The queer asexual activist

This is based on empirical data from my PhD on asexual activism.

While there was much more commonality, homogeneity, of response amongst those participants who framed asexual activism in terms of race, this was far less evident in terms of those participants who framed their activist identities even at least partially in terms of queerness. This is not to imply that queer and queerness wasn’t significant and meaningful, as the quotes below show. Participants responses were thoughtful; it was evident that most had reflected on their sense of queer and queerness and their relationships to their asexuality and their activism. But who was queer, who could be queer, whether it was simply enough to be asexual in some form to be queer? The responses were diverse. In attempting to give some sense of how and why these responses were so framed, one must be careful not to over-define queer, because it is a flexible, heterogeneous signifier. I would suggest that at least some of its success is its elasticity; its ability to be stretched and pulled in various personal and socio-political directions while retaining coherence. It retains this coherence because there are certain broad boundaries I think. As my research participants’ quotes illustrate, queer is being engaged with across three broad interrelated discourses. These are not always antagonistic towards each other, but they can be. Queer is framed as a commitment to an oppositional, activist identity and lifestyle to heteronormativity and homonormativity. Queer can also be an identification of oneself as a sexual and gendered minority outside of mainstream norms. Finally, queer is an umbrella term for sexual and gendered minority identities; often used to be free of the historical baggage carried by prior umbrella terms. 

This sense of queer as an oppositional, activist identity and lifestyle was particularly strong for some participants. For them, although it was linked to their sense of asexuality, it was could be quite distinct.

It’s not just that I feel an affinity toward queer, I am queer. I’m not sure that my asexuality is what makes me queer. I think there are lots of other things about me that make me queer, but queer is at least, somewhat self-consciously, politically existing heteronormativity kind of way. That’s certainly the way that I live my life, that’s who I am, that’s how people treat me as well. I mean, typically, I’m read as a dyke. I mean, that’s incorrect, but it’s still… Non-binary people are not… It’s fairly difficult to pass as non-binary, especially with certain body shapes. But yeah, the kinds of relationships that I do engage in and who I am, and what I’m inclined to do and not do, and what’s important to me, that is something that’s completely outside of the heteronormative, heterosexual matrix thing, and it’s even kind of fringed beads within many queer circles. I’m not part of the homonormative world, either. 

There was an expectation here of queer carrying a commitment to a radical sexual and gendered politics which would preclude many asexual from identifying as queer. S, who is a very committed radical activist, talked about their experience of identifying as heteroromantic when they first came out as asexual, but still feeling queer compared to many heteroromantic asexuals who would identify as straight:

I used to identify as heteroromantic when I first came out as ace. And even then I still felt queer, I know that there’s some people who are heteroromantic who would see themselves or they’ll call themselves like straight aces. I certainly didn’t identify that way. But certainly, to each their own, but I still felt queer. While I think other people that I’ve talked to have maybe not so much

Others spoke about their feelings when their right to claim queerness was denied them by other LGBT+ community members:

And then from the LGBT community, you kind of get… Because people are like, “Oh it’s just the same as being straight, or whatever,” and it’s like, “Mmm. No”. Even if… ‘Cause if you’re a heteroromantic asexual, they can kind of argue that, “Oh no,” just ’cause you’re basically straight, and it’s like, “Well, no, no. I’m still queer.” So, I wouldn’t say it’s the same level as the other oppression, but it is definitely a thing that asexual people experience. 

For many of the queer asexual activists, their queer and asexual identities intersected with each other, but it was often a case of ambiguous coexistence. That was certainly not the case for all. Others felt that there had been productive engagement between asexual activism and queer activism. J, who is a person of colour and a queer demi-sexual, felt that mainstream asexual activism had been more successful in engaging with queer then with issues of race. He also noted the many conversations online as to whether simply being asexual makes one queer. This is a reiteration of the comments by David Jay that I noted in Chapter Four. In essence, that anyone who has struggled with a sexual norm can identify as queer:

I think the asexual community’s been very good, in my opinion, of recognizing being able to be asexual and queer. And I think there’s a lot of debate whether being asexual is a queer identity. And so that’s also been another interesting conversation that I’ve been noticing in a lot of communities. 

Pragmatically and symbolically this frames all asexual spaces as queer spaces, which was problematic for some of the queer asexual activists. This ran both ways; not simply about asexuals viewing themselves as queer, but how non-asexual queers view asexuality:

If I’m with a bunch of asexual people, meet ups are often really strange and awkward, depending on the group, because they’re my people but in many ways, they’re really not my people, so that’s less likely… It’s a similar thing with groups of non-asexual queer folk, but in different ways, but often, groups of asexual people are much more alienating than groups of non-asexual queer folk.

