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.” 

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.

Shakespeare in his native Hindi: Shakespeare and Brexit


As an Irish schoolteacher in England I adored teaching Shakespeare.

Not the standard Shakespeare. That one is painful for teachers and students alike. The Shakespeare who is supposed to represent the ‘best of British’, which really means the best of English. Whose language and themes are meant to reflect a better England. It’s not that history isn’t there, but its reshaped and refashioned to be acceptable to the worldview of a particular middle-class English mindset.

So we pump kids full of facts about language, characters, themes and dates in Shakespeare’s plays. But we never allow them to get close to Shakespeare and the plays, because what we are doing is teaching them about a certain English view of our own world.

I’m sure this Shakespeare is the Shakespeare that the Leave campaign would like to see more of. I’m sure this Shakespeare would vote Leave himself.

I prefer the man who rose from relatively humble beginnings to become a key player in what was one of the most cosmopolitan cities of its time. Who wrote sonnets to his lovers; male, female, black and white.

Who never speaks of:

this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,

without a great sense of irony. His most jingoistic, nationalist lines are invariably in the mouths of men who are about to do awful things. His “happy breed of men” are manipulators, often with awful consequences for themselves. The lines might be beautiful, but they’re telling us something. They were certainly telling an Elizabethan audience something, who would have known how to read the context.

It’s why I hate RSC productions of Shakespeare. I’ve seen good ones, but by and large the emphasis is on beautiful lines said by the best actors.

It was why, when I was teaching, I tried to emphasise that Shakespeare was part of a living tradition. That there were other idioms, other languages, in which the plays worked. These weren’t just radical adaptations; they spoke back to the original contexts of the plays by avoiding the pitfalls that the “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” school of  ‘beautiful lines and universal themes’ interpretation failed to acknowledge.

Romeo and Juliet (a play in which two young people defy their parents, their society and their God to get married, to die in a place of worship) can be read in the context of Sharia Law and its similarities to early (and ongoing) European judico-religious narratives. This intersects with an analysis of how people with nascent LGBT+ identities (Mercutio) negotiate their place in such societies.

Hamlet is rarely treated in schools as a history play, but actually it is. It’s about the consequence of war for the “sparrows” (mostly women and children) when elites, when Royals, war; particularly when they treat war like a game of chess. Instead of viewing Ophelia as a drowned Pre-Raphaelite virgin – imagine her as a drowned Syrian child on a beach in Greece. You see the power and context of Shakespeare’s words.

But my favourite Shakespearean lesson was teaching Shakespeare in his native Hindi. This was teaching Othello using the recent Bollywood adaptation Omkara (2006).

All the main plot points are there. There are lines which are directly translated from the original. But Othello (Omkara) is now a gang lord enforcer for a corrupt politician. Iago (Langda) and Cassio (Kesu) are his closest lieutenants.

There is a lot of dancing, which really emphasises the sexual undertones of the play.

But, importantly, the adaptation draws on recent Indian history and politics. My students were able to look this up and use it in essays. It emphasised that Othello’s (Omkara) actions, his downfall in murdering Desdemona, weren’t just a consequence of his “green-ey’d monster” (the tragedy of a great man laid low by a character flaw).

In fact, this “green-ey’d monster” is part of a hyper-masculine violent culture in which he is complicit. The world of crime lords and corrupt politicians. It is this complicity that makes him so easily manipulated by Iago (Langda).

Omkara speaks back to the original text of Othello, to its hyper-masculine and violent world of soldiers and royalty, to remind us that toxic masculinity is not a new concern. It also emphasises that culture is not a one-way street. The constant engagement, enrichment and enlargement that those of us from immigrant cultures bring to what are considered traditionally English or British texts.

Shakespeare in his native Hindi offers us a very different Shakespeare from the one that the Little Englanders would prefer. A Shakespeare who questioned a closed, masculine view of England and of the world. A Shakespeare who cannot be said to be on the side of outsiders, he is rarely on anyone’s side, but who is himself a marginal outsider. I think this Shakespeare would be pleased by the way other cultures, particularly immigrant, have adapted and enriched his legacy. I think he would vote to Remain.


