Asexuality in the Media and the LGBTQ Community
The following is a guest post from Cassandra Galluppi, my queerplatonic partner. Many thanks to her for doing my job for me!
I am openly asexual. What that means to me is that I came out to my friends and acquaintances on Facebook, and if the topic ever comes up in conversation (which happens oh so rarely), I will absolutely tell people I’m ace. However, that doesn’t mean I have no reservations about doing so. Every time I have to tell someone new, I’m terrified. Not just because I have social anxiety, but because I’m bracing myself to be rejected—to be told that I’m wrong or that asexuality isn’t a “thing” or that I just haven’t found the right person yet.
Part of this fear comes from the way aces are (and aren’t) portrayed in popular culture. I’ll admit, my awareness of pop culture is limited; most of my time is spent watching certain shows that I like over and over again because apparently I’ve become a crotchety old bag at age 24. But there have been a few times in the recent past where I’ve encountered mentions of asexuality, and looking back, I think my reactions, while certainly not representative of the entire ace community, might be informative.
In January 2016, BBC’s Sherlock came out with their Christmas special, “The Abominable Bride”. While I wouldn’t call myself a die-hard fan, I do thoroughly enjoy the show, and as a treat I went to go see the special in theaters. Two of my friends came with me, both of whom know I am ace. Part of the episode is set in Victorian London and depicts a Sherlock and Watson more familiar from the books rather than the characters the show has developed. One of those scenes finds Sherlock and Watson on a stakeout, and as they are waiting for the culprit to arrive, Watson needles Sherlock about the fact that he never courts women. As Sherlock insists that there isn’t actually a need for him to do so, Watson spouts the arguments that aces are so used to hearing: “It’s only natural to want sex” and the like.
I was holding my breath the entire time. I was waiting for them to have Sherlock back down, to admit that he has sexual feelings for Irene Adler and has been too nervous to say so or something (in a not-grey-A-or-demi-way). I was anxious to the point that I was almost crying, and I never do that outside of social situations (and supremely rarely within them). But they didn’t. And I was relieved. After we left, I wanted to tell someone about how I felt, but even around two friends who I know accept me, I was still reluctant to bring it up. Fortunately, when I did, I had a good discussion where I got validation for my thoughts, in this case about the different forms of attraction and which ones might be applicable in this character dynamic.
The source of my fear here was that Sherlock is extremely popular. I knew that whatever they chose to do with that scene could have had implications for how aces are perceived by the public across the board, even if they didn’t explicitly mention asexuality. It’s difficult to have to put that sort of power into the hands of content creators who might not understand us, be able to empathize with us, or accept us. However, we don’t really have a choice. The ideal course of action would be to broadly educate the public to compliment/counter any portrayals of asexuality in media and/or to dialogue with content creators to give them some insight into what the world is like for us, but that’s a tall order.
Another brush with asexuality in media I’ve consumed—and, quite frankly, the only other one I can remember—was when it came up on an episode of the popular YouTube channel Game Grumps. For those who aren’t familiar, Game Grumps is a comedy channel where the hosts play video games and chat while they’re playing, sometimes about the game and sometimes about other random nonsense (mostly about other random nonsense). The hosts for the main show are Arin Hanson and Daniel Avidan, and I’ve spent many, many hours listening to them while crocheting. They seem like great people, and in an episode of their Ocarina of Time playthrough, I got to hear their opinions on asexuality. The conversation starts at around the 8:18 mark. If you don’t feel like listening (although I highly recommend their show in general), I’ve transcribed the relevant bits below with some of the filler words/phrases cut out; I left some in to indicate the general flow of the conversation. For context, Arin was 29 years old when the video aired, and Danny was 37.
Arin: He’s easy though. I can take him out. Or her, I dunno. I don’t want to be sexist. F*ckin Lord of the Fire Temple could be a girl. I dunno. Could be a guy, could be a girl, could be neither. Could be asexual. Well, asexual’s a different thing. Could be genderless.
Danny: What’s the difference?
Arin: Asexual means that you have no, like, sexual preference.
Danny: Uh huh.
Arin: So you’re not, like, a sexual person. But you can be a male or a female.
Danny: Oh! Oh oh oh. Got it.
Arin: And being genderless is just, you’re not a male or a female.
Danny: Interesting. I think it was always confusing to me because, like, I learned the term asexual in biology class when dealing with, like plants, you know? And so when it came time that humans were defining themselves as that, I was like, “I don’t understand what it means. Does it mean your pistil or stamen…” like, I dunno.