Participants once again made mention of the exhaustion that comes from having to constantly explain the specifics of asexual identities in each space. Queer could operate as a form of code-switching, a shorthand, an umbrella term that didn’t carry the historical baggage of earlier umbrella terms. In this sense, queer is not just being used as a more radical synonym for LGBT+. It can be a holding term for a point when the person using the identifier is more comfortable expanding upon their sexual and gendered identities:

I’ve got a few friends who are men exclusively attracted to men, but they call themselves “queer” because they want to kind of disassociate themselves with the gay community and some of the negative areas in there, like the misogyny and that kind of thing, so they disconnect themselves from it by saying “queer”. I think that identifying as queer kind of, is a way of showing that you are…You want to be identified as separate from heterosexual, heteronormativity, but at the same time, you kind of are aware of the problematic elements of the community and you kind of need to have your own identity there, and when not everyone is educated about asexuality, specifically, it can get a bit exhausting, having to explain it all the time. 

Queer asexual activists were therefore framing queer in diverse, heterogeneous ways. What queer meant was contextual and shifted. There was a sense that claiming queer established a critique; both of the heteronormative and the homonormative mainstreams. Whether asexuality and asexual activism in itself was queer was a matter of debate:

Because there are certainly lots and lots of asexuals who are queer. And asexuality can be a queer thing but I don’t think it necessarily is, and… And it depends on what kind of queer space and what queer’s meaning in that moment.

There was a belief amongst participants that queerness, queer communities and queer activism took recognition of emerging sexual and gendered identities in a way that had not yet happened in the mainstream:

So I’d definitely say the… And I think maybe another part of it, maybe for the mainstream queer community, for all its flaws, societies in general have been talking more and more about, for better or for worse, about sexualities outside of heterosexuality. 

There was also an underlying belief the queer activism, and by extension queer asexual activism, concerned themselves with issues that neither the heteronormative nor the homonormative mainstreams were focused upon:

It’s kind of interesting. I’ve had it happen to me before where I’ll be talking, it’s usually to a straight person where I’ll tell them that I’m interested in queer activism and queer thought and queer feminism and all this stuff, and then the first thing that comes to their mouth is, “Well, marriage equality, right?” And I’m sitting there like, “I couldn’t care less.” 

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The asexual activist of colour

This is based on my empirical research conducted for my PHD on asexual activism.

Code-switching is a socio-linguistic term. Code-switching occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or dialects, in the same conversation. People who speak more than one language, multilinguals, often code-switch. Code-switching is about understanding the rules; the syntax, phonology and grammar of each language or dialect used. Code-switching is now increasingly used to talk about switching between identities for strategic or cultural reasons. One of my participants, who is from a mixed-race background, speaking about their activist identity in relation to their other identities, spoke explicitly about code-switching:

Oh yeah. Basically, what I would say is that: Everyone is different. People struggle with trying to find out who they are, and most people grow up either wearing one identity or rejecting a series of them, accepting whatever is thrown at them, and then, eventually, come to a conclusion, which might be… Like one of the books I read said “I’m not half, I’m double.” You know, I’m not half this and half that. I’m just double everything, because half seems to make people seem less. Or there’s some people who just like, they code-shift, basically. Their whole identity code-shifts, not just their language. They just, you know, they’re more Asian when they’re with their white friends, and they’re more white when they’re with their Asian friends, until they really start to embrace themselves and they’re more Asian with their Asian friends and more white with their white friends, or whatever. There’s some interesting stories in there about like people being out in public with a parent they didn’t look like, stuff like that. It’s good stuff.

‘Passing’ as straight, posing as heterosexual and/or cis-gendered in the mainstream, is quite different from code-switching. With passing, one claims an identity one does not necessarily desire to embrace.  There may be good strategic reasons for doing this; to avoid persecution for example. Code-switching is moving between differing claimed identities with differing groups and/or in differing spatialities. Again, there may be strategic reasons for many people for code-switching:

…is really challenging to say “I am both black and queer”, or something like that. I think being able to do that, in a way, is something that is very, very, very new and very challenging in a way that a lot of people aren’t expecting. And so, for me that helps me, ’cause I like being able to challenge people’s traditional ideas just in general, regardless of what those ideas are. But it can be exhausting. And it can be very tiring. And I do think there are certain spaces where strategically you have to let go… 

As well as an asexual activist of colour, is a committed campus activist. Like others, he came to asexual activism from a background in progressive activism and politics:

I think for me, a lot of it was I was involved with a lot of racial politics, as well as just politics in general, like liberal activism in a lot of ways. 

