This was (belatedly) written for the February 2021 Carnival of Aces: “Comparing Ace Spaces” by Ace Film Reviews.
Asexuality meant liberation for me. First, from compulsory sexuality in the shape of an ever-felt male gaze. My body felt so much more my own after that. Second, from needing to be heterosexual. I could go find out how my sexuality actually worked, and all that we associate with that in the broadest terms, how we touch each other, how we love each other, how we are intimate with each other.
Asexuality has also meant loneliness for me. No library held any books or articles about me. The internet held a handful of interviews in Dutch and Belgian women’s magazines. The women’s history centre in Amsterdam, Atria, was the only one I ever found some physical copies of articles. In its absence from Dutch, I was quietly taught to experience my asexuality in English. In its sole, marginal presence being in queer and feminist spaces, it taught me I needed to seek like-minded people there, only to be dismissed as a lesbian still half in denial. I find limited welcome in queer spaces.
Asexuality has also meant silence for me. When I discovered we were empowering ourselves by making up words for our experiences as we go along, I glommed onto that. If English words exist and are accepted, they are easily enough borrowed by Dutch. Queer, gender and nonbinair are now Dutch words, after all. There is not yet a good space for me in my language.
Asexuality has meant erasure for me. Several times have I come out to people who then forgot that I did, even after good, deep and long conversations. It’s like a word needs to be powered by belief, needs to be accepted enough, before it – and what it means – sticks in people’s mind. This is how I have known erasure, such effective wiping of queerness from mainstream society that people reflexively forget such an alien thing. Not maliciously. Not ignorantly. Just… I am too alien to comprehend. Too queer to contain, to retain, in the regular mind. I have a hard time making space for myself in my social circle, sometimes.
Asexuality has been almost solely online for me. Forums at first, but mostly I have ventured in and out of the English-language asexual blogosphere. Here, I’ve had most of my education. Here I’ve found some representation. My asexual space is online, in my second language, when I need it there.
I’m grateful what it has given me, but I would wish for more. I have recently started looking into expressing my ace self more, again, now I’ve also figured out more about my gender and romantic orientation, and am more at peace. I’m ready to try again to create space, where I find welcome. It’s just sometimes I’m sad that it needs to be created as I go along. It’s tiring and lonely work, sometimes, to be one of the first, in any space.
TW: Homophobia, transphobia, conversion therapy, purity culture.
J.K. Rowling’s 2008 proclamation that Albus Dumbledore was gay is usually contrasted with her trans-exclusionism, in the video essays and articles I have consumed on the topic, though her resistance to showing him as such in the Fantastic Beasts is seen as part of her journey to the dark side. In hindsight, I think rather the tragic celibate gay man should have been foreshadowing of her queerphobia, given the parallels with homophobic propaganda in conservative christian spheres.
Let us use this character as a magical introduction to the key role queer people are made to play in their own oppression, within purity culture. And why asexuality may serve as a long-awaited Finite.
I have read Harry Potter more often than I’ve read the bible. As a teen, I could quote the books the way serious bible-thumpers could pull out a verse for every occasion. It is our choices that make us who we are was the millenial confession of self-determination in the face of our elders’ overwhelming expectations. I bought paper and printer cartridges with pocket money so I could print out my favourite epic slash fiction to read on vacation, back when wireless internet was rare and smartphones were for adults. So my heart soared, along with millions of others, when Word of Rowling came down that, yes, canon contained a gay character, our beloved quirky mentor.
But on the threshold between 2020 and 2021, Albus Dumbledore reads like a conservative gay young man who fell for charismatic fascist Gellert Grindelwald. His ‘weakness’, same-sex attraction, led directly to the tragic death of an innocent maiden, his sister Ariana Dumbledore. After failing his family, he repented, too late, and forever after led the life of an eccentric celibate bachelor who guides bright young minds to lead a better life than he did. He denounced all sexual activity in order to focus on working for the greater good.
