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.

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