Let’s use names

Tl;dr Talking around an identity word instead of using it, even if for the most well-intentioned reasons, really just others folks with that identity and denies their existence. Names have power, so let’s use them!

 

I recently received in-person feedback from one of my audience members during a post-showcase session – they were mainly adamant that I should never ever say the dreaded “f-word” (oops), but they also made a vague allusion to “my message”. I asked what that was, the answer was “wanting to be respected and treated right”. It took a couple more questions and a very blunt, “I would like you to name this”, before they actually said “trans…gender?”

 

No one wants to say the word “trans”. It’s kind of hilarious.

 

I was also recently asked by a well-meaning person “is saying LGBT offensive????”

 

To be honest, I was so surprised by the question that I didn’t answer as well as I could.

 

Here’s the thing: cis folks, straight folks, and yes, allo folks are so scared of messing up that they don’t try.

 

That’s fair. I definitely do that a lot in my life. I’m a perfectionist dependent on validation and sometimes it is scary to do something knowing full well that I will fuck it up. Lie, it’s not scary, it’s TERRIFYING. I get it.

 

But when someone is too scared to try to use proper terminology around queer/lgbt+ identities that they end up condemning us to nonexistence by talking around the word.

 

Every time a cis person says “your identity” or “gender non-conforming” or “who you are” or basically anything that isn’t “trans”, what they’re doing is taking the words I have taken for myself and replacing them with what they’re comfortable with.

 

When someone doesn’t use the word “trans”, they are othering it, they make it seem weird, strange, untouchable, and it means my transness gets less notice and respect as it becomes jumbled around and confused while the cis person fumbles around trying to say the word without actually saying it.

 

It’s kind of cute to watch someone try really hard  not to say the Wrong Thing and constantly miss the obvious choice. You can learn a lot by seeing what choices a person makes – what kind of trans visibility they’ve been exposed to, existing knowledge of queer communities, where they are in their personal allyship journey.

 

But, at the end of the day, all this circumlocution does is create a giant black hole where trans people don’t exist (but there are lots of people with vague, undefined identities that are theirs!)

 

It goes back to all those old folk tales – names have power. There is even the longstanding belief that naming a thing makes it real.

 

When non-queer people are afraid to use basic (I mean basic, “trans”, “lgbt”, “gay”, “bisexual”, not the slightly more complex words) terminology, they aren’t being polite, they’re denying my existence.

 

Here’s a thing: I have the same problem when it comes to discussing race – I’ll happily talk about black folks, PoC, latinx folks, API folks, until I’m facing a person of color and I panic and I go “oh no! what if this specific term I’m using is WRONG” and start doing verbal gymnastics to avoid saying the damn word. I’m sure it’s just as hilarious for people of color to watch as when I let a cis person fumble.

 

I’m learning to sit with that panic and say it anyways. Like seriously, how the hell can I be an ally to black folks if I can’t say the word “black” when a black person is listening? I’m learning to accept that I WILL make mistakes and to look forward to them as opportunities to be better instead of signs of my own inadequacy. I’m learning to be uncomfortable.

 

I’d love to encourage my fellow white folks to do the same.

 

I’d also like to encourage cis/straight/allo folks to do the same.

 

There’s nothing insulting or dirty or wrong about the word “trans” (and no one needs my permission to say “LGBT”). It’s an incredibly important word. So say it! Normalize it! Let me exist on my terms, with the terminology I chose for myself!

 

Let’s name the things and call them what they are!

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CDA for Dance: Movement, Performer, Costume

tl;dr The movement, performer, and costume used in this video of Michael Flatley’s dancer point towards a deep insecurity around Irish dance being a folk or traditional form of dance, as opposed to a concert style of dance. 

So, two months ago, I started on an epic project to explore uses of Critical Discourse Analysis by analyzing this mess of a video with a little help from some choreological practices.

In the first post of this project, I looked at the textual framing of the dancing by analyzing Flatley’s introduction and then analyzed sound in particular. This time, we’re going to keep looking at the different strands of the dance medium individually (we’ll eventually start to relate them!). The three remaining strands are movement, the space (including props) and the performer (including costume). To recap: strands are different elements of a dance performance that work together – dance isn’t just movement, it is also the sounds that accompany it, the person doing the movement, and the space they are doing the movement in.

