Safe Spaces

Consider this a follow-up of sorts to my post on privilege and the tumblr crap that’s been going on lately. Most of what I was going to add to that post I already said in the comments, but I want to highlight one part of the discussion. Jay, who showed up in that post to uh, “defend” the Privilege-Denying Asexuals tumblr (but actually ended up just proving the point of my post), said this:

It’s pretty obvious that you didn’t, as you say, follow the debate on tumblr, because *several* people shared their experiences of asexuals in LGB+ spaces expressing disgust at sexual displays (like kissing) and making the spaces uncomfortable in other ways. Ridiculous as that might seem to *you*.

To which I responded:

You and the other people who have met people like that would do well to keep in mind that not all asexuals are like that, and attacking all of us is unwarranted. I also hope you keep in mind that there are LOTS of people who are NOT asexual who also bring hostile attitudes into queer communities. I’ve encountered tons of biphobia, transphobia, and even blatant homophobia within queer settings. But the gay people who denounce trans people are not excluded from the group on the basis of not being queer. They are still assumed to have a history with and understanding of both queerness and prejudice, and yet they turn around and spread that vileness themselves. The queer community is not and never has been a safe space for everyone, despite our lofty goals. It is at best a very loose coalition of people who may or may not be supportive of one another, and often undermine one another instead of doing anything useful. My experiences with local communities is so bad I just gave up on them, personally, and none of that had anything to do with their acceptance of asexuality at all. I don’t see why problems with asexual members of the group are any different from problems with any other members in that regard.

Let me repeat that: The queer community is not and never has been a safe space for everyone.

There is not even one “queer community” to begin with. Talking about it like it’s a monolithic entity is hugely inaccurate. We refer to it like there is one for simplicity’s sake, but in reality it’s just a bunch of related groups with vaguely similar goals. Sort of. Actually, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Each queer group needs to specifically delineate its goals and guidelines so that members know what to expect, and most of them (at least in my experience) fail to do so.

So take any given queer group, and then ask yourself: what is this group for? What purpose does it serve? Is it supposed to be a group that takes political action? Is it supposed to be a support group where people can go to feel safe and accepted? Those are two VERY different goals, and they can be at odds. Taking political action often requires people to be out, and exposed to public discourse in a way that threatens the sense of safeness and acceptance that would come from a more support-oriented community. This is especially true when there is pressure from the group to present yourself in a certain way to the media so that your message would be likely to be more palatable to the majority. These are common problems with establishing the safeness of spaces in queer groups of any kind, even the groups who focus on one single letter of the alphabetsmoosh.

Let me give you an example. Say a group is tabling for some political goal or another, like encouraging people to vote down something like Prop 8. But the group’s leaders are concerned that they will appear threatening to straight people, so they tell you that you can only approach people of the “opposite” sex. Girls approach guys, guys approach girls, and that’s it. Doesn’t that intrinsically send a homophobic message to the members of the group, who are supposed to be safe and protected by that group’s leaders? That’s not even mentioning the complete erasure of the trans members of the group. So, is this group a safe space? Not really. (This is a real-world example, by the way; it actually happened, and in a group that was supposedly more oriented towards support, at that.)

Now, obviously expressions of disgust at sexual displays would be bad for a group that’s specifically designed to be a safe space to express sexuality. But then the question is, has that group specifically delineated such a goal for its members? If the group is actually meant to serve some other purpose, especially if that purpose is more of a professional one in nature, then it could be argued that any member (including members who aren’t asexual) might find it unprofessional and tasteless to do more than maybe a quick peck on the lips in that setting. Context really matters, here. It could be that someone just finds public displays of affection of any kind inappropriate, and it’s especially likely that they would think that if they are from a country/culture where PDA is discouraged. Jay’s comment seems to imply, however, that the people who experienced that assumed that their sexual orientation is what caused the disgusted reaction, and not the person’s feelings on PDA in general. Whether they actually know the reason or not, it seems to have emotional resonance with the idea that they are disgusting and bad, because same-sex desires are disgusting and bad. I’d say that these people were triggered by that reaction, in the parlance of PTSD/survivor-type language; in other words, they have internalized messages that they are bad/disgusting because of their sexual orientation, and the negative reaction to PDA caused them to be reminded of those messages, whether or not that reaction has anything to do with their sexual orientation at all.

If the group actually is supposed to be a support-oriented safe space, then ground rules need to be established that take these concerns into consideration. I’ve done group therapy, and let me tell you, ground rules are incredibly important in order to help everyone feel safe and avoid triggers. It should explicitly be established that people should suppress their negative reactions to PDA, or refrain from showing PDA, depending on what the group decides on. And yes, different groups may need to form to cater to different individuals’ needs with regard to feeling safe. There is nothing wrong with coming together for political action with one group, and having different groups (or sub-groups) for supporting different kinds of people. It’s not at all uncommon to have a support group (or two) just for trans people, or just for lesbians, or whatever. What’s wrong is to try to force every queer community to be everything to everybody at the same time, as if there is just one thing called “the queer community” that has whatever goals you say it has… and then use that as an excuse to exclude people you don’t like.

Jay’s comments do not demonstrate any understanding of the complexity both of goals and of composition of the various queer communities, or even that we have more than one queer community for good reasons in the first place. I suspect that the people who have had experiences with asexuals triggering them in that way simply assumed that the group was supposed to be a safe space, and even if it was specifically stated that it was supposed to be a safe space, I doubt that much consideration went into planning ground rules designed to make it safe. If there had been such consideration, the offending member would simply have been asked to stop what they were doing or leave, because they were violating the ground rules. A good response in a support group where that issue unexpectedly came up would be to talk about what happened, why it made some members feel unsafe, and decide what action should be taken so that such an issue wouldn’t come up again. That may include coming up with a new ground rule about it, or even a member leaving because that particular group doesn’t really fulfill their needs.

