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Asexual identity, anthropologically speaking

Two idle trains of thought collided in my head. One was that I usually refer to myself as demisexual with “insiders” (the asexual community and close family) and asexual with “outsiders” (everybody else). The other, well, my language studies included a lot of crossdisciplinary training. We wallowed around in anthropology long enough to internalise several core concepts, such as etic and emic. Etic labels are imposed on a community by an outside observer. Emic categories are what a community develops internally.

Awsum Can Haz Werdzª

It’s no secret that the asexual community spent a lot of its early years generating words. These primarily helped people identify themselves and talk about themselves amongst each other. Here’s a glossary on the Asexuality Archive and the “Everything Asexual and Aromantic” series if you prefer to watch a video.

With the versatility of the English language, these words quickly became versatile, gaining colloquial versions, used as adjectives (ace person) as well as nouns (all the aces)… Several have become mainstream enough that they have been put into or expanded upon in dictionaries, such as the OED last month.

Ace or Queer Sociolect

All this leads me to consider… Is our language distinctive enough to consider ourselves, as a subculture, a speech community? Do we have enough a unique enough vocabulary and set of syntactic oddities to be a sociolect?

Another possibility came up when I did a little bit of digging. Apparently there was a queer sociolect in the sixties and seventies, called Polari. One paragraph this blog article caught my eye:

“Even though a secondary language was needed to support it, if well informed, a person could communicate heavily in Polari. However, its use in more modern times is questionable. Why? The language code would work in binaries (male/female, homosexual/heterosexual, masculine/feminine) and didn’t allow for description of non-binary classifications. For example, words to explain gender fluidity, bisexuality, asexuality etc., just didn’t exist.”

So another possibility is that now, four decades later, we filled a so-far-empty niche in a broader queer sociolect, and contributed a couple words to mainstream English in the process.

I am not at all qualified enough to offer any conclusions on this subject. As language geek and demi/ace person I did want to put the question out there, however. It creates a space to describe how I identify myself.

I, Ace or Demi person

Let’s say the asexual community is a speech community, or part of one. Let’s say the vocabulary we’ve generated has become an ace sociolect or part of a queer sociolect. In that context I am able to express two distinct levels on which I speak of my identity.

Namely, as an informed insider trying to decribe myself towards outside observers, I say I am asexual. This fits in a larger (etic) set of labels, known as sexual orientation, that is familiar to most English speakers. I only need to define the single new word in order for them to fit me into their world view, and then get accepted or rejected.

Among insiders, the asexual community and its allies, such as my close family, I choose a different label. I say that my asexual identity is primarily demisexual. I can add a gender identity and romantic orientation to further specify what I think I am. Thus making use of a far more nuanced set of labels we created to talk amongst ourselves.

Thus some old theory I learned in college and my thoughts on ace identity intersected. I thought in sharing it might be of some use. And, well, it just tickles my fancy how much we’ve been able to affect language, over the years.

ªprovided by the Lolcat Translator

trainscolliding

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April Carnival of Aces – All the birds but us… the posts

Note: I can discern the gender of some, but not others. So you’re all neutral “they”, because the poor guy personifying politeness in my head is pacing in indecision and waving a book at me with “21st century etiquette” on the cover. If you wish this changed, leave a comment and I’ll edit.

Note 2: Thanks to conscientious commenters. List should now be complete and link correct.

Before I started reading all of the submissions I received for this month, I was bouncing around in glee because of the idea of a multitude of perspectives on something I wanted to really read more about. Now I’m just humbled by the different thoughts, great stories and awesome people I have been allowed to host in this month’s Carnival of Aces.

The theme was to write about the relationship between (a)sexual and (a)romantic orientations and the future, based on the oldest Dutch sentence in existence, “Hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan hinase hic enda tu, wat unbidan we nu?” That was taken in a lot of different directions.

Controlled Abandon was first out of the gate with a post considering both a future alone or together with a partner equally, and sketching how both would ideally work out. Read what they wrote in their April 2018 Carnival of Aces post.

Lib considers with dry wit on A3 that they might be a migratory bird that takes a while to settle down in “My Unexpected Future“.

Blue Ice Tea on Ace Film Reviews shares a beautiful and hopeful story about finding a satisfying friendship in “Growing Up Platoniromantic: Happy Endings“.

Queenie of Aces writes in the Asexual Agenda about queer futurity (which is my new word for the day) and building a road for others where there isn’t yet one to walk on in “To build an unimaginable future“.