Movement

I have to admit that I nearly exploded from boredom watching this for movement. Not the footwork, the footwork is impressive and beautiful, but if you sit back and look from a distance, there is pretty much one action besides footwork that the soloist does over and over again – they lift their arms up to a flattened fifth position over their head (just circular enough to be reminiscent of ballet, especially when they’re in a toe stand) and then their arms go down. Over and over and over again.

Now, there’s very practical reasoning for this, Irish dancers aren’t trained in anything but footwork, so, of course  using the whole body has to be somewhat uncomplex to account for that training. I wouldn’t expect anything else from even the most talented Irish dancer, but I do wonder about the choice to have full body movement to begin with. While Flatley does present his dancers as representative of Irish culture, this awkward arm waving speaks differently – it suggests that the choreographer (Flatley) believes dance performance is less when it is only footwork. It speaks to a long standing insecurity in Irish dance which dates back to that myth that Irish dancers don’t move their arms because it technically wasn’t dancing without the arms (and thus, got around the church’s ban on dancing).

By forcing unnatural upper body into the piece, Flatley and anyone else involved in the choreography continues this assumption that only full-bodied movement that includes the arms is real dancing.

Also, consider, Irish dance is a full-bodied dance form. We can still see this in older Irish dance forms. It’s not a balletic or contemporary way to integrate the upper body with the lower body, but it’s connected and natural and Irish.  Instead of using that or embracing the natural upper body movements of Irish dance forms, Flatley (and co-conspirators) add new ones. Not only expressing the insecurity around lack of arm movement, they cut off original Irish dance movement to replace it with something vaguely reminiscent of ballet – a respect for classical dance forms, an insult to traditional dance forms.

Here’s the other element to notice about movement, especially in the second half of the piece: it’s attempting to be sexy. And I kind of think those shoulder rolls were unsuccessful. Now, I am that asexual that has no fucking clue what sexy is, but I do want to make a note of this in terms of the conversation above. Sex sells. That’s a thing little (girl) dancers learn quickly. Sex attracts audience and interest and it’s a quick and easy way to scandalize people (but not too much, just enough so that they’re drawn to watch it). But Irish dance is not designed for hip wiggles, it’s just not that kind of technique. The “sexy” element is added on top of a dance form that doesn’t actually include it. Once again, I see an insecurity about Irish dance – Irish dance is not enough on its own, it needs to be sexy too.

Performer/Costume

If we’re analyzing dance, we are analyzing what we see, not necessarily what we know. This can get sketchy very quickly when talking about gender (lots of things to think about in terms of visibility and audibility YAY!) But, it is important to notice that all the dancers in this piece are perceived as women and that the person introducing them was a man. That creates an immediate power dynamic between Flatley and the dancers, heightened by the fact that we know that this piece is from his show (and that, in his show, this is usually followed by an all-men dance).

The other side to this story is costume. Now, costume is an interesting one. In choreology, it is actually considered part of the performer, as it is an element that affects how we view and interpret the performer. I’m still not completely convinced of this, but I can accept that it needs to go somewhere and we might as well group it as performer in this particular model.

Costume, in this piece, is important because this is a pseudo-burlesque piece. The dancers take off their clothes. The dancers are all perceived as women, directed and introduced by a man, and take off their clothes, but never enough to actually challenge social comfort (Flatley wants to keep his younger audiences, I suspect).

More or less, the piece doesn’t seem to commit to anything – not the upper body movement, as discussed above, not the possibilities of costume, and not the pseudo-burlesque framework it takes on. It’s scared.

Space

Did you notice that the theme of this event was stars? If Flatley hadn’t already made his clever play on words, the starry background would have helped make it clear. Keep in mind that this is a corporate event as well, so it might not be a full-fledged dance stage. That means, this stage fits less people than what Flatley and his dancers are used to (there are lots of videos of space that actually have dancers on an upper level dancing along with the dancers on the stage, there are videos of an impressive SEA of Irish dancers, that’s not this video). This is still, however, a proscenium stage that raises the dancers slightly above the audience, building a distance between the two.