What the Stanford Prison Experiment tells us about rape culture in elite American institutions.


Over 40 years ago there was a classic, but infamous, study on the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The research was conducted at Stanford; now infamous for the recent Brock Turner rape case. The study was led by Professor Philip Zimbardo and used Stanford students.

There is a movie about the experiment which has just been released, but I haven’t seen it yet so I can’t comment on it here.

The study is infamous because of how quickly the Stanford students adapted to the roles of prisoner and prison guard, including using psychological harassment and psychological torture. This included Zimbardo in his role as superintendent letting the abuse happen (essentially an active bystander). The study had to be stopped after six days because of this.

This study is much critiqued; particularly in terms of its participant recruitment, its methodological approach and its ethics. It would be almost impossible to replicate the same study nowadays, though there have been similar studies. While they tend to cast doubt on the generality of Zimbardo’s results, they don’t actually disprove the results themselves.

Similarly – although the study is critiqued as noted above – it’s a set text across a range of undergraduate disciplines. It may not tell us a lot about how general populations respond to extreme peer pressure, but it does illustrate one particular population very well. Which may explain why so many academics were at odds with its implications.

It tells us about male Stanford academics and male Stanford students at that time. How they responded to peer pressure concerning psychological violence and cruelty.

It illustrates that male students and academics at a privileged academic institution, presumably from privileged backgrounds, found it remarkably easy to transition into non-consensual sado-masochistic roles. There has been a concerted effort since the study to imply that the recruited students were particularly prone to sado-masochism. I think that quite misses the point; the study only ceased when a graduate female student objected to it continuing.

Perhaps a better question to have asked is why particular populations, such as privileged male students and academics, are especially prone to peer cultures that enable non-consensual behaviours? They’re not the only ones, but here I think the Stanford Prison Experiment could still teach us difficult lessons about what we consider to be evil or appalling actions.

Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, points out that those who do things we consider evil or appalling (like rape) are not always those we consider to be evil (like privileged students). That sometimes makes it difficult for some people to judge them as perpetrators (like the judge in the Brock Turner trial). It’s only by recognising that these actions are ‘banal’, relying on a cliched type of peer pressure (the type of claims made by Brock Turner’s father), that we can begin the process of destroying the cultures they are supporting.

Oh Micky you’re so fine…: Observing a female sex harasser as a male feminist

On Friday night I went to the Donkey pub in Leicester with my partner Gavin. Our friend Carol was singing with a soul band collective, brilliantly. Actually the Donkey is a great live music venue; mostly for jazz, folk and blues. It tends to get a slightly older crowd who don’t get too drunk. It’s a nice venue to hear music where the audience are appreciative, but never too rowdy.

Friday was no exception. It was a great evening, except for one person. There was this small, quite pretty woman, aged about 25/30. She was with a group of other women who were celebrating a birthday, but she kept breaking away from them and wandering through the crowd. When she did this she invariably bumped into people. She gave the initial impression of being quite drunk, which I don’t think was actually the case (I’ll explain why in a minute). When she did bump into people she would smile and apologize. But she went much further. She would touch them. She would stroke them. Very often, her hand would linger.

Watching her, I began to realise there was a pattern to the people she was mostly bumping into. She occasionally bumped into women or couples. Then, her hand would just briefly tap them on the shoulder in apology and she would move on. But mostly she was bumping into men who were standing on their own. They were doing nothing to solicit her behaviour. In fact, given the clientèle of the Donkey as I mentioned, there wasn’t a single man she approached in this way that didn’t seem uncomfortable with her behaviour. Most of them recoiled, but she had already moved on. Watching her I realized, despite her gender and appearance, I was observing a classic sex harasser at work.

