Asexuality and the Lack of What?
(CW: suicide, homophobia)
One of the best aspects of the LGBTQ+ community that I have seen in my lifetime is a genuine interest to explore, communicate, and understand how sexualities and gender identities relate to each other, or where they differ. Through these conversations, people have learned new aspects about themselves. Others have discovered that thoughts or feelings they had about their gender or sexuality were not singular to themselves and that other people went through the same things too when discovering their identities.
However, not every story is the same. While the community invites solidarity between each gender, presentation, and sexuality, there is still the desire to acknowledge and appreciate each and every one of them. The terms gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans need little to no introduction. They have received enough written text, air time, and discussion for most within our culture to understand what they are, even though many of their nuances get lost in translation. Terms like pansexual, intersex, or nonbinary may cause some awkwardness, as their definitions are not as commonly discussed or fall into a bit of a gray area.
Then there’s asexuality.
Scientifically, it’s an easy term. The lack of sexual attraction. Or an absence of it.
Written down like that, it’s a pretty simple concept to grasp. What’s easier to understand than nothing? An entire demographic of people who are able to function without sex. And to those who don’t understand it, that's frightening. They view it as taking away an integral part of the human experience, thus creating something that isn’t human.
It doesn’t help that asexuality rarely receives any awareness outside of the LGBTQ+ community. So it makes sense that so many people have either never heard of it, or have a highly misinformed view of it.
Inside the community, there are a number of people who believe that asexuals should not be included, their stance being that asexuality is a physical health issue and not a sexuality. Another argument is that asexuals have not been as systematically oppressed as other queer identities and that asexuals have the ability to pass as straight.
As someone who identifies as asexual, I would like to make a few things clear; asexuality is not a chemical imbalance. Nor is it celibacy. No sexuality or gender is a lifestyle choice. Discrimination has not shown itself as violently with asexuality as it has with homosexual and transgender people, but we have faced the same tactics of dehumanization and marginalization in order to make it appear as though our identity does not exist.
The stigma of asexuality being a health issue has troubled many asexuals, myself included. It was finally declassified as a mental health disorder in 2013, but asexuality is still viewed as a medical issue that can be “fixed.” As insulting as that is, being treated by medical professionals as though there’s something wrong with you isn’t isolated to asexuals, but has happened to nearly every group under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. Hopefully, with time, asexuality can move past its unfortunate labeling and be accepted fully into the community as the beautiful and authentic orientation that it is.
Since it is the appropriate time of the year to talk about being LGBTQ+, I thought I’d share what my experience was like discovering my sexuality. Asexuality is not talked about as much as other orientations, and not everybody understands how it works, so I hope my story might shed some light on what it’s like being asexual and how it’s affected myself, my relationships with others, and my future.
From an early age, I was obsessed with movies. I still am, but growing up, half of my family’s DVD and VHS collection sat on top of our television waiting for me to devour them over and over again. I must have seen Anastasia sixty times before I was five. As much as I loved them, they put a lot of funny ideas into my head. Love conquering all, everybody getting a happily ever after; it spoke to my romantic and optimistic personality.
When I was seven, I believed that if I told the first boy I ever liked I had a crush on him, he’d reciprocate and we’d be childhood sweethearts. Stupid idea, I know, but I was a kid. I didn’t fully understand the complexities of romantic relationships yet.
That fantasy stayed with me even after my declaration received a lukewarm reception. But it died a few days after that when one of my classmates called me a faggot for the first time.
I don’t know who started it, I just know someone found out about that word and they informed all my classmates what it meant. With the exception of me. Now, this was a new term for them, so they needed an example of what kind of person this word applied to. They came up with Ellen DeGeneres.
Then one of them made the startling connection that they had an Ellen in their class. Because she and I had the same first name, that was taken as irrefutable proof that I was a faggot. Not gay, not a lesbian, just that word. And hearing the boy who I liked call me that... it broke me.
Up until that moment, those kids were my friends. And they turned on me like I was nothing.
I had to be around them every single day for the next four years. They bullied me until I became the bully, which made me even less popular with them. The only difference between us was that they hunted in packs. After they got done bothering me, they had each other. I had to alienate myself from anyone who tried to interact with me to avoid being hurt again. I applied that lesson to every sport, club, or camp I went to for the next six years. Needless to say, I didn’t make many friends.
Since forming platonic attachments was out of the question, I had to focus on romantic ones. They were the only relationships I thought I could have, so I repressed any feelings I had towards others that didn’t fit into what I viewed romantic attraction as. Because they weren’t important. Middle school and high school were dedicated to one-sided crushes on guys I was too scared to talk to. I still tried though, because I’m a romantic at heart. I wanted to feel loved, and since that was the only form of love I felt had any weight, I threw all my chips behind boys who were as emotionally immature as I was.
It was with my first boyfriend that I realized that I was asexual. I had spent years building up my friendship with him before we started dating. I respected his space, showed interest in his hobbies, and put more hard work into that relationship than I had with anyone else. I planned for us to be a happy and committed couple, with all the things that entailed. Theoretically, sex was part of that.
