Writing From Factor X

December 24, 2010

It’s Easy To Pass When You’re Invisible

One of the biggest criticisms I’ve seen from the queer community regarding asexuals identifying as queer, particularly aromantic and heteroromantic asexuals, is that we have this awesome “passing privilege” thing. The theory goes that apparently, because we are not in same-sex relationships, we pass for straight. Of course biromantic, panromantic, and homoromantic aces “count,” because it’s like they’re bi/pan/homo-sexual! And heteroromantic is the same as heterosexual! And aromantics–well, uh, uh, they don’t do the same-sex dating thing so THEY MUST BE STRAIGHT.

(And of course asexual people for whom the romantic orientation concept doesn’t work very well are made twice invisible. Awesome.)

In particular, I find that it’s not uncommon for queer people to say things like “the mainstream wants you to be asexual.” This latter is usually a good indication that the person in question has never talked to an actual asexual person in their life, but I digress.

And I have a lot of problems with this. For one thing, not everyone actually passes consistently for heterosexual. I don’t. Before I started coming out on a regular basis, people assumed I was a closeted lesbian. I can be out honestly, or I can have people try to help me out. This is my experience.

Besides, not everyone wants to pass in the first place. Passing is soul-killing. Passing means lying to others, it means hiding yourself, it means pretending to be something you aren’t. It means pretending to be straight, because in this heteronormative world, you’ve got to be heterosexual to get by. Not asexual, because asexuality does not confer privilege. Let me point out that that is not the same thing as being heteroromantic. It’s not enough to not be interested in same-sex partners. You have to be interested in opposite-sex partners as well, and you’d better display sexual interest in them while you’re about it. Passing means displaying that interest, even if it isn’t there.

It means… closeting yourself, in fact. (Wait. Hang on–you mean that asexual people might have closets, too? Perish the thought.)

But hey, I’ll buy that gender-conforming asexuals often do pass fairly well when they’re not being open about their identities. When you’re single and not dating someone, you must be straight, right? So heteronormativity goes. And it’s not like there’s acedar to match gaydar in mainstream culture, right? Well, there’s a reason for that.

Mainstream people don’t tend to pick up on cues that a person might be asexual because asexuals are invisible to the mainstream. Invisibility is not passing. There’s a choice involved in passing: you can choose whether or not to lie about who and what you are, even if it’s only a lie of omission. There is no choice involved whatsoever in being invisible. Invisibility exists to make it impossible or difficult to speak up about who and what you are.

Invisibility is trying to be honest about who you are and being told that you don’t exist, that you’re lying, that you’re deluded. It’s trying actively not to pass for straight, because you’re not straight, and being told that you’re wrong about your own feelings.

Invisibility is growing up never knowing that you could exist. It’s trying to find communities of people like you and failing, because no one else is ever like you. It’s listening to a thousand different ways to plan a life, and not fitting into any of them.

Invisibility is not having words to describe what you are. It’s making words up or pretending you’re something different than you are. It’s endless questioning because none of the available options fit. It’s finally finding a word that fits and seeing that word used mostly in ways that hurt. It’s trying to answer a form about your sexual orientation honestly and having to lie, because no ticky-box exists for you.

Invisibility is forced silence because speaking up about asexuality has consequences, even if it’s only to say “we exist.” It’s never having a place in discussions of sexuality. It’s feeling painfully grateful to see just the word “asexual” in a list of queer or variant sexual orientations. Not a discussion of that word, or any explanation of what it means, but only the word itself.

So you’ll forgive me if I’m not all agog at the idea that as an aromantic asexual, I’m “privileged” in this sense. Invisibility is not a fucking privilege. Stop trying to make it into one.


  1. Thisthisthisthisthis times a thousand.

    I think I pass as straight. I hate it, because it feels like a little part of myself is dying inside every time I do. I try to figure out how to come out to people, but it’s honestly hard to drop into conversation (and doubly hard if you’re autistic and not good at directing conversation.) And I know it’d get turned into asex 101 because as you point out, we pass because we’re invisible. Like, I have the choice between passing as straight and passing as gay, pretty much. Being read as asexual simply isn’t an option unless all I wear are asexuality visibility T-shirts. I suspect I may actually HAVE quite a few ace cues going on (whatever they look like :S) but nobody knows where to look for them or how to read them.

    And sure, there’s upsides associated to passing, but there’s downsides as well. Which is why I hate it when it’s framed as a privilege, because it’s not. (Disability discourse, at least the part I’m familiar with, does this a bit better – there’s talk about visible vs invisible disabilities but people don’t usually frame one as more privileged than the other and if they do they get told off.)

