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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There’s nowt so queer as asexuality: asexual researchers at the 1st Non-monogamies and Contemporary Intimacies Conference, Lisbon.

It was a real privilege to attend the 1st Non-monogamies and Contemporary Intimacies Conference in Lisbon to present my paper on Asexual Activism as an Emerging Contemporary Sexual and Gender Social Movement. It was doubly exciting because there were three/four other presenters who were either speaking directly on asexual studies or interdisciplinary on topics related to asexual sexual-gender identity formations.

Even within the small group of asexual researchers there was a real diversity of research interests and opinions, which speaks well for the future of European asexual studies. I’m loath to pull out too many overarching themes in any of our work, but there were some common threads I think we were all considering.

One of those was the intersectional relationship between diverse asexual identity formations and queer (as a subjective claimed identity which posits itself against normative and often oppressive sexual and gendered identities). Rita Alcaire highlighted this with a quote from David Jay, a key figure in asexual activism and founder of AVEN (The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network):

David Jay

Another common concern was the problematic nature of the standard definition for asexuality – “an asexual is someone who experiences little or no sexual attraction to others.” I think it’s fair to say that none of us are happy with this definition, which complicates/obfuscates as much as it clarifies, but as I tried to say in my presentation part of the success of the asexual movement over the last 10/15 years has been its ability to cohere behind a common ground/statement despite their immense diversity.

To move on to the papers themselves, Patricia McLeod in The Asexual Slut: When Compulsory Monogamy Meets Compulsory Sexuality discussed the kinds of ‘myths’ and expectations society has of asexuals, particularly drawing on her own experiences. She drew out the intersectional links between compulsory monogamy and compulsory sexuality; the way in which the expectation that we should be sexual reinforces the expectation that we should also be in dyadic relationships.

In a similar fashion, Aoife Sadlier in ‘I’m Not That Bisexual. I’m the Other One ’ Queering Straightness on Match.com discussed her experiences of engaging with heteronormative relationship network sites. She juxtaposed this with examples from interviews with other queer asexual women who discussed their ambivalence with the types of labels offered to asexual women seeking relationships.

Mercedes Pöll’s paper on Defining “Sex” in Relationships Without was one of the highlights of the conference for me. Mercedes work is not directly on asexuality; she is concerned to consider all types of relationships in which people do not engage in ‘conventional sex acts’ according to societal expectations as part of their affective relationship matrixes (asexual identity-formations being just one segment of these). Mercedes work is subtle and complex; she draws on many theoretical traditions without being ideologically tied to any one. In this I feel her work reflects the shifting precarity that is so much a part of our current socio-political-cultural environment. In particular, I was struck by one of her comments “sex is that which is legible as sex.” It’s the statement that I’ve come away from the conference having to reflect on; it seemed so obvious once stated and yet it’s so radical, inclusive and queer.

Rita Alcaire gave three papers, so I’m only going to focus on the paper that she gave in the same session as me The Minority Report: The Asexual Community Discusses Its Struggle to Find Acceptance. This for me was also one of the standout moments of the conference for many different reasons. First of all, Rita delivered a brilliant polished analysis of the macro and micro aggressions which have prompted the asexual community to mobilise and organise; the relationship between that mobilisation and prior LGBT+ movements, and, how that very struggle by the asexual community is queer in its opposition to societal norms. Secondly, and this is unusual compared to British conferences where if you’re presenting a paper on asexual research you’re lucky to get 5/6 people coming to hear you, the room was packed (100+). I’m really grateful to the organizers, to researchers on polygamy and non-intimacy and Portuguese researchers for the openness to asexual research that they showed at this conference. As for Rita, there was a real sense of a foundational figure in Portuguese Asexual Studies delivering her first significant paper on her topic.

I was also very happy with my paper “Asexy and we know it”: The Emergence of Asexual Activism as a Contemporary Sexual and Gender Social Movement. If Rita focused on the kinds of macro and micro oppressions that have encouraged asexual communities to mobilise and organise, I focused on the kinds of cultural and structural forms that mobilisation and organisation have taken. The dissimilarities and similarities asexual activism has with prior sexual and gender social movements. The kinds of internal dialogues asexual activism was having with itself; the kinds of external dialogues asexual activism was having with the wider Pride/LGBT+ movements. The Q & A that followed our session was incredibly lively. I was too tired to go to the party afterwards!!

