As sexual minorities go, consensual non-monogamy is the equivalent of playing a video game on the easiest difficulty level.
If you’re cis and hetero, you probably won't experience much in the way of workplace discrimination. You probably won't have to worry about renting an apartment, getting a job, or whether you're allowed to serve in the military. Unless you're feeling masochistic, you probably won't have to come out to your parents. Not to say discrimination doesn't happen, but other than it shutting down 90 percent of Tinder interactions, or making the occasional first date very uncomfortable, it doesn't come with anywhere near the same challenges as those experienced by the generations of activists who have built the Pride movement and modern LGBTQ+ communities.
All of this has left many wondering if we should be included in Pride celebrations, or whether being an ally is enough. Given that the bulk of the "mainstream poly community" are white, cis, and heterosexual (gay non-monogamy is often considered its own thing), could pushing for inclusion and acceptance be considered a distraction from the sexual minorities who suffer more systemic oppression? I'm not the only one asking those questions; with Pride Month in full swing, there's no shortage of disagreements (many of them online—surprise, surprise) within the LGBTQ+ community itself about who qualifies for inclusion, and who doesn't.
And while poly folks get some online grief, there's one subgroup in particular that's been subject to more than its share of scrutiny: asexuals.
“I think in many ways what aces go through is similar to what bi people went through a while ago—and to some extent presently: the feeling of 'not being gay enough' to qualify,” says Micheal Dore, press officer for AVEN, the online asexual forum founded by advocate David Jay back in 2006. “It can feel like being stuck between a rock and a hard place, not fitting in with mainstream society but rejected by elements of the queer community—which most of us consider ourselves part of.”
Within the LGBTQ+ community, there are no shortage of labels for various orientations, gender identities, and physical types. And asexuals are no different—“asexual” is an umbrella that covers a broad number of intersectional sexual, romantic, and gender identities, including heteroromantic, homoromantic, panromantic, aromantic, cis or trans, or “grey asexuals” (those who do experience some sexual attraction on occasion).
The argument over asexual inclusion isn't a new one; in fact, Dore and co-author Emma Absolon wrote a pamphlet on the topic back in 2011. But in order to get a better sense of the issue, I decided to speak to people within the asexual community, and get their take on exactly why this has been such a polarizing issue.
Identity: AVEN founder, cis aromantic asexual
VICE: Why do you think there is disagreement on ace inclusion in Pride celebrations?
David: I think that there are two perspectives on that—the first being that Pride is a place that's about celebrating sexual liberation and sexual freedom, and it's awkward to be celebrating asexuality alongside that. That's an argument that I strongly don't believe in, and haven't really heard articulated all that well. People tend to back off from that position quickly when challenged, because sexual freedom and liberation are really central to the values of the Ace Community. We believe in celebrating all kinds of intimacy, regardless of whether that involves physicality. We're a community that believes strongly that sexual liberation means having the right to be as sexual as you intrinsically want to be—or don't want to be. It means having the right to pursue intimacy however you want to pursue intimacy.
The other argument I've seen is that the ace/aro community doesn't experience the same level of discrimination as other groups under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. Is that a fair argument?
For myself, and for many people in the ace community, we've had a real struggle with a society that tells us that our love is only valid if it involves sex. The reason I started AVEN, and the reason why many people come to the community is that we struggle with this idea that we're broken in some way if we're not sexual. That we're not capable of intimacy—that's a message we're given, and that our community seeks to challenge.
We challenge that in the ways we form a wide range or really amazing, often very queer forms of intimacy—everything from queer/ace couples who form romantic relationships but that involve different forms or sexuality or touch. For example, I raise a child as a third parent with another couple, with whom I have a very committed, nonromantic, nonsexual relationship with. And we see a broad spectrum of different ways that people in the community are doing intimacy. Like other folks in the queer world, we get pushback from that, because our relationships don't look “normal.” We have to figure out how to form those relationships, and how to have those celebrated in a world that tells us to follow a script that doesn't fit us. And for that reason, a lot of aces—not all, but many—identify as queer, or identify with the work of queer movements, and show up to do that work. What we see happening across the movement is ace-identifying people showing up to do work and seek support, because we feel these parallels.
Aces want to be a part of broader, intersectional queer movements because we hold intersectional identities, because we're struggling with a lot of really similar stuff. But there are also things that some of us aren't struggling with. For example, some ace people±and this isn't statistically the norm—are cisgender and heteroromantic, and have relationships that would externally read as straight. And I think some queer people hold this discomfort in inviting those people in. It's a case of people thinking: 'OK, if we can choose where to devote our resources, are we devoting those resources to ace people, or are we devoting them to folks whose identities are regularly targeted for systemic violence?'
Is that the case, generally? That you’re less targeted?
We are, on the whole, less targeted. For example, if I compare it to the experience of trans people of colour—there are ways in which we're not being targeted for violence the way that people in that community are. But as a community that's showing up to both do the work and seek support, it's important to recognize the ways in which our experiences are different.
All that said, it does seem like things are getting better. What are your hopes for the future?
What's important to me is that the lived experience of aces—many of whom are trying to figure out their identity—that those experiences get better. That for young people, who are still in the early stages of figuring out their identity, it's important to have spaces that accept them, regardless of what they discover. If there's a young person who's uncertain whether they're cis, or gender non-binary, or gay, or straight, and they're looking for a place that's without judgement where they can explore those questions, then I think it's important not to kick them out if they arrive at the 'wrong' self-understanding.