A good response to this issue does not, however, involve deciding that because some members’ needs are in conflict, therefore only such-and-such group of people is queer, and the rest do not get to call themselves that or be involved with ANY queer group (except as an “ally”) because then they would be “appropriating” space. There’s plenty of conflict between members of groups traditionally considered queer all the time, and also between groups composed only of people of the same letter that try to fulfill different goals at the same time as well. There is no monolithic space to appropriate. There are only individual spaces belonging to different communities, each with different goals (that ideally should be clearly delineated).


Book Review: Gunn’s Golden Rules

Many of you are probably aware that Tim Gunn recently sort of “came out” as asexual, or at least described himself as asexual several times. Ily announced it here, and you can find several quotes from a magazine article that were almost direct quotations from his book, Gunn’s Golden Rules: Life’s Little Lessons for Making it Work, here.

I’ve been a fan of Tim Gunn for several years, ever since I discovered Project Runway. A lot of that is that he does have an asexy vibe, but it’s also because I find him, more and more, to be the lone voice of sanity on the show. His critiques of the designers’ work are incredibly astute, although he doesn’t know what the judges are going to say, especially since lately they’ve been smoking crack (Really? Gretchen?). Another reason I identify with Tim is that he clearly reads a lot, and has a very large vocabulary. You see, I’m the type of person who relatively frequently uses words that others around me don’t know as well… and I get similar reactions to it. I also just find him overall very kind and generous and joyful, and that is the spirit of this book.

The rules that are quoted on the back cover of the book are almost all related to Project Runway and the one that isn’t is related to the wider fashion world. I realize that is a good marketing strategy, but I think that kind of misrepresents what the book is about as a whole. It’s not all catty gossip about Isaac Mizrahi and Anna Wintour; while he does critique their behavior, it is not in a gossipy or malicious way, but rather a critique that because they live in such an elite world, they have become out of touch with reality, and because of that they behave badly. The book’s themes revolve around being humble and not an elitist, being kind and courteous to others, and finding personal strength and joy even when things are tough.

This last theme seems to be the one that is most often discussed around these parts. He discusses hard issues like his suicide attempt and various conflicts with his family over his sexual orientation. I believe at one point, I think in a v-log, he said he shares that information in order to let anyone who is in a similar place know that it does get better. Now, I’ve had some concerns with the It Gets Better project because so many of the messages are centered around very mainstream norms that don’t take asexuality, aromanticism, or celibacy into account—they assume that everyone wants a romantic partner, a marriage, a family, etc. But Tim Gunn’s message is overall very asexual-friendly: Continue reading

Why Trendy Bisexuals Are Dangerous to Asexuality

Over the years, a bunch of people have made the point that asexuals have something to add to discussions of sexuality, because their differing perspective on the topic lends an ability to see certain points that others miss. Since I’m currently incapable of forming any coherent thoughts on the topic of asexual gender variation, I thought I might try to add my perspective to an essay that I recently stumbled upon: Sexa Rubelucia’s Defense of Trendy Bisexuality, wherein she attempts to do just that.

She makes a few good points in the essay, but my main issue with her argument is that, while she seems at least aware of the difference between sexual attraction and sexual behavior, she does not acknowledge its relevance to the topic at hand. This is an issue with the definition of bisexuality. This is about what it means to be bisexual, or not. And the commonly accepted definition of any sexual orientation is based on attraction, not behavior, although many people seem to have a muddled and inconsistent understanding of this, including the author of this essay. Reading the essay, I have no clear idea of what her actual views on “real” biseuxality are, though she offers the following definition of fake bisexuals:

Trendy bisexuality is … the kind of bisexuality in which a girl has sex with, hooks up with, or makes out with, other girls to arouse/get the attention of a guy (or guys) watching, or because she wants to be able to say she’s bisexual as she knows it makes her sound sexier to guys, or just because she’s heard that it’s cool to be bi now. It’s distinguished as “trendy” bisexuality to indicate that these girls only do it because it’s “cool” and because lots of other girls do it. The term “trendy bisexuality” is meant to be insulting, and women who self-identify as “trendy bisexuals” only do so in a self-effacing, deliberately ironic way.

It’s clear that she understands what the difference is between so-called “trendy bisexuals” and real bisexuals–that is, the motivation for their behavior. However, she curiously does not address the distinction between orientation (a relatively set pattern of gender-based attraction) and behavior, which is being clarified by people who use the terms “trendy” or “fake bisexuals”–clearly, people question whether such people ought to be calling themselves bisexuals at all. She seems to go back and forth on this, acknowledging her own low level of attraction to women and how that qualifies her to claim the label “bisexual,” and then later saying that a woman who has had sex with other women’s claim to be straight is somehow suspect. Instead of looking at the very obvious definitional qualms that people have with trendy bisexuality, she focuses on feminist objections to the phenomenon of, as she so aptly calls it, “female/female sex as a performance.”

Far be it from me to claim that sex as a performance is a necessarily bad thing (especially considering my own advice on the topic), but some of her claims are a little suspect. I’m sure there’s something to the whole feminist “sexual expectation double-standard,” but her emphasis on how people who object to this on feminist grounds must be man-haters is a little overblown, in my opinion. Some people simply don’t like the idea of performing to fulfill a man’s fantasies, and I don’t think it necessarily means that they hate all men (or even all heterosexual men) because of that. When their fantasies are about women existing as objects meant for their use, it’s understandable why some women would be uncomfortable with that. I, personally, wouldn’t go so far as to say that other women shouldn’t ever engage in any erotic activities with other women solely with the intent of arousing men, but I still find this practice distasteful because there is such a heavy cultural bias towards the fulfillment of male fantasies (which she does mention), and I think that distaste is very much legitimate. I also do think it is interesting that in the same breath as she dismisses others’ claims that straight girls engage in bisexual behavior because they have low self-esteem, she writes off people who have a repulsion to and/or ideological problems with society’s conception of sex as having low self-esteem:

Girls who have low self-esteem do a lot of things. Some girls have low self-esteem and therefore have promiscuous sex. Some girls have low self-esteem and therefore refuse to have sex at all and write feminist theory about why all sex is bad and wrong and evil.

