tl;dr It’s not the job of any one person to include nonbinary identities. In fact, including nonbinary identities as a sidenote is also harmful. Instead, we just need to make space for folks to include themselves.
There’s a trend that I’ve been noticing for a while, and I think, at the end of the day, we all probably just have to relax. I’m going to talk about this in terms of binary trans folks and nonbinary folks, but this is something that happens a lot for people that know that they should do Intersectionality, but don’t quite know what that is (and I definitely do it too!)
It’s this: a binary trans person, usually someone who’s only met one or two nonbinary people in their entire life, gets a platform to speak about trans issues with cis people. Of course all the cis people want to know about is Medical Transition and that poor person is thrust in that awful balance of maintaining cis curiousity just enough to maintain their platform while also trying to make an impact.
And, in the back of their head, there’s that niggling awareness that nonbinary people exist and, if they’re now suddenly a spokesperson for trans people, that means they need to include nonbinary folks, even if they have no idea how to do that.
It usually results in “nonbinary” being tacked onto the ends of sentences as an afterthought with no definition or explanation.
Now, I am a strong believer that people with platforms should consider their responsibilities before using that platform. And that means that if cis people have decided a trans person speaks for ALL trans person (usually despite that trans person being incredibly honest about what they can speak for) , that trans person has to be explicitly clear about what they are able to say on an issue and work as hard as possible not to exclude.
But, my identity is more than an afterthought.
I actually don’t really want to be included if it’s only going to be an afterthought. All that does is teach cis people that my gender is an afterthought, secondary to other genders.
Also, it’s absolutely fucking ridiculous to expect one single trans person to know Everything about Every Single trans identity Ever. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a single person.
The thing is: not excluding someone is not the same as including them.
I don’t need binary trans people with platforms to include nonbinary genders in their discussions, unless they are completely and utterly prepared to explain and defend my gender, giving it the same value as their own gender.
What I need is for binary trans people to simply not act as if nonbinary folks don’t exist. In your fight for a platform, for a voice, for representation, don’t forget that we need that too. Be prepared to say “I’m not that kind of trans, I can’t answer that question, maybe you should ask a nonbinary person”, be prepared to listen to what we have to say and share it, be prepared to recognize when to speak and when not to speak. Extend your hand and share the platform with as many different trans people you can fit on the damn thing.
When nonbinary folks ask for allyship from binary trans people, we’re not asking for Sudden Constant Inclusion. That’s too much for anyone to handle. All we want is the recognition that we exist and that we are the experts on our own experiences.
It’s not the job of an already marginalized person to speak for every other marginalized person out there.
It is everyone’s job to make sure that there is space for every marginalized person to speak for themself.
Tl;dr Because asexual history is tied into allo queer history, there are going to be moments of tension between different readings. It is necessary to understand the context and the way asexual history has been erased, even by allo queer history, to really investigate this challenge.
Back in November, I wrote an article for the project Making Queer History on Catherine Bernard (for the record, all of their articles are amazing, go check it out!) In writing that article, I started developing methodology around looking at asexual and aromantic representation in history (but also in literature, as the two are related), and I would like to share and discuss a number of the challenges and tensions this is bringing up. It is incredibly complex as I’ve found that searching out asexual and aromantic history requires three actions that are usually frowned upon within queer communities.
I have to challenge previously accepted methodology around uncovering queer historical figures, as it did not account for asexuality and aromanticism. This can be particularly fraught, as it questions other forms of queer sexuality, a topic which is already vulnerable and regularly challenged already. I also have to conflate asexuality and aromanticism in order to account for the ways sexuality and romantic behavior are conflated in historical records (and current, everyday life). And then, I have to conflate our understandings of self-identity and behavior, another action usually warned against by asexual communities in particular.
Here, I will discuss the tension between existing allo queer history and asexual history, leaving the other challenges for later blog posts, but first, I will start by discussing existing ace history in an attempt to give context. While contemporary ace history is important, I am choosing to look a little farther back in time, simply because it is less known and studied at the moment.
To understand acespecs’ current place in history, let’s take a brief look at what is unarguably asexual history. It is a history of pathologization and being othered from other queer identities.