This has been a central tenet of the ace community. We believe that identity is a tool, not a label. Words like 'asexual' and 'demisexual' are things we pick up because they're useful, and put them down if they're no longer useful. If you put those things down, we as a community should celebrate that, not reject you. Because the goal is to have people understand who they are, and to build a society where people are allowed to understand and accept that.
Identity: cis panromantic asexual
VICE: Why is ace/aro inclusion in Pride a valuable thing?
Justine: Pride Month has gained a lot of momentum over the years, and inclusion gives a huge opportunity to amplify voices that otherwise wouldn't be heard. Personally, I never found the word 'asexual' until too late. I was 21, I'd already been in relationships, and I'd decided, somewhat, that I was broken. Because I wasn't feeling love in the same way that you're 'supposed' to. So, to me, everything I can do to amplify the visibility of asexuality and aromanticism—if I can save even one person from having to go through that, then it's effort well spent.
Have you personally experienced any discrimination or exclusion by the broader LGBTQ community?
Definitely. Some arguments I've heard are: 'If gay and lesbian people are fighting for the right to sleep with whoever they want, why are you fighting for the right to sleep with no one?' And I think that kind of attitude is understandable. We're all instinctively skeptical of new concepts, and each corner of the queer community has gone through its own story, and its own history. And then all these intersectional identities can make it even more intricate and beautiful—even if all of our struggles aren't necessarily the same struggle. What we've gone through as asexuals isn't the same as what gay, bi, and trans people have gone through, and sometimes those differences can stand out. And sometimes get thrown in our faces, and used as reasons why we shouldn't be included in Pride.
Because an asexual who's attracted to all genders, such as myself, can sometimes pass as bi, and then be included in queer spaces for that reason. This is why visibility is so important: if you don't know the word for asexual, then you end up doing things like I did, where you get pathologized, you go to a doctor to get them to 'fix' it. And it leaves you feeling broken, like there's no solution and there's something wrong.
How have you seen things change over the past few years, in regards to ace/aro inclusion?
One of the first things that comes to mind, as far as changes within the queer community itself is that the requirement of oppression—that systemic oppression is the only standard for entry—I see that slowly petering out. That seems to be coming from younger generations, who haven't necessarily experienced as much of it. To be gay nowadays is—it's certainly not perfect, but it's less plagued by discrimination than it has been historically. So, I find that, among younger folks—as in high school age—the focus on discrimination and oppression is less. And that's great. It's a sign of progress.
And on a smaller scale, working as one of AVEN's organizers in Vancouver, the last year-and-a-half or two years has been just… fireworks. I've had more work than I can handle, and that's amazing. Five years ago, we were going around to queer resources, asking to be included, and often receiving “no” as an answer. Now, as of about a year-and-a-half ago or so, we started getting requests for resources from these same organizations. And that blew me out of the water. It's so novel and amazing to have that turnaround happen in such a short time – to go from going and basically begging them to take our resources, to having them come to us? It makes such a huge difference. Our meetups have doubled or tripled in size. We used to do them in a coffee shop, and now we've got access to a free space, thanks to an organization that came to us. It's amazing, because it gives us a chance to talk outside of a public space. The past two years have just blown up, and it's beautiful.
Identity: cis heteroromantic asexual
VICE: How has the inclusion of ace/aro voices in Pride helped you understand your own sexual identity?
Mel: To be honest, I didn't even know these identities existed until about five years ago, when I was around 37. For most of my life, I just thought I was weird or odd because I wasn't interested at all in sex, and it seemed like everyone else was. When I finally discovered this identity and realized that even in that one identity there are dozens of sub-identities, it gave me such a sense of relief. I believe if more people were aware that asexual/aromantic identities exist, many people would be more accepting of their disinterest in sex or romantic relationships. I mean, how many people are in therapy because they don't feel any sexual attraction? One of the questions on a depression list is if you have lost interest in sex. It's really hard to answer that when you've never experienced interest in it before. It makes one think there's something mentally wrong with not being attracted sexually to another person.
I think for the same reasons why it's important for people to show their pride that they are LGBTQ, we should also be allowed to experience that pride in ourselves. It is about accepting and celebrating who we are. I am just getting to the point now at 42 of accepting that I'm a heteroromantic asexual
It seems like the inclusion of heteroromantic and cis asexuals is the most contested. Have you ever felt excluded or discriminated against?
I don't know whether or not I've experienced discrimination as a result of being a heteroromantic asexual person. I've just really figured all of this stuff out. I knew I was different and sometimes felt like I was excluded from activities, but I don't know if that had anything to do with being an asexual or if it was because of many years I experiencing being bullied as a kid. When I was nine, my parents moved to a small town outside of Calgary and, being a geek girl, I was never really accepted into the community. The problem I find with small towns is that there are only a handful of peer groups, and if you don't fit into any of them, you're singled out or ostracized.
I don't think experiencing oppression should be considered a valid condition for entry. A lot of people experience oppression as well. I did during those years of bullying I was subjected to. I was made fun of multiple times a day, called ugly, excluded from parties or had my own birthday parties ruined because people didn't want to be associated with me. Believe me, I know that feeling all too well. I know how much it hurts. To me, Pride should be about what the actual word means: "a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired," or "be especially proud of a particular quality or skill." Why can't aces/aros feel pride about who we are?
Conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
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