Between Worlds Unknown is the gorgeous name of Varian’s blog, whose accepting of their asexual orientation lead to other questions and realisations, read it in “Stepping Stones“.

An Ace from Appalachia had me groaning and then grinning in sympathy at the pressure they faced over their wedding. If you want to join me in the crowd that wants to take down the entire wedding industry and its PR, go read “My Story Of Failing At Doing The Straight Thing“.

In From Fandom to Family, Luvtheheaven speaks about coming of age with a lot of doubts and a shaky future and finding strength in picking their way through that. It convinced me that this slow-built nest will turn out very interesting in “I Can’t Just Let The Future Pass Me By“.

Sennkestra slides a post through the closing doors of April on Next Step: Cake in which they shed some light on the differences between general and specific life goals and how that can really change the answers. Go read “Milestones and Priorities“.

Laura, on their blog [Purr]ple [L]ace, reflects on their big masterplan to build a single-parent household and how not being single throws a wrench in that, and the bittersweetness that is adaptation in “Nesting and… Re-nesting?“.

Elizabeth in Prismatic Entanglements also discusses her less than usual path to a less than usual domestic situation and mixed bag of blessings, friction and thoughts that brings along with it in “Building a mosaic from a Shattered Future“.

And… I wrote “A [hu]man of good character“.

Now on, on to the next month:

 

All the birds but us… – April Carnival of Aces Call for Submissions

Hail, brave content creators, welcome to the April edition of the Carnival of Aces. With the spring equinox behind us, Passover and Easter upon us and April Fool’s day tomorrow and everything around us blooming and reproducing… Well, no time like the present to feel melancholy. Or cheerful. One of the two.

This month’s theme’s inspired by a medieval Flemish-Dutch sentence:

Hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan hinase hic enda thu[,] wat unbidan we nu[?]

All the birds have begun nests except me and you, what are we still waiting for?

Penned in the 1100 by a monk, probably to test his quill, it’s the oldest sample of my native language. It’s always struck a chord.

Rarely does a shift in orientation work out in a person’s life according to expectations. We wander into such wildly unexpected and unknown futures.

I think we need those stories.

So the question for this month:

How did your (a)sexual and (a)romantic orientations impact your (expected or imagined) future?

Prompts to help the creative juices flow (feel free to deviate):

  • All the (other) birds:
        • Was there a clear or typical path in life that you decided to diverge from, when others didn’t?
  • My nest:
        • What life have you begun to build since your (a)sexual and (a)romantic orientations changed?
  • Except me and you:
        • If you had to sketch a potential life or partner or relationship or family, what are some of the ingredients that make it a good, safe, peaceful and/or joyful prospect?
        • You’ve decided you do not wish for a partner and may find fulfilment in your life through alternative means, please share!
  • Still waiting
        • What expectations for your life are you uncertain about or struggling with after having discovered your (a)sexual and/or (a)romantic orientations?

To submit:

  • Leave a link to your contribution, be it post or vlog or art piece, in the comments.
  • Send your contribution to my email: demiandproud@gmail.com so I can host it on my blog.
  • Leave your thoughts on one of the prompts in the comments.

Please do let me know if you’ve contributed somehow, I do wish to honour all the awesomeness. If you have specific preferences for pronouns and/or descriptions for your submission, let me know those as well, please. Late submissions added throughout May.

Associated posts, links to be added as they appear:

 

Demisexual Physicality

For my contribution to January’s Carnival of Aces, I hope to explore how my sexuality impacted my view of my physical self. Sex and gender feature obliquely. A person is much more, and I hope I can delve a little into those deeper layers.

First, words

Being demisexual means, to me, that my lust or arousal is triggered very rarely, and always, only, within the context of a pre-existing significant emotional connection, whether the person on the receiving end is real or fictional. On a day-to-day basis, this means I experience the world stripped of all sexual connotations and subtext, the way we imagine only a child can. I know it’s there, the same way I know the planet is round. As an intellectual point of interest only.

Physicality, for the purposes of this post, is the sense or experience of the body. Body image. The experiencing of sensory input. Bodily contact, movement. The material part of myself.

Agency

Here’s where sexuality and gender played the biggest role.

As a woman I often saw – see – my body in third person. Subject to the approving eyes of others, which made shopping a harrowing experience when I let the insecurities get to me. I wasn’t particularly aware of it, until a large part of those doubts disappeared.

Redefining my sexuality meant I wasn’t obligated to feel love or lust like others anymore. There was a new normal that gradually asserted itself.

