Writing From Factor X

January 29, 2012

Paneling Versus Coming Out: Thoughts On Presentation

Filed under: Carnival of Aces,Visibility — Sciatrix @ 11:19 pm
Tags: , , , ,

This post was originally written for the Carnival of Aces. This month’s theme is “Re/presentation.” 

As it happens, one of the things I’ve been doing while I’ve been on posting hiatus recently is doing Q&A panels with my local LGBTQA campus group. (I have posted recaps of some of them in other places.) Recently, I’ve been thinking about the differences in the way that I present myself when I’m speaking on a panel as a representative of aces and the way I present myself when I’m just coming out to someone I think needs to know I, specifically, am ace.

For one thing, I’m pretty guarded when I’m coming out. About a year ago I wrote about a concept I called the “unassailable asexual,” in which I argued that there was pressure (especially internalized pressure) on aces doing visibility work to present themselves in a way that opened as few avenues to attack on their sexuality as possible.

I still think that that internal pressure is a bad thing that discourages some people from doing visibility work, but it’s not something that I spend that much time personally resisting, either. Particularly when I out myself, I often take care to omit anything that might be construed as an invitation to doubt my orientation. I’m actually a lot more willing to talk about some of the ways in which I fit the ways that people usually attempt to invalidate asexuals  in panels than I am when I come out.

I think this may be because I’m typically much more relaxed when I’m paneling  than I am when I’m coming out to someone. There are several reasons for this. First, when I’m paneling I’m sitting as an invited authority next to two to three other representatives of other groups from my LGBTQA organization. Often I’m paneling for a class of some sort, in which case the instructor has often warned their students to be polite beforehand (and in one case, had apparently briefed their class roughly on asexuality before I ever walked into the room!). In contrast, when I have to come out, I don’t have any more psychological authority than the other person does, which means that people are less likely to acknowledge that I know what I’m talking about, even when it comes to my own sexuality.

I also feel more comfortable when I’m giving panels because it’s understood, when I panel, that I’m speaking as an individual representative for a larger group of people who share an identity, not just for myself. The very fact that I’m sitting on a panel states that I’m not speaking and answering questions purely for myself but for a larger category of people whom I belong to. It’s easier to avoid invalidation when the discussion becomes not a question of whether you personally are deluded/lying/ill but a question of whether a large group of people could all be correct about themselves. 

Panels are easier for me, too, because (paradoxically) the point is to be as open and forthright about everything as possible. I often find that I have a hard time figuring out where the social line between “silent and vaguely uncomfortable on all aspects of discussion of sexuality” and “cheerfully breaking out odd facts about animal reproduction as well as interesting aspects of human sexuality” lies. The fact that I have no personal experience with romantic relationships or romantic and sexual attraction usually doesn’t help. Panels are squarely in the “TMI” category, which makes it much easier for me to deal with the limits of what counts as socially acceptable and what doesn’t. 

There are also certain questions, like the masturbation question, that I am actually personally completely unbothered by answering. However, outside of a panel situation where I have offered ahead of time and signed up to be asked all manner of personal questions, I don’t believe in encouraging people to ask random aces that question or allowing people to demand aces to bare every detail of their personal lives as the price of coming out. I believe that (outside of a situation in which I’ve agreed ahead of time to share), if one person is sharing in a conversation, everyone should expect to have to share the same level of personal information in the conversation. I also find that many people asking aces the masturbation question become extremely uncomfortable if you ask them to share their own personal sexual habits. Given those beliefs, it can be a little difficult for me to handle questions like that in a personal setting. Panels let me answer them and then add a post script on the basic right of privacy for everyone outside of a specialized situation in which people are offering to answer questions. 

There are other differences in the way I behave when I panel and the way I behave when I come out. I am often much friendlier about the whole topic when I’m paneling than I am when I out myself. Part of this comes back to the point I made earlier about feeling safer and more comfortable when I’m paneling, and part of it comes back to the fact that I have found that the more brusque and confident I am when I out myself, the less likely people are to take this as an invitation to attempt to invalidate me. 

I also sometimes out myself in situations when I’m not mentally prepared or particularly willing to answer many questions, and I have found that being not particularly friendly and welcoming about coming out lessens the chance that I will suddenly be expected to give a tour of Planet Asexual without warning. This usually happens when I’m suddenly asked a direct question about my sexual orientation or about my romantic status and I want to clear up the problem, but I don’t have the emotional energy to discuss much further or entertain the inevitable personal questions. 