At one point I found myself outside on my own in the smokers’ space (the last stage of a PhD will do that to you). She had found her way out there. She came up to me, said something inane and went to stroke my face. My response was pretty emphatic. I said quite loudly “I don’t want you to do that!” Her demeanour completely changed. She straightened up and, started saying “What’s you’re problem? Enjoy the night!” She then went back into her previous behaviour, smiling and gurning at everyone as if it was something I had done. I could see this guy across from me nodding sympathetically at me, clearly she had done the same to him, but I could also see two women stare at me.

I realized a couple of things quickly. Firstly, that she wasn’t as drunk as she initially seemed. Secondly, that she had a practised spiel to cover herself for her behaviour. This spiel made it incredibly difficult for the type of men who come to the Donkey to challenge her behaviour. I imagine that the gendered way in which we frame sex harassment would make it difficult for cis-gendered hetero-identified men to challenge anyway. Men who act like this are sex harassers and sex pests; women are simply being leery or making themselves vulnerable (which is not to deny that that may be the case).

One of the men she had bumped into early in the night had very clearly, but politely, said no to her. By the end of the evening he was quite drunk (probably the only person in the Donkey who I saw who was inebriated). As Gavin and I were leaving I saw her with her hands around him. He really wasn’t in a state to say yes or no by then. But most people, seeing them, would have probably read her as the vulnerable party.

I have to admit I was still having misgivings about how I was reading the situation, because he was quite a large guy and she was a small woman, so I mentioned my feelings to Gavin. He told me that he been watching her all night and had felt exactly the same as I had. She was clearly a predator. I wonder if a man had been acting like that, in the same type of bar, would he have been asked to leave? Would his friends have not noticed? Probably not. The sad truth is that men often act like that. But as sad a truth is that women do also. As indeed do lesbian, gay, trans*, et cetera, individuals. Framing harassment as a predominantly hetero-male cis-gendered act doesn’t protect the vulnerable; it only emboldens others in their own behaviours.

What does Jughead teach us about asexual activism?

Excerpt from Jughead No. 4. Courtesy Archie Comics. Art by Erica Henderson.
Excerpt from Jughead No. 4. Courtesy Archie Comics. Art by Erica Henderson.

The most popular teen comic series for girls in America has an asexual character. So?

Well, what matters is that Jughead isn’t a damaged savant genius (think Big Bang Theory) nor is he a repressed virgin (of whatever orientation other than asexual) waiting for (you can guess the rest of the narrative).

He is a typical teenager; the thing most teenage narratives cannot cope with.

It seems so normal, but the third window is actually deeply radical because it’s so normalising – a boy who identifies as asexual and a boy who identifies as gay chatting about their respective sexual/romantic relationships (I do think being asexual doesn’t preclude being romantic).

If you actually had a trans* boy and a straight boy in the same window, it would be like the Four Horseboys of the Masculine Apocalypse. The rules of teenage school narrative would collapse (except for Teen Wolf, which I think would accommodate it).

It’s important to recognise that this didn’t just happen by accident. Over 15 years asexual activists, such as AVEN, have campaigned for the increasing visibility, public awareness of, and, tolerance towards asexuals.

With is striking is how successful they have been as a sexual and gendered social movement.

Chips Zdarsky talked about Jughead’s asexuality  during an interview with He made it clear that he wasn’t making Jughead asexual for any personal identity politics issue. He was doing it because asexuality was on his radar and he felt it was very much on the radar of his target audience, particularly at the moment.

Putting it on the radar is actually quite a big achievement, which has taken a fair number of people significant time and effort.

Let’s not be fooled; there are intersectionally ways in which asexuality may be more easily ‘mainstreamed’ than other minority sexual and gendered identities. But Jughead teaches us that asexual activism is certainly getting some things right about the process of mobilising and organising around mainstream visibility and awareness.

It might seem very little… Two boys walking down a school corridor, chatting as if it’s everyday… But it’s a lot.