Consider: One of the earliest (we may never know the actual earliest) uses of the word “asexual” was in 1896 in a pamphlet by Magnus Hirschfeld, who helped to establish the domain of sexology (Tristifere, 2018). While Hirschfeld was an incredibly important person in queer history (he performed the first successful modern gender affirmation surgery), his work and the entire concept of making gender and sexuality “scientific” has been used against queer folks (Mills, 2016). Pathologization has been used to dehumanize and other queer people by turning us into scientific fascinations that can be explained (and then potentially “cured”).
However, alongside our records of pathologization, studies into homosexuality and transvestism and other scientific blunders, we have records of a rich queer history in the twentieth century. We have trans elders that have led and loved the queer community for decades. We have oral histories. We have tangible evidence of our humanity and existence outside of the disgusting science.
But asexual history starts with patholgization and that continues until the late 20th century/earliest 21st century, when the internet, AVEN communities, and the ability of people to have more control over the content about them that gained influence. We have no ace elders. In fact, we have one single man who developed a kind of cult status for a while and now I hear nothing about him (I did a quick google out of curiousity: he’s still appearing in shock-appeal articles but his blog hasn’t been updated for yeeeeaaars, or maybe there’s a new blog I didn’t find, hrrrm). Asexual oral history starts with the internet.
And yet, most mentions of asexuality up until this point are in terms of other queer sexuality. Of course, the most obvious example of this is the Kinsey Scale, in which Kinsey made a group “X” for people that didn’t fit onto his (in)famous scale (Mackay, 2013). It was important enough to be mentioned in groundbreaking research into queer sexuality. It wasn’t important enough to be studied or explored further.
More or less, asexual history is specifically tied to the history of the beginning of studying queer sexuality. While many of those studies have been recognized as pathologizing, even harmful, they still remain the one place where we can reliably find records of asexuality.
Even in those studies, asexuality is othered. It is deemed unimportant, a throwaway comment to account for people that didn’t fit into the data. We don’t even get complete access to that history because it was eclipsed by society’s prioritization of sex. There is no untangling asexuality from the rest of queer history, but asexual history was erased within a context of queer history. That means that studying asexual history is going to challenge existing queer narratives.
Interestingly enough, the most compelling figures and moments in history that could be asexual, from people like Catherine Bernard to Agnes Martin (studied in Przybyly and Cooper’s article) have been already considered allo queer or happen to tick the metaphorical boxes for a historical allo queer figure or moment. This means that asexual history has to challenge existing queer history because we might need to change the boxes.
Allo queer/asexual tension
In establishing a methodology for building a “queerly asexual archive”, Przybyly and Cooper assert that where there is queerness, there is asexuality. They state that in historical moments and figures that have been already been identified as “queer”, there is unexplored potential for asexuality and that it remains unexplored due to cultural, feminist, and queer disinterest in asexuality (2014, p. 299).
While there is still a war raging around whether or not asexuality is queer, it is understood by most folks that, even if asexuality isn’t queer (it is), it exists in relation to other sexual identities. In academia, asexual studies and queer studies are still distinct ideas, even if they overlap.
There appears to be a very deep-rooted fear that the existence of asexuality desexualizes and denies sexuality to other queer identities. Allo queer sexuality is vulnerable and regularly challenged in Western society as it defies Western gender norms, cisnormativity, and heteronormativity in a way that destabilizes the status quo (and thus, threatens straight cis folks’ power). Allo queer folks have actively fought to reclaim and celebrate their sexuality. Returning to figures and moments that have already been defined as queer in terms of allo sexuality and exploring the possibility of asexuality can be an act of violently denying an allo queer person their sexuality.
But, on the flip side, failing to consider the possibility of asexuality when exploring moments and figures of queerness in history is an act of violently denying aces our identity and our history. This becomes particularly harmful as allo queer people have used the lack of asexual history as justification for excluding acespecs from queer communities.
I’d like to be able to say that this is a two-way street, that there is a way for us to both get what we need, but I have to be honest. From my perspective, what I see is allo queer people blaming acespecs interested in asexual history for the historical erasure and dehumanization done by straight society. I then see queer people using this justification to continue to erase and deny history to acespec communities.
I understand the need to have a history. I understand how difficult it can be to accept that the small amount of representation that one has can be (and should be) read in a different way.
