This is my submission to the August Carnival of Aces. This month, Demisexual and Proud is hosting, and they suggest using the Cass identity model as a way to think about “Stages of Coming Out”. The model traces the stages by which a person goes from wondering, “Could I be gay/lesbian?” to accepting their gay/lesbian identity and integrating it with the rest of their personality. However, this model is based on the premise that a person is aware of gayness/lesbianism as a possible identity first and then begins to see how they themself might fit that label. It also seems to assume that any issues with identification come from the person in question’s resistance to the label. My experience was the reverse of this: I recognised asexual qualities in myself long before hearing the word “asexual”; I embraced the concept of asexuality as soon as I heard it; and my subsequent journey was about figuring out whether I had the right to adopt asexual language for myself. This post is about that journey.
There’s a question that gets asked a lot in the asexual community: “How long have you identified as asexual?” Sometimes it’s “How long have you known you were asexual?”, or “When did you first come out as asexual?” It’s a complicated question for me to answer. The glib response would be, “I’m not asexual”, because, strictly speaking, I’m not: I’m demisexual. But even if you change the question to something more applicable, like “How long have you identified as ace?”, answering is far from easy. The truth is, for me, identification was a long process. And by “long”, I mean almost fifteen years.
It started in my last year of high school. I’d explained the Kinsey scale to some schoolmates, and we were graphing ourselves on it. When my turn came, I commented that my position on the scale could only be tentative. They asked me why, and I explained: “Well I’m almost completely asexual.” I don’t remember much about what was going through my head when I said that. But it’s clear that, by the age of eighteen, I’d realised there was something different about me. I’d had an intermittent sexual crush on the same guy for most of my high school life, but I didn’t fancy anyone else, I had no interest in sex or dating in the abstract, and I’d never learned to feel instantaneous attraction based on looks. So I adopted a word that I’d heard in biology class and that I felt would be easily understood. It was the first and last time I ever used the word “asexual” to describe myself.
That was in early 2002. AVEN existed, but just barely. I had never heard of it, and I had never been told it was possible to be anything other than gay, straight, or bi.
It wasn’t till a few years later, when I was half-way through undergrad, that I was first introduced to AVEN and, through it, the concept of human asexuality. It blew my mind, of course. The idea that there were actually people who experienced no sexual attraction whatsoever challenged the received wisdom and made me feel like much less of a freak. At the same time, I was also keenly aware that I was not “a person who does not experience sexual attraction”, and so could not claim the “asexual” label for myself. I was very glad that AVEN existed, but I didn’t join it till the end of 2005, and, when I did, I thought of myself as more of a groupie than an insider.
For the next several years, I maintained a committed but ambivalent relationship with the asexual community. I followed the early outreach projects closely and read all the available information (which wasn’t much). In 2007, I began writing articles for AVENues, and in 2008 I attended my first AVEN meet-up in Vancouver. I began to move away from thinking of myself as a mere ally, but my sense of belonging was hampered by a lack of vocabulary. The word “ace” wasn’t being used as broadly then as it is now, and the distinction between graysexuality and demisexuality wasn’t as widely known. If I did have a place within the community, it was a difficult one to articulate.
With outsiders, I avoided talking about my own sexual orientation or describing myself as anything other than “straight”. Instead, my approach was to talk about the community and my involvement with it, to make them aware that asexuality existed, and to let them know that it was important to me. For the most part, the people I did this with were people I trusted, and they were mostly accepting – or, at least, smart enough to keep their criticisms to themselves. Sometimes they questioned me about my own sexuality, but a lot of the time I just counted on them to make the obvious inference. This was during a period of my life when I experienced a lot of sexual shame, and it was convenient for me to be thought of as asexual, even if I really wasn’t.
At some point (probably between 2010 and 2012), I learned the definition of “demisexual”: that it wasn’t just another word for “somewhere between sexual and asexual”, but specifically meant “experiencing sexual attraction only after getting to know someone”. Finally, I had a word to describe my sexual orientation, one that put me squarely within the asexual community! But it was still a word that was largely unknown to outsiders, and thus only useful when talking to other community-members.
I also had an experience in 2012 that radically changed the way I felt about my own sexuality. You can read about it in “Shame”, but what basically happened was that I expressed sexual feelings for someone and had those feelings validated and accepted. Up to then, I had hated my sexuality and wished I could be a full-fledged asexual. The experience helped me accept myself as both sexual and asexual. As a demisexual who didn’t need to feel ashamed of either my sexual desire or my lack thereof.
The last big step in my asexual journey came when I returned to school to do my Master’s in English Literature. During the application process, I was encouraged to write about asexuality, and I decided to focus specifically on asexuality’s relationship to “romance”. It was through this process that, towards the end of 2014, I realised my own inability to distinguish “romance” from “friendship”. I adopted the label “WTFromantic” and then switched to “platoniromantic”. After years of confusion, I finally had a word to describe, not just my sexual orientation, but also my romantic orientation.
Between 2015 and 2016, I wrote multiple papers approaching literature from an asexual perspective. I discussed asexuality with many of my teachers, and my classmates all knew from an early stage that I was interested in the topic. Amazingly, I didn’t have to justify or explain asexuality to them; they accepted it both as a valid orientation and as a valid area for academic study. They also accepted me, allowing me to become a member of the group despite the many differences between us. Though few of them asked me about my own orientation, I knew part of that acceptance meant accepting me as the person who was into ace stuff. That I might be asexual, allosexual, or anywhere else on the spectrum, and they were okay with that.
Late in 2016, I attended a conference in Montréal, at which I presented a short summary of my research. At the conference, I wore a tie striped with the AVEN colours, and I began my speech with the following words: “As an ace person…” I used the word “ace” because, over time, I had increasingly heard it used to describe anyone on the asexual spectrum, not just asexuals. It had become a broad term that meant the things I was – demisexual and platoniromantic – and also the things that people in my community were – graysexual and asexual and aromantic. It was the word that described all of us together, that made us a community. It was the first time I’d ever publicly identified myself as an “ace person”.
It wasn’t the last.