The ABC of Queer: H is for Homosocial: The love letter of Sir Alex and Eric…


You are always welcome here and if you just pop in unexpectedly for a cup of tea, no fanfare, just for a chat as friends, that would mean more to me than anything. Eric you know I am here if you need me and now that you are no longer one of my players, I hope you know you have a friend. 

It is a singular irony, though not a contradiction, if you understand these things. That the greatest British football manager of his generation – who could barely mention homosexuality, homophobia and football in the same breath – should have written one of the most beautiful and tender modern love letters from one man to another to one of the footballers he managed:

When we re-started training, I kept waiting for you to turn up as normal but I think that was in hope not realism and I knew in your eyes when we met at Mottram your time at Manchester United was over.

I’m including quite a few quotations here because I don’t want people to think that I’m indulging in my own queer post-modern irony and deliberately misinterpreting the letter in this fashion.

It’s impossible not to read the text as a love letter; a point Ian Herbert, the chief sports writer at the Independent, made when he said it “reveals the debt of passion he felt for Manchester United star Eric Cantona” and “There is a vivid sense of him casting wistful glances, hoping to see the Cantona car.”

It’s also clear that Ian Herbert, from his language, is trying to suggest that Alex Ferguson had perhaps ‘feelings’ for Eric Cantona?

To be fair, the letter is written in such a way that it’s difficult not to imagine Alex and Eric sitting in a tea room in Mottram village waiting for a bus or train, just like Celia Imrie and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter, chatting about football training rather than declaring their true feelings.

One thing, I would like you to remember is to remain active and fit. I always remember when I finished at 32 and I started management, I was more concerned about organising training and he coaching of players that I forgot about my own fitness and then when I realised about six years later what was happening, I started to train again to recapture my fitness and it was murder, so you do need to keep your fitness.

As I noted in a previous quotation, Alex even mentions the ubiquitous cup of tea!

I keep hoping that I will discover a young Cantona! It is a dream!

That’s part of the problem. The models or paradigms by which Queer invariably judges the homosocial (male same-sex bonds) have become polarized between two extremes. The homosocial is either repressed, latent homosexuality or it’s a homoerotic trade in women between men (coercive and/or physically violent).

That’s not to deny that these examples exist, all too often, but whether they are actually representative or illustrative of the homosocial in Western sexual and gendered culture is moot.  Whether they are actually examples at all is a basic flaw in how Queer defines the homosocial…

It’s a basic flaw with Eve Kosofsky Sedqwick’s seminal queer text Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (see KOSOFSKY SEDGWICK). Sedgwick’s project, which was foundational to Gay & Lesbian, Queer and Queer-Feminist Studies on the homosocial, was to analyse the pre-eminence of male same-sex bonds in 19th-century literature, and, how those bonds were structured prohibitively to male-female bonds. But always and everywhere Sedgwick finds what she sets out to find: a trade in women and fear of homosexuality.

To do this, Sedgwick defines “male homosocial desire (the constant connotative linkage of ‘homosocial’ and ‘desire’ itself is problematic)” as all male bonds. She then defines all male bonds as having the potential to be erotic. She then deconstructs all eroticised male bonds as involving a trade in a women and the fear of homosexuality. In others words, while there is no such thing as a cold reading, for a woman talking about male-male desire she particularly loads the deck.

Sedgwick’s readings of often commonplace literary texts are both dazzling and challenging; of all the seminal figures writing in English in Queer Studies she is easily the most beautiful to read. In particular, her reading of the hierarchical asymmetries between the heteroerotic and homoerotic dyadic relationships in Shakespeare’s sonnets is the best interpretation of the poems and one of the masterworks of Queer Theory itself.

However, while the homosocial can be about obscured homoeroticism (see HOMOEROTICISM) or latent homosexuality (see HOMOSEXUAL ORIENTATION), it’s usually not. It’s far more likely to be about the homoromantic, the homoaesthetic or the homoplatonic (see HOMOROMANTIC, HOMOAESTHETIC, HOMOPLATONIC).