I guess I didn’t think that far ahead because once he mentioned he was sexually attracted to me, I went into lockdown. Tornado sirens were blaring in my head. Once I realized I wasn’t sexually attracted to him, I knew the relationship was over. How could I tell him that I still liked him, but found the idea of sex with him repulsive?
We went our separate ways a few months later. I didn’t want it to, but I had just discovered a very important aspect of myself and I needed to figure out what it meant for me. I couldn’t be in a relationship where I was constantly questioning if my feelings for him were real or not.
At this point, I feel it’s integral to mention that I was not ashamed of my asexuality. Growing up for me wasn’t easy; I was bullied so much that by the time I was eight, I was showing symptoms of depression. By eleven, I was suicidal. My inability to make or maintain friendships or romances convinced me that there was something fundamentally wrong with me and that I lacked whatever it was that made a person, well, a person.
Me being ace though, that made sense. It felt right. It was and still is a part of me I wouldn’t give up for any romantic relationship. I was only frightened of it because I’d put so much importance on having a partner that I was terrified of losing the last form of relationship I was capable of having. Because on what date do I ask, “Are you open to possibly never having sex ever again?” I felt like I was doomed to be alone.
I did ask myself if my lack of emotional intimacy may have snowballed into an aversion to physical intimacy, but I realized that was a loaded question. My mental health issues and my sexual identity are not the same thing. The years I spent wallowing in pain didn’t form my sexuality, it suffocated it. It stopped me from exploring the depths of my emotions towards others and forced me to think I wasn’t worthy of any form of love.
I wish I had known that before my first relationship because it would have saved us both a lot of pain, but life’s not fair.
College was a turning point. I was so desperate to get away from my hometown that I started looking for out-of-state schools when I was twelve. As luck would have it, I got into my first choice with no issues. I spent my first year focused on work, and not romance. I was still trying to figure out how deep my attraction to others went, but I had reached the point of knowing that I wasn’t anywhere near ready for a serious relationship.
It was at that time that I started doing something I thought I was unable to do; make friends. At first, these “friends” I hung out with were great, but I still felt at arm’s length. I was the last one to get invited or to hear about the things I didn’t get invited to. They weren’t trying to exclude me from their group, but I saw myself as Pluto; always meant to orbit, never interact.
College was supposed to be a fresh start, but history was repeating itself over again, and I’d had enough. I confronted my friends and told them how rejected and ignored I felt by them. I wanted to be friends with them, I wanted to let them in, but if it came at the cost of feeling inconsequential every time I wasn’t around them, I was ready to cut my losses.
Imagine my surprise when all of them told me that they loved the fact that I was their friend and that I mattered to them. And these weren’t honeyed words to calm me down, they put their money where their mouths were. They invited me out to lunch dates and movie nights. My friend Michelle even got me a job at our college’s radio station as her assistant.
It is hard to describe the level of alleviation their actions gave me. For so long, I was convinced that all my worth was depending on how one person saw me. I forgot that I wasn’t some missing piece in someone’s life; I was a person. I was capable of having permanence in people’s minds.
But I had ignored that growing up. Just like I ignored and discarded every person I knew because they weren’t my soulmate. Because none of them were the one person I wanted in my life, I labeled them as unimportant and I discarded them.
That’s a lot of people. I hurt a lot of people.
I realized all of this right after my friends consoled me. After that, they truly went above and beyond to make me feel valued, so I had to return the favor. I couldn’t let myself write them off as another wasted friendship. I opened myself up to them, invited them over to my home instead of waiting for them to invite me over to theirs, and I worked hard to prove, both to myself and to them, that they were important and I valued our friendship. Years after, we’ve all graduated and we still talk on a daily basis. I don’t talk to anyone I went to high school with, let alone elementary school, so although it wasn’t that far away, to say that I’m still friends with people I haven’t seen in years is progress.
So with friendships, I’m far better off than I was ten years ago, but where does that leave me romantically? Do I have a future where romance is possible? I know there are plenty of asexuals who marry people who either do or don’t share their sexuality. And there are those who don’t marry or have romantic relationships at all, and they still lead happy and fulfilled lives. When I think about being in a serious relationship like that, it just doesn’t have as much appeal as it used to. All I want is to be happy, and it’s taken me a long time to let go of the illusion that marriage or a partner is key to making that happen. So I need more time by myself to find my own happiness. Besides, now that I’m focusing on myself instead of men, I’m starting to enjoy being single.
As I get older and I make these discoveries about myself, it reminds me how long it took me to feel like a real person again. I spent the majority of my childhood terrified of my own feelings. Or lack of them. Figuring out that I was asexual didn’t solve that, and it didn’t ease all my pain, but it helped. And it let me know there were others like me who went through the same feelings of guilt and fear like I did. Because even though we felt those terrible things, we also felt the intense relief of realizing that there wasn’t something wrong with us.
Some people think that when you’re ace, you lack one of the fundamental things that make you human. What do I lack? Love in one form? In one definition? I can assure you I am loved by my friends, my family, and myself.
I’m ace, I’m just as human as anybody else, and I’m proud of that.