[Content Note: Brief discussion of biphobia/inaccurate stereotypes about bisexual people which my dad apparently believes/believed, mentions of conservative Judaism and Christianity, and general discussion of heteronormativity, the gender binarist world we live in, etc. I am a 26-year-old cis female, non-libidoist, aromantic/wtfromantic asexual from the USA.]
Last night, a discussion about how it feels like most of the aces I meet in the local meetup group are either non-religious, or Jewish, transformed into me mentioning to my dad that one of my friends (friendly acquaintances?) whom I met last year at an ace meetup was raised in a conservatively Jewish home. This meant, actually, that when she came out to her parents as bisexual, it didn’t go well, and that’s why she still hasn’t felt like coming out to them as ace.
I was explaining that she thought she was bisexual before she realized she was asexual, and my dad was really surprised.
That concept was difficult to wrap his mind around, because “it was like she went from hypersexual to non-sexual”. It seemed my dad was wondering how anyone could be so confused?! How could they jump around so much with their thoughts on their sexuality?
And I cocked my head at him. I shot him a look, surprised by his reaction for multiple reasons. Yes, I was surprised by his unchecked belief that bisexual people are all hypersexual. (Hadn’t he watched that ABC Family TV show Chasing Life with me? If that kind of bisexual representation didn’t help him imagine a world where some bisexual people have a pretty average-seeming sex drive, I’m not sure anything would’ve.) And the first thing I said was that that was not an accurate idea of what bisexuality really is. But the other thing that jumped to my mind was… Oh. For all that we talk about, for all that I try to discuss with my family, when it comes to nuanced issues it takes me a long time sometimes to really get around to bringing them up. I only recently tried to explain queerplatonic relationships to them, right around when I started to consider entering into one, really!!
And even now, I don’t think I’ve told anyone other than the people at the ace meetup group and also everyone who reads my posts on the internet that I had multiple fleeting instances of questioning if I might be bi. I explained to my dad something broader, but my own personal experience with it didn’t make it into the conversation. Maybe I’ll find a way to bring it up soon.
What I said to my dad was that actually, it was a pretty common narrative in the ace community for people to think they were bi before coming to the conclusion that they were ace. That I might’ve thought I was straight-by-default, but some people kind of think they’re bi-by-default, because if they really aren’t attracted to either gender, equally, then they feel the same way toward both genders, and that can be easily interpreted by someone who doesn’t know asexuality is a possibility as “I must be bi”.
My dad immediately seemed receptive to the idea and understood. I continued to try to explain that it was certainly complicated. That asexuality describes two differing phenomenons, who/which gender you’re attracted to (no one/none of them) and/or how you’re attracted to people (which I think I clumsily over-simplified saying something like: such a low degree that you are close enough to be ace). My dad asked, “So you can be 10% gay and 90% asexual?” and I said yes, that is one way it can play out. He seemed to be getting what I was saying.
I explained that honestly thinking you’re straight first, thinking you’re bi first, or thinking you’re gay first are all common narratives, actually, and I didn’t even get around to bringing up romantic orientation or gray-asexuality in this particular conversation. It’s hard for me, sometimes, to organize my thoughts during an impromptu, in-person conversation. I find it often is easier to realize what I should’ve said later, perhaps when writing a blog post… lol. I’m much more comfortable trying to parse out my thoughts in this kind of format, writing. I will try to talk about all this more with him, soon. But being essentially aromantic and asexual myself, sometimes it’s easier to just let those things be lumped together in conversations, especially with people so close to me like my father, people who my main goal is that they understand how I experience my life and for whom general asexual education/understanding/visibility is only a secondary goal.
But back to the whole… “all” 3 options of sexual orientations being common narratives for what identity aces think they are before they understand “hey, wait, asexuality exists” (and sometimes even when they first know it exists but before they truly understand what it means)… well that ties into gender norms for sure! So why not write a Carnival of Aces post on the topic.
Sometimes people can TELL they’re bucking heteronormativity. They can TELL the gender norms set out for them – for instance, if they’re a cis woman, that they should be unable to think clearly around hot/dreamy guys – are actually not something they’re living up to. Some of these people label themselves “unsexual” or “not interested” or even “asexual” without knowing a community existed, or did label themselves that way BEFORE the community existed. But other people assume “hmm, if I’m a man and I don’t agree about how amazing seeing near-naked women in movies is, I must be gay”. These people feel the gender norms, feel themselves breaking them, and conclude “homosexual” as the only option they really have heard of for why/how anyone would be breaking this particular heteronormative gender norm.
