I need to bury this
Topics related to asexual identity are important to me, but I find it hard to talk about them now, and I feel like I need to explain why before I just shut up about these things again for a while.
I started sharing my experiences as an asexual person on Tumblr because I didn’t consistently have access to spaces outside the internet where I could discuss those experiences with people who would understand them, and because I was still emerging from a very real crisis of identity that had led me to identify myself as asexual in the first place. I had already tried participating in AVEN, but the format of an internet forum didn’t appeal to me, and more importantly, the moderator culture of AVEN around 2011-2012 was becoming more tolerant of bigoted speech that harmed many members of the community and less tolerant of people expressing their frustrations with it. So I started hanging out with aces on Tumblr instead, because the format was more free-form, because the community there was more invested in understanding their experiences and needs as inextricably connected to those of broader LGBT+ communities.
At first the Tumblr ace community was just a really positive place for me to be. But then things very rapidly changed. The tags we used to communicate started becoming clogged up with niche varieties of porn (dinosaur porn, even) posted by trolls trying to make sex-repulsed members of the community uncomfortable. They would also run fake ace blogs filled with inflammatory statements. This stuff was an obstacle to productive community-building, but it was usually more of an annoyance than anything, if you could manage to filter out content that was personally upsetting.
But there was another emerging trend of discussion that had a much bigger impact on the way we in the ace community conceived of ourselves. Around the same time, a number of non-asexual-spectrum LGB people started to make frequent commentary in these same spaces about the way they regarded asexual people in relation to LGBT+ communities, and though I don’t want to oversimplify all the many things they said in community discussions, I can identify a few dominant themes in what they said. Some of them were there to complain that asexual people were appropriating elements of LGB culture to describe essentially privileged experiences. Some were there to argue that asexual identities and terminology, or certain subsets thereof (demisexuality in particular) had inherent and inescapable elements of sex-shaming, and were therefore harmful to LGB people.
The problem with these discussions was not that they were happening, but that they were conducted in a way that tended to disrupt conversations about personal experience. It became impossible to share a story about personal experiences with the Tumblr ace community without risking it being circulated by people attacking asexual terminology in reblogs or misleadingly paraphrased on a meme blog that had the stated purpose of exposing homophobia in the ace community. It could happen just because you mentioned being uncomfortable around the sex-related discussions your friends were having, or because you described the act of disclosing your asexual identity as “coming out”.
All this scrutiny had a pretty negative impact on the way I reacted to casually oppressive behavior within the community. Before all the conflict in the community started, seeing (for example) a casually ableist or heterosexist comment in the Tumblr ace community was a signal to me that we needed to have a dialog about those things, because ableism and heterosexism impact me and other aces personally and those issues need to be resolved to make spaces safe for all of us. But when the conflict was at its peak I started to see these moments not as opportunities to improve my community, but as anxiety-provoking bad omens. It was hard to get past the anxiety that anything an asexual person said in the community could be used against me, and get to actually addressing what was said.
I ended up arguing a lot, even though I was refusing to take a position on some of the major arguments of the time. I didn’t care to argue whether an asexual identity gave one the right to use the reclaimed slur q***r to describe oneself, or whether it was right for asexual people to describe their experiences as experiences of oppression. Mostly I just argued that asexual identities were not inherently harmful toward non-asexual LGB people; that asexual people naturally needed words to describe their experiences; that non-asexual people should be careful about making blanket statements about a marginalized group of people they aren’t part of; and that asexual people do actually face inappropriate pathologization, invalidation, and various forms of hostility for being asexual, whether or not those experiences amount to a discrete form of oppression within or related to heterosexism. In short I felt I had to defend the right of the asexual community to exist and define itself. It was exhausting, because despite the community being relatively small, there was suddenly no end to these arguments.
And sometimes things just went beyond reason; sometimes non-asexual people in these discussions would drop the gauntlet and outright say that “asexuals are creepy” and deserve to be fired or denied the chance to adopt children. I was especially upset by some of the reactions to the Trevor Project (a suicide prevention hotline for LGBT+ youth) soliciting training materials on serving young asexual callers in an affirming way. There were a number of people who said, at the time, that they were outraged by this decision, that it was proof that asexual people were stealing LGBT resources or encouraging LGB youth to deny their true experiences by “hiding” in an asexual identity. It was hard not to read these complaints as showing a literal disregard for the lives of asexual youth. A suicide prevention hotline had just updated its training to better serve a wider population of at-risk youth and people were saying that was a problem. It was after reading those conversations that I posted a quote from the asexuality training materials provided to the Trevor Project to Tumblr, just to show exactly what was in them in the hope that people would stop complaining about an organization trying to reach out to suicidal asexual youth.
