Are Asexuals Queer?
I don’t know.
I lean toward saying “queer” is subjective–both for the people dictating who should use the label and for those identifying that way.
We’ve all seen the queer community represented by “LGBT,” or perhaps “LGBTQQIA,” and some of us have even seen “QUILTBAG,” but . . . hey, do any of those A’s stand for ASEXUALITY? In this alphabet soup of sexuality, some like to claim that certain people are not qualified to claim the letter of their choice, and one of those arguments is that asexuals–especially aromantic or heteroromantic asexuals–can’t be “queer.”
This is troubling because a LOT of asexual people relate to what they think of as queerness. Despite that, many people have drawn a line in the sand and said that asexual people who use the label “queer” are co-opting the gay and/or trans identity. Regardless of whether the term “queer” represents asexual folks in an objective or subjective sense, I think what’s important is that everyone on both sides of the argument gets some understanding of where the other side is coming from. So, without saying yea or nay to the question itself, I’d like to examine the arguments both for and against asexual people using the word “queer.”
Let’s start with a definition. The problem, ultimately, is that “queer” is the mack daddy of vague terms. It’s an umbrella term, and it can apply to gender as well as sexual orientation. In its broadest sense, “queer” is said to be anything that is not the status quo in that area; someone who is not heterosexual can be sexually queer, while a person who has no gender or is between benders or fluctuates between genders might want to identify as genderqueer. And though it can be a controversial term because it’s also used as an insult sometimes, most queer people of various stripes feel it is a positive word. But since it is such a broad term that everyone seems to use a bit differently, this argument may be over before it opens. If we can’t exactly define “what is queer,” we don’t really have any litmus test by which to determine what ISN’T.
So if it’s not well defined in the first place, why are some queer people up in arms about who can use it? (If you think they aren’t, you don’t live on the Internet.) What do asexual people need to know about why some queer friends feel they don’t have the right to use that term?
For the asexual people
Regardless of whether they identify with queerness, asexual people do need to recognize that if they are heteroromantic or aromantic, they may be more likely to be assumed straight (unless they have other outward signifiers that lead some people to assuming they are not straight), and if they are assumed straight, they are probably afforded some modicum of straight privilege–an argument that also comes up often when gay people discuss bisexual people. Like many privileged people, most people experiencing straight privilege don’t see what it’s done for them, and may downplay, dismiss, or misrepresent the experiences of people who deal with oppression, listing prejudicial or discriminatory or just plain negative experiences as on par with more explicit oppressive ones. Some members of the queer community who more regularly experience oppression because of their orientation may bristle at the thought of queer-identified people who have never been attacked over the relationships they choose, especially if there is a perception that certain asexual people can belong with queer OR non-queer populations depending on their choice.
Our society often looks at people as if they are straight until proven gay, and if you are a cisgender asexual person in a hetero relationship or in no relationship, you are more likely to never face homophobia or transphobia. (Being targeted for one of these phobias when it does NOT describe you is a different story entirely, and is hurtful in a different way–as some aromantic or heteroromantic asexual people who are frequently mistaken for gay or trans may tell you–but if you are nearly always processed as cis and straight, this is not your experience to define or describe.) And while I’m sure most queer people would rather not define the experience of queerness primarily around the amount or type of oppression they experience, it is undeniable that a certain alienation, instilled shame, and institutionalized persecution is part of the LGBT package deal. If you do not experience these things but you still want the fellowship and community of queer folks, it isn’t surprising that some insiders may automatically see you as an interloper. As an asexual person, you have your own difficulties, but their point is that your difficulties aren’t THEIR difficulties. Some may want their spaces to only be for those who are perceived to have their difficulties.
So, if you’re an asexual person who is not trans and does not pursue same-sex (or perceived to be same-sex) relationships, and you want queer people to acknowledge you as one of their number, please try to acknowledge that they may believe you to be usurping their identity and dominating their resources. Be gentle about reminding them that if you haven’t had their experience, you’re not claiming to share it. Be aware that your experience, while possibly also oppressive, isn’t theirs, and they may be of the opinion that the queer community is only for those who do have those specific experiences. You may have some luck getting them to understand why you’re there if you emphasize why you also are excluded from full participation in society because of heteronormative expectations, and try to participate as a member (rather than an ally) in organizations and groups that acknowledge queerness as far more than being hurt in a specific way.