To give an example of suddenly be expected to educate without warning, I was once hanging out with a group of friends. I had been there for a few hours and was dozing, half asleep and completely relaxed, on my friend’s couch. Suddenly one of my friends, who I was out to, mentioned asexuality to a friend I was not out to as part of some other conversation. The second person was understandably interested and wanted to know more, whereupon the first said “Well, it’s [Sciatrix], you should ask her!” There went my lazy afternoon! Now I was expected to drop everything and play question-and-answer with a person whom I hadn’t actually had any plans to talk to about asexuality in the future, let alone in that particular instant. 

Paneling, by contrast, has a specific schedule and a time limit, and I know exactly when and for how long I’m agreeing to answer questions. Moreover, I’ve agreed to do that ahead of time, so I can’t be surprised by the sudden need to educate, and I can have as much time as I want to prepare for any questions that might come up. The questions are even pretty standard both ways, so I can prepare answers ahead of time if I want. 

I don’t think any of these reactions are particularly ace-specific, but I do find it interesting that I am far, far more comfortable paneling than I am coming out to new people. I hear a lot of people tell me “Oh, I could never do that!” when I mention paneling in ace spaces, but I find that at least for me?

The paneling is way less scary. 

May 1, 2011

Carnival of Aces Guest Post

Filed under: Carnival of Aces,Coming Out — Sciatrix @ 5:33 pm
Tags: , ,

Although I accepted the fact that I was asexual pretty much as soon as I first learned the word, it took me a while to get comfortable coming out to people.  In fact, I didn’t actually open my mouth and say the words “I’m asexual” to another person for almost six months.  I was a freshman in college then, and I’d heard way too many horror stories from people on AVEN about how they attempted to come out only to face derision, concern-trolling, anger, etc. for me to be comfortable with the idea. I didn’t feel ready to deal with any of that, so I just didn’t tell anyone at first.

Then, months later, the campus LGBT organization came into one of my classes and did a student panel where they discussed every letter on the full LGBTQQIAA acronym and what it meant, and the students on the panel shared their personal stories.  The final letter on the acronym indeed stood for asexuality.  I was floored.  Not only was asexuality included on the acronym, but they actually gave the correct definition for it!  And even talked about romantic orientation!  As though they’d actually cared enough to do research on asexuality and familiarize themselves with the concepts!  As though *gasp* they’d actually talked to asexual people in the process!

I was beyond elated, but I didn’t say anything or out myself to them.  However, by the time class was over, I’d reached a decision:  I’m going to do it.  I’m going to come out to someone.  I figured that people were less likely to be assholes about it since it had just been discussed by the panel, and anyway, I didn’t know anybody in that class very well so even if there was a bad reaction, it wouldn’t hurt as much.  With that in mind, I struck up a conversation with one of the returning adult students, a woman in her late forties.  We were talking about how cool it was that these student panels worked to educate people and how important it was to hear people’s stories, and at one point I finally took the plunge and said, “Yeah, you know, I’m so happy they actually included asexuality, because I’m asexual and people usually don’t even know we exist.”

I paused, heart racing, and tried not to look too anxious during the approximately second-long interval before she answered with, “Oh, wow!  That’s awesome.  I didn’t know asexuality even existed before this, but I’m glad they discussed it.  It must be awful when you’re not included anywhere.”

I felt slightly stunned.  I’d actually done it:  I’d actually come out to someone.  And I didn’t even get bingoed!  In fact, the response had been awesome.  I hadn’t even realized how much I hated being in the closet until I’d finally come out of it for one brief moment—it felt like a heavy weight had been lifted from my heart.  It’s incredible how much that affirming, positive response meant to me.  I felt like I finally had permission to be myself, no more lies and silence involved.

