It’s 2014 and I’m a Fresher. It’s college hustings: I’m running for Women’s Welfare Officer and I’m bricking it.
I’m too nervous to pay attention to what the person on stage is saying, but I suddenly tune in when the current Equalities Officer asks them if they know what each of the letters in LGBTQIA stands for – after all, it’s integral to the role.
‘…Transgender, Queer, Intersex – and Ally.’
I flinch. There’s a small ripple of ‘ooh’s throughout the bar – only half in jest, but I think most people there are sympathetic of his mistake. I make a note to use this to my advantage when it comes to my speech – one of my proposed policies is implementing LGBT+ awareness workshops – and I make use of the example of erasure.
‘A is not for Ally – it stands for Asexual,’ I say into the mic, with a self-important nod.
I didn’t win my campaign, but I knew I’d been a good ally that night.
It’s 2018 and I’m a Masters student. I’m meeting a friend on my course for coffee in a college bar. She stops to chat to another course member – a forty-something man whose name I know but I haven’t officially met – and I smile politely from the edge of the conversation. He looks over, compliments me on my hair – and then says something I didn’t expect:
‘Can I ask, that ring on your finger – are you wearing it for the same reason I am?’ He wiggles his right hand at me.
My eyes widen. ‘Possibly?’
‘Are you ace?’
Our mutual friend is baffled as both of us start screaming (excuse the cliché), literally bouncing up and down.
This ring he refers to is not a wedding band or a class memento. It’s a black ring on the middle finger of my right hand – the official signifier of an asexual. When choosing to wear this ring you are told two things:
- Don’t expect people to know what it means.
- Don’t expect to find many people wearing it.
My new pal expresses this as we sit with a brew – ‘They told me it was unlikely I’d ever encounter anyone with an ace ring!’ – but there you have it: the a-spec connection in real time. ‘They’ are AVEN – a community formed in 2001 for asexual (and now other A-spec identities) visibility and education. I know this without him telling me. He then asks what the white ring on the middle finger of my left hand means. I explain that I’m also aromantic – the same thing, but with romantic attraction.
‘Wow! I’ve never heard of that,’ then he pauses. ‘I might have to pick myself up another ring.’
I’m aromantic and asexual, which means I don’t experience romantic or sexual attraction. I fall under the ‘A’ spectrum of orientations (which, for the record, stands for much more than just ‘asexual’). However, this article isn’t about what it means, or how it feels to be a-spec: it’s about the erasure (A-rasure?) of a-spec identities. Even though it’s growing in visibility, there is still a lot of confusion and ignorance around the letter ‘A’.
Why does this erasure occur? It might be because most queer identities are rooted in sexual and romantic orientation – so a lack thereof can be a threatening concept to understand. When you spend your life fighting for love, the rejection of it can come across as insulting. But people forget that there are many types of love – familial, platonic, universal. Being a-spec does not mean you are incapable of loving. You love your sibling, your dog, your plants – you don’t need to marry them to let them know!
Another reason is that the ‘A’ is often misunderstood or misrepresented (if represented at all). Poor representation leaves people to make assumptions. It means a vocabulary lesson for anyone you choose to tell. It means you could go for decades never truly understanding who you are and what you want until you’ve walked down a path that isn’t right for you. Unfortunately, when it comes to discussing visibility within marginalised communities, it often descends into Oppression Olympics. A common take is: ‘Yeah, you’re invisible – but that’s better than being discriminated against!’, or ‘You’re straight-passing, so you don’t really have any problems!’, which I’m sure sounds familiar to my bi/pansexual brethren as well. True, different communities face different challenges – but when you belong to a lesser known identity, your existence tends to fall at the mercy of others. These moments of visibility are rare and representation is sparing.
Erasure can be harmful. If you fall outside of the straight-white-cis margin, you’ve probably faced a barrage of awkward questions and ignorant comments at some point in your life. But to be a-spec, particularly aromantic, you experience a unique kind of loneliness. Or rather, aloneness – as it’s not the concept of being alone that’s distressing, but rather how society treats it. We live in an amatonormative society; it’s incredibly isolating for those who don’t want to participate in it. The societal pressure to not be alone causes people to define their self-worth by others, regardless of their orientation. It’s excluding of people with sexual trauma, or those who want a family that isn’t monogamous or nuclear. I’ve had people call me broken or say I haven’t met the right person yet. I’ve even had corrective r*pe suggested to me as a solution to my ‘issue’– helpfully suggested. It becomes extremely taxing on your mental health to be surrounded by a culture that values something – an amazing fundamental human thing – that you’ll never quite understand.
In short, erasure makes it hard to feel valid. I’d heard of asexuality when I was teenager. I didn’t accept that I was aroace until my twenties. Partly due to a lack of understanding, and partly – I’ll admit – because only stopped feeling like a fraud after that moment in the college bar. Even when I knew there was a community by the thousands, even when I had other a-spec friends, even when I’d experienced it my whole life – I still ironically needed that older white man to validate me. Although, it was less to do with him being white or male, and more to do with the fact that he was older. Young people figuring out their identities are subjected to the same rhetoric: ‘It’s a phase’, ‘You’re too young to know’, ‘What if you change your mind?’, etc., so having a ‘real’ adult on my side made me feel like I had permission to be who I am.
It’s getting better. These are my experiences of erasure as a skinny white girl, whose race isn’t fetishised. For what little a-spec representation there is, it probably looks like me; non-white a-specs have to deal with a culture that hyper-sexualises them on top of erasing their identities. But now diverse A-spec characters are popping up everywhere. Claire Kann’s romance novel Let’s Talk About Love is shooting up the Goodreads rankings, featuring a black, female, biromantic/asexual protagonist. We were treated to Todd Chavez’s entire journey to asexuality in Bojack Horseman (in later episodes even the word ‘aromantic’ was said aloud on TV!). Moses Sumney’s astounding debut album ‘Aromanticism’ (yes, you read that right) explores loneliness, aloneness and blackness – all in the hope of getting its title ‘out from over the squiggly red line’.
So what am I asking when I ask you to spare a thought for invisible identities? Well, exactly that: acknowledge us. We finally have words to describe age-old concepts, and the means to educate ourselves on them. No one will expect you to be perfect – you don’t have to memorise every subsection of identity, flag, pronoun, gender you can find. Just listen, be respectful and accept people for who they are. Ask questions (if they’re okay with it). Educate yourself and others, correct misinformation if you hear it. You only need to look at the recent success of films like Black Panther and Wonder Woman to understand the power of representation and why it’s so important – represent us, and allow us to be represented.
We exist. Now start believing.
Pride Month is June every year – visit UCDavis for LGBTQIA+ resources and information on what you can do as an ally to support communities this Pride!