At the end of his life, he personally mentors a promising, powerful young man, Harry Potter, who was mistreated because he was different, because a similar young man, Tom Marvolo Riddle, that he ignored, became an evil terrorist like his one-and-only love. So he guides Harry Potter into a life of heroic sacrifice that will kill the evil inside of him. Harry survives to live in middle-class bliss with a wife and children. Harry himself mentors his son Albus Severus Potter who is also, y’know, different, away from his best friend in the whole world, Scorpius Malfoy, in the sequel. Albus’ legacy lives on.
A queer person who grows up in purity culture today will be told they aren’t evil. No! Instead, God gave them a great challenge to overcome, same-sex attraction or maybe the feeling of being born in the wrong body. They might hear Jackie Hill Perry, (a queer woman of colour, sarcastic exclamation mark!) from Gay Girl, Good God give the testimony of how she chooses to live a heterosexual life. An older queer christian might point them towards therapy or offer informal counseling that, yes, is indeed a form of conversion therapy.
As Albus Dumbledore guided Harry Potter to nobly sacrifice his life to kill the horcrux inside of himself, that evil embodied by Tom Riddle, queer Christians only need to sacrifice their queer selves so they can live happily-ever-after. Every church will tell a queer person they are welcome. Most say so in the belief that welcoming the queer person is the first step in changing them ‘for the better’. This approach is codified in the doctrine Love the sinner, hate the sin. The repentant queer person has the starring role, as both road map and trojan horse. Save the person, kill the gay (or trans), and be granted the blessed living death of never coming out and never transitioning.
Looking back, Albus Dumbledore reads a lot like J.K. Rowling’s trying to give an ex-gay man a redemption arc like he needs it. He even kills the innocent white woman in his care, the capital crime in western literature. He – as the sole queer character from Harry Potter – sure looks like a precursor to Rowling’s transgender serial killer in that light. The difference being that Dumbledore was portrayed as (debatably) redeemed, and saving other ‘different’ young men from a life of evil. Finally victorious, posthumously, in Harry.
In all this, note that celibacy, or the not having (queer) sex, has become the crowning mark of salvation for the queer person, to modern purity culture. Note, too, that virginity, the not having of sex, is the more traditional mark of the virtuous young white woman. Abstinence, the not having of extra-marital sex, is the gold standard for the heterosexual person. The central conceit of purity culture is that lust is the most powerful force of evil and thus controlling it, by strict rules, lifestyle and yes, choice, leads to the eponymous purity. The intra-marital sex is the (heterosexual) reward this side of heaven.
Asexuality undermines that central conceit. It queers sexual attraction – lust – by making a spectrum of orientations for it. It centers consent and attraction in the choice to have sex. One’s attitude towards sex becomes a matter of feeling favour, indifference or aversion. Sexual ethic is framed as being positive or negative towards sex happening in general. Sexual activity is based on whether you choose to engage in that intimacy, on what feels good, on whether you’re trying to have children, on what you’d like to try, to see how it feels. Y’know, while safe, sane and consensual. Sexual violence is just violence, no excuses or titillation. It even questions the necessity and quality of that holiest-of-holies, intra-marital sex. People cannot be pure or fallen, only agents of good and evil. Our choices make us who we are.
Us asexual transgender people sure make a lie out of J.K. Rowling’s idea that we’re predators chasing after them innocent white ladies. I only wish for queer-platonic cuddles with consenting ladies. And other persons. Of all skin tones.
Finite incantatem. The illusion is broken.
Ariana was never the virginal victim of Albus’ sin, but a young woman whose life was cut short before she could become sexually active. Albus’ implied celibacy, after his one crush on Gellert, is only the mark of a deeply closeted conservative gay man who had a deeply traumatic experience, but who ought not get to dictate how we live our lives.
Honestly… I’m glad Dumbledore’s homosexuality is never portrayed in the Fantastic Beasts movies. Considering our luck, his making moon-eyes at Grindelwald would immediately be followed up by Ariana’s dying, with a clear causal relation. Representation as good as Castiel’s instant trip to Superhell after coming out, with none of the meme potential.