But there is a huge difference between an acespec person fighting to uncover their lost history and a straight historian rewriting queer history. And, the fact is, allo queer folks are privileged in that their history is being studied and uplifted while asexual history is continuously ignored. When an acespec historian mentions the possibility that a figure or moment previously assumed to be allo queer could be asexual, this need to be considered instead of looked over, challenged, and even blamed.
When we start wondering whether or not it’s harmful to revisit existing understandings of queer moments and figures in history and question their (a)sexuality, we need to remember this: It’s not about denying allo queer folks their history, or their sexuality. It’s about challenging a history in which everyone, including allo queer folks, decided that asexual folks didn’t deserve a history. Acespecs weren’t just pathologized, we were othered, ignored, even erased.
Taking back our history after all this time isn’t pretty. It isn’t going to be successful, either, we’ve lost too much. But it is something we need to do. And while I’d rather do it in a respectful way, there is a distinct possibility that we will step on some toes and that’s going to have to be ok.
Przybylo, Ela & Cooper, Danielle, “Asexual resonances: Tracing a queerly asexual archive”, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 20.3, (2014), <muse.jhu.edu/article/548452> [Accessed 11 March 2018]
tl;dr Social dance has a consent problem but its community-building power is amazing. Some day, I hope we can find a way to make this power truly effective and positive.
One of my earliest memories is going to the family dance with my…family (surprise). We’d do some reels, some ceilidh dances, a ridiculous grand march, a snail walk, folk dances from Russia, Israel, South Africa…sometimes we’d sing, sometimes there was food. It was always a good time.
I grew up on social dance. First at family dances, and once I became a little bit older, I joined my family at contra dances. When I got fed up with contra, I fell into the international folk dance scene for a while, before going off to college in a different country and never looking back (my mom asked me to go to a contra dance during my first year to scope out the band and I refused, she never asked again).
I am mainly going to discuss contra dance because I did that at a particularly formative age that has had a huge impact on my life since and because some of the problems that exist in all social dance communities I have been part of are more visible and easier to talk about in contra dance.
I left social dance for a huge variety of reasons, some were small little annoyances, some were specific to certain communities, some were giant reflections of terrible things in our society.
In the end, it all boiled down to consent – I did not (and still do not) enjoy being touched without my consent. Even while you could technically claim that I consented to certain kinds of touch by participating in the dance, you could also equally claim that I was forced to give that consent. Remember, social dance is a community activity and, for me, it was a family activity. I could either consent to touch, despite being uncomfortable with it, or not participate in my community and family activities. Is that kind of pressure really consent?
That is also ignoring the way my lack of consent was ignored when it should not have been. When I was younger, older adults, even strangers, would pick me up during a dance because I was small and cute. They thought it was funny when I glared at them and demanded they put me down and so, over time, I was conditioned to smile at how proud they were of themselves for picking me up (they always seemed to think they were the first person to ever do that). During a dance, certain moves require slightly more closeness. I would put my hand at the distance I was comfortable with, and the person I was dancing with (usually an adult and a man) would then ignore it and put himself as close to me as possible. There were also the people that would pick up my hand and condescendingly move it to where they wanted it, claiming that they were teaching me to be a better dancer.
This started before I was ten.
Let me make this clearer: I was taught, before I was ten, that the boundaries I set were insignificant and that other people were allowed to redefine my boundaries based on their wishes. I was taught that this was normal and something I should smile at and something I should be thankful for.
When I was around fifteen, I would bring friends to dances and lecture them on how important it is that if someone asks them to dance and they don’t want to, they are allowed to say no. They would shake their heads at me and inform me that that wasn’t polite and saying no made them feel bad. We would hide in corners and talk about all the pushy, older men that made us uncomfortable. There was even one older man that would invite himself to the older teenagers’ after-dance skinny dipping. No one felt safe saying no.
The problem was that, even while I knew, to an extent, that this was wrong, I was not able to recognize exactly how fucked up it really was until I had not gone to a dance for years.
I am now incredibly skittish about attending any kind of social dance – even ones that are far away in distance and content from what I attended when I was younger.