There’s not much to say here, but I do want to point out that, once again, this stage is more a space for concert dance than Irish dance. Originally, Irish dance is done in live music settings – dancing “at the crossroads” (ie. where two roads from different towns/villages meet), in pubs, and, even in competitions, the spaces where we compete can be a floor in a gym or a cafeteria, always vaguely in the round and situated within a community instead of against it. Stages are something that comes with the transition of Irish dance from traditional and competition-based to another concert dance form. Worth noticing.

Conclusion

Pretty much, this piece is saying that Irish dance, on its own, is not enough.

(I’ll rant about that nonsense in the future, most likely).

The conclusion we can draw from looking at movement, performer, and space separately is an insecurity around Irish dance being a traditional dance form and a push to formalize it into a concert dance form. There’s also some interesting power systems at play when it comes to gender and who gets to decide what Irish dance, culture, or tradition is. Up next, we’ll look at how the four strands that were isolated here interact with each other in specific ways to build on this conclusion.

 

A gratitude

Tl;dr In traversing various queer communities, the one constant I have seen is how older queer folks make space for us younger queer folks, and I am forever grateful.

 

There are many people in my life that I appreciate, but I have to say it is the openness and generosity of older queer people in my life that have made the work I do possible and kept me feeling like a human despite everything.

 

I don’t have a trans dancer role model, I really wish I did, but instead I kind of have to slot some puzzle pieces of different options together and hope to find the right kind of models in the mosaic. And that’s why it’s so amazing that I do have a whole boatload of older queer people who make space for me to figure my shit out. I want to honor that. I need to honor that. Because these are the people that are making me.

 

I am a traditional dancer, lineage is important, history is important. Dancing with older keepers of the tradition is important. And the same is true with queer culture. Even people just ten years older than me hold queer history in a way that I don’t. And then they let me become part of that and I am so eternally grateful.

 

I am grateful for the people that respond with an enthusiastic “yes!” whenever I ask them to hash out a theory with me. I am grateful for the people that have taken chances and given me opportunities I technically didn’t qualify for. I am grateful for the people that sit down with me to tell me about their work (and who sometimes then turn the question around and ask me about my work as if I’m an equal).

 

This whole try-to-be-a-professional-dancer lark would not be possible except for these amazing people making space for me.

 

And that is the beauty of our queer community. We take care of each other and support each other in ways that extends beyond family.

 

I usually talk about queer communities and trans communities, a plural to point out how different queer and/or trans communities have been formed around race, class, ability, geography, culture, acespec and arospec identities, language and the like. It is important to recognize that the mainstream queer community is still a hostile environment for many many people – self-proclaimed “queer” spaces discuss sex like a universal experience and don’t include trans people, trans events happen up five flights of stairs and secretly focus on trans sexuality, despite being advertised as a general trans event, and it’s almost incredible (in a disgusting sort of way) how often an “all-queer” group is quite often also “all-white” and somehow the people involved believe the fact that the group is “all-queer” negates the violence perpetuated by the whiteness.

 

That is on top of some of the more innocent differences – I froze in horror the first time I saw the word “homo” in Finland before learning that the term was more or less an abbreviated way to say “homoseksuaali” in Finnish and did not hold the same power the english “homo”. I still struggle with how queer Americans tend to make much more generalized statements and use larger-reaching identity groups than the specificity that I had gotten used to in England (it’s uncomfortable for me, but I’m pretty sure we’re just used to different things).

 

There are so many queer communities in the world, it makes my mind spin. But there is still this constant – older queer people reaching out and making space for young queer folks. In every country, in every language, in every community I have been part of.

 

And there’s really nothing I can say beyond that I am incredibly awestruck by this one, single, simple community constant  and eternally grateful.

 

And all I can do is to continue to reach out and make space for the queer folks who are younger than me.

 

 

Les Ballet Trockadero at the Dancing Queerly Festival

Tl;dr The Dancing Queerly Festival has made a mistake in inviting in Les Ballet Trockadero to teach a workshop, but there is currently open dialogue happening, which will hopefully build a resolution. I am choosing to remain involved in the festival in order to ensure that there is a present trans voice. And I hope, if nothing else, to remind my fellow trans dancers that we are in this together.

