Writing From Factor X

June 8, 2011

Guest Post: Lucky

Filed under: Identity Policing — Sciatrix @ 2:09 pm
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This guest post was originally written by Anne

Let me start by pointing out that I have a crapload of privilege. I’m white. I’m American. I’m of comfortable socio-economic class. I’m a citizen of my country and a native English speaker and I’m binary and cisgender and right handed and have matching romantic and sexual orientations. I’m well educated. I’m currently able-bodied and neurotypical. I am, like I said, privileged as fuck. I readily acknowledge that and I do my best to keep it in mind when I interact with people so as not to deny my privilege or oppress others. I’m not perfect, but I try.

But there are privileges I don’t have. Male privilege. Religious privilege. Sexual privilege, most especially heterosexual privilege. That last is what I want to highlight right now. I am not heterosexual. I am, as point of fact, asexual and, more specifically, an aromantic asexual. I do not have heterosexual privilege and I hope that would be obvious to most people. If I had heterosexual privilege, I’d call myself heterosexual. That’s not the label that fits me. Asexual is. And I will defend the fact that this means I lose privilege, that this puts me at a social disadvantage that this, yes, means I am oppressed.

Permit me to divert momentarily from privilege and recount my coming out process. Specifically, my coming out to my family. I told my father in an email that I was aromantic. He responded by telling me that I was being presumptuous and that one is never old enough to proclaim that one can’t fall in love with someone. Basically, that I couldn’t be right about myself, and, furthermore, that no one could actually be aromantic and we were all just pretentious and would find the right person. I came out to my mother as asexual over Christmas vacation and, while I think she believed me in the end, it took explaining and arguing to get the point across and she still thinks that one day I’ll change my mind and have sex and pass on her genes. My brother I didn’t come out to directly, but he knows I’m asexual and has several times implied that it’s because of some flaw in my personality or character. I think he intends it as some kind of joke, but it’s not funny.

Now that I’ve said that allow me to also say that I consider myself hugely lucky. My family accepts me. They haven’t threatened to kick me out of the house or told me that there’s something seriously wrong with me or told me I should see a therapist so that I can be “normal”. They’re far more concerned about my grades and my finances and whether or not I keep my room clean than they are about my sexuality. I am, like I said, lucky.

Lucky, though, is different from privileged. I am not privileged. What I am is invisible. Being invisible is hard. Being invisible means having to attach a 101 explanation to every coming out. Being invisible means finding almost no examples of someone like you in popular media. Being invisible means not being anyone’s target market. Being invisible means being told that you shouldn’t label yourself, that you can’t know, that you’re limiting your potential. Being invisible means that any mention of your orientation at all is cause for celebration, even if that mention is negative or even downright incorrect. Being invisible means thinking yourself alone in the universe, damaged in some way you can’t understand, with no one to tell you otherwise unless you stumble upon one of a handful of resources available to you. Being invisible is not privilege.

I’m lucky, because I was able to grow up without caring what anyone thought of me. From a very young age I have lived primarily in my own world, oblivious to many social norms and not caring about many others. I don’t shave my legs or, for that matter, anything else. I don’t wear so-called fashionable clothing. I don’t wear makeup. I don’t think men should be taller than me. I am perfectly content to sit in the back of the room and read a book and not talk to anyone. I make friends with teachers and librarians and for the most part ignore my peers, both because talking to them is hugely stressful and because I simply don’t want to. The thing I hear most often when people describe me is some variation on, “confident enough in herself to avoid succumbing to peer pressure.” Thus I was able to escape a lot of the questioning and self-hatred and fear that comes with growing up asexual in a world that doesn’t like to admit that you exist. I didn’t think that I was broken, I didn’t keep expecting to grow into sexual attraction, I didn’t even really want to be sexual.

I’m lucky.