After that, coming out became much easier.  I came out to some more random classmates and even two professors, all with positive responses.  Then came the considerably more nerve-wracking step of coming out to someone close to me, in this case my younger brother.  I spent days angsting over it, but the actual event was pretty anti-climactic: he just stared blankly at me and said, “Why would I care if you’re asexual?  It doesn’t matter to me what orientation you are.  You’re my sister and I love you.”  Fwawwwww…

With each coming-out that I did, my confidence increased and I got better at it.  Since I no longer felt like I was going to die of anxiety when I told people, my initially nervous, hundred-mile-an-hour ramblings about what asexuality was gradually became a simple, matter of fact explanation:  This is who I am.  This is what it means.  It’s in no way up for debate.  I am a queer person and have always been.  Trying to invalidate my identity is heterosexist and hurts my feelings.  Plus it makes you look like an asshole.  (This last part is subtly implied.)

Tone of voice and how you present yourself are extremely important when you’re coming out to people.  When you’re calm and confident—and above all unapologetic—it’s much harder for anyone to bingo you.  People are less likely, in my experience, to concern-troll someone who seems relaxed and uses “I am” statements instead of “I think” or “I feel like.” However, if the Marginalized Ace Person ™ hirself seems nervous or unsure, it becomes much easier for the Privileged Straight Person ™ to pounce on this perceived sign of weakness and mask their assholery as concern.  After all, Ace Person is clearly distressed and Straight Person is just so worried about them—they only want them to be happy!  I mean, how can they comfort Ace person with reassurances of (straight) sexual-ness if Ace person actually seems *le gasp* happy with who they are?

Now, I know a lot of aces have gotten bad responses from other queer people as well (which is truly sad and should not happen).  However, I myself have never been bingoed by anybody who wasn’t straight.  Also, I know it’s not always easy to be confident about coming out—let’s face it, we live in a society that does not respect queer people (to put it incredibly mildly).  And like I said, it can take time to work yourself up to that place of confidence and being relaxed and comfortable in your identity, and that’s okay!

If you’re expecting a bad reaction from someone, it can help to prepare yourself by reading and/or talking to other people about their experiences.  The first time I got bingoed was definitely upsetting, but I was able to handle it.  I’d read the advice and compilations of snarky and/or intellectual comebacks that other ace people had graciously put together to help newbies like myself, and this proved invaluable.  (The good thing about bingos, by the way, is that they’re incredibly predictable. Once you become even slightly familiar with them, you can spot one a mile off.)

These days I’m out to pretty much everyone: friends, classmates, professors. (I’m not out to my parents, but that’s a whole other story.) The responses have been mostly great, with a few exceptions. I even joined the campus queer group I mentioned earlier (who were thrilled to have me, and have been unbelievably wonderful and supportive), and I sign up for as many student panels as I can in a semester so that I can come out to entire classrooms of complete strangers and share my story in an environment where no one would dream of bingoing me.  Because coming out is important.  Coming out shows people that we exist, and that there’s nothing wrong with us.  We’re here, we’re queer—a lot of people haven’t gotten over it yet, as evidenced by the ridicule and the harassment and the outright pathologization that we’re continually blasted with, but if enough of us come out, they’ll have to get over it.  Already many people have heard the word “asexuality” and perhaps even kinda sorta know what it means, but our fight is far from over.

And more importantly, you coming out is how other aces learn they exist, how there’s a word for their feelings, how other people feel the same way, how they’re not wrong or sick or strange or broken.  I think maybe one of the proudest moments of my life was when another adult student, a man in his early fifties, came up to me after a panel and said, “Hey, I thought about what you said, and I honestly think I’m probably asexual,” and then told me his personal story, which was indeed pretty indicative of aceness.  He surprised and relieved to finally discover a label that fit.  Moments like that, and the wonderful experience I’ve had with these panels in general, are why I fight so hard for visibility. (They’re also why the acceptance and support of the greater LGBT community are so, so important if we’re to receive recognition as a valid orientation and respect as human beings, but that’s a topic for another time.)

So if you can, and if you feel comfortable doing so, please: come out to people.  Be open about who you are.  Be proud, not ashamed.  The world will be a much better place for it.

A Carnival of Aces Round-Up: Coming Out

Filed under: Carnival of Aces — Sciatrix @ 12:26 pm
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Welcome to the round-up for the first edition of the Carnival of Aces!

First, thank you to everyone who participated or commented on participating posts. This carnival couldn’t happen without you guys, and I was really thrilled to see the level of response that came out of this project. You guys are awesome.