For the May edition of the Carnival of Aces: Quarantine.
It seemed, one day to the next, the queer spaces I used to go in various personas had been taken away in one fell swoop. At home, at home I was private. What did I have to express there?
I forgot, for two months, I need to express gender to myself, as well. As much as thoughts sometimes need writing down in a journal to take their full form, though they already existed inside my head.
As the shade of the plague shows the first signs of waning, I start with jewelry. Only what is ambiguous, chunky or functional I keep out. All femme decorations I pack up for the year.
Clothes are selected to leave me only what is comfortable and what crosses gender lines in my eyes. The rest I put into boxes. I corner myself on the queer end of my gender spectrum, where I’ve been hesitant to go.
For the pièce de resistance, a proper binder. It arrives in the mail on the tailcoat of May. I unroll its not-quite-too-much tightness over my shoulder. It suits me ill, a too-short crop top, until I discover I need to do some repositioning for an even distribution of squashing across the chest.
Just to try, I button a shirt over it. Perfect. I can at least experiment with this while all I can do is zoom.
It’s a highlight in what has been a dark time. While it’s hard to be horny when I’m both on the asexual spectrum and indifferent to the having of sex, my skin has ached since the first press conference announcing we needed to keep a metre and a half distant from one another.
This time has shown the sharp contrast between the fulfillment of aesthetic attraction – that draw towards a person that is assuaged by the sight and sound of them – and the more sensual, which I have no way to indulge with anyone, platonic or romantic.
It has also revealed the importance of a desire – sometimes attraction, sometimes not – for which I have no name – for the actual company of those I like and love. It is a desire that is no respecter of relationship categories. More than ever, I see why love is mostly just… love. From the first inkling for new persons to the bedrock it’s for those I hold most dear.
My cross purpose
Among the padding
To seek the opposite
For the days when less
We are guided to think
I discover, by selection
If a majority shouts pretend
To have larger breasts
I can’t forage for bargains
Choice is no longer spoilt
Instead you are precious
I, a treasure hunter. New
Role to play
Revealed in the practice
A body chafes, sweats, itches
Needs care in the fabric
That dresses her in their
I feel freshly apprenticed
Finished the introduction
This shopping trip only
Chapter two of much
Gender expression, even
Broken into body parts
Is scales, not binaries
I seek to buy inbetweens
Days curves displease
Flesh resists the binding
Form and comfort meet
In layers of cotton
I happen upon you
One department over
Advertised as sportswear
But I will buy you to sleep
A/N NOT comfortable.
I do this in parts
On the quiet days I can fall apart
It’s the weekend. It’s the morning
It will be hours until the dawn
My face can drip dry
As dishes do
In dark of night
I sit in tailor’s pose
Call it cross-legged
Knees and elbows out
The impression of a man
Back curled over them
Gaze starts at the navel
In washed-out black
Faded cotton that forgives
Sweat runs down saturated cotton
Dampens even the place I sit because
This roll of socks?
Time for a heel-turn
Back to the drawing board
Toss these tainted things out
To be purged in a hot white wash
I come across a mental barrier in my exploration of gender. Namely, that when I ask myself “how about exploring masculinity?” my brain comes back with “what masculinity?” and throws up a handful of examples of toxic instances of masculinity I do not even wish to touch. Yet, this is the road I see before me, to pick up elements of masculinity to see if they suit.