Queer also has issues with the gynosocial (see GYNOSOCIAL) particularly around gender, trans*gender and non-gender (see GENDER, TRANS*GENDER, NON-GENDER), but it is as nothing to the contradictions Queer (and Queer-Feminist) experiences with the homosocial.

When you read Alex Ferguson’s letter to Eric Cantona, it’s actually a really wonderful homosocial example of homoromantic and homoplatonic male bonding.

It’s clear that Alex Ferguson loves Eric Cantona; it’s clear that his love of the beautiful game extended to loving the beautiful players that graced it. It’s clear that that love is part of what made him one of the most successful football managers the world has ever seen.

I don’t think that love is homoerotic or homosexual in its make-up. I actually believe those kind of readings (which have become all too ‘normative’ for Queer and Queer-Feminism) not only inaccurately describe much that is homosocial; they actually do a disservice to homosexual desire itself.

What was nascent in Sedwick’s early text has migrated into mainstream culture from Queer Studies; as you can see from Ian Herbert’s ‘ironical’ comments.

Herbert’s comments are meant to be light-hearted, but there is a more serious aspect to them.

Queer’s boxing in of the homosocial actually perpetuates the fear of homosexuality, and bisexuality, rather than ameliorating them for most men. From Male Homosocial Desire… on, the argument has been that all male same-sex bonds, unless the blokes are queer (and even then they are pretty much suspect if the blokes are white [see WHITE PRIVILEGE]) are mostly about guys wanting to fuck each other, hiding their feelings, and attacking women instead as vicarious substitutes.

It’s a subtle policing model which is misandric, homophobic and biphobic. Queer privileges its own circle (see GAYLE RUBIN, CHARMED CIRCLE); ‘straight’ men, which may include homosexual/bisexual men as well, are actually left with very little wriggle room.  I would imagine that increasingly includes the cis/trans*male boundary as well.

And I can certainly think of queer spaces where it has been argued from the homosocial that masculinity has only three states: queer, repressed or sexually violent.

I choose to reject that. I choose to believe that the homosocial can be truly queer.  I certainly believe it is in Alex Ferguson’s letter to Eric Cantona. Or at least there is the potential there for it to be read in such a way, joyfully. That we can label repression and sexual violence what they are. At the same time, take the fear out of the homo*; acknowledge male same-sex bonds across the spectrum for what they can and could also be…



Considering pro-ana as a sexual and gender youth subculture

I had the very great privilege to co-author a chapter with my supervisor, Professor Mary Jane Kehily, for the collection  Children, Sexuality and Sexualization recently published by Palgrave:


Our chapter was on Reappraising Youth Subcultures And The Impact Upon Young People’s Sexual Cultures: Links And Legacies In Studies Of Girlhood. This was doubly funky because Mary Jane is pretty much a world expert in this area.

It also gave me a chance to explore with her some ideas that I’m beginning to tentatively consider for post-doctoral research, around the ana-mia movements (largely on-line communities of mostly girls and young women  who identify as anorexic, bulimic or vacillate between those identities).

This is something that I feel personally invested in because, during the final year of my BA, I chose to let myself myself become dangerously thin for a number of reasons. The pressures of aiming for a high result; choosing to drink rather than eat (very common with male anorexics); relationship issues; feeling that I had lost control of other aspects of my life but being able to control what I ate, and, wanting to punish myself unconsciously for the growing realisation that I had a bipolar condition. It is only in recent years that I’ve realised that I had used my relationship with food in this way.