    There’s actually one thing where I feel as if I’ve thoroughly experienced both sides of the passing/non-passing debate which have really affirmed me in my belief that it’s not a privilege issue – my speech disorder. I’ve effectively been able to pass as fluent for two and a half years, after an intensive speech therapy. Previously to that I’d never been able to for more than brief periods of time or short fluent phases. And honestly? I’d rather not pass. Recently I met up with a friend and stuttered much more than I usually do – not passing – and afterwards I realised I was really, really happy about this fact, that I’d missed it, missed having everything on the table from the beginning, missed not having to worry about what people would think if I started blocking now, missed being read as a person with a speech disorder. Which may seem a bit of a tangent, but I’m sure that just as with queerness there are plenty of people who’d say that people who stutter who can pass as fluent are privileged over those who can’t – but if it’s such a big privilege, why do I want to lose it? Why am I finding passing so misery-inducing? Why does it feel like I’m dying a little inside every time I tell someone that actually I have a speech disorder and they go “oh, I didn’t notice!” intending it to be a compliment? (Or, you know, disbelief, or playing down what it means. I’ve been getting a lot of “oh, I used to stutter too! then I pulled myself together” or “oh, I sometimes trip over my words in stressful situations if I’m not concentrating! I know what it’s like” type attempted empathising from fluent people which I cannot ever remember hearing pre-therapy. I’m pretty sure something related can happen for queerness – people disbelieving you or disbelieving how big a role this must play in your life, possibly, because you passed.)

    Also, re: heteroromantic being taken to be equal to heterosexual – this still confounds me. Like. How long do you have to think to realise not only that dating can easily be hell for any romantic asexual, but that it’s quite possible asexuals trying to date in a heterosexual context face extra challenges? I wouldn’t know, but I can imagine that the way heterosexual dating is often quite codified and ritualised and in particular how honest communication about one’s needs and desires can be fraught with issues could have some seriously nasty consequences for asexual folk trying to navigate that morass. (Am imagining, e.g., an asexual woman saying she doesn’t want sex and heterosexual guys assuming that she’s just saying that because she doesn’t want to be slut-shamed.)

    Comment by Kaz — December 24, 2010 @ 7:51 pm | Reply

    • I have thought about ace cues, but I’ve never pinged on someone else as ace in my daily life. I have pinged on someone as aromantic who also IDs as heterosexual, and I have thoughts about what that looks like, but I’m not sure how acedar per se works. On the other hand, I have been myself told that I seem very not-interested and people almost never hit on me or express romantic interest in me, so I think at least something’s up with the way people see me even before I come out. I just also think that for me it tends to be interpreted as hidden gay and not as open ace.

      I do know the feeling with passing for disability, because these days I usually pass as NT, particularly if you don’t know what to look for. And when I am open about being on the spectrum, I’ve had people tell me things like “it’s like you’re not autistic anymore!” and as you say, attempted empathizing that falls rather short of the mark. And I say “actually, I’m on the spectrum” because pretending otherwise is… exhausting and feels wrong wrong wrong. Possibly because it’s lying outright, because you can’t understand who I am if you don’t understand this, and possibly because letting people make the assumption also can hurt me if they then go on to make assumptions about what I can and can’t do.

      I do think it’s really interesting that having had the experience of both, you’d still not rather pass. And I mean, in an ideal world passing would be unnecessary. Because it hurts and it’s evil and if the world were perfect we’d respect each other enough that it wouldn’t be an issue to know whether, say, someone was queer or disabled. The fact that it’s a “necessary evil” makes the framing of it as privilege even more suspicious, I think.

      I think what they do is take a look at the romantic orientation thing and decide: hey, you don’t have to learn anything about asexuals, you can just treat them as whatever their romantic orientation is with an insignificant added module! And it doesn’t help that I used to see educational materials frame it as “some people identify as both gay and asexual” or “both straight and asexual” because that makes it seem like again, asexuality is this little add-on to your “real” orientation, like a kink or something. (In fact, it’s depressing how often I’ve seen asexuality compared to a kink.) And yes yes yes on heteroromantic relationships not just being a heteronormative walk in the park!

      Comment by Sciatrix — December 24, 2010 @ 11:01 pm | Reply

      • Sorry for lateness!

        Yeah, I have no idea what ace cues would look like myself. :/ problem. This is probably why we have such many and varied visibility ideas (black rings?), because we don’t really have another way to spot one another!

        And I mostly pass for NT (discounting stutter – I’m always confused about that because it’s neurological and hence falls under neuroatypicality as well, I think?) too. In fact, I even pass for pretty normal NT in some spaces, somewhat weird NT in others and in unfamiliar environments. I actually don’t tend to tell people much – I’ve only really been *able* to for about a year (yay late diagnosis? I did tell some people I thought I was earlier but the reaction tended to be pretty negative and self-diagnosis is an entirely different kettle of fish) and I tend to be pretty worried I’ll either get accused of lying (I pass for NT pretty damn well…) or have the person try to stuff me into their conceptions of what autism is like. I want to try to get away from this some, but there’s also the fact that almost a decade of extreme social anxiety about social cues (I had a bit of a formative moment there when I was fifteen) have ground MUST PASS FOR NT into my bones. :/

        Whiiich is to say, I don’t think it’s that being visible is qualitatively better than being invisible or vice versa. I think it’s mostly a matter of what you’re used to – like, because I was used to being an overt stutterer I’m used to the specific types of ableism I face and misconceptions I have to deal with, and losing that was pretty unpleasant and carried some really nasty things with it that I had absolutely no idea how to cope with. Whereas because I’m used to passing as NT things like the horrible energy-drain and the constant terror you are going to slip up are just familiar parts of everyday life and I have no idea how to be out. Stuttering is just a pretty good counterexample for the “it’s a privilege!” people because I have actually experienced both and actually strongly preferred visibility.