I’m also unusual. So many more people had to go through part of their live thinking there was something wrong, that they were broken beyond repair, that they were utterly alone. The suicide rate among asexuals has not, I believe, been accurately documented, but informal polls put the number of aces who have considered it at really quite high. That shouldn’t be surprising. We live in a society that tells us that there’s something wrong with us because we don’t feel this thing called sexual attraction. We live in a society where corrective rape is a real threat, where doctors don’t necessarily believe us, where one of the most common reactions to coming out is, “they can give you something to fix that.” We live in a world that either doesn’t acknowledge our existence or thinks that we need to be fixed, often forcibly. And that? That is not privilege.

May 25, 2011

We’re All In This Together

So in the wake of the shitstorm that’s been happening on Tumblr this week I’ve seen one thing over and over again, and it bugs the shit out of me. It happens basically whenever the policing of asexual queer identities comes up, actually, and it hasn’t gotten any less obnoxious over time.

Sexual people, you actually don’t have the right to tell asexuals that our primary identity is “really” whatever our romantic orientation is. No, not even if we’re identifying as queer.

Some asexuals identify first and foremost as asexual. Some don’t. And that goes regardless of what romantic orientation any given asexual may or may not have. (Hey, some of us don’t have romantic orientations that make a lot of sense! It’s funny how life is confusing that way!) You don’t actually get to tell anyone that their primary identity is totally invalid and they have to use a secondary one (or even a different but related one) because it’s easier for you to understand.

And even for those who don’t put any different weight on either their sexual or romantic orientation, erasing asexuals’ identities as asexual is still absolutely not okay. A heteroromantic asexual person is not the same thing as a straight person. A homoromantic asexual person is not the same thing as a gay person. The experience of being a romantic asexual is different from the experience of being a person with a matching sexual and romantic orientation in a whole bunch of ways.

I think it’s telling, in fact, that when asexuals do divide themselves based on romantic orientation, the usual divide is between people who identify themselves as unambiguously romantic and aromantic or confused people. Within romantic asexuals, I almost never see people dividing themselves between heteroromantic, biromantic, or homoromantic, and the similarity of experiences between these groups is almost always emphasized.

I am really sick and tired of sexual people trying to ignore the reality of asexual identities by pretending that they don’t exist. Because that’s exactly what’s going on when these people try to claim that heteroromantic people are really straight and homoromantic asexuals are really gay. Instead of engaging with the reality of asexuality as an identity in its own right, these people think that they can just sidestep the issue by claiming that asexuality itself doesn’t matter, romantic attraction is the real identifier of queerness or not-queerness!

(You will notice that these people never engage with the reality of aromantic asexuals, except sometimes to put us in the box marked ‘straight’ with no discussion or explanation. You know, it’s funny but I thought that to be a straight girl I actually had to like cock. It’s good to know I was wrong about that!)

Of course, if you brought up the reality of aromantic heterosexual people to these Lord Gatekeepers of the Word Queer, I bet you dollars to donuts they’d claim that those people are also Totally Straight. Yes! Apparently if you’re heteroromantic asexual, romantic orientation is the really important part, but if you’re aromantic heterosexual, sexual orientation is far more important.

The thing is, this is a great way for sexualnormative queer people to avoid having to actually engage with the idea of asexuality as a queer identity. It provides them with a tailor-made way to pretend that asexuality itself is unimportant and that asexual concerns can be dismissed as so much unimportant whining. After all, if you’re saying that the only important problems asexuals have come from their association with The Gay (or, in very slightly more enlightened circles, The Bi), then you can dismiss asexuality itself quite easily from the lists of things that you should probably pay attention to.

Unfortunately for them, the reality of asexuality is much, much more complicated than that. There’s a reason that asexuals discussing sexuality amongst ourselves don’t divide our experience into the “really straight” ones and the “really queer” ones amongst ourselves. That’s because when we share our experiences amongst ourselves, the similarities between us are far more starkly evident than the differences.