Riley J. Dennis mentions in her “Everyday Feminism” series* that the word ‘gender’ comes from the same root as ‘genre’. This was a productive thought for me, one that I brought me a little further in this dilemma. Genres, after all, have some characteristics that would be well-suited to helping me understand genders as non-binary:
- They are distinct, but not mutually exclusive
- They are based on, but not limited to, a set of tropes
- They are suited to telling, and classifying, particular stories or experiences
- New ones may be introduced
- Existing ones often evolve
- These categories are constructed for the market, the classroom and to talk about sets of stories
- They can be subverted or critiqued
- They have gatekeepers
If masculinity, or rather masculinities, is a genre with a set of subgenres, then one may be found that I am comfortable exploring and it would add to, rather than contradict, the rest of my sense of gender. However, I think about gender as genre and complications immediately come to mind:
- Stories often present a rigid binary
- Essentialism prevails
- Classifications are prescriptive, not descriptive of lived experiences
- Modern masculinities seem not to exist, in stories
- Existing masculinities do not seem allowed to evolve
- Gender is presented as ‘natural’ and conflated with biological sex
- Any subversion or critique is met with hostility and violence
- Online, the alt-right is setting itself up as the one true gatekeeper
Note that the above describe my personal experience through the lens of this particular conceit, not fact. But I do believe it is sufficient to illustrate a trend. One that I find singularly counterproductive, dammit.
The irony is that I have started to see surprisingly parallels between what’s prescribed for ‘woman’ and ‘man’, among self-proclaimed defenders of binary gender roles, especially that of ‘man’. It’s perhaps most easily illustrated by their attitude towards sexuality. The campaign for control over women’s bodies is matched by a campaign for control over men’s bodies by other men. Centred on forbidding masturbation and forcing sexual conquest, rather than forcing reproduction and forbidding sexual activity. Hatred of the other, whether that’s women, queer persons, persons of other countries or religions, is matched by self-hatred.
Can you see the inversion of the great commandment (love others as you love yourself), or the golden rule, if you will?
This leaves me hesitant to even enter that politicised poisoned mental minefield.
Feminist thought isn’t much help, since it seems more concerned with circumscribing traditional masculinity than proposing a new masculinity.
Neither does circumspectly asking men what being a good man is like, since the answer often boils down to “I grew up and became less of an impulsive idiot.” A surprising problem with straight, white men (which all of the ones I can ask are) being the default is that they regard their lived experience as just that of people, not men. Which means it doesn’t tell me much about where their stories may be distinct.
So here I am, the trailing end of the spectrum of my gender in hand, unexplored territory ahead of me, with no good map for guidance. I cannot leave these thoughts alone because I have first-hand stake in this now, even if it’s only with a part of myself, even if it’s new, even if it’s small and secret and private.
So I keep asking, what masculinity?
*I do not remember the particular video, but it’s an educational series: https://everydayfeminism.com/author/rileyd/
You sit on your bed, stalling
Here, here is the line
You have swung, before
Across the full spectrum of womanhood
Found it wide and wild and good but
An end, trailing
Of the spectrum that is you
Do I cross to follow?
Butler and you were wrong
You were bound up in performance
Clothes according to the feeling of the day
Manners and fantasies and thoughts
Did you disregard the start
From inside, calling
Do I cross to follow?
I am woman, have been
Forever settled, yet unsettlingly
The moon she is not full
She is gibbous
After first quarter, growing
Do I cross to follow?
You sit on your bed, stalling
It’s so small in your hands
Will it even fit over your head
Wrestling hook by hook by hook
A minute later, familiar
A sports bra without foam triangles
Instead, one panel across the front
You sit on your bed, breathing
Let your belly blow up, balloon
And hold and let it smooth out
Deep. Your feet on the floor, rooted
Deep. To the bottom of your lungs
Down. The exhale streaming
You stand beside your bed, breathing
Today seemed like a good day
Home sick, the rain unceasing
If you were going to be miserable
You were already miserable today
It’s not a vest, not a corset
Familiar elastic cradles your ribs
I cross my arms
No soft round flesh presses down, oh
So odd, this space above your forearms
You mimic drawing a bow and arrow
Amazonians bubbling to the surface
Mind collecting new connections
For new sense memory, new
Excuses and disguises, the enabler
If you dare go outside at all
I cross the hallway to the bathroom
Far enough today, the sight
Amusing all of the sudden, pecs
When you have never worked out
The gym the slim woman’s domain
Clothes, chosen with ritual care
As you do for formal occasions
Jeans, a unisex T-shirt you hate
Normally, no good on a woman
This is as far as I cross
You do not look at your face today
But your shoulders are fascinating
Broader, bracketing a flat surface
Below the fat distribution’s a bit…
That’s work for another day
No constriction. Deep breath
I back down
In the bedroom you undress
Pyjamas and blankets pressing down
You burrow. It was fine. Surprisingly
Familiar. Surprisingly fine.