Certain themes ran through many of this month’s responses. Many people talked about being afraid to come out, while several people who had come out described it as anticlimactic. Several people thought that coming out wasn’t worth the hassle. A lot of people discussed coming out as something that is a lot easier online than offline. The theme of dealing with negative reactions in particular ran strongly through almost every response. Regardless of topic, though, I was thrilled to see every entry, and I can’t wait to see what else the carnival goes on to produce.

Enjoy!

Siggy talks about being an experienced outcomer–and about how coming out never really stops.

Teafeather wonders how coming out might be made easier for asexuals.

Astrid discusses the difficulties of coming out for one personality in a multiple system.

Elizabeth talks about pressuring people to come out and why that’s a bad idea.

Pipisafoat doesn’t like the term “coming out” at all–after all, zie’s not exactly hiding!

Anonymous thinks it’s better to show, not tell.

Wiring’s not sure coming out is worth it.

The Ace student has good reasons for not outing herself to everyone.

The Ace Eccentric is choosy about who gets to know–and most of them are on the Internet.

Avail is very slowly sliding out of the closet.

Pippin is coming out of the closet in stages, too.

Lasciel doesn’t want to be closeted ever again.

Eowyn thinks that coming out reminds people that we exist.

Divalady shares her feelings on a very uneventful coming out experience.

Gretchen’s coming out was similarly anticlimactic.

Elizabeth Barrette contributes a poem about an asexual character coming out.

And I told the story of the process I went through before I decided to come out at all.

And with that, the carnival draws to a close for the month! The next round of the carnival will be held by Ily at Asexy Beast and will be concluded on June 1.

Thank you all!

Edging Out Of The Closet

This post was originally written for the Carnival of Aces.

When I first identified as asexual, I swore I’d never be out.

Okay, so obviously that’s changed considerably in the intervening years. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I identified as asexual for about three and a half years before I felt brave enough to come out to anyone. I admire anyone who is brave enough to come out in high school; I’ll tell you right now that I wasn’t one of them, despite the fact that I was pretty sure what I was and even had the words before I’d finished my freshman year of high school.

I was terrified to explain, you see.

I’d spent quite a bit of time watching discussions about asexuality online after I thought “oh, that’s me,” and I hadn’t failed to notice that claiming asexuality in those spaces didn’t exactly get you friendly, polite reactions. And okay, it’s not like I particularly trusted anyone with that information. My parents weren’t overtly homophobic–but they reacted to any hint of queerness with giggling discomfort, and that seemed like a bad omen. As for my friends, well, I moved a few months after I started identifying myself as asexual, and there was no one at my new high school that I trusted not to react badly.

Also, I was pretty sure that no one would believe me. When I found out about asexuality for the first time, I was fourteen–and I was already accustomed to being told that no, eventually I would totally change my mind and want to marry a boy some day. (I even believed it some of the time. Not that I was actually changing my mind for the moment, but that I would eventually.) To add insult to injury, by that point my mother had spent years insisting that I definitely had a secret crush on one of my two male best friends, despite the fact that I hadn’t seen either of them since I was ten. I was pretty sure that if I couldn’t even get people to listen when I said I wasn’t interested in a specific person, they weren’t going to listen when I said I wasn’t interested in anyone.

So I decided coming out wasn’t worth it. But the idea of trying to hide, of feigning crushes on boys or trying to feign an actual relationship, seemed anathema. I don’t lie if I have any choice at all, and I certainly don’t lie if there’s a chance of hurting anyone as a result, and in any case I’m quite bad at lying to begin with. So I figured that if I pretended that being myself was just a subset of me being a bit weird, that if it was just an individual idiosyncrasy, I’d fit better–or at least I wouldn’t stand out quite so much.

At this point another fact about me needs to be mentioned: although I’m a cis woman, my gender presentation is not exactly femme. And in fact, as I was easing into identifying as asexual to myself, I was also easing into the kind of gender presentation that made me feel most comfortable. I cut my hair shorter and shorter, despite my parents’ increasing objections and nagging. I wore baggy T-shirts a lot. My gender presentation was ambiguous enough that it wasn’t unusual for people to assume I was a boy or to try to guess my gender while talking to me.

