I came out for the first time the way many people do — on social media. Two years ago, in the spring semester of my sophomore year, I declared myself a proud asexual in a Facebook response to an email from an employee of the Center for Gender Equity. In the email, the A in LGBTQIA+ was identified as standing only for “ally,” effectively erasing the existence of asexual, aromantic and agender students.
According to clinical sexologist Dr. Lindsey Doe, the word queer refers to “those who deviate from societal norms of gender and sexuality.” In other words, the queer community includes anyone who is not cisgender, heterosexual and heteroromantic. This definition encompasses asexual and aromantic people (also known as a-spec), who experience no sexual attraction and no romantic attraction, respectively.
Margaux Ziss (senior), former vice president of the Queer Student Alliance (QSA) is an asexual student, and she remembers this email and the response of the a-spec community quite clearly.
“I found out first through a voicemail and then seeing my QPR [queerplatonic relationship*] partner just sobbing, crying, totally broken over it, ” Ziss said. “Seeing how much it impacted her inspired a lot of grief and anger in me that I still feel echoes of today when I see the ways that the [a-spec] identities continue to be treated.”
The outspoken responses of a-spec students were the catalyst for a debate that is still happening at Occidental two years later — do a-spec students belong in queer spaces on this campus? The answer to this question is simple: yes, we do.
Many students disagree with me. I have been told that, as a heteroromantic asexual, I am “basically straight.” I am frequently compared to a robot. People seem to believe that I reproduce asexually — “like a plant.” Concerned acquaintances ask whether I suffer from a hormone imbalance or a mental disorder, as if my sexual orientation is a medical issue for which there may be a cure. Total strangers feel the right to ask invasive questions about my sexual history and practices, then call me a liar when they discover that I am, in fact, sexually active.
Alexander Marshall (sophomore), a member of the executive board of QSA and a gray-asexual** student, said that the campus climate toward a-spec students is divided.
“It’s ambivalent until it becomes a spotlight issue, and then it becomes the whole discourse of, ‘They don’t actually belong in the queer community,’ or, ‘They have privilege,'” Marshall said. “It’s ridiculous and hurtful.”
These micro-aggressions are just some examples of what the a-spec community refers to as aphobia — the fear or hatred of a-spec identities. Aphobia also extends to the outright erasure of the a-spec community, as in the previously referenced email, and the violence that the a-spec community faces, both on campus and in the broader society. Particularly within the queer community, asexuality is commonly seen as a “preference” rather than an orientation, and aromanticism is rarely part of the conversation (if it comes up at all).
As an a-spec student at Occidental, while I never felt totally accepted within the queer community, I never felt any outright dislike either. However, this semester has seen an increase in aphobic comments from other queer students, claiming either that a-spec students do not belong in queer spaces on this campus, or that we must acknowledge our “privilege” as a-spec individuals before we should be allowed to participate. Many a-spec students are distressed by the change in rhetoric, including Shea Backes (senior), a demisexual*** biromantic**** student.
“It was just heartbreaking in a way I didn’t expect it to be, to feel like this campus was suddenly not the place I thought it was in terms of listening to and valuing the voices of a-spec students,” Backes said.
Instead of focusing on important issues like creating more diverse and inclusive queer spaces, or on the intersections of a-spec experiences with those of other queer identities, the queer community on campus tends to reject us out of hand — we are simply not seen as queer enough, especially if an individual is “just” asexual or aromantic.
Darby Pak (junior), a biromantic asexual student, said that this language is not new within the queer community.
“The aphobic discourse that’s been going around on campus uses a lot of the same rhetoric that was used against bi, pan and to an extent trans people when they were starting to come into the community,” Pak said. “Being part of the queer community should not be a hierarchy of trauma.”
The most frustrating part of this rhetoric is how it ignores all that a-spec individuals have in common with the rest of the queer community. Just like other queer people, a-spec individuals are likely to be misunderstood and stereotyped by well-meaning straight “allies” or misdiagnosed by mental health professionals. Some a-spec people experience “corrective” sexual violence, through which the perpetrator believes they can “fix” a person’s queerness.
Even the process of self-discovery is similar, as shared by an aromantic and demisexual student who preferred to remain anonymous due to not being out on campus.
“I remember it was so deeply, intensely upsetting for me the first time that someone made a move on me, and I was like, ‘I don’t know why, because you’re a cool person, but I hate this totally,'” the anonymous student said. “It would have been really nice for aromanticism to be more widely known so that I wouldn’t have had felt so broken for so long.”
I am in no way claiming that a-spec people experience more oppression than any other queer identity. However, the erasure of a-spec people by other members of the queer community is a problem that must be addressed.
“It’s not a philosophical argument for us,” Ziss said. “These are lived lives. It’s cruel that it’s tolerated for asexual and aromantic people, to say that, ‘This is where you do and do not belong, this is what your identity is like and I’m not going to listen to your lived experience, this is what I’m going to do with my assumptions.’ I’d like to see that gone.”
*Queerplatonic relationship: A relationship that is not romantic but involves a close platonic connection beyond what would typically be considered “friendship.”
**Gray-asexual: A person who does not usually, but does sometimes experience sexual attraction.
***Demisexual: A person who only experiences sexual attraction after forming a close personal bond.
****Biromantic: A person who is romantically attracted to two or more genders.
Harper Hayes is a senior Spanish and Psychology major. She can be reached at email@example.com.