Other people also feel themselves not living up to heteronormative standards, but, like me, very quickly feel sure they AREN’T gay. Gay narratives, as far as I knew, include obsessive thinking about your same-gender friends in sexual ways, about strong feelings you can’t repress toward the same gender, so strong that you might worry you’re going to go to hell for sinful thoughts… that wasn’t my story. I knew that. I had more of a framework for what a gay man would be experiencing than a lesbian, but still. I felt pretty confident that since I couldn’t really feel any pull at all toward the idea of seeing a woman naked, of pressing my lips toward another woman’s in a kiss, etc… I couldn’t be a lesbian. A true lesbian would be feeling these things, wouldn’t she?
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I might not be straight on two separate occasions. I remember sitting in Biology class in high school, 10th grade/sophomore year, and realizing I really liked a female friend. Realizing that while there was nothing sexual about my thoughts, what I actually felt toward her – actually, toward multiple female friends of mine whom I felt pretty close to – were probably the same kinds of thoughts I felt toward any guy I “liked”. That maybe, just maybe, this might mean I was bi. It was barely an option on my radar – no one was even “out” as gay at my school, and homosexuality was on some TV shows by then but not bisexuality – but a part of me, deep down, already knew I was different. The much stronger part of my mind was still sure if I really liked girls, in either a bisexual OR a lesbian way, I’d be unsatisfied though with our friendships not including touching/kissing/etc, that I’d be “longing” for that kind of thing, and so I… dismissed the idea, and assumed I must still be straight.
I did long for my first kiss with a guy, you see. I had a mental block when I thought about anyone’s naked body, I definitely had the opposite of desire to be sexual with people or to see them sexual, definitely had no fantasies, but I believed that a kiss… once I finally experienced it, I’d understand. I believed that when you are so lucky as to kiss a guy you like, it’ll feel amazing, you’ll feel chemistry and a rush in your chest and it’ll just be something you want to do again.
My dad also even volunteered, himself, by the end of that conversation we had, the thought that if a person wasn’t so quick to assume everyone was straight, if someone was raised really open-minded… well, yeah he understood now how someone might think they were bi before realizing they were asexual. I was so glad he was understanding my point. I still feel like I could’ve said so much more at the time, but I had not yet properly organized all my thoughts the way I’ve just done, above, in this blog post.
Amatonormativity was ingrained in me my whole life, yes. From all sorts of sides. My (abusive) mom was one person who would certainly enforce it. “When you get married, I don’t want you to invite your father,” she’d say. (Because she hated him so much, she didn’t care about what I’d want.) Or when I asked not to be Confirmed Catholic at age 14, she said “you don’t have to get Confirmed, but it might be nice to belong to a church for when you get married.” (Really odd she said that seeing as my mother married a Jewish man and therefore wasn’t allowed to get married in her own Catholic church.) Or, “I want you to play this song – “The Way You Look Tonight” by Frank Sinatra – at your wedding.”
These are all specific to “the event” of a wedding, not just amatonormativity in general, but I believed it. I remember feeling like hmm, maybe I’ll play that song at my wedding. Because I thought I would have a wedding. I also remember thinking that there was no way in a million years my dad would be denied an invitation to my wedding!
I wanted that life, it seemed like it’d be a happy future. I loved stories about falling in love, about how special it is to find that one person you want to marry, etc. I believed being gay was okay, even if it wasn’t me, but even gay people could get this whole experience – the excitement that comes with kisses, with falling in love, etc.
I remember being older, in college, and like I have mentioned in a previous blog post, realizing I was just as obsessed with a female actress (Kristen Bell) as I was with a male actor (Milo Ventimiglia), that I might even find I appreciate how beautiful she was more than I care about how attractive the man was. I remember wondering if maybe I was just jealous of how she looked, especially in pretty dresses on the red carpet or all dressed up for interviews. I remember wondering if it was “normal” for a straight person to feel just as passionately (if not more so??) for a female celebrity as a guy, and again the word bi flickered through my mind as an option. But ultimately, I dismissed the notion. I couldn’t actually have any active same-sex desire toward women, it would be more obvious, I wouldn’t be so confused, wouldn’t even need to ask. (I refused to let myself consider the option that I had no opposite-sex attraction — I didn’t know about non-binary genders at the time. I didn’t really know it was a real possibility for human beings to have sexual attraction (or romantic attraction, which I also didn’t know about at the time) toward no one. So it was logical – if I’m not attracted to women sexually, I must be straight.