It’s perhaps not surprising in that light that a lot of people started to assume I was gay. I must have been asked up front about my sexual orientation dozens of times before I came out with varying levels of politeness and tact. In middle school, before I even knew what I was, I think it was mostly an attempt to hurt me; by high school the questions tended to be more polite, but I still found them annoying. My parents sat down with me and attempted to coax me into confessing my possible gayness several times, alternating between “if you are gay, we’ll support you” and “if you don’t act more girly, a lesbian might hit on you, and that would be terrible!” The mixed messages that came out of those talks weren’t precisely encouraging.

I am not good at passing for straight, is what I am saying. And the net result of all the questioning is that I started to get aggravated. For me, saying “I’m just not interested” and leaving it at that doesn’t seem to be an option, at least not for people I spend any length of time with. Besides, as all this was going on I was starting to feel more secure in my orientation itself, and I was starting to think more about what being asexual meant to me. There were times when I really wanted to talk to someone about what being asexual meant to me, and anyway I was sick of not sharing all of myself with people I cared about. Also, I was really getting tired of the thinly-veiled attempts to figure out whether I was secretly a lesbian.

So in the summer after my senior year, I decided that when I went to college I was going to be out, at least to my friends, if only to make the “are you really gay?” questions stop happening. And in the fall, a few weeks after meeting the people I ended up being friends with, I came out in meatspace for the first time. All at once, so I didn’t have to hunt people down later. I remember being prickly and sharp and making it very clear that this was not a subject open to debate, and I remember being absolutely blindsided by the immediate reaction of one person, who exclaimed “Man, that’s awesome, now I know someone from every sexual orientation!” That experience went well, although not all of the later ones did.

Coming out didn’t solve everything, though. It didn’t necessarily let me talk more about what my asexuality meant to me. It didn’t solve all of the misconceptions people, including friends who knew me well, had about who I was and what I wanted out of life. And it didn’t stop me feeling terrified every time I did try to mention asexuality. So eventually, after a year or so had passed, I resolved to actually talk more about asexuality and be more open about what I was–not just coming out, but discussing my sexuality past that point and sharing some of the things going on inside my head with the people I care about.

I told a friend why Mercedes’ Lackey’s Oathbound books were so important to me, and I talked about what the publication of Guardian of the Dead meant to me when it came out for the first time and I bought it. I lent it round to everyone I knew, too.

I came out in the middle of a class to explain my asexual perspective on the discussion topic, and then brought up asexual perspectives later on over the course of that semester. (Another person came out right back to me. It was exhilarating once I got past the fear.)

A year ago, I finally bought a black ring. I was so nervous about it that I waited to purchase one until I made a solitary out-of-state road trip, and then bought one from a rock shop on my way home. I went through several before I got the one I have now.

I started this blog, and a few months later I mentioned that I was writing it to my friends. I don’t think any of them reads it now, but I know that two of them have looked at it.

A month ago I finally got around to explaining the joke about the name of the show “Ace of Cakes.”

I’m not to the point where I want to be yet, but I’m getting there. And even though it’s scary for me to keep talking, I’m glad I started. For me, being able to share all of who I am with people I care about is worth it.

Carnival of Aces Guest Post: Coming Out: Is It Necessary?

Filed under: Carnival of Aces,Coming Out — Sciatrix @ 11:19 am
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This guest post was originally written by Anonymous for the Carnival of Aces.

Let me preface this post by saying that I have told my immediate family, my three closest friends in the meatspace, two of my closest friends in the virtual space, one other friend, and two friends/acquaintances (with whom it came up in context), that I am asexual. I told different people for different reasons. My friends who know I am asexual are very helpful in having discussions with me about our society’s sexual and romantic norms, and these discussions help me try to understand things that would otherwise be a blank. My family, on the other hand, I was apprehensive about telling, but I was afraid their feelings would be hurt if they later discovered I had been positively identifying as asexual for some time. In retrospect, that might not have been the best reason, but their reactions were net positive, and now I can have helpful discussions with them, as well. I have, therefore, experience with telling people that I am asexual.

Now, I am in an odd position where the people closest to me know I am asexual, but the vast majority of the people I interact with on a daily basis do not. Offhand, I can think of at least two friends who might be either surprised, or hurt that I have told other people but not them; I can think of conversations that have gone oddly because the other participants assumed I had a working knowledge of sexual attraction and/or entered into society’s sexual and romantic norms, where I did not choose to enlighten them. This prompts the question, why haven’t I told my friends, and why don’t I explain to make conversations simpler?