Besides, there are a lot of queer issues that apply to heteroromantics specifically because of their asexuality. Ace Admiral recently dug up the Queerness Invisible Knapsack and pointed out that fully 36 out of 40 points can apply just as much to asexuals–including heteroromantics–as they can to other kinds of queer people. Now, if you’re an identity-policing queer person, you get to make a decision here. Do these things matter in terms of oppression, or do they not? Is being “accused of being abused, warped or psychologically confused because of my sexual orientation” important? Because that’s something almost every asexual I know has encountered at some point. How about being able to “count on finding a therapist or doctor willing and able to talk about my sexuality”? Important or no? Does it matter when it happens to aces, regardless of any other aspect of their identities, or only when it happens to gay people?

I’m open to discussion of the use of “queer” by asexual people. But that discussion needs to refer to all asexual people, regardless of their other characteristics. And it needs to engage with asexuality as a primary identity on its own first. This divide and conquer bullshit is just that–bullshit. And it needs to stop right now.

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.

October 28, 2010

Won’t Someone Please Think of the Adolescents?

Let’s talk about age and identity policing.

See, there’s this very common thing I see when a teenager, particularly anyone under 18, enters an asexuality space to say “I think I’m asexual.” And you’ll see people just lining up to tell them that they can’t be sure of themselves, that they might be mistaken. That they might simply be late bloomers. That they ought not to hold onto the identity too tightly until they’re older, and they can be sure it’s not a phase.

I see this within the asexual community. You’d assume that a group founded on trying to acquire acceptance for everyone who identifies as asexual wouldn’t be so invested in essentially invalidating someone’s identity, but that’s what I’m seeing.

This is particularly interesting given that the average age of sexual attraction is ten years old. And this holds true for all sexualities except, for obvious reasons, asexuality. The standard deviation appears to be about three years. For the curious, that means that of the people who eventually go on to experience sexual attraction, 84% of them will have done so by age 13, and 97.6% of them will have done so by age 16. Those are some absurdly high numbers. What, given that, makes people think that teenagers are unlikely to be aware of what their sexual orientation is? If you’re not experiencing sexual attraction and 97% of your peers have done so, don’t you think that you’d notice that something was perhaps a little off?

And now let’s talk about me. It’s my blog, I’m allowed to be a touch narcissistic. I am twenty years old, folks. What’s more than that, I’ve been past teenagerdom for slightly over a month. I am very young for this sort of thing. It seems that according to some, I’ve finally hit the magic age where I can be certain. And according to others, I’m still in phase territory–I’ve heard some people, all in their forties of course, set the bar as high as twenty-five. Awesome. I can’t tell you how pleased that makes me to hear when I come across it.

I found out about asexuality when I was fourteen years old. I joined AVEN when I was fifteen. At the time it was essentially the only place besides the Livejournal community to discuss asexuality at all, and I didn’t know enough about LJ to navigate it at all. And you know, I don’t remember it being nearly this ageist then. I remember a focus on using identities as tools, yes, and on discarding them if they no longer became useful. But I don’t remember being told within the community that teenagers couldn’t know for sure if they were asexual yet.

That was then, and this is now. I think we’re worse off for it. Now it’s hard to see the acceptance for the identity policing. For the admonitions that you oughtn’t come out, or let the label ‘asexual’ mean much to you, because you just might be a late bloomer. Never mind the relative likelihoods of actually being a late bloomer or just being a baby ace. Just the chance means that you can’t embrace the label too tightly, lest it be wrong.

Folks, I knew that that label of asexuality was me when I first saw it at fourteen. And I knew what I was before even that. I found AVEN in the first place because I was beginning to get the idea that maybe everyone wasn’t like me, and I was trying to figure out what sexual orientation I was. It’s been five years, now, and I’ve never encountered any significant thing to make me need to re-evaluate that identity. And even if I had, just having the identity, just knowing that asexuality was even an option, and that it could be me… well. That was knowledge I cherished, growing up, because it meant that I wasn’t a freak. It meant there was nothing wrong with me. And that gave me all the courage to be myself I needed.