And then there is this little gem:

The overarching answer to the concern of “someone will get hurt” is that it’s sex!  Someone always gets hurt!  It feels really great, and then it confuses you, and then someone gets hurt, and then everyone deals with it.  There’s pretty much nothing you can do to prevent that. (emphasis hers)

Um… what? I mean, first of all, from that previous quote, she acts like sex is so wonderful that anyone who has problems with it must have low self-esteem… and then she says this? I sure HOPE people don’t ALWAYS get hurt when they have sex! Even I, an asexual woman, am not so cynical as to say such a thing, and you know? I guess you could call me naive if you want, but that hasn’t been my experience, either. There was a time when I wondered if I would ever be able to get through sex without pain, but I have since discovered that I am perfectly capable of it, on both an emotional and a physical level. There ARE precautions that people can take to keep themselves from being hurt, and even those who are acting outside of their orientation can benefit from them. I wonder, that this woman would say such a thing, especially in this context. I understand very well how a lack of experience and understanding about one’s own desires (or lack thereof) might lead to less-than-stellar communication (been there, done that!), and I don’t think people should be vilified simply for that. However, this reeks of an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s actions. If people are not up-front and honest about their intentions, including whether or not they are experimenting, then things are likely to go wrong, and if somebody gets hurt because the other person wasn’t honest, you can’t claim that it was the fault of the person who WAS honest. Of course, when entering into any kind of relationship, there is always the risk of being lied to, or hurt in any other way. But just because someone understands that they are taking that risk, does that mean that it is acceptable for people to do manipulative and unsavory things to them? Should people just never trust anyone, ever? How about: “Well, it’s your fault you got raped, because you knew there was a chance I might have been lying to you!” No. This is just a way of avoiding blame.

That’s not to say that ALL “trendy bisexuals” engage in this behavior, because some people, I’m sure, are actually up-front about the fact that they are just experimenting, or solely interested in sexing women because they want to attract men. Those who aren’t, however, incur the displeasure of those they mislead for a very good reason. Either way, this argument just barely misses, and then dismisses, the real issue:  that trendy bisexuals are MISLEADING PEOPLE by calling themselves bisexual in the first place (and do note, I didn’t say they are “using” people, because I agree, that’s a useless phrase, and plus, it’s such a narrow term it misses some of the broader implications). They aren’t actually bisexual, even though they engage in sexual behavior with people of both genders, and tend to claim that label (the writer of that essay is an uncommon breed in that she actually calls herself a trendy bisexual; usually, that is a label that only other people use to describe someone, while the person being called a “trendy bisexual” just calls herself bisexual).  And this can potentially hurt both the people with whom they are intimately involved, and the wider bisexual, lesbian, and even asexual communities due to its spreading of the misinformed conflation of behavior with a label that’s not about behavior at all.

She continues:

But really, what sinks this complaint is that trendy bisexuals are pretty clearly distinguished from serious lesbians, usually by the fact that their boyfriend is standing no farther than a few feet away.

I doubt this very much, as in my experience (as a biromantic asexual woman partnered to a bisexual passing trans woman–meaning, we look, act, and are treated like lesbians in public), many men seem to assume that most, if not all, out lesbians (who are attractive, at least), are just trendy bisexuals, and would be receptive to their frequent catcalls and offers for threesomes. I really can’t stress enough how frequently this happens. In fact, just a few hours ago, as my girlfriend and I were walking back to our car, just holding hands and not being overtly (or even covertly!) sexual at all, some guy ran into a curb because he was too busy staring at whooping at us to pay attention to the road. You could argue, perhaps, that these men aren’t really seriously harming us by expressing their interest, but the degree to which (even the smallest amount of) female-female affection is sexualized makes me think there is something more insidious going on. My (non-sexual) affection for my girlfriend is routinely trivialized and cast as a simple ploy to gain male attention, when in reality, it has nothing whatever to do with either men OR sex, at all. This is indeed an example of male narcissism, but I am deeply concerned with the idea that this narcissism is harmless. It represents society-wide beliefs that have real-world consequences, which trendy bisexuals may not be aware of because they play into and reinforce the beliefs that other people hold, but women who are seriously committed to one another are much more likely to encounter. The main issue, aside from the demoralizing assumption that women exist for men and the extreme focus on sex, is that we lose credibility. We are much less likely to be taken seriously, as people will assume this is “just a phase” that women go through in college… and if, for example, my mother thinks this way, I may have a disaster on my hands when I finally come out to her, since I am still financially dependent on her and she has quite a bit of power over me. Is this not a legitimate concern?

It seems to me that there is an unwillingness to accept the fact that lesbians even exist, and that it is not at all clear (especially not immediately so) whether any given female-female couple are actually lesbians (this goes back to the issue of orientation vs. behavior, and how that is likely to contribute to the invisibility of groups like asexuals and bisexuals). Although there will certainly be people who assume they are lesbians, people also tend to see what they want to see. The fact that trendy bisexuals exist lends credence to heterosexual males’ wishful thinking, and though that may not actually be what the trendy bisexual is aiming to do, it is understandably annoying to lesbians that this happens, especially since it happens with such frequency. It also undermines the credence that people are likely to give to actual bisexuals, a group that is presumed to an even larger extent than lesbians not to even exist. Again, going back to visibility issues and the damage that defining orientation by behavior does. The writer of this essay seems to be aware of the behavior/attraction distinction, but she is blantantly dismissive of it:

I’ve heard plenty of women say “Oh, I’ve had sex with girls but I’m straight” (note: That is a pretty ridiculous statement), but I can’t even imagine a man saying the same thing about having had sex with a man.