There are multiple reasons. Sometimes, I worry that my friends’ reaction would make me think less of them, and would damage our bond for a while. Sometimes I’m just tired of explaining. The biggest reason, though, is usually apathy. I’ve told all the people to whom it really matters to me to tell, and now my sexual orientation has settled into the status of being just another fact about me that not everyone knows, like the fact that I’m a dancer or a scientist. Beyond that, I get annoyed at the idea that just because I am different from most of the population, I should feel the need to go around telling people so. My sexual orientation is just as much, if not more, part of my private identity as my public identity, and I like to keep private things private. I’m not ashamed of them, but they’re not everyone’s business, either.

I’m not going to lie to anyone, but neither am I necessarily going to tell them I’m asexual unless directly questioned or unless conversations are impossible to detangle otherwise. The longer I seem “normal,” the more normal asexuality will seem when I eventually am discovered as asexual; the less of a deal I make about it, the less likely other people are to see asexuality as something huge, something problematic, something pitied… or so I hope, anyway.

This is a position of privilege, I realize. I’m not homoromantic or biromantic, so I usually pass as heterosexual; I don’t live in a community where my lack of heteroromantic attachment has raised any eyebrows or put me in any danger. I’m neither trans nor genderqueer, so my gender identity, which is often perceived in tandem with one’s sexual orientation, is not under scrutiny. I am not saying the way I have publicized my asexuality, or my reasons for doing so, are good for or applicable to anyone else; I simply want to present another way of looking at the concept of “coming out.”

Carnival of Aces Guest Post: “Untitled”

Filed under: Carnival of Aces,Coming Out — Sciatrix @ 9:00 am
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This guest post was originally written by Avail for the Carnival of Aces.

I haven’t bothered to “come out”.
Well, technically. I’ve admitted that I’m asexual to a grand total of 4 people, 1 awkward slip of the tongue and now, the entirety of the internet. Funny how it works.

There’s been nothing spectacular or inspiring or even note-worthy about it. A question here and there, an “ok, that’s cool” and back to the topic at hand, a “duh, I figured”.

I never expected or wanted fanfare, especially for something I never actively hid. My friends think I’m a “closet freak” because I’m a walking reference book for kink and sexuality. I just like to be educated about the human body, and think sex is a fascinating subject. My nickname for the past four years was “Heartbreak Hernandez” because I left a trail of rejected boys. I wasn’t playing coy, I just knew what they wanted and I wasn’t interested. My mother anxiously waits for an introduction to a boyfriend. I simply tell her that the chances of finding someone like me is a tad low, and to stop wasting her time. I’m the nuance of phrasing responses. I’m a little white lie, hoping no one gets hurt.

I’m not rushing out of the closet. I’m slowly slowly sliding out, but the little steps (like this post) give me more confidence. It’s a process, something I’m coming to terms with. My family is steeped in secrets, they might not ever know. But telling friends, my support system, who were willing to listen was a relief. It was the feeling of wanting to burst from this secret in me, the desire to be open and honest about who I am. And how could I, who value the truth so much, not reciprocate with the people closest to me? That’s why I’m writing this.

In my dream world, there wouldn’t be a need for posts like this. It would all be taken with a grain of salt and without judgment. And maybe with a heartfelt “I’m happy for you” and “You’re not alone”.

January 17, 2011

Saying The Words

Filed under: Coming Out,Visibility — Sciatrix @ 1:26 pm
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I have noticed that it is easier to talk about asexuality if I avoid the word “asexuality” in my daily life. I’d like to consider why here. (And it’s even easier to try desperately to pass for a straight person who’s just mysteriously not interested in anyone that way, which is an extension of what I’m talking about here.) If I am quiet, and act vaguely ashamed or pretend not to have thought about it, pretend to simply have been too busy to have the time to notice anyone, things get a little easier.

That is, people seem to understand better–or at least be more polite–if I say “I’m really not interested in dating anyone” than they do if I say “I identify as asexual because X.” They’re also a lot less likely to be dismissive if I don’t take on the mantle of asexuality, if I pretend that my sexual orientation is an individual quirk and not a thing that other people have.

I don’t think that this is coincidental. I think it’s an extension of the way that people react when asexuals begin to talk about asexual issues in spaces that aren’t ace-designated, in fact–the first reaction, always, is to start dismissing.