Part of what added to my confusion over what orientations to identify with, even after I realized I was asexual, was that society had raised me to think differently about guys vs. girls/women. Growing up, and yes into adulthood, the world I knew was an oversimplified gender binary, where everyone who has reached puberty is assumed to be heterosexual, a girls locker room vs. a guys locker room, as a cis-woman your roommates in college are going to be female, etc. The typical person, as young as possible for children to begin to make their own choices but even into adulthood, gravitates toward making friends only with people of the same gender. There is no clear distinction drawn for me between “I have positive feelings toward this boy because I have a crush on him” and “I have positive feelings toward this boy for the exact same, completely platonic reasons I have positive feelings toward some girls”. Books, movies, TV shows, even popular songs on the radio paint the picture that if a girl and a guy are friends, sooner or later it’ll probably lead to romance/kissing(/sex is implied) and a happily ever after.
This message is harmful even to straight people, yes. We should be embracing all the possibilities of how life plays out for people instead of having this narrow view. Guys and girls can’t have a slumber party for fear they’ll turn it sexual, but same-gender slumber parties are safe because of heteronormative thinking? This is ridiculous and paints a view of the world that is inaccurate and harmful to everyone. Throw in the multitude of horrible things this world does to trans people, and I mean gosh. We all need to be fighting to make a change, and I’m not even sure where to start.
But on tumblr, lately, it seems there have been more rounds of that “Are Aces Queer?” question, fights have started up again. This is frustrating to me, because I think a lot of people see the options as queer vs. straight, and therefore if the answer is no, then that means aces are straight.
The most important part of identifying as asexual, to me, is the knowledge that I AM NOT STRAIGHT. How can this be so controversial? “a”-sexual implies I’m different than the other __-sexual identities. I am not heterosexual. I am a cis-woman, but I am defying gender norms, not by being a woman who wants to/does date other women, but by interacting with men in an entirely different way than I am expected to interact with them.
A new female acquaintance of mine, while trying to bond with me, while being friendly, recently tried to get me to check out her favorite TV show by yes, mentioning the good plot, but then also saying “And the actors are very nice on the eyes, if you know what I’m saying. ;)”
And yes. I do know what she’s saying. And I feel asexual – I feel different – the moment she says it. She doesn’t know I’m ace. She’s assuming things about me… and these things are false. Because I don’t “know” what she’s saying in the sense that I too relate to that amazing feeling of filling your TV screen with hot men and taking in all the sexiness. I only understand the gist of what she’s saying because yes, I understand heteronormative expectations and gender norms in our society. I have lived in it for enough years. But to me, my experience of asexuality means she could’ve just as well been a male acquaintance nudging me playfully with his elbow as he says the female actress being super attractive or even getting rude in the new rated R movie is a reason we should go see it together, something I cannot see a heterosexual man ever seriously doing with a woman. Maybe if he actively understood her to have same-gender attraction, because she was out as a lesbian or bisexual to him, but even then most heterosexual guys do not bond with the women-who-love-women in their lives in that manner.
How asexuality and heteronormative gender expectations interact can be complicated in other ways too. I legitimately had convinced myself that most women were demisexual prior to even knowing that word. Or maybe it was society, the world around me, that had convinced me. I thought I was probably a pretty average woman, who couldn’t care less about “getting laid” because — duh — female. I thought men are horny, and unless a woman is atypical and “hypersexual”, perhaps, the woman would just enjoy sex once it’s happening, and yes that is pretty different than how demisexuality is defined, but I think I also believed that women who find their partners all sexy, female characters in TV shows and movies or female singers in love-themed popular music, that they had these feelings of wanting to touch, of not being able to stop thinking about sexual things or sensual things etc, because the person was their romantic partner. I only ever really thought casual sex outside of the confines of a romantic relationship was something that could be enjoyable for the average man, and that a woman who did it was… was either not enjoying it, or was really far from the norm of what a straight woman is typically like in terms of how she experiences her sexuality. I had all sorts of these thoughts, and assumed I’d want sex when the time came, once I was in a committed romantic relationship, once I did fall in love, etc.
And I know I would’ve conceptualized all of this differently if I hadn’t clearly seen myself as a girl/woman. I was using my own 100% non-libidoist, very asexual experience, and even how my aromanticsm plays into my experiences, and projecting this onto how women, in general, must actually be. I assumed “I’m pretty normal”, and therefore whatever my experience was must be pretty normal too. If what I was being taught by my society was that adult, sexually active, women are happy and interested in sex, and if I am still pretty young, inexperienced, not sexually active, and not at all interested in sex, then my reasoning process led me to the flawed conclusion that I would one day, under certain circumstances, be like all of those other women.