Why is it ridiculous for a girl who has had sex with girls to claim that she’s straight? She is basing her statement on her patterns of attraction, and NOT on her behavior. It is a perfectly legitimate statement. I am asexual, but I have had sex, and that doesn’t make me any less asexual. That I have had sex does not automatically mean that I experienced sexual attraction (contrary to popular belief, I’m sure), because arousal can be a purely physical response to stimuli, that does not spring from any sexual attraction. If it’s possible to be aroused without feeling sexual attraction at all, it’s certainly possible to be aroused by an attraction to something else (in this case, the men that are turned on by lesbians) and then have sex with someone who did not inspire the initial attraction.

The author goes on to explain that that statement would be even more ridiculous in reverse, with a man insisting that his having had sex with a man does not make him gay, and rightly so. To most people in our culture, that would seem like a contradiction, but there have been other cultures where male homosexual interactions were even institutionalized, as mentor-student relationships that were considered a rite of passage. I am thinking of the ancient Greeks and Tokugawa-era Japan, here. As I understand it, it was quite normal in those cultures for men to have sex with other men without being presumed to be homosexual, as those men usually also took wives. There was no stigma attached to this, as there is in our culture, which is probably the reason why our men are so afraid of doing anything whatsoever that might lead others to assume that they are gay. That a man has had sex with another man, in my eyes, would not automatically mean that he is gay, except that since that assumption is so prevalent throughout this society, and since there is so much stigma attached to that act, so much homophobia running rampant throughout society, it would be quite a stretch to think that a heterosexual man would be so willing to experiment that he would even be willing to subject himself to that stigma.

To be gay is to lose social status. For men, who are ascribed a higher social status than women, it is a very, very bad for their image to appear effeminate in any way. Having sex with other men is seen as a marker of effeminacy, because of the way that society conceives of the power structure that is built into sex. To be a bottom in an act of gay sex is to act as a woman, and in so doing, sacrifice one’s (ever-fragile) masculinity. Which is, of course, probably the reason why, as the author observes, there is no male equivalent of the trendy bisexual in American culture (though there is something similar in Japan, but it is usually outright acknowledged that the guys are doing it solely for the girls’ benefit, instead of them claiming to actually be bisexual). Curiously, she fails to comment on that power structure, but she does point out some of the differences between gay male sex and lesbian sex:

Lesbian sex is far less necessarily physically threatening than gay male sex.  Penetration isn’t a requirement for two women to have sex with each other, whereas a man who identifies as bisexual is basically saying he’s willing to take it up the ass.

But is this really what he is saying, or is this just what people assume he is saying? What about a bisexual man who is strictly a top? And since when is penetration required for gay sex? I have known gay couples who never engage in penetrative sex because they don’t enjoy it, but do have other kinds of sex. Obviously, one alternative is oral sex. I also remember reading about one society (maybe the Romans? but I can’t recall which) that considered the anus dirty, and instead of having anal intercourse, they would engage in frottage–i.e., men would rub their penises between the closed thighs of other men. This statement highlights how incredibly phallocentric and extremely focused on penetration our society is. Even though anal intercourse is not the only form of gay male sex out there, it is the only form that society recognizes as such (and furthermore, people specifically focus on the bottom without considering the top, which shows how much focus there is on the person who is being “emasculated” and stripped of their social status).

An asexual perspective might be useful here, because in searching for an alternative form of sexuality that might be more tolerable to us than the usual penetrative kind of sex, we often realize how incredibly narrow society’s definition of “sex” is. There are many, many other ways to do sex than just penetration. In the case of lesbian sex, too, this must be acknowledged, because not all lesbian sex involves a strap-on. It is interesting to me that the author of that essay acknowledges that penetration is not required for lesbian sex, but doesn’t realize that it isn’t required for gay male sex either. It strikes me as something of a double-standard. After all, lesbians can and do penetrate each other–why, then, with all this focus on penetration, is that not considered THE way that lesbians have sex? In fact, to many people who hold such a penetration-centric view of sex, it is not even obvious that women CAN have sex with each other, because most women haven’t got a phallus–at least, not one that’s biologically attached.

In short, her arguments leave me unconvinced.  I wonder whether she has ever heard of asexuality, and what her reaction to it would be.  She doesn’t really seem the type who would take well to the idea, what with her comments about self-esteem and how “ridiculous” it is for girls with a history of having sex with other girls to call themselves straight. I would expect her to dismiss my experiences, claim I am insecure, and say I must be a man-hater because I dislike the way men sexualize me and trivialize my emotions (to say nothing of the actual objectification). I do have a problem with trendy bisexuals, but not because I think they shouldn’t act the way they do, on feminist grounds. My problem is that they are straight women who call themselves bisexual, and thus spread misinformation about what a sexual orientation even is, which can be harmful to ALL non-heterosexual orientations. It would be fine with me if they would at least acknowledge that they are not really, or only barely, attracted to women, and are mainly turned on by them because it turns on men. (I can, after all, understand enjoyment of others’ sexual reactions, as that is the main reason why I even have sex at all.) But most of them don’t (and actually, I wouldn’t call anyone who did a “trendy bisexual” at all; in my eyes, she would just be a straight woman who engages in bisexual behavior), either because they don’t understand what the term “bisexual” means themselves, or they are simply not willing to say they engage in behavior that is viewed negatively, even though that is the truth. They either do not realize the harm that they are doing to the larger community by spreading misinformation, or are not willing to take responsibility for misleading people. I don’t think these concerns are off-base; in fact, her essay only serves to trouble me more.