About a year ago, a friend of mine organized an LGBT tea dance at her church. I was wary of going because of aforementioned terrible experiences with social dance, but I wanted to support her, she was someone I trusted to care about my wellbeing and I heard there would be good cake (I’m pretty easily swayed into things by cake).
It was a WONDERFUL time – I didn’t dance loads (finding a partner is a huge social stress for me that I am terrible at) but I felt safe, I enjoyed the people I got to dance with, and I was reminded of why I had started my entire dance life in social dance spaces.
There’s a particular magic about a group of people coming together to dance. It becomes particularly magical, when it is more about the community and social connections being built, as opposed to the kind of skill-building you get in a dance studio.
See, in dance class, in a studio, we still have this cult of the teacher. Even if we’re learning social dance moves or attending class for the social aspect, the teacher and the skills they are teaching us are the focal point.
Even when there is a “teacher” in social dance spaces, they are the facilitator of the dancers’ good time, not the teacher. The entire point of social dance is coming together and building connections. The dance, the teacher…that’s secondary.
I fucking love that.
I’m still not running back to social dance spaces. Honestly, I’m still terrified, but it was good to remember that there is a reason why social dance is amazing and important. And it makes me wonder – how can we build spaces for social dance that are truly positive, safe spaces?
How can we reconcile the absolute fucked-upedness of a lot of social dance spaces with the community it offers?
How can we use social dance to build our communities in positive, healthy ways?
I’m not sure yet, but it’s definitely something on my mind.
[note: I’m well aware that this does not at all get into issues around racism and cultural appropriation in folk dance communities. That does not mean they are not important! I am still figuring out the right way to express my thoughts on these matters. But, in the meantime, please be aware that folk dance communities are also doing pretty poorly in these matters, alongside issues of consent.]
This month, I read about a whole lot of things I want to share with you. Once again, the trans community continues to face loss (and I know I am behind in recording it), so I have decided to also add an action point to these posts. Even as we face loss and frustration, there is always something we can do. Also, lots of good reading from depressed exercise to Star Trek!
Lost this year
Viccky Gutierrez, Lost Angeles, CA
Originally from Honduras, she is described as the “nicest girl in the world”
“I think sometimes being anti-fashion leads to a false notion that we can be in bodies that aren’t modified, and that any intentional modification or decoration of your body is politically undesirable because it somehow buys into the pitfalls of reliance on appearances.”
“The very idea of selfishness is one that by virtue of its existence implies something deeply poisonous and wrong: that in order to get what we want, someone else must pay a cost. And vice versa: if anyone else gets what they want, it comes at a cost to us.”
“Sexism is a male invention. White supremacy is a white invention. Transphobia is a cisgender invention. So far, men have treated #MeToo like a bumbling dad in a detergent commercial: well-intentioned but floundering, as though they are not the experts. They have a chance to do better by Time’s Up.”
“The universe of Star Trek allows us to peer into a possible alternative of our lifestyle. Not just about exploring the universe, but about exploring the human condition that we have all chosen to accept as “normal.” If any of us transported into the world of Star Trek, we would stick out like sore thumbs.”
“But where the well-meaning mentally healthy person sees a straightforward progression toward improvement, we see the paradox: yes, if we could do those things, it might help our depression, but not being able to do those things is a major part of being depressed.”
Tl;dr Aromanticism is STILL a footnote in discussions about asexuality and that means the arospec community has been completely burnt out just trying to exist outside of asexuality, so we should probably change that.
So usually this is the time of year when aromantic awareness week happens and it doesn’t appear to be happening (at least not that I can see). But I firmly believe that this shit is important, so I’m pretending it’s happening anyways.
I really wanted to celebrate Aromantic Awareness week this year. Both AAWs (asexual and aromantic) are struggles for me aroaces are both the gold star identity of each group and also blamed for all problems in both communities. But I was looking forward to embracing that discomfort alongside my fellow aroaces this year.
On one hand, there’s the assumption that asexuals are aromantic and that aromantic folks are asexual. I’m fulfilling that stereotype, woohoo!
On the other hand, there’s the understanding that asexuality and aromanticism are different and that comes with the expectation that aroace folks can separate those two parts of ourselves. Maybe some people can. I can’t. That’s a post for another time.