TW, cussing and internalised transphobia (yes, really, seriously so).
I haven’t been posting here because I haven’t been in a great place. Then I found my way back to my blog, looked around for some way, any way to start this post and decided to go see what this month’s Carnival of Aces was about… ‘reaching out, reaching in’ is the theme. What can we do to reach you? What do you do to reach out?
I’m in that unproductive frame of mind where that type of question only serves to make me feel harassed and guilty. I have done nothing, nothing, nothing all ace week. I also don’t feel I’m in a place where I need reaching. The ace community is easy enough to reach when I want it. I was just all clammed up and angsting my little heart out.
The irony is that it all started from something good. I got away from the church community that had started to feel oppressive, just because of the soft, insistent peer pressure that comes with unquestioned heteronormativity. I took some space, some rest.
I finally had the time to notice I’d gotten rather messed up.
Turns out, it wasn’t just the heteronormativity, it was the cisnormativity, too. See, I’m turning out to be one of those nice little white middle-class feminists who was so proud to try and be trans-inclusive, but the moment the question ‘am I really cis…?’ seriously crossed my mind?
I hate myself a lot more right now than when I was in the middle of ‘gosh I’m pan and probably that means queer, too.’ Fuck have I built up a lot of hate inside myself. I am somewhat twistedly happy that both times the subconscious prejudice exploded in my face when it was about myself, not about other people. I’ve probably made enough of the-ignorant-person-says-insensitive-shit mistakes without doing anything on purpose.
It was so easy to accept I was demisexual, by comparison. An orientation that was unknown, no stigma attached. I felt conflicted about adding the pan- to the -romantic, both relieved to fully accept gender plays no role when it comes to attraction for me, but so scared of the many what-ifs that came with it.
Now, oh fuck, fuck, fuck do I get why people are so scared to go through the questioning and acceptance. I get why people make a one-eighty straight back into denial. I sure want to put this shit in reverse and stomp on the gas paddle.
I. Hate. Myself. SO. MUCH.
It wasn’t long after I discovered asexuality that I felt I could be more feminine some days, less so on others. These last few years that gender shit had gotten rather tied up in the traditional gender roles being preached in church. So while I’d been able to explore how far along one end of the gender spectrum I wanted to go (dress, yes, make-up, nah), the other end had gotten rather neglected. I just tossed on jeans and a shirt on the days I felt less of a woman.
Overall, I just thought asexuality meant I’d gotten more comfortable, more happy with my body. Not so much, or maybe not just that. I’d gotten more comfortable with expressing my gender.
So I figured, I’d go wander down the other end of the spectrum to see how far I was interested in going. I’d been so happy being able to be more feminine on the days I felt like it, after all. Finding the other end of the line should have been therapeutic.
Yeah, that was a rabbit hole I fell down.
One that was dark and where I’d stuffed all the shit I’d never wish on another person.
I don’t know what label I’d have, if I even want one. I don’t even know about pronouns or how to express what I’ve found, when it comes to myself. Will I ever want to express it? I don’t know.
I only know that I found, which, well. Where “woman” ends, in my head, I continue. I don’t know what the hell to call that part of myself. Person? Man? Neither of those quite feel right. Masculine comes the closest, perhaps.
The problem with exploring it is I flip out every time I touch those thoughts for too long. And I have no one to talk to so I can distance myself enough by putting nebulous thoughts into more concrete words. So here we go, anonymous, on the internet, as is the traditional way with figuring out forbidden shit for my generation.