Why Acronyms are a Bad Idea.

Lately there’s been a bit of a stir around this blog post, wherein some gay dude rants about how asexuals aren’t worthy enough to add a letter to his sacred acronym, because we’re disabled, repressed, traumatized, pitiable, not oppressed enough, and dammit, we all just need to stop being anti-sexual prudes and get laid. And some other ignorant drivel that’s really not worth repeating, and has already been well argued against.

For some reason (likely because I’m bored and bed-ridden, and can’t do much of anything else), I sat there skimming over the comments today, unable to get myself riled up about any of it.

I found the most salient comment of that entire discussion to be the one about how the guy doesn’t seem to care about the trans community either, which rings true with my own experience of GL(bt) groups. Frustrating as it is, there is a ton of in-fighting and prejudice within these types of groups, especially towards the most minor of the minority groups. Nobody gives a thought to asexuals, and trans people are the first to get jettisoned should the group face any major resistance to whatever law they’re trying to pass (case in point: the ENDA debacle).

I know not everyone thinks like this, as I have had some success at getting asexuality included within a few local queer groups, although it is still largely ignored until one of the active asexual members brings it up. As for trans stuff, they will mention whatever PFLAG is putting on, or the things they do every year (out of habit, by this point), but they don’t seem to know or care exactly what it’s about. Mostly, they just seem to care about parties (and fundraising for them). It’s all about social events, and has very little to do with real activism. At this point, people have gotten so fed up with the incompetence and petty drama that the group split into different factions, and active members (which once filled the tiny room we are assigned to bursting) are down to a small handful.

The main problem I have had with these groups (aside from general incompetence) is that they are so very self-interested that they fail to see the larger picture. I think in large part this has to do with the group’s focus, which is reflected quite clearly in the name. I would argue that not only does the intended focus of the group contribute to its name, but that the name also shapes its focus, sometimes in a way that can be quite detrimental to its ability to get anything productive done.

I am not the first to recognize the trouble with acronyms; many groups have seen that, not only is there a linguistic hierarchy clearly visible in the structure of the name (Gay > Lesbian > Bisexual > Transgender > * > * > * etc.) that reflects badly on the group because it points out a real underlying hierarchy with regards to the weight of importance given to the issues of each respective smaller community, but that it quickly accumulates into an unpronounceable alphabet soup in any attempt to include additional minorities. Some people, like the above-linked blogger, seem to take issue only with the latter problem, and advocate a non-inclusive approach. Others have decided, instead, to change the name of the group to one that’s both easier to keep track of and more inclusive: Queer-Straight Alliance, or QSA.

That’s a bold move, because “queer” is a very broad term. It can be re-envisioned to mean almost anything that goes against the norm, although in this context, I would assert that it was originally meant to include not only minority sexual orientations (challenging heteronormativity), but also those challenging sex (as in male/female) and gender norms–because athough you might take a narrow view and claim that trans people automatically challenge heteronormativity just by switching genders, that argument is specious because for such a long time, trans people were only considered to have transitioned successfully if they were straight in their target genders. There is also the issue of the inclusion of an I for intersex, which, while it isn’t universally accepted, also makes it clear that an essential component of this definition of “queer” is the challenging of gender norms, not just heteronormativity.

It has been argued that asexuality is not or should not be considered queer by this definition, and I think a key point here is that gender norms are being challenged on two different dimensions: 1) on the level of the physical self, self-expression, and gender roles; and 2) the idea that the only right way to do things (sexually, but also implies romantically) is to have a male-female couple. A lot of people don’t seem to fully grasp the enormity of what it means to challenge these norms, focusing solely on the male-female couple bit. I think this is why trans, intersex, and asexual people so often get left out, and especially so for asexuals. Some asexuals are accepted as queer on the grounds that they form same-sex couples (with or without sex), or because they are trans or intersex, but cisgendered heteroromatic and aromantic asexuals may find themselves excluded because they are otherwise considered straight (by secondary orientation or by default). So, some asexuals may be considered queer for other reasons, but asexuals, simply by virtue of being asexual, often are not. I would argue, however, that such a view misses an essential part of what it means to be queer, what it means to challenge this particular set of societal norms.

To express the big picture to its fullest: What all of these minority groups have in common is that they challenge the idea that male and female are mutually exclusive categories, which are pairs of opposites, and thus naturally complete one another through (penis-in-vagina) sexual intercourse.

Therefore, any of the following is not natural and constitutes a pathology or defect: a same-sex couple, a transgendered person, an intersexed person, or any person sincerely not interested in copulating (not making the choice to abstain, but sincerely uninterested).

What I am saying, here, is that this set of norms has a specifically sexual component, and to be asexual is to challenge the part of that idea which says that people are completed through sexual intercourse. And so, we should be able to legitimately call ourselves queer. It is, admittedly, a less gendered part of the equation, which is probably why it so easily gets overlooked. But we ARE challenging heteronormativity, even if we don’t directly challenge gender norms (although many of us certainly do). Because the idea that men and women are complementary opposites that complete each other implies that men are supposed to be sexually attracted to women and vice versa, but if there is a naturally-occurring segment of the population which does not experience attraction to either, well. There you go.

In the interest of brevity (ha!), I won’t argue the point too finely, because I’m sure I’m pretty much already preaching to the choir, here. I’m sure there will be people, both asexual and not, that continue to say that asexuals should not (by virtue of being asexual alone) be considered queer, but I wanted to point out that it’s all in how you define things. If you take a broad view, we fit. If you take a narrow view, we don’t–but personally, I think if you’re going to take a narrow view, you ought to just stick to the acronym approach. I think even many of those who have accepted the QSA approach, though, are still thinking strictly in terms of same-sex couples, and not about the larger implications of using the term “queer.” The ugly hierarchies still exist, and many gays and lesbians even question the validity of bisexuality, never you even mind transgender, intersex, or asexuality. I think it’s time for people to stop using acronyms, stop thinking like they’re still using acronyms, and truly give some deep thought to what it really means to be queer. If we’re going to have a more inclusive community, then both the name and the focus of the community ought to reflect that–and that means being more sensitive to the more minor minorities involved. That way, hopefully the members will actually stick around.

