Friday, 27 May 2011

Asexuality and the Queer Community

AnnalyticaPosted by Annalytica

NB: This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on annalytica.dreamwidth.org. This post contains discussion of oppression and abuse which is not detailed but may be triggering.


As Jenni mentioned in her post on Tuesday, there has been a lot of debate in some corners of the internet about whether asexuals are queer, and much of that has centred around whether they are oppressed enough to deserve the label.

 When Jenni posted a piece on her personal blog explaining why, as a hetero-romantic asexual, she identifies as queer and participates in queer communities, she came under attack, including being told that she is straight. Some people have argued that, in referring to the fact that she has been welcomed into other queer spaces, such as Lashings, she is speaking on behalf of queer people, and thereby abusing her so-called straight privilege. So, I'm using this post to speak on behalf of myself, as a queer person who recognises Jenni as queer and welcomes her into this community.

Since a lot of this debate has been about who may or may not identify as queer, I should start by laying out my own queer credentials. I am a bisexual woman in a monogamous relationship with a man. As far as I can tell from what I've read so far, most of the people involved in this debate would accept that I may call myself queer, though it's worth noting that there are people in the queer community who would disagree.

I regard Jenni as queer because as an asexual person, her desires regarding sex and relationships don't match up to the heteronormative ideals expected by our society. The desire to have a relationship that is romantic but non-sexual is not one which our society recognises as valid. As such, if she talks about her desires and experiences, she is likely to be met with disbelief, misunderstanding, or hostility. In other words, oppression. Part of the experience of being queer is that people don't accept your identity, experiences, and desires. As I see it, the main reason for claiming the label queer and seeking queer communities is so that we can share our experiences of oppression and work together to combat it.

One of the arguments which has been raised is that a hetero-romantic asexual person can never experience homophobia. For example, if she is in a romantic relationship with a man, they won't experience homophobic abuse for holding hands in public. Therefore, the argument goes, she is not entitled to reclaim a term which is used as a homophobic slur. When pushed, the person arguing this defined queer as “attracted to people of the same gender”. Aside from asexuals, this definition also excludes trans* people, unless they also happen to be gay or bi. The people arguing for this definition were prepared to amend it to include trans* people, but paying lip-service to the inclusion of trans* people does not address the bigger problem: their definition of queer relies on the assumption that it is easy to establish whether two people are of the same gender or not.

I would argue that the use of “queer” as a slur – and as a positively reclaimed term – goes beyond same sex attraction. “Queer” is used to attack anyone whose gender or sexuality is not socially accepted, and as such can be reclaimed by anyone in that position. Obviously this lack of acceptance manifests itself in many different ways and there are important differences between different kinds of oppression. A lack of representation in popular culture is not the same as being told you'll grow out of it, which is not the same as lacking certain legal rights, which is not the same as being violently attacked. We can argue over which forms of oppression are worst, and whether some pave the way for the others, and whether we should try to tackle all of them or prioritise only the most damaging. But in all of these debates, I wish people would recognise two things:

1) Whether or not someone is queer is not determined by whether they have experienced a given, specific form of oppression.
2) Whether someone has experienced a particular form of oppression is not determined by their orientation

There are asexual people who have been physically or sexually assaulted because of their orientation, just as there are gay people who haven't experienced that kind of abuse. Type of non-heterosexual orientation does not map neatly onto type of oppression. I could understand if someone wanted to set up a group that was exclusively for queer people who have experienced violent hate crime, for example, if that is what's necessary to create a safe space. What I can't understand is using orientation as a proxy for what kind of oppression someone has experienced. That's affected by all kinds of factors – in particular, how their sexuality intersects with other forms of oppression and privilege.

Jenni's experience of invisibility, of having her identity explained away, of being regarded as not queer enough for the queer community and not straight enough for the straight community, are all things that I, as a bisexual woman, can identify with. We share the experience of being oppressed because we don't fit other people's expectations of how our sexuality ought to be. That is enough for me to regard her as queer.