Even if the late bloomer model were common–and I am unconvinced that it is–impressing on every single teenager who wonders whether they might be entitled to call themselves asexual that they shouldn’t do so because they might develop another sexual orientation does a hell of a lot of harm to those of us who aren’t late bloomers. It sends a message to younger people that this community isn’t for them. That this label isn’t for using, and neither is the support that comes with it.

And given that a fuckload of visibility and community work is done by those of us who are in our teens and twenties, I think that alienating those of us who are younger members of the asexual community is likely to shoot the community as a whole in the foot. If you’ve found out asexuality exists when you’re young but you got heavily reminded that it might not be for you by the very people you’re reaching out to for support, it’s hardly likely you’ll be involved enough in its work to do any kind of activism.

If people identifying as asexual realize that they’ve changed, or that they were mistaken about their feelings for others, by all means drop the label. If an identity stops working or worse, becomes restrictive, than by all means drop it in favor of one which does work. There’s nothing wrong with broadening your understanding of yourself, or finding that you have changed over time.

But don’t tell someone that they can’t pick up that identity, which might be so important to them, for so paltry a quality as age.

October 25, 2010

Queer as Ace

I want to talk about passing, and queerness, and how asexuality fits into that. Or more specifically, my particular aromantic brand of asexuality, since that’s the only one my experiences apply to.

One of the charges leveled against (aromantic and heteroromantic) asexuals identifying as queer that I saw most often in the recent brouhaha at ontd_feminism had to do with two contentions: one, that we pass as straight and therefore don’t count, and two, that we don’t experience our own personalized forms of oppression, at least not on the scale of homosexuality. And I think both of these charges are bullshit.

In particular, the first time I saw the bit about asexuals passing for straight so easily, I was a bit flabbergasted. Because I don’t pass as straight for any length of time. My experience throughout high school always came back to carefully guarded questions and tentative attempts to get me to come out. And those were the polite ones. Growing up, much of the bullying and harassment I dealt with came down to bothering me about my sexual orientation. The one incident of street harassment I’ve suffered to date occurred when I was out walking my dog and some assholes in a car drove up right next to me, yelled “FAGGOT!” and drove away. When I started coming out as asexual for the first time, it was because I was sick of people getting it wrong.

Some of this is my particular gender presentation. I’m cis, but I freely admit I’m not the most femme cis girl out there. But a lot of it comes down to the fact that I never expressed any interest, sexual or otherwise, in anyone. And in this culture, not experiencing interest in opposite-sex people automatically means you must be interested in same-sex people. I freely admit it’s not every asexual’s experience, but it’s mine. In my experience, I can choose to come out as asexual and be honest about who and what I actually am, or I can be regarded as a lesbian in a closet so transparent that people feel entitled to try to “help” me come out of it. Passing as straight for anyone who knows me well enough to ask about my personal life has not been something I have been able to do well since I hit puberty.

Okay. So it’s possible that asexuals don’t always get passing privilege.  Even if we’re not bi/pan/homoromantic. And for the record, I know a heteroromantic fellow who gets coded gay as often as I do. This isn’t necessarily an aromantics-only thing. But what about the contention that the oppressions we face which are specific to asexuality (e.g. not homophobia misapplied) are so weak and easy compared to homophobia that we’re making a big fuss over nothing?

Well, anti-asexual sentiment is really fucking similar to biphobia, for one thing. One of the things asexuals share with bisexuals is the fact that many people seem to have problems with the idea that one’s orientation is not actually the same thing as the gender of the person one is dating. (Or not dating, as the case may be.) I have seen the very same accusations of attention-seeking and oversensitivity directed at asexuals as I have at bisexuals. As well as the very same charges of appropriativeness. After all, there are plenty of bisexual people who end up in opposite-sex relationships, or even who tend to experience sexual attraction to more opposite-sex people than to same-sex people. Not every bi person is a Kinsey 3, after all.