        And aaargh the sexual orientation as a facet of romantic aaaargh the “gay and asexual” thing. It’s, okay, I’ve got *something* to say about this because I have spent a lot of time thinking I was maybe homoromantic and identifying as close to homoromantic, yes? And one thing I knew for sure the whole time was that I’d never be identifying as lesbian, because I was asexual first and foremost. Sure, there are homoromantic ace folk who do, but there are also homoromantic ace folk who don’t (a lot more, I suspect, than the ones who do – just from talking to other asexuals) and it is not okay to force all romantic asexuals into that sort of model just because it’s one that doesn’t change your worldview too much. (Also, I think, whiffs of the “asexual people aren’t really oppressed” thing – obviously any homo- or biromantic asexual person would have most issues with and worry most about their romantic orientation!!!)

        Comment by Kaz — January 1, 2011 @ 8:17 pm | Reply

        • I have had friends twig on people they know as possibly ace and tell me about it–mostly stuff like dating long-term but being very uninterested/non-pushy about sex, also mostly guys. :/ Which seems to have gendered implications about who gets to want sex and who gets to not want sex without raising eyebrows and I’m not sure I like that.

          Yeah… actually, I tell people less often than I think I made it sound in the previous comment; mostly who I was thinking of were close friends and roommates. I tend to tell pretty much the same people who get to know about my sexual orientation, which means things like no one with any institutional or professional power over me gets to know–since I got “do not tell anyone who could possibly discriminate against you based on autism” ground into me as a teenager. My university doesn’t know about the AS diagnosis, for instance, and I would never bring it up in a classroom discussion. I’m very wary about telling people who might tangibly hurt me in ways besides ending a friendship that sort of thing.

          Yeah, the thing about getting used to one or the other does make a lot of sense. And then having to adjust what you’re used to because of a sudden change just sounds… unpleasant, although possibly that’s because I dislike change.

          Ohhh, that’s a good point on the whiffs of “asexual people aren’t really oppressed” thing, I hadn’t thought of that. And yeah, you’re not the only person I know who has/had a traditional romantic identity and yet still identified first as asexual. I get frustrated about it because I seriously don’t have the option of falling back on my romantic identity because I a) find it way more confusing than just plain “asexual,” and b) the word I usually go with is the same anyway, so it wouldn’t change the situation.

          Comment by Sciatrix — January 2, 2011 @ 9:34 pm | Reply

  2. You saw the drama on livejournal, I’m guessing?

    Invisibility as privilege. Ugh. I sure as hell didn’t feel privileged when I was convinced I was broken for the last eight years or so.

    Comment by Finbarr Ryan — December 25, 2010 @ 1:12 pm | Reply

    • The sad thing is that no, I’d had this in the works for maybe a week before the drama on Livejournal blew up. It’s totally not a new thing at all.

      And yeah. Ugh.

      Comment by Sciatrix — December 25, 2010 @ 1:27 pm | Reply

  3. Ok, I’m pissed off at you and Kaz and Ily. You clearly all decided to gang together during the few days I was off the internet, and write at least three amazing posts, just so I’d be stuck here trying to find some way of eloquently expressing “THISOHGOD,YES,THIIIIIISSSS!!!!” for several hours, when I should be WATCHING DR WHO! Monsters, all of you.

    But yeah, this. When you’re constantly being told that you’re straight, and you have needs that can’t be adressed by being straight, that is not fun. Passing is a curse if there’s no way not to pass.

    And I agree with Kaz (you particularly, Kaz. No one person could be so right so often in such a short period of time! I’m watching you!) about heteroromantic aces actually getting all the crap of being a romantic asexual intersectioning nastily with all the crap of being hetero. I mean, I’m mostly homo[SOMETHING? MAYBE?], but I don’t think it’s a co-incidence that I’ve mostly been imagining myself with male zucchinis. Because straight people are taught, over and over, not to communicate, and that lack of communication, passive acceptance of the roles you’re meant to have, is exactly what *scares me shitless* about romantic relationships in the first place (still not sure if I’m aromantic, queer, cynical or if they all mean the same thing).

    Comment by SlightlyMetaphysical — December 26, 2010 @ 9:33 am | Reply

  4. […] which means that I have a couple of friends in it whose blogs I read. One of them posted this the other day, and it set me thinking. It really doesn’t take much to set me […]

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  6. […] existiert, kann nicht diskriminiert werden. Doch, um es mit den Worten von Sciatrix zu sagen: Es ist kein Privileg, unsichtbar zu sein. Im Gegenteil. Unsichtbarkeit sorgt nur umso mehr für das Gefühl, nicht richtig zu […]

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