Children of Denial

A few days ago, I had the nerve-wracking experience of having a lengthy discussion with my MtF girlfriend’s mother about her transition. The whole thing started because Cupcake has been on hormones for several months, and is going to start presenting as female full time in about a week, but her mother has been expressing more and more disapproval about the whole thing, and we weren’t sure whether she understood what was going on.

Naturally, this is an extremely difficult thing for parents to deal with. I don’t expect her to just accept it, and I’m sure it will take a long time for her to come to terms with it. Even then, she likely will continue to have qualms about it. It’s just the nature of the beast: this is such a hard, scary, weighty topic and mother-child relationships are so intense and important, how could she (someone with no experience whatsoever with trans issues) simply accept it, and that’s that?

Still, it got me thinking about parents’ reactions to their child coming out to them, especially how frequently they deny what’s being told to them. One of my friends said that she had to come out to her mother as asexual at least three times already, and probably will have to do it again at some point, just because her mother didn’t believe her (or remember?), probably thinking it was just a phase. My own parents are firmly convinced I’m a lesbian, not asexual. They also don’t have any idea about M or Cupcake, and although it bothers me a little that when they learn about her, it will support their idea that I’m a lesbian, I don’t really care enough to tell them about M. And even if I did, they likely wouldn’t believe me anyway, or would find some way to dismiss it. It doesn’t really matter, because I don’t care what they think and it won’t make a difference in the way they treat me anyway. Which I suppose is convenient, but is also just a result of asexuality (and similarly, bisexuality) being inherently invisible, even if people knew and accepted it as a legitimate orientation.

For Cupcake, it’s very, very different. This is not just some invisible fact about her that only becomes a real issue within a relationship, and otherwise is just a mildly annoying social barrier at worst. Nor is it some issue with the partners she chooses, which can be a discreetly hidden family secret, or even kept from family completely. This goes right down to the very core of her identity. It is physical. Nobody who knows her, except apparently her mother, could possibly miss the changes she is undergoing. When she came out at work, nobody was surprised. I watched her tell someone she used to know (over the internet), and his response was just an, “Oh. That explains a lot.”

It is interesting to me that her mother could claim that she never saw Cupcake as being feminine at all. One look at her room screams, “GIRL!” When she said that, I picked up one of her hands, painted with glittery purple nail polish and asked, “Is this feminine?” She seemed somewhat at a loss, grasping for an explanation. “Well, if you knew him growing up…”

I don’t mean to be confrontational, but this is happening. Even if she missed it, even if it was carefully hidden from her, Cupcake is and has been trans, and even if she were to stop her transition and go back to presenting male all the time, she would still be trans–just hiding it. Her mother can’t accept that this is true, says that there are other issues that she’s blocking out, that her divorce and the issues that Cupcake has with her father caused her to want to “reinvent himself, and become a new person.” (“It has nothing to do with that,” Cupcake protested, “I knew I was trans when I was eight, and the divorce happened when I was twelve. How could it have been caused by the divorce if it happened prior to that?”)

Cupcake had a response for every single thing that her mother brought up, but her mother wouldn’t listen to any of it. She holds on firmly to her (largely ignorant, and willfully so) fears about the process, rather than letting those fears be assuaged. She clings to stereotypes to rationalize Cupcake’s experiences away, just because it wasn’t something she “knew” about her son from an early age. I echoed something that Venus of Willendork once posted about then, about how the stereotypical lesbian and gay experience has been repeated so often that there is now pressure on them to make their experiences fit with the mold, rather than speaking out about how it really was, for solidarity’s sake or perhaps just so that people will believe them, and not think their orientation is a phase. Really, there is an even stronger pressure in the trans community due to the Standards of Care, and the requirement of having a therapist’s approval in order to start HRT or get SRS, but I thought using an example from a different community would be slightly less confrontational. I hope it’s something she will think about.

Really, it’s entirely understandable that she would react this way. What mother would want to admit that she knew so little about her child’s pain? Even at this stage, I’m not even certain the immensity of that pain has sunk in yet. For Cupcake, it’s a choice between transition or suicide. If there were a magic pill that she could take that would make her cisgendered, she says she would take it (which, incidentally, highlights a very important difference betweeen transsexualism and asexuality, as the vast majority of asexuals are happy the way they are, and wouldn’t dream of taking such a pill–it’s societal pressure to be sexual that they want to change, not their own orientations). But there is no such pill, nor any other way to magically become cisgendered. Thus, she has decided (carefully, with full knowledge of how difficult it will be) to transition.

One other thing I wanted to mention (for my own personal reference really, as I am writing this post as much to note my own personal observations than for any other reason) is that she brought up something that Cupcake had already mentioned to me two months ago: the possibility that her depression would start (or had started) to go away since she had gotten into a relationship with me. What Cupcake had previously told me was that she had had some self-doubt about her transition, wondering if she had just been lonely, and that her trans issues would go away when she got into a relationship. This proved to be completely untrue, because even with me, she still has freak-outs about trans stuff, even though she is no longer lonely. Her mother seemed to have the same doubts, though neither one of us mentioned what had happened between us earlier (I wonder if perhaps we should have, but I certainly didn’t want to bring it up without getting Cupcake’s approval first). I wonder, personally, what it is about relationships that makes people think they are a magical panacea. I’m sure many of us have been told that we will start wanting to have sex once we’re in a (committed romantic) relationship (with the right person), as if we are just too immature right now, and need someone to “awaken” our sexual desires. But I’m in a committed romantic relationship and I’m still asexual. And Cupcake is still trans.