It’s weird how much the little things can add up to a lot of pain. Around the time all this crap was going on I made a short personal post on Tumblr, not connected to any ongoing debate I had participated in, where I just remarked on how I’d always felt comfortable around peers of mine who shared the experience of personal disconnection from dominant heterosexual/cisgender culture, as far back as elementary school, even though I wasn’t cognizant of that being a factor in my connection to them until they later disclosed that they were trans or gay. And my post or a screenshot or quote from it appeared on a blog that existed largely just to showcase posts by ace (or furry or otherkin) bloggers with sardonic tags. I think they tagged my post with, “#I’m q***r because I was raised by q***rs in the wild.” If that isn’t the exact wording it’s very close. I didn’t respond to it that the time, because I chose to look at this blog I knew might be snarking at me, so I felt at fault for how much that upset me. But I feel like I probably shouldn’t have to explain why it was invalidating to read a comment like that after sharing that I had recognized in my own life the widespread experience of LGBT+ youth finding each other, even without the terminology or experience to fully express their identities. It isn’t nearly the worst thing that’s been said to me, but it stuck with me for a while and just kept making me feel like a fake about everything I did. Every time I was inclined to second-guess my experiences as someone alienated from straight culture I thought of that one flippant comment. I think it’s because I had let my guard down. I was dropping the game I play in straight society, of keeping my inner experiences to myself and being prepared for inappropriate pathologization or disbelief or hostility when I did talk honestly about them.
So I just stopped making myself vulnerable on Tumblr. By this point I had stable partner relationships with people who understood me and I just didn’t need an asexual community in the same way I had before. It’s still important for asexual communities to exist, but I was no longer personally counting on one to help me respect myself and trust my own experiences, and engaging with the Tumblr ace community had just become too painful and unhealthy for me to continue. So I gradually stopped participating in any Serious Ace Discussions on Tumblr.
But I’d just like to make the case, now, that asexual people should have spaces where they can talk casually about their own experiences and not have those discussions turned into discussions on the relative ethical merits of different systems of terminology, or on the limits of what can or can’t be called oppression, or on the limits of who can or can’t be said to belong in LGBT+ communities.
You know who gets to do that all the time? You know who gets to talk about their personal experiences of sexuality among friends just about anywhere they go, and not have to worry about the discussion turning to whether their identities are “inherently slut-shaming” or appropriative of LGB culture? Straight people do. And I don’t expect that to become a reality for asexual people in such a pervasive way as it is for straight people, but I want to see more asexual people have access to spaces where that can happen. Gradually, in some places, it is actually starting to happen. To be clear, it is happening with the cooperation of existing LGBT+ communities that recognize the massive overlap of both needs and individual members between themselves and asexual communities. After all, many asexual people find validation of some of their experiences through participation in LGBT+ communities before they ever find asexual terminology, or at least that was the case before asexual terminology became more widespread.
You’ll notice that this post doesn’t contain links to sources, doesn’t name individual people involved in the conflicts I’ve mentioned, doesn’t present evidence of these events. This is deliberate. I need to just record all my thoughts, then bury this. I don’t want to go digging through blog archives to look at all this stuff again. I need to stop thinking about it, for my health’s sake. The vitriol that occurred around the Tumblr ace community ca. 2012 didn’t happen in isolation from reality, and an honestly understandable knee-jerk invalidation of asexual people among LGB people has been spotted elsewhere – see for example some of the comments made by non-asexual LGB people in Angela Tucker’s documentary (A)sexual – but the kind of pervasive disruption that happened here is not something I’ve seen to asexual communities off the internet. I think it is at least partly attributable to a peculiar group dynamic made possible by the structure of Tumblr communities. In any case, when I tentatively peek at the ace community’s tags on Tumblr, the major conflict seems to be mostly over, or at least not raging on like it was three years ago. But I’m still not up for serious ideological discussions on the politics of asexual identity, and I will resist being pulled into any.
Feel free to reblog this post and comment on it, but I probably won’t reply and I can’t even guarantee I’ll read all comments.