All right folks, this is a hard one.

I am currently involved with the incredibly exciting Dancing Queerly Festival (check it out: http://www.thefemmeshow.com/dancing-queerly.html). I consulted for one of the workshops, I’ll be teaching a quick dip into Irish dance at the Dance Curious workshop, and I’ll be performing in the final performances. It’s an exciting, much-needed event in a public, visible space, and I want to be excited by it.

However, as part of this festival, Les Ballet Trockadero were invited to do a workshop, under the belief that the educational branch of the company could be engaged outside of the transmisogyny inherent in the company’s concept and the clear transphobia and harassment in the company. I was not involved in this decision and did not learn of it until publicity for the festival came out. I then spent a lot of time scared to speak up about my discomfort around this. When I did, the organizers were receptive and we are currently discussing the matter.

The organizers have been clear that they intend to go forward with the workshop anyways. I disagree with this, but I can recognize the difficulties and challenges they are facing on all sides – there’s nothing simple about organizing a queer anything. I also recognize that the Trocks fit into a a part of drag culture which balances on the very thin line between queer and transmisogynistic (and can be both). There is queer history here, even if I, personally, don’t like it.

Maybe I’m setting the bar too low, maybe I’m setting the bar too high, but I can truly say that the Dancing Queerly organizers have listened to what I have to say, have plans in place to listen to specific trans feminine folks and trans women, and will be engaging with the Trocks on their policies. Considering the current culture of the dance world (ie. incredibly toxic for trans folks), the pressures placed on queer folks by cis/straight/allo folks, the pressures placed on queer folks by each other, and the actual, very real constraints of time and energy, it has to be enough.

I am well aware that, by staying in this festival, I am, in some ways, endorsing the presence of the Trocks in the festival. I also am aware that, if I leave, I will be removing trans voice from one of the first queer dance festivals. Having been the tiny trans dancer looking for representation, I know how heartbreaking it would be to look at a QUEER dance festival and not see a single trans person (I am still unclear on how many trans people are involved in the festival as there are people involved that I do not know and the organizers did not answer when I asked).

I’m not completely sure if I’m making the right decision but the fact is, Dancing Queerly is still one of the most open and decent productions I have been a part of. Up until now, I’ve mostly been dancing in obnoxiously straight/cis/allo spaces. Even dancing in just a cis/allo space is so much better (and I have no information on exactly how allo the space is either, I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised). That’s why the transphobia (transmisogyny) here is that much more upsetting, but that’s also why it’s so important that productions like Dancing Queerly happens. The dance world is so far away from where it needs to be, even baby steps are huge.

Fellow trans folks – I can’t ask you to participate in this festival. It wasn’t built with us in mind. But I would still love to dance with you at the Dance Curious workshop on June 20th, if just for my own selfishness. I consulted for that workshop, so I can wholeheartedly say that it lines up with my values and any mistakes or harm caused by the workshop is on me. I’m excited to share Irish dance with queer folks because there is always such a divide between my Irish dance world and my queer world. I want to spend my twenty minutes really, truly sharing my love with members of MY community.

And, most importantly, I want you to know that you’re not alone. None of us are the only one. None of us should have to carry the entire weight of cis people’s mistakes on our shoulders. None of us have to do this alone. Dance is fucking hard. But we’re in this together and we’ll figure it out. Promise.

(The organizers of Dancing Queerly are good open listeners if you have any concerns or thoughts or questions around the festival. I am also an open ear and happy to talk more about this specific situation or anything else vaguely related to transness, dance, and all those other things I’m interested in – send me a message here or email me at jotrolldance@gmail.com)

Some May Readings

May was a busy month of cramming in as much creative making as possible and not a lot of reading happened. We have a short, but sweet list of reading here this month.

 

I do, however, want to talk a little about those lost this year. I usually try to find the article or notice that most clearly shows who the victim was as a person in a small attempt to honor their life without turning them into political tools. There’s a time to talk about death in terms of a system of transmisogyny and racism, and there’s time to truly mourn. I need the space to mourn.