But there is no apparent Aromantic Awareness Week this year, so what I want to talk about is how completely drained and unsupported all of us arospecs are at the moment.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the arospec awareness week blog has remained inactive this year. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the aromantic voices I am hearing are small and exhausted. And I definitely don’t think it’s a coincidence that when I googled “Aromantic Awareness Week 2018” to see if anything was up, the second link was for Asexual Awareness Week.
And I don’t think it’s at all a coincidence that the most common place we find the word “aromantic” is as a footnote in a thing about asexuality.
Arospecs don’t get to exist except in terms of asexuality and that is terrifying.
This isn’t the fault of aroaces. This isn’t the fault of arospec folks. The aromantic community is tiny and usually under attack. We’re bound to burn out.
I don’t even think the problem is with the asexual community, although I believe the asexual community has a habitual problem of situating itself as an expert on subjects other than asexuality, including aromanticism (that goes into the post I will never write about why I don’t engage in online asexual communities).
The problem is that this is a society that hears “aroace” when someone says “asexual”, but then only views asexual people as human when they can prove that they are still “normal”. For an asexual person, the closest thing to society’s definition of “normal” (which is wrong, for the record), is romantic attraction.
And so, arospecs of all sorts are both dragged into situations they don’t belong while being completely ignored at exactly the same time. We’re attached to asexuals at the same time that we’re being distinctly separated.
This back and forth is enough to give anyone whiplash.
And this is certainly not sustainable.
The thing is, we’ve been so busy in this illogical back and forth between the completely contradictory things being thrown at us that we still haven’t taken aromanticism out of the footnote (and it’s been there for YEARS).
So maybe we should start with that.
And when I say “we”, I mean anyone who has ever dared to even consider “aromanticism” as a footnote or addendum to asexuality.
Once we’ve stopped doing that, us arospecs will hopefully start getting the space and time we need to truly share our voices, support each other, and spread awareness.
Tl;dr Becoming is a framework for looking at and understanding all transitions without prioritizing one over the other.
A lot of my current artistic work engages with transition narratives, particularly how transition narratives are portrayed in media. This article is a good example of the kind of material I’m working with, I’m basically working with anything that obsesses over specific types of binary trans bodies. These materials both dehumanize the subjects in them, reducing them to their bodies (even while giving them an opportunity to talk about their experiences and gain visibility, I’ve written more on that particular balance here) and erases the existence of trans people who do not follow the described pathways of transition (hi!)
That second consequence, while maybe not as obvious, causes a huge amount of harm (as does the first, it’s just a little clearer). In preparing to write this post, I spent a lot of time looking through reflections on transition by other nonbinary folks. There were two common themes – 1) every nonbinary transition is completely different, there is absolutely no “normal trajectory” that can be pinned down. 2) A lot of nonbinary people feel pressured into Transitioning or following the patterns of transition laid out to them by society and the media.
That first point could become a book. I’m not going there. But that second point is something I have also felt. Quite sharply. It’s a form of legitimation. Nonbinary people are so often treated like “trans lite” or as if our identities were stepping stones on the way to a “real” identity. Transition is a socially acceptable means to make our genders “real”. I think West Anderson describes it perfectly in saying, “It used to stress me out, thinking about having to prove to people that I am transgender and that I am transitioning” (2017).
Trans people have to prove our genders and when we cannot follow a normative transition narrative, we are robbed of the chance to prove an identity that shouldn’t require proof in the first place.
While I would like to look at transition narratives in media and say “cool, but no”, that’s not possible. There are trans people that follow those narratives, and this visibility does positively increase access to transition-related medical care. Just because these particular trans folks currently have greater visibility and are able to prove their gender a teensy tiny bit more easily than me does not mean that I can silence them in my own frantic race to be recognized. Instead of replacing one narrative with another one, we need a framework that allows for every single transition narrative.
I first wrote about becoming in a post looking at how cis people control transition narratives in the media for their own entertainment. To quote myself, “I’m slowly becoming my gender, learning what that means for me, letting it grow as I grow and change.” I have read other nonbinary people describing similar experiences: Anderson explains, “I feel like transitioning isn’t quite the right word for what I do. I reify my gender through these actions and in my actions every day. It isn’t showy, its components change daily, and it will never be finished” (2017) while blogger Micah describes top surgery as a “doorway” to the rest of a gender journey (2016) and Joshua M. Ferguson explains, “my transitioning will evolve in unexpected ways over the course of my life. I am transitioning without an end.” (2017).