I want Jenni in my community because we share many experiences. I want her in my community because she is able to speak insightfully about her own experiences, without assuming they are universal or speaking on behalf of other people. I want her in my community because she respects the diversity of queer identities within Lashings and does not attempt to tell anyone else how they should identify. Lashings is a safe queer space and Jenni's presence does not threaten the safety of the space in any way. However, when I hear people calling a self-identified asexual person straight, and accusing her of invading queer spaces and abusing her straight privilege, I certainly don't feel safe in that space. As a bisexual person, I'm all too familiar with having people refuse to recognise my queer identity and I don't want to see this happening all over again.

This topic has led to some very heated debate on other sites. Please read the comments policy before commenting and remember that this blog is a safe space.

15 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post.

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  2. I'm glad you liked it. I wrote this post as a response to the people who were arguing against the inclusion of asexuals in the queer community, but in fact, I think it's mostly been read by asexual people. And on reflection it's probably better that way. I can't convince other queer people to accept asexuals into their spaces if they don't want to, but I can let you know that you will be welcome in this space.

    It's not just that I think asexuals are oppressed and can benefit from the support of the queer community. I also think that the queer community benefits from the inclusion of asexuals, because you bring a different perspective on relationships and attraction. I experience sexual attraction but it doesn't always coincide with aesthetic attraction and romantic attraction in the way I've been led to expect it should, and I find having a framework to make sense of that experience really valuable. I learn a lot from lurking in asexual blogs, because asexual people have interesting things to say. So I really hope that some of the asexual people reading this post will stick around.

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  3. ladycelebrian3 June 2011 23:23

    wow... i've only recently realized my asexuality. i didn't realize there was so much controversial discussion about this. thanks for sharing.

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  4. Thank you :') this means so much...I'm a hetero-romantic demisexual asexual and I ID as queer but for some reason people refuse to accept me as that..I know I'm not "straight" and I see queer as someone who doesn't fit anywhere else and isn't "straight", not someone who is attracted to the same gender...so it's nice to know some people agree :)

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  5. Hi and thanks for posting this.
    I've identified as ace since the 70's, whatever AVEN would have you believe :-)
    I've marched alongside gay and trans friends friends for decades in Pride marches across the UK.
    Now I find that LGBT are repeatedly voting against including aces and in the few conversations I've managed to have with LGBT representatives, ace has been described to me as an illness that needs treatment with testosterone.
    This is laughably surreal as the same words were used against gays in the recent past to oppress them and now they are doing the same to us.
    It's like we've learned nothing.
    I personally identified as queer for a long time, but I've finally realised that the queers don't recognise me or my sexuality, or at least they don't want to welcome me in any official way into their organisations.
    Mike

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  6. I'm really sorry that's been your experience Mike. I guess what this highlights is that there is no one queer or LGBT community - rather, there are many different groups and organisations, and some are more inclusive than others.

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  7. Do you want to know why I don't like heteros in the queer community? Because heteros (whether sexual or asexual) are the bane of my queer existence. As much as people talk about straight/hetero allies, really no such thing exists. I will never accept a het as an ally, and I will never trust a het - because I never know whether or when a hetero (including "allies") will hurl epithets at me, subject me to discrimination, bash in my face or maybe even kill me. How is that for heterophobia? Because I am phobic of heteros - very, very afraid. My safety demands I distrust hets. If for no other reason, (asexual) hets should stay away from queer safe spaces. I don't want to go to a place that is supposed to be safe for me, only to feel swamped and threatened by heteros.

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    1. if you exclude anyone who wishes you well whether they're heterosexual or not, you are entirely dismissing the concept of equality. you don't know everyone who is heterosexual. that is a fact. therefore you can't judge them all and claim you know how they feel about you. sexual orientation has nothing to do with someone's heart and who they are. demonizing heterosexuals because you've had negative experiences with them is just as bad as homophobia. don't kid yourself. this "us against them" mentality you seem to posses is what holds us all back from gender and sexuality equality. think about your feelings, reflect, and try to explain to me how any type of hate or mistrust of any sexuality could be positive in any way. if it isn't positive or helpful in any way, your comment has no place here. no blind judgement of a stranger can ever be justified.

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    2. demonizing heterosexuals because you've had negative experiences with them is just as bad as homophobia

      There's a power differential you're discounting here, which is that society privileges non-queer people over queer people. Heterophobia is not the same as homophobia, because there is not the sociocultural support for it.