Transgression, there, that’s what this feels like. I transgress because the whole of me doesn’t fit in the one gender.
Wow, God, that’s already much better than hate.
And now I can poke that thought until I figure what shit I’ve internalised to make me feel like I’m going to go to hell.
This is my contribution to August’s Carnival of Aces, about “deviant identities”, hosted by The Demi Deviant.
Queer In My Dress
I am queer in my purple dress
Pressed between postmodern sexuality
And the outdated marriage myth
I am, willfully not wanting sex,
Faultline in the fiction of virginity
I am queer in my blue dress
Am I lacking? people ask, perplexed
A woman divorced from intimacy,
Dating and the marriage myth?
Truth is, my desire is more complex
For company, beauty, sensuality
I am queer in my red dress
As the third wave wanes, I need to address
How asexuality clashes with
The outdated marriage myth
I want love with no regard for sex
A partner who sees I am not less
To be queer in my bridal dress
Let’s update the marriage myth
This started out exploring a deviant (queer) aspect of my asexuality and ended up trying to express how queer (weird, outlandish, new, upsetting, estranging) asexuality itself can be. Particularly an aspect I don’t often see explored: that asexuality upsets both traditional and modern ideas about sexuality, often at the same time.
In its simplest form, I think choosing to identify as (some shade of) asexual and daring to say “no, I do not feel sexual attraction like that” combines and subverts
a) the traditional ideal of lust or sex as a morally ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing
b) the modern ideal of everyone having a natural sexuality that is inherently human
c) the queer ideal of affirming your orientation through sexual acts
a) absence of lust is a neutral state of being rather than a purity or innocence that can be preserved or lost; sexual activity is optional at all times, rather than forbidden or required at any time.
b) our motivations and experiences are more complicated than (mutual) sexual attraction leading to consensual sexual activity, orgasms, falling in love and sexual-romantic relationships.
c) queerness can be complex and comprise a multifaceted orientation and gender identity that has very little, if anything, to do with sexual acts.
Even as I write this I am aware I am already simplifying by focusing on the above as flowing from an asexual identity above any other.
Yet still, here is my demisexual-panromantic-monoamorous* deviant little fantasy, to wish to find and legalise a longlasting partnership and celebrate that with my community, without having to submit to the strictures society still imposes on that institution.
Oh, and go full femme on the day.
Today, at least.
I might dream of wearing a three-piece steampunk period costume tomorrow. Who knows.
*Since both polyamory and the newly-coined nonamory** are common in the ace community and I came across the word ambiamory*** (someone who can go for either monogamous or polyamorous relationships), I figure we’d clean up the vocab and go for monoamory as the correct word for the majority option on that list/spectrum. Also, also, I think we need a word for the grey area (greyamory? demiamory? semiamory?) between disinterest in relationships (nonamory) and interest in relationships, whether one or multiple (alloamory?).
**Relative, it’s been around a few years, I didn’t know it until this year. I like the new terms cropping up in the a-spec community, especially the ones that are useful. Can you tell I like words? I really like good words.
In an addendum on my earlier post about how churches can be really unclear whether they are actually welcoming to queer folks – there’s a website that actually rates them on it, both on whether they honestly strive to welcome people from diverse sexual orientations and genders and how egalitarian they are (and how clear they make all of that online): www.churchclarity.org
They also did a better job of explaining why a church being clear about how it will treat queer visitors or members is crucial, comparing it to consenting to therapy fully informed of what it will entail.
They primarily have churches from the United States in their database, but also a decent start on churches in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, from what I can see.
It’s a work in progress to which you can contribute. Just sayin’.
Unfortunately less helpful if you’re from outside the English-speaking world, or even the UK, Ireland, India or South Africa. I’ll have to keep on looking to find a helpful website for my own neighbourhood. But hey, they exist, these resources.