Claiming an asexual identity is a shot across the bows: it means that I have just said that I don’t intend to be dismissed. And more, it means that I have just said that I don’t think that I am experiencing a phase, or a temporary aberration from the norm (for this is my norm) or some form of disability.

So let me talk about why I use the words “aromantic asexual” to describe myself, why I try to label myself where I can even though that makes my life more difficult than it would otherwise be. Let me explain the reason I cling to public labels as well as private ones.

When I own the word “asexual” to describe us, I tap into a community. I name myself, and in doing so I reify my orientation; I assert that I am not alone, and that people like me are common enough to justify a word all our own. I become that much more difficult to ignore.

I think some people find that threatening. Actually, scratch that, I know people find that threatening. Because it’s so much easier to be dismissive when it’s only a single person, floating by like a twig in the river of heteronormative, mainstream society. It’s harder to be dismissive about a whole clump of twigs creating a dam, which might eventually direct the river in a new direction. The dam has power in a way that the twig doesn’t.

This is, incidentally, a reason that I get really excited by coming-out scenes in media. (Yeah, I’ve only seen two of them so far. That doesn’t mean I don’t love that they exist.) Way more excited than I do about asexuals in the media who are just “known” to be asexual, whose sexuality is treated as a personal quirk. Because I can see the twigs building when people come out in a way that I can’t when the quirky ones pretend it’s a personal idiosyncrasy. I have seen some people talk about how they wouldn’t like to see characters getting up and shouting about their orientations, and I feel very differently.

I want to make it clear that all of this is an explanation for me, and for me alone–I won’t try to tell anyone else how to navigate the personal calculus of their own lives. But for me, I find power in publicly claiming an asexual identity. I think it does good things for the world. And I continue saying the words.

November 19, 2010

Labels Are For Soup Cans (And People, Too)

I see a lot of people disclaiming the usefulness of labels. (Especially, for some reason, people who have a perfectly good label for themselves complaining about other people making up new words to describe their experiences.)

So I want to talk about why labels are important to me.

My experience growing up as asexual was, I feel, an incredibly lucky one. I found out that asexuality existed and that an asexual community existed absurdly young. I was fourteen when I found the label, and so I essentially went through adolescence knowing that there was a place for people like me, that there was a name for people like me, and that it was okay if I didn’t have any interest in anyone else that way. Note the bit about having the name. It’ll be important later.

I didn’t necessarily take advantage of the community at the time. From about ages 15 to 18, I essentially abandoned the asexual community, such as it was. I was more interested in focusing on my autistic identity then, and was actively posting on WrongPlanet rather than AVEN at the time. Community itself simply wasn’t an issue for me, at least not about my sexuality. After all, I first had a group of friends who didn’t seem to care either, and then I had isolated myself in large part from my peers, and there was no reason for the whole tangled web of sexuality to really enter my life if I didn’t want it to.

No, the important part was simply knowing that the label was there. That it was real, that I had validation to be this way, that there were other people using this label.

I am not entirely sure that I would have been one of the people who independently makes up the term “asexual” without access to a community first. I rather doubt it. My adolescence was a period during which many, many (straight) people seemed to think I was a young lesbian, and were quite invested in trying to draw me out of my closet. And I’m not actually that immune to suggestion. I certainly would have gone through a period of extremely confused questioning, which would have been wrought with anxiety, and I probably would have gone with the flow and come out as gay because at least it was an answer. As it was, I was too terrified to come out of my closet until I went away to college, but at least I knew my label described who I was well enough. Even if I wasn’t brave enough to actually share it with people, I could be pretty sure I knew what I was, and if I changed so be it.

I could not have had that certainty without the existence of a label and a group of people who used it. For me, it was the difference between relative calm and frustrated anxiety. And all for the sake of a single word.

And here’s the other thing that labels do: they give us a community of other people who use that label to connect with. They give us a language to speak to others about ourselves, language with which we can come close to describing our experiences. And they provide a means to connect with one another.

It’s hard for me to think which comes first: the labels or the communities, since discussions within communities invariably lead to ever more finely gradated labels and more complex identities as people seek shorthands for concepts which recur over and over again. That’s what these words are, in essence: useful shorthands to communicate. And if they’re not acceptably fine-tuned, well, that’s a good reason to make a new one.

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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