Minerva isn’t gay. A fluid conversationalist, the Massachusetts native has been artfully rehashing this point for the last three hours.
"I have been told I could easily be mistaken as a lesbian" she says, gesturing to her cropped, copper hair as evidence. “Which is not a bad thing.”
Minerva isn’t a lesbian, she says, but she certainly isn’t straight. At 29 years old, Minerva, who asked that she be identified by the name of her Tumblr, has never had a romantic relationship. She calls herself "asexual" meaning she doesn't experience sexual attraction. To anyone.
To the deep chagrin of some members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Minerva also uses the word "queer" to define her sexuality. A re-appropriated term of endearment for sexual minorities, "queer" is as emotionally charged as it is oddly exclusive, and there is an ongoing, online debate about whether she should feel comfortable using it to self-identify. In some corners of the internet, that debate has turned to all out war.
In October 2011, an outreach organisation called Asexual Awareness Week released a “Community Census” that polled data from over 3,000 asexual-identifying people. In the survey, more than 40 percent of respondents said they consider themselves members of the LGBT community, and another 38 percent said they consider themselves “allies” or supporters of the community.
The community isn’t so quick to oblige.
“Practicing sex/sexuality slightly differently, or not at all, does not make you queer” “Aria” wrote in a Tumblr post earlier this year. “People don’t shout ‘queer’ at an asexual person on the basis that they are not (sexually) attracted to anyone.”
In a similar post, another blogger wrote: “We have the right to our own community, we fought and died for our rights and for our queer spaces... sure you can make a community to share experiences and get support, but stop trying to fucking appropriate ours.”
The remarks echo a sentiment firmly ingrained in some LGBT circles. Gay rights activists have fought for sexual freedom, often at the risk of physical harm, for more than half a century. Asexuals, an estimated one percent of the population, have traditionally kept a low profile. Why should the LGBT community cede a once pejorative, now defining epithet to a group defined by inaction?
“A lot of people in the queer community have fought so hard for sexuality, they can’t understand how the asexual community is connected to what they’re doing” asexual activist David Jay said in a recent interview.
In 2001, Jay launched the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), an online headquarters for asexual individuals. Today, he’s the unassuming face of the group, with appearances on Fox News, ABC’s The View and Dan Savage’s “Savage Love” podcast under his belt.
In (A)sexual, a 2011 documentary by Brooklyn-based filmmaker Angela Tucker, Jay’s efforts to destigmatise asexuality take center stage. An especially poignant scene shows the 30-year old activist at the San Francisco Pride parade, asexual literature in hand. As he attempts to pass a leaflet to a scantily-clad, presumably gay man, the man tells Jay he “pities his soul” and walks away empty-handed. In another scene, Savage, probably the best-known contemporary gay voice there is, snickers at the mention of asexuals marching in Pride, and deems the concept “hilarious”.
“It's definitely a peculiar back-and-forth between asexuals and the LGBT community” psychologist Jesse Bering wrote in an email exchange. Bering, an openly gay columnist for Scientific American (who often uses the space to delve into issues relating to human sexuality) was careful to point out that he sees no problem with asexuals identifying as “queer”. Others in the community, he said, see asexuals as “manipulative characters” that haven’t come to terms with their own homosexuality.
“This is not to say that asexuality doesn't come with its own stigma” Bering wrote, “but I suspect that the insinuation here is that such a stigma would be the lesser of two evils.”
David Jay is conscious of these assumptions. Still, Jay maintains, he’s not gay... but he’s definitely queer.
“Who I am has been shaped by a struggle with a social norm around sexuality” he said. “I find the word ‘queer’ to be really useful to understand the way I am. I don’t think anyone has the right to take that away from me.”
Sara Beth Brooks, an organiser with Asexual Awareness Week, agrees. Before openly identifying as asexual, Brooks said she tried hormone therapy, psychiatry, and dating as a “celibate person”. Nothing worked. During a late-night internet binge, Brooks found AVEN.
“I sat up all night reading posts that could have very well been written by me... that were similar to what I had written two or three weeks ago in my own journal” she said. “I felt a sense of community that had been absent my entire life.”
Both Brooks and Jay are quick to defend the LGBT community. Many gay activists, they said, have been consistently supportive of asexuals. They remain perplexed by those that haven’t.
“It’s really painful to watch a community that has suffered such victimisation be blind to the victimisation of others” Brooks said. “The LGBT community has been ‘otherised’ and categorised by society as deviant... asexuality is just another version of that.”
To find asexual alienation in action, Brooks said, one need look no further than the community’s online headquarters. AVEN’s registered members, 41,000 as of this writing, have inundated the site’s 2.2 million forum posts with personal accounts of harassment, bullying and isolation.
There are also repercussions outside the blogosphere. Phoenix Schneider, program director for “The Trevor Project” an LGBT youth organisation and suicide hotline, said the group “certainly” fields calls from young asexuals. Some reoccurring themes, Schneider said, include anxiety, depression and other problems “similar to lesbian, gay and bisexual youth”.
Quietly, the LGBT community is beginning to deal with the implications of this. Schneider’s team recently incorporated asexual literature into training materials for new volunteers. Campus LGBT groups are amending their mission statements to accommodate for asexual students, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, one of the largest LGBT organisations in the country, has added a reoccurring, asexual-themed workshop to the group’s “Creating Change” conference.
Still, a dichotomy remains. Offline, there is, perhaps, no better representation of this than New York City’s annual Gay Pride parade.
Congesting Fifth Avenue with an ephemeral flash of the rainbow masses, “The March” is sexual freedom in microcosm. Spectators included, there were 1.7 million people at the 43rd annual Pride Parade, according to the official headcount. For the 43rd consecutive time, there was no asexual contingent.
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