 

However, finding an article that does the least harm while letting me mourn is sometimes near impossible. There are two examples of this in this month’s list – I originally found out about Nicole Hall as a side comment in articles about Carla Patricia Flores-Pavón. She was simply “another trans woman” who had been found and remained unidentified. With enough googling, I managed to find articles listing her birth name. Finding an article that properly listed her and linked to the family’s gofundme (linked below) took almost twenty minutes.

 

Then we have Nino Fortson – almost all articles I originally found described Fortson as “gender non-conforming” and left it at that. It was my own discomfort with the term that got me to push forward and to keep looking. While my research seems to have found that Fortson was actually a man, which makes me question the use of “gender non-conforming” to begin with, it’s also possible that Fortson existed in a trans space that wasn’t necessarily definable to cis people. And there’s no way to know because we just keep losing lives and folks keep on misreporting it.

 

It hurts. It hurts to see these articles that can’t ever quite keep up. I know so many people have made this call to reporters before. I know there have been changes. But all I want is to be able to honor and mourn the people I am losing in my extended trans family without also having to wade through the transphobia that killed them in the first  place. Is that so much to ask?

 

Lost this Year

 

Amia Tyrae, Baton Rouge, LA

An “awesome friend”

Read more

 

Nicole Hall

A “pioneer” and integral figure in Texas Black Trans Community

Support her family as they pay for her final arrangements

 

Carla Patricia Flores-Pavón

A good person, her loss hurts

Read more

 

Nino Fortson

Member for the House of Blahnik in the Atlanta ballroom scene

Read more

Reading

 

Dissociating when Triggered By Intimacy: A Guide to Check In, When Checking Out

 

“I have been spending hours looking for an article or zine about signs of dissociation, I keep reading things that say, “it’s when you space out or are on auto-pilot,” but to be honest, I can never know what another individual specifically experiences when dissociating. I know what it means for me, but I can’t say how that is for others, but when a person knows instinctively, they know.”

 

For the Love of the Void

 

“I’ve found, over time, that there are many ways of loving, of caring, of showing affection. I remember friends’ stories, I laugh with their families, I relax in their presence, I share in their joy. We hold hands, we make plans, we text each other when we get home safely. There is no perfect someone out there who will ‘complete’ us; there are many people who will improve us, and many we will improve in turn.”

 

In A World That Polices Black Movement, ‘Black Boys Dance Too’ Is Revolutionary

 

“But Black Boys Dance Too is a movement far more expansive and far less concrete than the performances conjured by its founder. It is also an idea ― a  proclamation from black men that black, male dancers are to be acknowledged, and that the black experience more broadly is worthy of center stage.”

 

Flippancy is all well and good until it isn’t

Tl;dr I need to stop being flippant about my contemporary dance because it is really only hurting me.

Jo Troll_Dance Shot - credit Ray Bernoff
Photograph by Ray Bernoff. [image is a white nonbinary person in a black and white striped shirt and rainbow hat. There are blue, pink, and purple balls of yarn trailing off of them and they are fingerknitting the pink yarn while standing casually on their toes]

I’ve been getting too flippant about my art recently. Now, I’m all for a certain amount of flippancy. There needs to be a bit of perspective. I mean, I’m rolling around on the floor, tying myself up with yard, and it’s impossible not to look at myself and laugh.

 

Art is ridiculous.

 

I am ridiculous.

 

But there’s a huge risk in flippancy. As I’ve become more and more flippant in describing my art (“oh, I’ll just wave a glass of water and shout at you for a while!” or “I’m just going to tie myself up with yarn now, isn’t this weird?”), the less I take myself seriously.

 

The fact is that there is quite a lot of serious, conscious choice that goes into the ridiculous things I do. Yes, I filled a room with yarn last year and it was an utter fucking pain, but it was also an incredibly impactful installation that forced people to think about gender and me in new ways. It was successful, thoughtful, and elegantly constructed. It wasn’t just “filling a room with yarn”.

