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.
Existing ace history: Pathologization, queer-otherness
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.
Mackay, Brad, “Asexuals, The Group That Kinsey Forgot”, University Affairs, 2013 <https://www.universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/asexuals-the-group-that-kinsey-forgot/> [Accessed 11 March 2018]
Mills, Laura, “Magnus Hirschfeld, The Founder”, Making Queer History, 2016 <https://www.makingqueerhistory.com/articles/2016/12/20/magnus-hirschfeld-the-founder> [Accessed 11 March 2018]
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]
Tristifere, “What Is Asexual History? Part Two: The 19Th And 20Th Century”, Acing History, 2015 <https://acinghistory.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/what-is-asexual-history-part-two-the-19th-and-20th-century-2/> [Accessed 11 March 2018]