Cinderella by Default: Queering the Narrative

I’m taking an American Sign Language class right now. I’ve always thought it would be cool to learn ASL, but in the past several years it has become especially pertinent, because I now have a family member who uses some ASL, due to being autistic and mostly non-verbal. I’ve also found it helpful to use basic signs to communicate with my partner at night, since (without getting into medical details) both of us have some issues that can make it painful to speak that tend to flare up at night. There are a lot of benefits to learning a gestural language, and I’ve been enjoying it a lot.

We had a group assignment recently to perform a funny short skit. We could do whatever we wanted as long as it wasn’t inappropriate or anything, but the teacher strongly suggested fairy tales as something that would likely be the easiest.

“Let’s do Cinderella!” one of my group members said.

“Yeah! I’ll be one of the stepsisters!” She pointed to me. “Elizabeth can be Cinderella!”

“Huh? Wait, why me?”

“You’d be perfect for it! You’re blonde,” she reasoned. Continue reading

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.

“Asexual” as a Pejorative

A little while ago, I was googling aimlessly and stumbled upon this little gem of a blog post, wherein the author tries to insult Barack Obama by calling him asexual. I laughed. It’s almost precious, isn’t it? The feeble attempt to smear him using a word that she doesn’t even know the definition of… I can hardly imagine that a grown woman wrote this. I feel like I’m reading something written by a catty fourteen-year-old girl, except about politicians instead of her classmates. If that’s all the McCain camp can come up with, well. That’s pretty sad.

I don’t know about you guys, but if Obama really were asexual, that’d make me more likely to vote for him, not less. After all, if he’s not distracted by scandalous sexual affairs, then theoretically he’d be more likely to actually get some work done.

But still. It got me thinking about non-asexuals using the word “asexual” as an insult—a pretty rare phenomena, but one that may gradually become more common as awareness of asexuality spreads. Obviously, it’s not something we want to happen, but to some extent it’s inevitable. Rather than getting upset about it, we should take advantage at least of the fact that people are now starting to mention asexuality, by listening to what they say and learning what they think it means, and why they think it’s bad.

With this particular example, the closest approximation I can come up with for what this person thinks asexuality is, is some form of emasculation, possibly an intersex condition or the state of being a eunuch, or maybe just impotence in general. Maybe she thought she was coining a term herself, or maybe she’s heard of asexuality before and is just severely misguided about its definition. Either way, asexuality here is conflated with gender. Why?

Well, apparently for men, gender identity is closely connected with virility. Because if you’re not interested in sex, guys, then you must be a woman. (Right, cause that makes so much sense… and WHY EXACTLY is it an insult to call a man woman-like anyway, hmmm???) There’s something wrong with you, you’re not fulfilling your proper societal role, which I guess is to be horny all the time. (Whereas women are supposed to be… what, exactly? She can’t be implying that women are asexual, can she? Maybe they are supposed to be gossipy and shallow.)

Here we see a very definite sexual-normative prejudice as well as a distinct anti-homosexual bias. She may be too batty to make much of an impact, but that’s basically the kind of attitude we’re up against. Coming from someone more mainstream, it could very well hurt the community.

So I’m trying to think, now, of any other time I’ve heard “asexual” used as an insult. The only thing I can come up with is an episode of House from season four, during the survivor arc, wherein one of the contestants complains about Ridiculously Old Fraud’s favor with House. I remember it because after it aired, M (obnoxiously) pointed out that “they bashed asexuals!” With a little help from the saved convo and ctrl + find, I was able to find the exact quote (the episode, btw, is “Guardian Angels”):

“Why does he get to be Bosley?”
“You want to be Bosley? Bosley’s like the asexual messenger boy.”

But other than that… I can’t think of any other times I’ve heard “asexual” used as a pejorative. Of course I’ve heard people imply that it’s bad, but not specifically use it as an insult. If any of you guys can think of any other times when you’ve heard it used that way, please do comment, because I’d love to get a better idea of why these people think it’s insulting! Plus it’s always amusing to see people try to make an insult out of a label we wear proudly. ;)