Ace in Spades
On Asexuality and Gatekeeping in the Queer Community
By Julia Gilstein
It’s June 2014, and the New England Aces (NEA) are gathering on Boylston Street to march behind our own banner for the first time at Boston Pride. I’m excited and nervous to join my fellow aces. My nerves win, and at the last minute, I back out.
I know I’m asexual (ace). I’d realized a couple years earlier that I’m not broken, that there’s a word for my identity—someone who experiences little to no sexual attraction—and other people like me. I’d stumbled on the word “asexual” in an online writing forum, researched what it meant, and in an almost lightbulb moment the term just made sense. I’d researched more after that, of course, and joined NEA. But now, I’m not sure exactly where I fall under the ace umbrella. I’m still figuring things out; don’t even get me started on how confused I am about the distinctions between sexual (physical) and romantic (emotional) attraction, or whether I might just be gray (someone who experiences attraction sometimes, but it’s rare) or demi (someone who may experience attraction after forming a deep emotional bond). Plus, my attempts to out myself thus far have not gone entirely well. One friend decides I’m bi instead; another says they don’t believe me. So it’s through some combination of imposter syndrome and fear of coming out that I decide I’m not ready.
That changes in 2015. I march. I ignore the inner dialogue telling me I shouldn’t because I still don’t know where I fit. Telling me I shouldn’t because I don’t know if I belong. Telling me that with aces being so invisible, would we even be positively received? And I’m so glad I go. Some folks watching ask us about asexuality, about our love lives, with curiosity. Others speak with derision: “Oh, those weirdos.” “Are you an amoeba?” I don’t see aces on the sidewalk, at least not any wearing or waving our black, gray, white, and purple flag colors. But we keep marching. The crowd politely claps as we walk by. Sometimes they even cheer! The solidarity of our group members that day is inspiring, and the cheering makes me want to cry. I feel like I belong.
In 2016, when NEA organizers ask for volunteers to marshal our parade group, I sign up. I take over the organizing for NEA’s marching group this year. I even get pulled aside during the parade for a 60-second interview in front of a news camera, where I’m so startled by the sudden questions that I have no idea if my babbled answers are coherent. The cheering this year is louder. I see a few scattered aces on the sidelines who look surprised to see us. We even pick two up during the march!
By the time June 2017 rolls around, I’ve become NEA’s organizer for Pride-related events. The heat during the parade is nearly unbearable, but we power through, waving a variety of flags in ace, aromantic (someone who doesn’t experience romantic attraction), rainbow, pan, trans, and various other color combinations. The cheering this year? Loud. And the crowd clearly knows who we are. I see several visible aces on the sidelines, who wave happily. At the end of the parade, I notice tables at the festival with ace and aro merch. Most importantly, the faces of the aces marching speak volumes: exhaustion but exuberance, a sense of belonging, and, well, pride.
That A in LGBTQIA+? It doesn’t stand for ally. A stands for asexual and/or aromantic.
In 2018, we update our look with a new banner. I’m fully confident in my identity (demipanromantic asexual, in case you were wondering—romantically but not sexually attracted to a person, regardless of gender, after forming a deep emotional bond) and my place in the queer community. Joining NEA’s outreach team has helped that, as has participation in non-NEA, ace-related discussions elsewhere, including at GLSEN workshops, which promote LGBTQIA+ discussions in K–12 education, and Arisia, a sci-fi/fantasy convention that strives for inclusivity. My marshals are fantastic once again. I’m unable to attend the parade this year, but they assure me all goes well.
We’re not so invisible anymore, and the feeling is glorious.
It’s also in 2018—despite the increasing plethora of articles, YouTube videos, forums, and so on about asexuality; despite more ace characters in fiction and other media (shout-out to the creators of BoJack Horseman, who consulted an ace community in LA for Todd Chavez’s coming out story); despite people gaining a better understanding of the different types of attraction; despite the myth-busting; despite #acepride; despite increasing visibility—that I start seeing arguments online about whether people who identify under the asexual umbrella belong in the queer community. I’m sure these arguments existed before 2018/2019, but they’ve gotten quite vocal lately.
But here’s the thing. That A in LGBTQIA+? It doesn’t stand for ally. A stands for asexual and/or aromantic.
I repeat: The A in LGBTQIA+ stands for asexual and/or aromantic.
Some might say that the letter doesn’t matter. That if aces aren’t sexually interested in anyone, they don’t belong in a community of folks who are. They might also assume I’m straight because they don’t see me in a same-sex relationship, or assume I’m straight because they do see me in an opposite-sex relationship. But sexual orientation is about attraction, not action. If I’m not attracted to anyone, I’m not heterosexual.
Gatekeeping in the queer community is not new. Anyone who can pass as straight and cisgender, who is in a relationship with someone of a different gender, or who doesn’t “look” trans, for example, knows what I’m talking about.
Whether I can pass as someone I’m not should not determine whether I belong in the queer community.
Another argument I see: Aces aren’t oppressed enough. We haven’t experienced the same levels of prejudice as other people who identify as LGBTQI+.
Our community should not be in competition for who is more oppressed. I shouldn’t have to argue that aces are sometimes threatened with corrective rape, or are raped. I shouldn’t have to argue that some of us are forced to get our hormones checked. I shouldn’t have to argue that we’re often told our identity isn’t real, or that it’s just a phase. I shouldn’t have to argue that people sometimes think aces must be ugly and prudish, that it’s our fault we may not have or want a partner. I shouldn’t have to argue that, like other people who identify as LGBTQIA+, we experience higher rates of anxiety and depression. I shouldn’t have to argue that those of us in same-sex relationships or who identify as homoromantic or bi/panromantic can lose our homes and jobs. The list goes on. Our experiences are much the same as other queer people.
Many aces, especially those in the early stages of figuring out their identity, experience imposter syndrome. We don’t see much of ourselves represented in media, we supposedly only represent one percent of the population, and we don’t know if we belong under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. And, if the queer community doesn’t want us, why even bother applying the label? But I’m here to tell you, we absolutely do belong. We should take pride in who we are.
I’ll see you at the parade. •
Art: Ceyda Caba, Love, War & Money (2011).
Julia Gilstein is the Pride Activities Coordinator for New England Aces (NEA) and a member of the NEA outreach team, which hosts panels and workshops on asexuality. She participates in discussions on asexuality, asexual visibility, and ace representation in media outside of NEA as well. Follow Julia on Twitter @JGilstein.