 

I used to have the opposite problem – I would take everything too seriously. The one thing that would leave me frothing at the mouth was people making fun of Irish step dance. They always do that stupid thing where they hop around on one foot and kick their leg back and forth and go “yeah! Look! Irish dance! Time for a wee Guinness!” I used to always lose my cool when I saw that. It was disrespectful, they didn’t understand the amount of hard work it took to do Irish dance, they didn’t want to, etc. etc. etc.

 

This could easily lead into a long conversation about cultural appropriation, but I honestly don’t think Irish dance is a worthwhile battle ground for that. So, here’s what I will say about that: Irish dance, while it has been appropriated and misinterpreted like many forms of traditional and folk dance, has not suffered identity theft to the same level as other forms of traditional dance, because it Irish dancers are mostly white.

 

The point being, people making fun of Irish dance (or trying to do it on St. Patrick’s day, *sigh*) are annoying, but harmless. There was really no reason for me to waste my energy getting upset every time someone tried to imitate MY form of dance, and I did eventually realize that. And I never went WAY in the other direction with that because I respect the culture and tradition of Irish dance, but I did get incredibly flippant about my contemporary work.

 

Part of it was rebellion – I was a traditional, trans dancer in a cis-centered environment that thrived on the belief that “breaking tradition” was the best thing out there. Even while I was using contemporary dance tools, it was empowering to go “eh, they’re just rolling around on the floor” back at all the people that saw my dancing as lesser, particularly the ones that said condescending nonsense about Irish dance, or demonstrated the hopping-around-on-one-foot thing, thinking they could do it better than other folks because they were Dancers. I needed to be able to create a perspective in which the work I did had just as much power.

 

But, I have a secret: I like rolling around on the floor.

 

This year, I have been focusing almost all my energies on Irish dance. It is definitely a rebellion after being told off (quite literally) for trying to approach “complex” ideas with “form” (ie. “has structure”, ie. “traditional”, ie. “apparently a structure is bad?”). And it gives me deep pleasure that I just recently performed a fairly successful piece with the exact same steps that my supervisor told me last year were “nothing but form” before telling me to go roll around on the floor for a while (ok. Fair. She didn’t say “go roll around on the floor”, she said something about “exploring quality” in a way that didn’t allow for a dance technique like Irish). I’m actually really fucking proud of the exploration I’ve been doing this year in my own Irish dancing, my shoes, and just dealing with that questions of traditional v. radical (and why not both?).

 

Another secret: The other reason I’ve been focusing my energies on Irish dance this year is because I’m insecure about my rolling around on the floor abilities.

 

While I do now have an Irish dance community (YAY BOSTON!), I still mostly present my work alongside contemporary dancers. Contemporary dancers that are more trained in contemporary/modern dance than me. Anything I do in Irish next to a contemporary dancer is flashy because it’s completely fucking different (seriously, I can do the most basic thing WRONG and people are applauding and cheering and saying I’m amazing, it’s kind of weird). But I am scared to be an Irish dancer doing contemporary dance next to contemporary dancers. I’m most definitely a contemporary dancer in contrast to other Irish dancers, but no matter how much I like rolling around on the floor, I am still scared to do it in front of other people.

 

Flippancy is no longer a rebellion, it’s become an excuse. Instead of admitting my fear, I go “oh, haha! That’s what weird contemporary dancers do” with a tiny disclaimer on the side to point out that I am sometimes one of them. In the end, it’s not making me feel better about my Irish dance, it’s making me feel worse and worse about my contemporary dance.

 

I’m working on taking myself seriously again. Yes, there’s a time to be flippant, there’s a time to admit the ridiculousness of what we do, but there is also a time to sit down and say “You know what? This is important and valuable and serious”. Maybe contemporary dance isn’t “traditional” in the same way that Irish dance is, but it has a history and culture and tradition that deserves respect. And, whether I like it or not, I am part of that world. Disregarding it is only hurting myself.

 

The fact is that I may “roll around on the floor with yarn”, but that’s the most reduced version of what I do. In fact, I create complex, difficult, challenging work with explicit content around trans identity in society that merges Irish dance technique and structures with contemporary dance expectations. That might sound like a bunch of fancy academic dance gobbledygook. But, you know what? I think my work is good enough for that.