For the non-asexual queer people
However, on the other side, LGBTQ people do need to understand that asexual folks are not the same as straight people who aren’t having sex. They indeed don’t experience specifically gay oppression (unless they are homoromantic/biromantic/panromantic asexual folks or somewhere on the gray/demisexual spectrum attracted to the same sex), but they are not having the heterosexual experience either–even if they are heteroromantic. Shaking off society’s abuse is often about pride for a gay person, but for an asexual person, it’s about just being visible and validated. Asexual people can also be trans, and many of us are. Similarly, trans folks don’t have all the same problems as same-gender-attracted folks, but there is some acknowledgment that there is overlap and that their problems come from similar places–and that there is help and comfort to be had from banding together. Asexual people are in that same boat much of the time.
Asexual people aren’t classically persecuted for being asexual; by and large, the message they get from society is that they do not exist and that there is no way to feel what they do without being damaged or sick. It’s not an experience of outward oppression so much as it’s an experience of omission. Aromantic asexual people get to go through life with non-ace queer and non-queer populations alike making certain assumptions about their failure to couple up, and romantic asexual people are repeatedly sent messages about how dysfunctional their relationships must be if sex isn’t involved–this might even come from the heteroromantic asexual person’s partner(s).
And it’s understandable that asexual people get upset if they’re told their experience is analogous to a straight person’s experience by members of the gay community. Gay people who experience typical sexual attraction don’t know what it’s like to be asexual or why it’s alienating enough to want to belong somewhere. They may not know what it’s like to be honest about one’s orientation only to be told such a thing isn’t real, isn’t happening, isn’t possible. It is an insidious form of silencing, and erasure can be damaging just like outright violence and oppression can be.
Non-asexual LGBTQ people are sometimes subjected to this cruel message as well–which can result in a person defaulting to self-hate or self-doubt because of the abundant messages from outside–so it should be fairly easy to generalize the concept even if the message of “you are bad” is not the same as the message of “you don’t exist.” Same-gender-attracted and trans people also have a lot of common ground with asexual people in that they both can have coming-out experiences and both sometimes receive misguided messages that they need therapy, haven’t met the right cross-sex partner, or are going against/failing to fulfill an obligation in their religion.
So, it’s important to remember that “not-gay” does not equal “straight”–a battle bisexual and pansexual people fight as well within their own communities. Asexual people are subjected to many assumptions about their sexuality that can easily wear down their self-esteem and force them to question whether they can trust their own feelings, and–this is key–asexuality is rarer than homosexuality (though more common, it is thought, than transgender identity), so it is helpful to give asexual people access to community. It is damaging and erasing to tell asexual people that experiencing straight privilege (and assuming they must be doing so) is really the same as being straight. It’s as misleading as suggesting that transgender people are no longer affected by transphobia and have no right to belong to a queer group if they personally are universally mistaken for cis.
If an asexual person is saying “I’m queer,” acknowledge that “I’m not heteronormative in my sexuality” is a valid experience of queerness. If you are an LGBTQ person with a stricter definition of what queer means, you may have trouble opening the arms of your queer community to a person who ISN’T gay or trans, but if you can try to understand each asexual person’s reason for identifying as queer, you may find that some of them belong under your umbrella.
That said, at the end of the day we shouldn’t get too hung up on becoming the Label Police. Labels are essentially tools we use to communicate with each other, and if you encounter someone who is using a label in a way you don’t agree with, perhaps the only helpful statement you can make is “Oh, that confused me because I always thought X meant ABC.” (It’s not helpful to say “NO, X only means ABC, so if you’re D, go over there.” D is likely to have some reason for feeling they belong to X.) If D frequently finds that identifying as X makes people think ABC, it may be necessary to re-evaluate the purpose of using that label. But if YOU frequently find that people are expecting you to be open to ABCD when they identify as X, you may want to revise your conception of what it means to be X. Deciding whether you identify with the word “queer”–or whether someone else counts as “queer” to you–may really be more about deciding whether “queer” necessitates same-gender attraction or non-cis gender identity–or whether it can mean “not straight.”
Some asexual people don’t feel they are queer. I’m asexual, and if I want to be more specific I say I’m aromantic and asexual. I don’t frequently feel the need to be more vague. But I do think that asexual people make sense as part of the QUILTBAG, and I do think it’s important for the larger, more visible LGBTQ community to recognize that we aren’t some equivalent of straight people who don’t want sex. Asexual people are also fighting for recognition, legitimacy, and tolerance, and some of us do feel that fighting the same or analogous battles means we could use some space under that umbrella. I think the real answer here is that with such a broadly understood term, there should be room in it for everyone who identifies with a non-normative sexual orientation or gender, but I also think it’s important for everyone who uses it to understand why they’re using it, and to be aware above all that it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.
What a queer thought, eh?