So, attempting to look at the ana-mia movements from a non-pathological point of view was something that was really important to me. The following is an extract from what Mary Jane and I wrote:

The pro-ana movement, largely accessed online, has been written about as a subculture mostly from within the field of social psychology (Giles, 2006; Pascoe, 2007; Sheppird, 2007; Casilli, 2010). It should be noted that the term ‘subculture’ is used uncritically in most of this literature to denote a group of young people who have a shared social characteristic. This is further complicated by the fact that anorexics aren’t necessarily deviant or delinquent figures of the type that characterized Chicago School research into youth cultures and particularly street gangs. Nor are they necessarily oppositional or resistant types such as the Birmingham CCCS choose to explore, largely focusing on the interaction of race and class in a post-war, post-Empire Britain. Nor are the practices of anorexia expressed by pro-ana advocates analogous to a euphoric hedonism that merited the explosion of research into global club cultures in the late 1980s (Thornton, 1995). And yet, the pro-ana movement contains traces of all three of these shifts in subcultural theory.

Anorexics who engage with the pro-ana movement are both identifiable, however anonymously, and involved in collective problem-solving –  key characteristic for Chicago School theorists in defining subculture discussed above. Moreover, the questions raised by pro-ana and its members are not isolated from larger questions concerning body image, advertising, the fashion industry, the pressure of aspiration, the pressure to be normal/perfect, the role of parenting and so on; different in specifics but not in type from the large representational issues CCCS sought to explore for two decades.

‘Anas’ believe themselves to occupy a higher moral ground within the pro-ana community, defining themselves as against those with other forms of eating distress. Such a belief is frequently reinforced on a casual basis in postings on the sites. ‘Mia’ is commonly constructed as an easy option or a fallback position for failed anas:

“I always found something pure about ana, but mia I think would be easier: but then again they both leave messy emotional scars.”

“When I was mia I intentionally switched to ana because mia is so disgusting: Just look at all the anas who have a slip and end up asking mias for advise (sic) on how to purge. “(Giles, 2006)

It is within the context of what Sara Thornton has termed ‘the sub-cultural capital’ or ‘taste cultures’ for young people in Britain (Thornton, 1995), that pro-ana as a sexual and gender youth subculture comes into view. Building on the work of Bourdieu (1984) on taste and distinction, Thornton views subcultural capital as the signifying discourses of ‘cool’ young people in subcultures apply to key subcultural practices (in her research, dance music) to distinguish the cool from the uncool, the authentic from the fake, the subcultural from mass culture. As Thornton notes, these distinctions are arbitrary, which is not to say that they are without meaning. They are part of what we now recognize as the performative nature of identity (Butler, 1993).

Some of my best friends are white privileged straight men: Ellen DeGeneres defends Matt Damon

What is it about some white celebrity lesbians that they feel the need to defend white privileged celebrity straight men when they say things that are simply homophobic about gay, bisexual or queer men?

First of all, you have Jodie Foster defending Mel Gibson on any number of occasions. Given Foster’s own ambiguous relationship to the LGBT+ community (this is the woman who made The Silence of the Lambs after all) that’s perhaps not so surprising, if disappointing.

But now you have Ellen DeGeneres having Matt Damon appear on her show to justify (not defend) his remarks that actors should preserve an air of “mystery” in their private lives. This was in relation to a Guardian interview where homosexuality and gay actors had come up. Damon claimed, and DeGeneres supported him, that his words were taken out of context by the Internet to suggest that gay, bi and queer actors should stay in the closet.

Let’s be clear. Matt Damon does not preserve an air of mystery in relation to his own life when talking to the media. He discusses his politics, his sex life, his relationship with his wife, his relationship with Ben Affleck (he endlessly discusses his heterosexual bromance to tell us it’s not a physical relationship); in fact, Matt Damon never stops talking about heterosexual Matt Damon. ‘Mystery’ has been code for nearly 5 decades for the closet as any first-year sex and gender undergraduate could tell Matt Damon.

But what has changed over the last five decades is that some actors have come out in Hollywood. Not many, but a few. Yet DeGeneres didn’t challenge Damon for telling these brave pioneers that they should preserve their ‘mystery’. Instead, she made jokes about his and Ben Affleck’s heterosexual relationship that actually bordered on homophobic in itself. The clip is here

It was difficult to work out which was more offensive – Matt Damon’s use of the word ‘mystery’ or Ellen DeGeneres defence of him.