 

The non-flippant translation: I make damn good work that takes from both Irish and contemporary dance worlds and deals with difficult questions around trans identities.

 

Asexual readings of history: Ace/Aro tensions

Tl;dr Due to how new asexual and aromantic vocabulary is, including the split attraction model, we can best study asexual and aromantic history by conflating the two.

Image result for jughead jones asexual
[image is of Jughead and Keller, two white boys from the Archie comics: Jughead is on the left, wearing a crown and a striped shirt. Keller is on the right with blond hair and a checkered dress shirt with tie. Jughead asks “Wait, worse than me getting kicked out??” and Keller responds, “Look, there are only, like, five gay guys at Riverdale high! My Romantic options can’t take that kind of hit! You just don’t get it cause you’re asexual…”]
Two months ago, I started writing about the challenges and tensions of studying asexual and aromantic histories as I’ve been developing methodology. First, I wrote about the tension between queer and asexual histories. Now, I’d like to delve into a tension between asexual and aromantic identities. I’ve been seeing this particular tension growing a lot within our communities, which actually excites me a little, as it means that the aromantic community is big enough and strong enough for there to be tension (just barely), so this is an interesting moment in time (and history) to be discussing this.

 

The thing is, us asexuals really love the split attraction model. We ADORE it. We love it because it lets us say things like “it’s ok, asexual people can still love!” and offers us a back door into queer and lgbt+ communities when they stare closing their doors and claiming to only include “trans and sga” people (I’m still so confused by SGA, where did that even come from? It was literally an acronym used to deny space to asexual people and it just baffles me that that isn’t even the longest length people will go to do that). We also love the split attraction model because it offers insight into some pretty complicated shit – attraction is messy and confusing. Of course romantic and sexual attraction are different. That’s one tiny baby step towards understanding everything.

 

Except, if we’re studying a historical figure or moment, we’re looking at stuff from people who didn’t know what asexuality was, let alone, what the split attraction model was. Sure, there were probably plenty of biromantic asexual folks out there, and bisexual aromantic folks out there and that is a VERY different experience – but how different does it look in a single sentence from someone who doesn’t know the difference when we read it hundreds of years later?

 

Whether or not we like it, in order to find asexual and aromantic historical figures and moments, we have to accept that we cannot use the split attraction model. We have to conflate asexuality and aromanticism. We have to be able to see that these were words and tools that did not used to exist.

 

Aro/Ace visibility: Contemporary example

 

Of course, all of this comes down to one question: what can we actually find in historical documents? I want to start in the contemporary, because this pretty much aligns with a recent conversation around representation, which may be a little easier to grasp because folks in the middle of the conversation had the words we use in asexual and aromantic communities today to discuss the issue. So, let’s talk a little about Jughead. Full disclaimer, I’ve never read Archie comics (if you’re me, you’d stop reading now), and I consciously chose not to watch Riverdale when I found out that Jughead would not be aromantic. That said, I did get to witness the asexual/aromantic tensions that rose from that moment and was harmed by how quickly and excitedly all sorts of queer folks used this as an excuse to stampede all over aro folks.

 

In his own study of Jughead’s coming out moment in the Archie comics, Miller points out how Jughead is not only identified as asexual by another person (ie. It isn’t really self-identification until Jughead agrees with the other character, Keller), but that Jughead is identified as both asexual and aromantic together (Miller, p. 360). This, of course, was the beginning of a lot of conversation around asexual representation. In the beginning, it was specifically around the queer/asexual tension that I have previously discussed. Aroaces did not really claim Jughead as their own until Riverdale came out, keeping Jughead as asexual, but giving him a girlfriend. For us aroaces, it was an act of betrayal, even while other aces were excited to see media that recognized the split attraction model and represented an asexual person in a relationship.

 

While I do personally believe that this is an instance of overlooking aromanticism and legitimizing asexuality through respectability politics, it’s important to recognize that the original representation lumped asexuality and aromanticism together in a strange, undefined way that made it difficult to pick apart in the first place. Jughead’s aromanticism did not become pertinent until it was taken away. Up until that point, a strange conflation of asexual and aromantic had been fine. It had told readers about Jughead.