So why is bisexuality A-OK as a form of queerness,  but asexuality is not?

October 11, 2010

Invisibility Internalized

Here is my great problem when talking about asexuality: I find it much easier to talk about being asexual and what that means to be on the Internet, with people who do not know me in meatspace*.

I’m dealing with that for my project for National Coming Out Day. I am not actually coming out per se to anyone. Rather, what I will be doing is making a Facebook post inviting anyone who wants to talk to me about asexuality to do so at any time over the course of the week, and I will make a concerted effort to answer any questions they might have.

But I’m not talking about that here. Instead, what I want to talk about is why I find it so difficult to talk about asexuality outside of asexual spaces, especially off the Internet. My asexuality is a fairly important aspect of my identity. It colors how I perceive the world and it impacts the way I view my relationships with friends and family. And, as this blog evinces, I spend a lot of time thinking about asexuality and its place in the world. I care enough about this topic to write an essay on it every week. It’s a big part of me.

And yet I don’t talk about it much. Oh, I’m out, and I’m feeling more and more comfortable coming out as asexual fairly casually. I joke about it sometimes, or other people do.

I still don’t bring up issues related to asexuality much in conversation. My meatspace friends don’t know this blog exists, for instance. Not because it’s a secret, but because I don’t talk about it. They barely know AVEN exists, mostly because occasionally I will mention it if a discussion off AVEN is really upsetting me.

There was an exercise I did last week in my Human Sexuality class. We were asked to write three important parts of our self-identity on a piece of paper and go and talk to a total stranger without giving any hints to them about what we had written on our papers. And you know, the hardest part of the whole exercise was letting the person I was talking to know I was ace at the end of it. Dancing around my identity? Ignoring the entire question of sex, romance, of dating and of life plans? It was easy. I do it every day.

When the topic of sexuality comes up, I am often afraid to speak up because I feel that, for some reason, my opinion doesn’t “count.”

My orientation is something to joke about on occasion, and that’s pretty much it with some rare exceptions. It’s not something I discuss seriously. Because that would make it real.

And this… I think this is because I have internalized the broader culture of asexuality as being something which is not quite as real as other orientations. After all, it’s very rare to hear asexuality discussed in the context of anything outside of specifically asexual spaces. When I do see it outside of our discussions–even so much as a mention that asexual people exist, without any discussion of actual asexual experiences–I am taken aback. Shocked, really, at least for a second. Seeing asexuality so much as mentioned is an acknowledgement that our issues are important, even among people who are not themselves asexual.

I’m not the only asexual person I have talked to who does this, either. Even within the ace community I see many people arguing that, for instance, visibility efforts are a waste of time. Or coming out is, because no one needs to know about asexuality but asexual people. Or that we don’t really experience any hardships, so we ought to just be quiet and keep our asexuality to ourselves, and save the real discussion for people who have sexualities that are oppressed.

I think: invisibility is stifling. It is having one side of me focusing on one part of myself, and another side to show the people outside of my community. It is downplaying something which is important to me.

And yet breaking that invisibility is terrifying. Especially when I have seen, so often, attempts to raise dialog about asexuality in non-asexual spaces dissolve into concern trolling about health, or anger about appropriating the struggles of others, or being told that we’re upset about nothing. That this isn’t a problem. It isn’t simply a matter of irrational fear.

I think it’s worth doing, even if it is terrifying. I hope I have less to fear than I think.

*I consciously use the term “meatspace” rather than “real life” to refer to spaces off the Internet, because I don’t think Internet interactions are any less real than off-Net ones. Especially for people whose primary source of social contact is through the Internet–and I’ve been there and probably will be again–I think the term “real life” trivializes the important relationships that form and the conversations which happen using the Internet as a medium.

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