I feel confident that if I hadn’t learned about asexuality as early as I had, or if I’d experienced my first kiss sooner (or both), that I would’ve started reconsidering all these things I’d assumed were true, that I would’ve started to realize how “not typical” I was in terms of how women usually feel in sexual situations with men, and I probably would’ve thought I was a lesbian. I feel confident of this because my very first thought when I had my first kiss (with a guy, when I was 22 and had briefly learned of asexuality’s existence 2 years prior) was “this must be what kissing the wrong gender – or maybe someone like a sibling (pretty much anyone who you have reasons to have less than zero chemistry with) – feels like”. I just knew enough from gay narratives in the media to know that whatever it was I was feeling had to have a lot in common with that. With “trying to be straight” not working (because similar to a gay or lesbian person, I am also not straight!!).
That is certainly part of why I really like explaining asexuality to people as “the way a straight person doesn’t find the same-gender attractive, and the way a gay-person doesn’t find the opposite-gender attractive? Yeah? You understand/accept this premise? Well that’s exactly how an asexual finds neither attractive.” It’s just… exactly how it feels, to me.
I’m not necessarily defying any gender norms because I’m asexual, although I might be. I’m not necessarily doing things like trying to be less sexy because you don’t want to be seen in a sexual manner. But I feel like, at least in this post, I’ve argued a different point than the direction a lot of people took this month’s carnival of aces. I’m a cis woman, yes, but simply by existing as an (aro) ace woman, that alone is enough to defy gender norms. That defies (heteronromative) expectations of how women should feel, at the very least, and feelings translate in both small and large ways into behaviors, such as how we interact with television, who we do (or don’t) date, etc.
That’s part of why I feel really confused and torn now that I have a queerplatonic partner who is a cis guy. This is all a new experience for me, and I didn’t really see it coming. I wasn’t actively seeking it. But it’s here. It’s happened. And it’s wonderful, I love our relationship. If we call each other friends (or really close friends, or best friends) when describing ourselves to other people, they might not appreciate how much certain aspects of our relationship feel, to both of us, like we’re dating. In a way, calling my queerplatonic partner “my friend” now in a casual sentence with an acquaintance who has never met him feels “wrong”, feels “off”, feels like I’m fibbing.
Then again, if he calls me his girlfriend, or if I call him my boyfriend, people are going to make heteronormative assumptions about who were are as people. I know bisexual people and biromantic and YES, even heteroromantic aces deal with this conundrum too. Just because you’re in a relationship that “appears straight” doesn’t mean you are straight. And to me, my asexuality (& aromanticsm) is such a big part of my identity. There is often a huge part of me that loves coming out as asexual to new people, who experiences it as exciting. I first get to a point where I feel comfortable enough with the person I’m about to come out to to take that risk. And it’s a bit nerve-wracking, sure, to watch with bated breath for how they are reacting, but it’s mainly a positive thing, and I’m always optimistic about how they will react, because I am someone who has had almost-entirely positive coming-out experiences. (Yes, my social circles are amazingly progressive/liberal/open-minded/etc.)
And now, having a queerplatonic partner, it becomes relevant. If I say “I have a boyfriend” or say nothing (or just call my qpp my friend), people will keep on assuming I’m straight – because of heteronormativity, because the way in which I dress/cut my hair/etc doesn’t defy typical female gender roles in any way that people associate with queer people, because asexuality is an invisible orientation. But if I’m in a casual conversation, and a certain type of brief story from my own life becomes relevant to bring up, it’s often a good opportunity to explain the person I’m mentioning in the story is “my queerplatonic partner”, and then that is now a new way for me to broach the topic of coming out as aromantic asexual. I really like how that feels, it’s comfortable, it’s honest.
If I had a female queerplatonic partner and said “my girlfriend”, or had a non-binary queerplatonic partner and said “my partner” in a general sense or any of a number of other potential words, I would probably be assumed to be a lesbian because of invisibility of other identities, too. I don’t know how that would feel to live that life. I haven’t experienced that kind of thing. There’s a part of me that wonders if it might feel just as wrong as if people assume I am straight. There’s another part of me that wonders if I might at least appreciate being seen as non-straight, even if they didn’t actually understand what “flavor of queer” I was.
But yeah. This was a really long post. Sorry, I just had a lot of thoughts on this topic. I think I’ve said everything I really wanted to say before this month’s Carnival ended.
All of this has to do with the ways gender and asexuality interact for me.
Does any of this resonate with you? Please let me know in the comments below!