing this.
– Emil Tinkler
Is it so hard to believe that different people independently came up with the idea of asexuality, and that those people didn’t all know about each other, much less agree with each other? Is it so hard to imagine that even if New York feminists talked about asexuality in the 70s, this did not immediately lead to being attached to an acronym, which was created by an entirely different set of activists in the 80s? To understand how feminist discussions of asexuality in the 70s affected asexuality in the 21st century, you can’t just draw a straight line, you have to know about the intervening time. I’m begging you, read accounts from in the early 2000s, and see what they knew–or didn’t–about their precursors.
It pains me when I see more grounded perspectives on ace history coming from anti-ace people. One piece of evidence that I saw passed around, was an old AVEN thread from 2003, where it was clear that posters at the time understood that the A stood for Ally. That thread? I discovered that it’s the same thread that anti-ace folks use to attack David Jay. I’m disgusted.
Allies and attention envy
Finally, let’s turn to the other half of the equation, the allies. Now that we all understand that the A did at one point stand for allies, can we understand why that was so? And what changed since then?
Going back to my personal experience, when I first came out, I did not know a single asexual person IRL. So I relied on allies. Some straight allies, but mostly queer. Furthermore, I initially posed as an ally in queer student groups, because I was scared to just blurt out my orientation to a bunch of people I just met.
What I want to illustrate, is that allyship, and the inclusion of allies, are most important for the most desperate people. In a repressive society where people are forced into the closet, or in an ignorant society where nobody has heard of your orientation, that’s when you most need allies.
And then, when society becomes more accepting, when proclaiming allyship carries social rewards (or financial rewards for corporations), allies become… kind of annoying? They never seem to do things quite right, and we become suspicious of clout-seekers.
This is all to say, the early need for allies, and later suspicion of allies, they can both be justified. But you need to pay attention to context, and understand that not everyone lives in the same context. Ignoring context can lead to depriving the most desperate people of the tools they need. It is ageist, it is Americentric, it is ignorant of the diversity of kinds of queer spaces.
Do asexuals belong in the acronym? Simple question. Yes.
Do allies belong in the acronym? Well that’s complicated. In some ways, the acronym is used as a context-independent statement of inclusion, and I think that the inclusion of allies is at best contextual. But the acronym can also be used in context-specific ways, like using a different acronym for every group and every event, like saying allies are welcome here in this queer straight alliance.
Why are we tying a simple question together with a complex one, without any logical connection between the two? Why are ace activists committed to taking a single simplified stance on allies, just because “asexual” and “ally” happen to start with the same letter? Would we ever make a group choose between allies and us?
The asexual vs ally thing feels like a case of attention envy. We see allies getting a lot of attention, and we get mad because we think we deserve more attention. That’s good, let that motivate our activism. But to tear other groups down, it doesn’t necessarily help us, and can hurt others. Maybe GLAAD was giving too much attention to allies, that’s an independent question that we can argue about one way or another. But whatever our views on allies, it does not logically connect to our stance on asexuality. They are distinct issues.
So please, stop saying it.