 

In practice: a historical example

 

Here’s a historical example: Laura (ace-muslim) wrote this brilliant study of possible asexual muslim women a while back. I still think it’s probably one of the most effective and successful historical studies of asexual figures that I have read to date (so like, go and read it, seriously). I want to draw your attention to the second woman studied here: Rabi’a bint Isma’il. Laura mentions:

 

“A discussion of Rabi’a’s sexuality appears in several reports listed on page 316 of Early Sufi Women.

 

Ahmad ibn Abi al-Hawari [d. 845 CE] said… She said to me: “I do not love you in the way that married couples do; instead, I love you [with] the love of siblings…”

 

Here, Rabi’a explains her own feelings. The reference to love could be taken to mean that she was aromantic, but the other reports suggest that what she wanted to avoid was sex.”

 

While we could say that Laura glosses over the potential of aromanticism here in order to prioritize asexuality, I would argue that this might be the only way to do it. In context, Jughead and the Riverdale fiasco happened in the past few years. The fact that the creators did not use and engage with the split attraction model is atrocious. But, how can we expect an account from 845 CE to clarify the distinction? The line is blurry and confusing and, unless people know the words, we’re never going to know how they identified. All we can do is recognize possibility, which Laura does her quite well.

 

We have to conflate asexuality and aromanticism in a way that would be abhorrent in a contemporary context because it may be the only way to properly identify both asexual and aromantic figures and moments in history. We have to think about the distinctions people make in their original context – we could argue that Rabi’a was aromantic because of she loves with “the love of siblings”, but consider the context we are given later in the article, “Celibacy in women has never been considered an ideal; while virginity may be prized, this is only prior to marriage. The ideal Muslim woman has always been understood as a wife, and a wife is expected to be sexually available to her husband at all times” (Laura (ace-muslim), 2015). This is a context in with marriage could be understood as sex, so saying “I do not love you in the way that married couples do” could be simply saying “I don’t want sex.”

 

The thing is, the possibilities are endless – Rabi’a could be asexual, she could be aromantic, she could be anything else you can imagine. But, if we use the possibility of aromanticism to block the possibility of asexuality (because it doesn’t quite fit contemporary distinctions), that’s just messing with both possibilities.

 

Conclusion

 

Let’s return to Catherine Bernard for two seconds. When I started writing that article, I was very careful to say asexuality OR aromanticism, noting that many of the points I were making could be attributed to either identity depending on the perspective. I didn’t want to overlook the potential of aromanticism or suggest that aromanticism and asexuality were the same thing. As I continued writing, it became more and more cumbersome and the more I started tying myself up in knots to deal with the information I had to go on.

 

And, let’s talk context, 17th century french fairy tales do not discuss sex or sexuality outright (there are innuendos, but that’s a whole other art form, and mainly D’Aulnoy), they discuss “love”. What the actual fuck is love? Sexual? Romantic? Sensual? Aesthetic? Trust me, I’ve read loads of these tales, the one thing that is always true is that it is an overwhelming passion that leads people to make the exact opposite of a logical decision. (Trust me, every time I read “Ines de Cordoue”, I spent the entire time going, “Ines, no! that is not what you want to do! Why do you even think that’s a good idea?”)

 

Beyond that, we have to accept that all interpretations with contemporary lingo are true. Asexuality and aromanticism are, in this context, the same thing because we do not have a distinction in context. We have to conflate asexuality and aromanticism in order to see a perspective that has no distinction for the two identities.

 

References/Further Reading

 

Laura (ace-muslim), “Potentially Asexual Women in Early Muslim History”, Notes of an Asexual Muslim, 2015 <http://ace-muslim.tumblr.com/post/123560285666/potentially-asexual-women-in-early-muslim-history&gt; [accessed 15 May 2018]

 

Miller, Nicholas E., “Asexuality and Its Discontents: Making the ‘Invisible Orientation’ Visible in Comics”, Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, 1.3 (2017) <https://muse.jhu.edu/article/679772&gt; [accessed 25 February 2018]