Instead of thinking of transition as a journey from point A to point B, I believe we will have more productive conversations about transition if we see it as a process of becoming one’s gender. For some, becoming is a journey from point A to point B, for others it’s a journey that never stops, and for others it’s a journey to point C from halfway between points A and B with a stopover at points Y and Z, and for others it’s simply a journey away from all of these points…
The points aren’t that important, it’s the bit in between, the process, the actual pathway of transition. That is when and how we become our gender. It doesn’t matter if we meet a final destination, just that we become.
Time is a particular fascination in my creation process and I’ve been exploiting it recently in order to create and develop processes of becoming. I like to stretch time, bringing my audience on a journey with me, through a mini version of becoming. For example, in my piece, How dare you., I originally had my dancer take a full minute in silence to walk to the front of the stage. This got lost due to time constraints in the actual production, but that opening alongside the repetitive movement brought my audience into a process or experience while time was both condensed and extended.
Another artistic perspective on becoming goes hand in hand with some of my reflections on “non-human” movement. Becoming is a process of finding the human element, or our honesty. For me, honesty is a key component of my work. It is so easy to lie with movement and, as a trans dancer, I don’t want to do that. I want my audience to see me as honestly as possible. To really, truly find that honesty, so I can be my form of human, I need to become, I need to process and develop what that is for me. And for me, that is a neverending process.
Tl;dr While the term “agender” technically does describe my gender experience, it is not a word I take for myself.
It’s a conversation (battle) I’ve been having more and more recently. It goes like this:
Me: I don’t have a gender.
Someone: Oh! You’re agender!
Me: No, I don’t have a gender…
By definition, agender is not having a gender. I get that. But I still find the word “agender” frustrating me. That’s not exactly what I am and I want to pick apart some of the ways it’s used so we can see that more clearly.
First off, I’ve seen agender grouped with asexual and aromantic. That makes sense, right? Not having a gender is a similar experience to not having sexual or romantic attraction. I actually often share the elephant analogy of asexuality in an attempt to explain how all three of these things work for me.
Except, there is also a distinct difference between gender and attraction. I worry that linking these three things perpetuates the obnoxious conflation of gender and attraction. (There are still people that think trans people are always gay and the like. I’m baffled how this is possible, but it apparently is). My gender and my attraction are two distinct entities that happen to be similar. Similar. “Similar” and “the same” are different terms and different experiences.
It also leads to separating “agender” from the umbrella of trans with such statements as “the A in LGBTQA+ stands for asexual, aromantic, and agender!”
I’m really not ok with this statement because it drags “agender” out from under the T, trans, my actual gender experience, and plops it next to a bunch of attraction-based identities. Agender is a trans identity. There are definitely agender people who aren’t trans, but that’s not a reason to deny agender of its connections and experiences and history by defining it against attraction-based identities instead of other gender-related identities.
Secondly, there is a slightly more rigid connotation in English with the “a-” prefix than the “-less” suffix, which is what I prefer (ie. “genderless”). Because greek and latin prefixes such as the “a-” are used in scientific language, it feels more factual and precise than the Germanic (ie. English, ie. a mess) “-less”. My lack of gender isn’t a precise, factual thing, it’s a big, nebulous cloud of nothing. “Agender” just feels a bit wrong when trying to describe that.
Thirdly, the term “agender” did not exist when I first took on my identity. Instead, I found different words to describe my experience. I had to make my word. I made the word “genderless”. And then suddenly, the trans community made the word “agender” and decided that was the official word and started telling me that I was agender. For a while, I thought they were right.
But, I didn’t make it or find the word “agender”. It was more or less forced on me through peer pressure. Other people do not get to tell me the right words for my identity. Agender may describe not having a gender. But it’s not my way of describing it and that’s important.
It’s not my word.
It doesn’t matter why the word frustrates me. It’s a word that makes me uncomfortable and that I do not take for myself. Other folks are welcome to be agender, it appears to have a much more positive meaning for loads of people. But, I’m not agender simply because I don’t want to be. End of story.