There are certainly parallels between the way that parents react to asexuality and the way they react to transsexualism, although the latter is much more extreme in pretty much every way. This is one reason I think asexuals should have a place within the queer community, even though we face very little discrimination (if it can be called that at all), compared to the GLB’s, and especially T’s. There are plenty of differences in the issues that need to be addressed, and the danger of banding together is that one group will be so concerned about their own issues that they’ll leave the others out, but there are still commonalities that allow different types of queer people to understand one another better, and parents having similar reactions is one of them.

The power of denial is certainly very strong, and it’s something I’ve run into a lot, especially with relatives. But the discussion we had with her mother seems to have done some good. Cupcake says that since then, she’s been super nice about everything, which is probably her way of apologizing. She seems to be thinking about everything we said, and although I expect it to take quite a bit more time, I have high hopes that she’s on her way to acceptance.

A (Not So) New Cause

So, yesterday was a long and exciting day. Among other things, it was my first day at my new job and my first day doing a panel for my university’s Sexual and Gender Diversity Resource Center. What a panel is, for those of you who don’t know, is basically a group of people (in this case LGBTQIAlphabet soup-affiliated people) who sit down in front of a class and answer questions about their experiences. So, I got to come out to a lot of people I don’t know. So about 20 more people know about asexuality now, though I’m not sure how well we explained it. It was a University 101 class, so most of the people there didn’t care too much about it. The focus was mainly on homosexuality rather than asexuality, and to be honest, that’s where it needs to be. When someone comes out as asexual, although people are much less likely to have ever encountered the term before, the reactions that people get are by no means analogous to the extreme hostility that gay people are likely to experience. Although there is certainly a measure of denial and pathologization of asexuals, we are not generally considered to be evil or immoral (even if some people insist we are “rejecting God’s gift”); however invisible we are, we have the advantage of not being demonized, or even suffering from idiotic stereotypes.

Somehow, even in California, an amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage passed. I’m disappointed, but I know there are already people who are taking up that fight. I’ll help out where I can, but it’s not my battle. I’m connected to it, I’m potentially affected by it, but my real concern is with another community that is often forgotten (or even intentionally excluded) by LGB people: the trans community. I have a lot of experience with this community, having had two transgendered significant others (my current is male-to-female), and a number of trans friends over the past six years. I’ve seen what intense anguish they go through, only further intensified by the casual hatred leveled at them on a day-to-day basis (the dehumanizing stares and whispers, the tactless comments, the refusal to even attempt to use the correct pronouns), the institutionalized rejection (most insurance policies won’t cover transsexuals, in many states they can’t get their genders changed on their birth certificates), all on top of the body issues they already have. It’s no wonder there’s such a high suicide rate–I’d be considering it, too, if I were in that position. How can my pithy little (lack of a) sexual orientation even come halfway close to comparing to something as heavy as that?

It’s difficult for me to write about, because I do have such a personal stake in this. But at the same time, I don’t have the experience of actually being transgendered, so I don’t feel I have the authority to speak about trans issues. Still, I really want to do something to help alleviate the pain my girlfriend, my ex, and all my friends (past and present) who are trans have had to deal with, and continue to deal with on a daily basis. I want to do some kind of activism, try to get more people to understand. I want to live to see a day when the newly-elected President will mention transsexuals in his (or her) acceptance speech. I want to see a day when people can show a little compassion.

If I were single, or at least not currently involved with a transgirl, I’d be more than willing to jump right in with the activism (though I admit that strongly wanting to protect her is a huge motivating factor). Since I’m not, there are a lot of real-life complications and logistical problems that I would have to deal with if I did that. I haven’t yet decided if and how and under what circumstances I will be doing any real-life trans activism, but I would like to start writing about what issues I, as a SOFFA (Significant Other/Friend/FAmily member), face due to my association with transgendered people here, at least. It will give me a place to talk about it other than with my girlfriend, and a sense that at least I am doing something to help, if only a little. I also know that there is quite a bit of overlap between the transgender and asexual communities, so perhaps this will be of interest to some of my readers. Next time I will (pick a narrower subject and) go into a little more detail, but for now… This is the kind of issue that’s currently going on in my (suddenly busy) life lately.

On a tangentally related note, I don’t know how I am going to manage this, what with how busy I’ve become lately, but I have been planning to give speech about asexuality to my local QSA, hopefully by next Wednesday. We’ve been having some inclusion issues in that group lately, which perhaps I will talk about later. I’ll report back on how that goes as soon as I can get the time!

Yes, I have a vagina.

And yes, it works.

This weekend, my local QSA had a meet-up, and then we all went out to a popular gay club for a fun night of dancing and drinking (for some). It was supposed to be straight night, but not many straight people showed up. So we had the run of the place, while the few people there who were not from our group mostly just sat around and watched us.

My friends, of course, alcoholics that they are, had me buy them drinks. While I was at the bar with an officer of the group offering an extra set of hands, an older lesbian lady started asking us about our group, where we were from, and whether we were all gay. She pointed at the officer and said, “You’re straight, aren’t you?” He laughed, and said, “How did you know?” (She had probably been watching him dance with his sort-of girlfriend.) Then she pointed at me.

“So what are you?”

“I’m asexual.”

“What!? Are you kidding me!? What’s wrong with you? Do you have a vagina?”

I laughed. It was a reaction I’d come to expect, but it’s not something I can respond to, especially when faced with such a bold, baldfaced, honest reaction. She was quite loud about it, too; I wondered briefly exactly how much more tact she would have shown if she had been sober. There was really no other appropriate response BUT to laugh. She went on about it for a little while longer, and then offered a stuttering apology.