      I find your comment much more unacceptable than the one you're replying to. Accusing oppressed queer people of "holding us all back from gender and sexual equality" is pretty much just victim-blaming.

      It is the job of heterosexual people to not abuse us; it doesn't make any difference if they 'wish us well'. It is not our job to accept their abuse in silence because to call it out would not be 'positive or helpful'.

      I agree that, in a gender-and-sexual-equality utopia, your comment would stand; it would be absolutely inappropriate to make generalisations about anyone based on their sexuality. But we don't live there yet; and until we do, experiences like the one you're replying to are about queer people trying to survive.

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  8. Hey, anon, do you mind if I ask you what your cultural context is?

    Because - maybe I'm privileged in this being white, cis, middle class etc - but I've never seen anti-queer violence coming from people who call themselves allies.

    So while I'm open to the idea that your lived experience might be radically different to mine, your comment currently sounds a lot like the type of argument that's used, eg, in cissexist "toilet logic".

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  9. I come from a poor black Pentecostal family, from a Christian community, from the American South. Hope that helps.

    While I haven't been physically attacked (yet) by self-proclaimed "allies", I have had "allies" watch me be attacked and do nothing, have had "allies" hurl homophobic slurs at me in fits of anger, and have been to GSAs where the majority were straight people who silenced queer members by calling them things like "heterophobic" or separatist" or "hypersensitive" whenever they spoke of things like straight privilege. If straights/heteros have done all this, I don't see what is stopping them from outright assault and murder - other hets do it, so why not them? Clearly, I don't trust hets. I've never been offered any reason to. All heteros have ever brought me has been pain. They've left me burnt.

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  10. I'm so sorry that all this has happened to you. I can certainly see that you have reasons to be wary, even if I think there is quite a gulf between using a slur in the heat of the moment (and then, I hope, regretting it..?), and violent assault.

    I wonder why some of those people are involved in GSAs at all, if they have no interest in supporting queer members? That must be a hell of a thing for you to have to deal with.

    I don't really see "being queer" as being synonymous with "recognising the existence of straight privilege", though - I know plenty of politically conservative queer people who reject the whole privilege/oppression thing as a leftie fiction. I guess what I'm saying is that I'd much rather have the company of heteros who get it than anyone who doesn't.. but maybe you don't have the luxury of that choice, I dunno.

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  11. Anonymous: I absolutely agree that allowing privileged allies into a safe space can sometimes result in the space becoming unsafe, and that there is a need for queer safe spaces that are not open to straight allies. I'm sorry that you've had such bad experiences with so-called allies. But where we differ is that I don't see asexual people as allies to the queer community, but as members. Insofar as a hetero-romantic asexual person identifies as queer and wants to be part of the queer community (and not everyone does, just as not all gay, bi and trans people identify as queer), then as far as I'm concerned that person is not a hetero ally, but a fellow queer person.

    When you use the term "heteros" to include hetero-romantic asexuals and heterosexuals in the same group, you gloss over asexuality, and ignore the fact that for many asexuals, their asexual orientation is a much more significant part of their identity than their romantic orientation.

    It is not OK to define a hetero-romantic asexual as simply a hetero, and use that to argue that they should not be part of the queer community. That's ignoring a massive part of their identity and experience.

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  12. Thank you for this post. I think it speaks not only to asexuals, or bisexuals, but to the larger issue of the Queer community and its inclusion - or rather, exclusion...

    I feel that sometimes people get caught up in playing the oppression politics game and lose sight of the shared experiences that DO bring us together. While it is important to recognize and discuss different types of oppression, erasure, invisibility, abuse, etc, we should always acknowledge the commonality in our struggle.

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  13. As a hetreo-romantic I want to thank you for this, and for your reaction to Anon's comment,
    "It is not OK to define a hetero-romantic asexual as simply a hetero, and use that to argue that they should not be part of the queer community. That's ignoring a massive part of their identity and experience."
    It's really nice to have people in any community to look out for asexuals like myself, because it's really hard when you don't belong in the "normal" community, and a community that is supposed to help people pushed out by the "normal" community pushes you away. Even though it might seem silly, sometimes that's the worst part, being so invisible that the pride group for almost EVERY OTHER gender/sexual minority rejects you. So thank you so, so much for being brave enough to stick up for us.

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