I’ve been politically involved in one way or another since high school, starting with joining an Amnesty International chapter…

J also had personal reasons for his activism, which frame the strategies that he deploys:

Whereas I feel very differently, where I feel that black men in particular have been hyper-sexualized, so asexuality is sort of a liberation in a lot of ways. So it’s those types of things I’m hoping I can make a contribution in looking at that. Because I do identify as demi-sexual, I try to speak about the spectrum a lot and educate a lot of people, a lot of non-asexuals, about the spectrum in a way that they can understand what asexuality is more, and understand that it’s not this set point

Code-switching can therefore be part of the tactical repertoire of the activist, to speak to different constituencies. One can be an asexual activist in one space, a queer activist in another, a black activist in a third. One can be all three when the circumstance is propitious. Code-switching is an artful strategy, but it is nevertheless truthful. In this context, it is about the enablement of asexual activists of colour to occupy spaces where they feel comfortable to begin to articulate their intersecting identities:

I was away from my family, so I was free to explore asexuality, my identity and kinda then meet other people because I had never met anybody else like me before. I met up with somebody who was also interested in co-organizing the meet-ups. We talked about a lot of interesting things at the meet-ups, I think, that really helped me to kind of sort myself out and understand how other people are feeling within the same community. There’s definitely the discussion of race and feminism and orientation and all of that stuff. It’s definitely all intersecting. 

Participants were concerned to engage with spaces that enabled them not only to find their identities as asexual activists, but as asexual activists of colour:

I’m not really on AVEN forums as much. I’m on Tumblr a lot more. And, I don’t necessarily know if it is getting any better than it has in the rest of the queer community. I’ve been really lucky that most of the asexuals I know in person are minorities or are of color. And so that’s kind of been really helpful for me, being able to navigate it:

A lot of the solace that I’ve found was not from AVEN, but Tumblr. I use it everyday and I would say that they’re one of the more open minded sites that I can go onto and discuss my identity and talk to other people and just kind of spread visibility and discussions about the meet-ups that I’m going to 

So, I was just gonna say that a lot of Tumblr, I think, grew out of the LiveJournal hiatus, ’cause on LiveJournal, there were communities, very active communities, where people spoke very directly and confrontationally about race

There was an appreciation of the path-breaking work that AVEN had done in the field of asexual activism. One of the participants had worked directly on one of AVEN’s most significant public campaigns and spoke positively about their experiences working with other AVEN members. It should also be noted that one of the other participants spoke very negatively about their experiences of seeking to engage with organising a POC (Persons of Colour) only space at the Asexuality Conference organised during World Pride 2014:

So, I… The sort of… I think it’s a perceived… It’s a perception of cohesion that necessitates that certain so-called fringe elements, like people of color stay quiet.

There was a perception amongst research participants that AVEN was representative of a middle-class white asexual activism. Bound up to this, and the use of the Internet, were two quite distinct framings of safety. Other participants, who not only used AVEN but other online forums, would talk about safe Net use in terms of observing common rules of behaviour. I will speak about these in a following section. The participants that I am discussing here, were as minded to focus on having spaces to discuss confrontational issues safely. It is not that these two framings of safety are or should be diagrammatically opposed, but they can appear so in this context. For example, three of the four participants I am discussing here mentioned Tumblr as such a safe space for discussing confrontational issues; whereas other participants talked about Tumblr as a distinctly unsafe space where there were no clear rules of behaviour. The qualities that made Tumblr attractive to some activists made it equally unattractive to others. Importantly, most the research participants that I am discussing here did not view asexual online spaces as neutral or colour-blind in matters of race. Despite the potential of the Internet, all of the four participants here were incredibly tech savvy, there was a sense of dissatisfaction with the Internet, with the structures created:

Hopefully, the ideal right now would just be to have a lot of regulars coming to the meet-ups, on a smaller level. And then eventually it growing into a larger community. Like I said, I’m not satisfied with the way AVEN created their community. I feel like there’s a lot better ways that people can create a community that’s more accepting and more open minded and just, a safe space, 

I should state that my sense was that participants here were less concerned with being accusatory towards white asexual activists, then in critically reflecting on the intersectional complexities of combining activist roles concerning asexual identities with other activist roles. Particularly activist roles in relation to race. There was an acknowledgement that priorities can be different and can lead to problematic relationships:

I think there’s a long way to go with the broader community online. I think there’s a lot more blogs for asexuals of color popping up, and I think that’s awesome. But I think, in terms of actually recognizing the intersectionalities within the community, I don’t think we’ve done a good job of that. And part of that, I do believe, might be just because figuring out asexuality and explaining that to the outside world is already confusing enough. And I think a lot of white asexuals may not even recognize some of the other issues at play with other identities coming, being involved

This sense of intersectionality and interconnectedness was evident amongst the participants that I spoke to. It was not merely about opening up asexual spaces by asexual activists of colour to asexuals of colour. It was about reimagining these spaces, how they were constituted and framed, so that they were always and had always not only being white spaces and discourses:

Also, I’ve been… In terms of race… Like you said, I’ve been writing to try to make those connections of what is the historical implications of asexuality with race and other sorts of identities.