Overall, as I said previously, I think it was a very productive conference for asexual researchers. I hope that this is something that we can build on in the future.

Note – throughout I have tried to use pronouns that people stated they preferred at conference. If I have made a mistake please let me know and I will amend the text.

The ABC of Queer: A for Asexual

Asexual identities have the ability to radically challenge Queer Theory’s often taken for granted assumptions about sexual orientation in the same way that Trans* (see TRANS*) identities radically challenged Feminism’s (See FEMINISM) often taken for granted assumptions about gender.

For a long time feminists have challenged the socially constructed nature of gender. This is a good thing because, invariably, gender was/is being constructed in our society to privilege white, biologically male men (see CIS, see WHITE PRIVILEGE). However, for many feminists, the challenge to the socially constructed nature of gender only went as far as how it oppressed them. They weren’t prepared to critique the privileges they enjoyed under the same constructions of gender (see ETHNOCENTRICISM; see INTERSECTIONALITY); a form of strategic essentialism (see STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM).

They often failed to distinguish between gender as biological sex, gender as gender role and gender as gendered behaviour (see PORTMANTEAU); issues which would be of increasing significance to Trans* theorists and activists. When faced with the challenges and contradictions of Trans* Theory and identities, to previously taken for granted assumptions about gender, some feminists have responded with gender panic (see PANICS) that has expressed itself in transphobia (see TERFS, see TRANSPHOBIA). It should be stated that this is largely generational and most contemporary feminism acknowledges the need to have a more nuanced understanding of gender.

Likewise queer theorists have often focused on critiquing sexual orientation as a social script we learn. Again, broadly speaking, this is a good thing because the social scripts we learn often imply that heterosexual lives and codes of behavior are superior to sexual minority lives and codes of behavior (see HETERONORMATIVITY). Even when these scripts become more tolerant they may still suggest that sexual minority lives are better when they mimic heterosexual lives (see HOMONORMATIVITY).

But Queer Theory itself also writes a strategic social script which maintains particular privileges and intersections. In both its progressive-liberal and authoritarian-judgemental modes it maintains the pre-eminence of individual choice. Your ability to, indeed your ethical responsibility to, take charge of and control your sexual script is implied. What is subtly being suggested is your responsibility to be queer.

The fact that this type of scripting tends to privilege certain socio-cultural classes, as well as particular sexual and gendered identities, is overlooked. Equally as important, this type of scripting ignores the fact that sexual orientation is portmanteau (see BIOPSYCHSOCIAL) made up of parts which are biological, parts which are physiological and parts which are socially scripted. Another way to put this is that sexual identity is made up of sexual orientation, sexual role and sexual behaviours.

This is significant for asexuals because most asexuals define their identity through their biological asexual orientation. The standard definition being that an asexual is someone who experiences no or little sexual attraction to others. Therefore scripts barely come into it; it’s very much a case of ‘born this way’. Though the extent to which socialisation will then impact on someone after birth is always important. Equally as important, asexuals reject the pre-eminence given to the scripted sexualised self by queer theorists.

They would claim that other modes of human relationship orientation (the romantic, the platonic, the aesthetic, the sensual, et cetera) are equally as important if not more so. I also see little to suggest that they view these as uniquely social scripts, but as physiological/psychological interactions. It also remains the case that a significant minority of asexuals, in selecting other types of relationship orientation, will choose orientations that would be viewed as heterosexual in preference.

Therefore Queer and Asexual may be on a similar collision trajectory that some parts of Feminism and Trans* were on, for similar but slightly different reasons. Queer may have to realise that it has to to develop a more nuanced notion of the scripted sexualised self. It may have to accept that sometimes it cannot always privilege that sexualised self.

It may also have to accept that being inclusive of Asexual is also to be inclusive of heteroromantic asexuals, for example, who make up such a large number of the increasing visible asexual community. Whether that happens easily, or, we see a similar sexual panic happening with queer theorists and asexuals as occurred with feminists and trans* individuals leading to A-phobia? Only time will tell…