Arin: Yeah. It’s a fairly new, I think, thing that’s becoming more and more accepted.
Arin: Which is totally cool, as far as I’m concerned.
Danny: Absolutely! Anything’s cool with me. I just, I feel bad because, you know, a lot of this stuff was not defined in terms when I was growing up.
Arin: Yeah, exactly.
Danny: So like, I’m a little behind the curve, and I’m learning about it while I’m doing a show for hundreds of thousands of people, you know? So it’s like, “Oops!” you know? Like, I kind of sound stupid.
I was nervous when the topic came up in the video. Not for the same public-perception reasons as when I was watching Sherlock, but for more personal ones. It was more like, “Oh boy. I really like these guys, and I really, really hope they don’t say something hurtful!” But their conversation was the best I could have hoped for from people who aren’t constantly swimming in the queer alphabet soup. They made some mistakes but corrected themselves, acknowledged what they didn’t know, and most importantly, validated asexual individuals and their allies who may have been watching the show. As I told Ari, the conversation was still making me smile days later.
It’s the little positive things that matter, whether in pop culture or in our personal lives. The asexual community is so small, and part of the function it serves is as a place to vent our frustrations when demeaning or exclusionary things happen to us. And since many of us identify as queer, it’s most hurtful when those attacks come from the LGBTQ community. I’ve heard stories about aces being rejected by queer people because they can pass as heterosexual, being denied space at pride events, not getting a lounge at a queer conference—the list goes on and on.
Stories like this make many of us wary in spaces that are in reality quite accepting of aces. When I started grad school, I wanted to connect with the queer community on campus. But when I started looking into it, I was a little put off. Their website only mentioned LGBT, not Q; they didn’t have any indication that they included people from smaller groups—I knew that I should just go talk to them and ask, but hey, social anxiety! I was waffling back and forth about it for days, until I saw a post from Callie about what it means to be queer on a status of Ari’s:
“When you go through life being affirmed as the default person, you never really have to give though to how your gender or sexuality change how you navigate the world. You have the luxury of being able to say those things really shouldn’t matter, because you’re extremely unlikely to ever experience marginalization or oppression because of them. So it’s the height of privilege to be able to say “no one’s different and we should have everything about everyone everywhere.” Sorry, I AM different than you. The problem is not the difference, the problem is the stigma surrounding that difference. I have no desire to pretend that I’m the same as everyone else, I’m plainly not. What I’d love is for the difference not to matter so much. That’s why we don’t want to erase the queer experience, the trans experience, the black experience, etc. because like it or not those ARE different experiences. And it’s not because WE have cordoned ourselves off from society, it’s because society has cordoned us off from them.”
That was the push I needed to be able to tell myself, “Yes, I am queer, and yes, I should have a space in this community.” I went to the Equity Center the very next day and boldly (while attempting to hide my inner panic) told them I am ace and asked if there were any groups or events that might be appropriate for me. Guess what? There was an asexual pride group that met every Monday. I was also invited to attend the weekly grad student lunch and a weekly lunch for STEM students. For the first time since realizing I am ace, I was able to engage with other aces in person while also feeling welcome in a space dedicated to queer people, and that felt wonderful.
Part of the reason we share those stories of negative encounters outside the ace community with each other is as a warning. We want to steel each other, particularly aces new to the community, against adversity we might face from any side. But the problem with that is that it creates a bias towards the idea that aces are negatively perceived by everyone, when I know that’s not the case. For every hurtful action, there are many, many supportive ones. For example, at the LGBTQ conference mentioned above, when other groups heard about aces not having a room, they stepped in to help. They let us share their space and their food. I felt a personal moment of support when I walked into my lab as we were getting ready to leave for summer fieldwork and saw my advisor labeling identical bandannas, her traditional gift to her summer helpers; she looked up and excitedly brandished the black, white, gray, and purple fabric while exclaiming, “Look, I found them in your colors!” And all of the love I felt from friends and family members when I came out last year was amazing. It’s stories like this that aces should be hearing.
So here’s what I’d like us all to do—aces, allies, and our LGBTQ siblings—let’s share the good, too. Share the times that you feel accepted. Share the times that you feel included. Because if we do, we’ll start to get out from under that bias telling us that we’re not welcome and see things the way I know they really are—that there are plenty of people who love us and will support us as we proudly proclaim our asexuality.