“I’m sorry, that was mean. I’m the last person who should be saying something like that.”

The QSA officer chimed in, “Yeah, we’re all about acceptance here, man.”

Still laughing, I told her it was okay, and then the drinks were ready, so we took them back to the group. I told the other asexual girl (oh yes, there was another one!) what had happened, and we had a good laugh; she wondered if that lady would even remember what asexuality is in the morning. If so, hey, at least one more person knows we exist. If not… oh well.

Anyway, it was really nice to meet a fellow asexual in person, finally. We had a good, long talk about cats, college life, and not having sex. Hopefully later on in the semester, we can co-ordinate an effort to raise visibility from within the QSA. Now that there are at least three of us (there’s another girl around here I’ve been chatting with via email, though she hasn’t been to the QSA), they will probably take us more seriously this year. I’m thinking perhaps I’ll join a panel, and do some tabling on Coming Out Day… However, the group is pretty unorganized, so I’ll probably have to do most of what I want to do by myself. Any suggestions for how to raise awareness, as well as ideas for meet-ups, are quite welcome.

Doesn’t vs. Hasn’t

I was reading a thread on Apositive a while ago about “romantic”/affectional orientation, and it reminded me why I don’t like defining asexuality as “a person who DOESN’T experience sexual attraction.”

I’ve gone through a lot of different identities, with regard to my affectional orientation. I started out assuming I was bisexual, because at the time I thought that most people are actually bi but due to societal pressure never realize it. Later I changed the label to pansexual/omnisexual to reflect my interest in androgynous, and possibly differently-gendered people. Eventually I realized I was equally uninterested in everyone, and began calling myself asexual, pan-romantic.

A little further down the road, as I finally became interested in pursuing romantic relationships, I noticed a definite tendency to be attracted to women more often than men. For a while, I thought I was just pickier about men, or that there simply weren’t enough pretty specimens in my area. But after the pattern persisted for a couple years, I started seriously questioning whether I would ever be comfortable being with a cisgendered man, due to the power imbalance and lack of understanding of queer issues that I perceived such men to have. I wondered if I shouldn’t just start calling myself a functional lesbian.

Then M fell into my lap, and I realized that I was right the first time, I am just pickier about men. Still wondering if that imbalance and the lack of understanding are surmountable obstacles, though.

So, defining orientation based on not having a certain kind of attraction can be really tricky, as the only time it can be fully determined that one doesn’t experience that attraction or whether one simply hasn’t yet, is on one’s deathbed. It’s understandable, then, though still annoying, when people spout that tired old “right person” rhetoric when we tell them we’re asexual.

And then there are asexuals like me, who aren’t sure whether they’ve ever experienced it because they don’t know how to define it, or know that they have but only ever feel it once or twice in so many years, or even if they feel it, still haven’t felt any desire to act on it, ever, and don’t value sexuality enough that they think it probable that they will in the future. I think determining asexuality is a little more complicated than just “Sexual attraction: ON/OFF.” It’s about the interplay of frequency and level of attraction/desire, value placed on sexual activity, societal influence/politics, identification/disidentification, and probably other factors that I’m not thinking of right now (feel free to throw out suggestions, guys). Lack of sexual attraction is widely touted as the single factor uniting all asexuals, but that’s not really true. The real factor that unites asexuals is identification, which is the result of all these other factors working together.

But I have problems with that idea, too, because it implies that if you don’t identify as asexual at any point in you’re life, then you’re not asexual at that point. I’ve always been asexual. We have to keep in mind that these are terms used to describe ourselves, not terms that necessarily define ourselves. I’ve always known I wasn’t interested in sex, but at different points in my life, my interpretation of that lack of interest has changed. In my youth, I didn’t consider it a significant factor in determining my orientation, but as I got older it became more and more a point of difference between myself and my peers, and as my mindset “solidified,” less and less likely that I would suddenly become interested.

Now, actually, I am interested, but not because I feel any desire to get jiggy with it myself. I just like finding out what it means to other people, because I’m fascinated by personal differences, and want to learn to relate to other people in a way that can include sex. I know I can do it, and I know I can even enjoy it. I want to find out where my limits are, and push my boundaries a little. I want to figure out ways that I can comfortably compromise, and explore different forms of intimacy.

Ultimately, I think it’s all about mindset. That’s not to say that all asexuals have the same mindset, because of course it varies wildly, but there are a lot of similarities with the ultimate result that we all identify as asexual. I could possibly identify as either asexual or hyposexual, but I make the choice to identify as asexual. There are also a lot of potentially asexual people who don’t realize that they have that option, probably because they haven’t heard of it or thought about it much.

What Does It Mean to Have a Sexual Identity?

For all its ancient, primal beginnings, sexual orientation is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Perhaps “phenomenon” isn’t the right word. What I mean is, the concept of sexual orientation, as we understand it today, is relatively recent. The word “sex” was coined sometime in the sixteenth century, at which time the word was specific to male/female interactions, which were of course the norm. It wasn’t until 1868 that the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” were invented, by a group of Germans speaking out against a proposed “unnatural fornication” law which would prohibit any non-reproductive sexual act. If you’d like to read more about this, check out The Invention of Heterosexuality by Jonathan Ned Katz. Or, for those of you with short attention spans, you can find a much briefer history here.

Now, obviously, for as long as there have been people, they’ve been populating the earth by having sex. But in different cultures and time periods, ideas about sex have varied wildly. Even within a single culture, there are plenty of groups of people with differing ideas—today, we have throwbacks to a more religious era believing that sex is wrong outside of marriage, as well as people who celebrate their freedom to have unattached sex. But the concept of sexuality, this idea that all one’s sexual deeds and desires and whatever else create a definable whole, some basic instinct to have sex with x kind of people from which so many other things sprout, has only been around for a little more than a century. Continue reading