When we think of what makes a person or group of people “queer,” a common understanding is their having a sexual orientation and/or gender identity that separates them from the heterosexual, cisgender majority. But what about asexuals—those folks who don’t experience sexual attraction toward others? Are “aces” part of the queer community, too? In this month’s episode of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ podcast, the crew tackles that question with Angela Chen, a journalist and asexual activist who’s just written a book on the subject: Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex. A portion of the discussion is transcribed below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rumaan Alam: One of the subjects of your book is an artist named Lucid Brown, who describes coming across a letter to Dear Abby from an asexual reader. And they describe seeing this letter in the newspaper at age 13 and then stealing the newspaper from the dining room table. This felt really, really familiar to me as someone who was once a gay teen reading the tea leaves of the culture for some validation of the self. I’d love to hear you talk about the tension or the complication around understanding ace identity as fitting under the queer umbrella.
Angela Chen: I think that’s a delicate question. I have a line in the book that’s a little bit of a throwaway line, and maybe I should have elaborated on it more, where I say that today, overall, asexuality is accepted as part of the queer umbrella, of the broader LGBTQ+ umbrella, but it feels conditional in many ways. I think there is a discussion around whether people who are ace and heteroromantic—romantically attracted to the opposite gender—should be considered queer. I believe that aces are queer, but I wanted to point out that in some ways, this is not a simple question. I think that there is this understanding, this idea that because asexuality in many ways is invisible and invisibility gives you this form of protection, it feels like you don’t need to come out. It feels like if you’re on the street with your partner, many times, you are not going to be a target in the same way. In many ways, being asexual doesn’t require feeling like you need to hide yourself in the way that has been the case for the other identities in the queer umbrella.
And so I think that there is that discussion: Where does asexuality fit? What connects people in the queer community? What does that mean? There is also this question of resources and a feeling of scarcity. So every ace activist has always said, “We don’t want to take resources away from people who are trans or people who are homeless. It doesn’t seem like this competitive thing to us.” We’re not saying we’re the most oppressed, but we feel like we are in many ways outside of heteronormative, straight culture, and we want to build coalitions and we want to be part of that.
But despite that, I think many aces, especially heteroromantic aces, struggle with feeling queer enough. Almost every hetero ace I’ve spoken to has said, “Oh, I completely support all other hetero aces identifying as queer if they want, but I feel afraid because I feel like am I taking away from the struggle?” So I think these discussions around gatekeeping, what actually connects the community, are very, very much alive here. And also I want to mention, of course there are people who are ace and biromantic. There are people who are ace and nonbinary trans. So, the ace community itself is very diverse and there is a lot of cross-cutting identities.
By Angela Chen. Beacon Press.
Bryan Lowder: In the book you introduce the term “compulsory sexuality.” We know that the term “compulsory heterosexuality” comes from Adrienne Rich, but can you explain how this other term builds on that?*
Absolutely. I think it’s just the idea that everyone who is “normal” wants sex and desires it. The example that I always think of is a person I interviewed, someone named Hunter, who grew up in this religious environment, and he is hetero. He is only attracted, romantically attracted to women. So he fulfills the compulsory hetero part of going through heterosexuality, but it was sexuality itself. Even though he’s attracted to women, he wasn’t super into sex, and that made him feel like there was something wrong with him. That everything he had been taught about how good sex was and how you were only an adult if you loved sex and how you’re only a real man if you loved sex, that really made him feel like he was broken.
I think that is an easy way to understand that. And there’s so many other examples, like low sexual desire is medicalized. The FDA is trying to sell and approve drugs for low sexual desire. And of course, that’s telling you that there’s something wrong with you. Or for women again, if you say that you’re not that into sex, oftentimes very well-meaning people will say, “Oh, you just need to free yourself from shame. You need to, like, be in touch with your true self and throw off the chains of patriarchy”—which is definitely true sometimes. But sometimes you’re just not that into sex and it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you or that your life is going to be worse if that’s not a source of pleasure for you.
Correction, Sept. 24, 2020: This post originally misstated that Angela Chen had coined the term “compulsory sexuality.”