What I didn’t expect was for that ball to bounce back. I stopped imaging my own body as attractive or sexy. It became a (much less sexual) collection of all the features that remained. Healthy, tall, cold or hot, numb or sensitive, tired or brimming with energy.

Other people’s view of me became just that, somebody else’s problem. I sloughed off much of the fear and worry with losing that objectivation. My physical person turned into a tool to experience myself and the world as it was.

If I still step outside myself it is with much more enjoyment. My wardrobe is far, far more varied. Dressing myself has become an exercise in gender performance* or practical consideration or deliberate presentation.

Experience/Senses

The asexual community was really good for me when it came to deconstructing concepts such as relationships and attraction, how these aren’t simple, how these aren’t the same for us. How they might be different for each individual, in fact.

Thing is, I don’t have much to go on. I don’t feel attraction often, I haven’t a big history of many relationships that I cannot sort into easy categories like “friends” and “family”. So beyond some self-examination and speculation, it’s not a productive place for me to go.

However, I do have a fully functioning body. What’s that doing, then, if it’s not feeling the lust other adults do? Cause I certainly don’t feel frigid, or like a mind in some earthly prison. I am much happier now than I ever was with my body, in fact.

Turns out it’s just… experiencing the world. Sunshine on skin. Fresh food for tastebuds. Physical exercise for stretching muscles and losing energy. Good music for the ears.

I was grounded in my senses like any other human being. It should have been self-evident, perhaps, but it was a revelation. Because once I knew, I could do it more deliberately. And the world is a fantastic place. Who knew?

Affection

I feel I have been told: being asexual means you’re less happy because you cannot experience that ultimate completion of the ultimate connection between human beings that is the sexual act for expressing romantic love. Accepting asexuality, or demisexuality, means that – on some level – you will be alone. I feel I have been told a lie.

We probably cannot fulfill – and must redefine – some societal expectations and our normative role, within our cultures. True. We will probably need to be braver to find what we seek, and seek longer than the average Joe. True.

But.

I cannot love more or less for having redefined myself. I do not seek less affection from my peers and my family and my community.

In fact, I seek more. I find more. Because, get this, I finally know what I want. Having my world stripped of all the illusions that came with thinking myself heterosexual, means a haze of confusion that isolated me from others is gone.

For example, I feel (fear?) that I’m rarely going to have a sexual or romantic partner. I also know I want physical affection. Just because repeated experience tells me I feel better for having it. So I dare to cross some of those lines that my individualistic society draws, and hug, and touch, within the context of all the platonic relationships I have. What I find if I dare is, most people respond, often smiling, in kind.

I know that I want to feel good things, and together with someone. So I simply go do stuff I like, and bring some company. Intimacy and shared experience achieved.

And yes, that’s simplification, but the lesson I am learning remains, which is, I want stuff from people, together with people, and often they’re simple, about touch and company and intimacy, and there are many ways to get those things. And because it’s all about finding ways to love people and be loved, this journey of discovery is in and of itself enjoyable.

So

I hope I have been able to give you a glimpse of how discovering my sexuality has had – by and large – a positive impact on how experience my body, in relation to itself, the world and others. I am very curious to hear how your sexuality has impacted you, on this and other levels.

It’s a subjective experience, and one that evolves, but I do believe it’s a significant one. For me, at least, it’s meant a lot to have an ace spectrum along which I could (re)define myself. It’s given me back my body in ways I didn’t even know I’d lost it. I hope it’s helped you in some ways too.

_______

*I hope I’m not overstepping any bounds here, but I feel that, even being a cisgender female, there are days when I am, if you will, more or less feminine (and in Dutch female and feminine would be the same word, here (vrouwelijk)). It plays a significant role in what I put on in terms of clothing, jewelry, make-up, hairstyle, how I walk, and yes, sometimes even influences my choice of activity, or is influenced by my choice of activity perhaps, I’m not sure. The biggest deal – for me – was how much of this remains once sexual subtext/connotations were taken out of the equation, and it’s all the more enjoyable for it.

Unstraightening My Facts: Intersectionality

I look at a concept I’ve encountered in the asexual community, and try to understand it, from this post onward with a new plan of action:

  1. tackle just one concept,
  2. find an accessible resource that explains the concept,
  3. try to see if I can now define the concept in my own words
  4. and find some more interesting sources on the concept if time allows.

With that said, on to intersectionality.

Concept: Intersectionality

See how two aspects of identity influence each other and may cause unique communities, experiences or problems. The implications are less than clear to me, though I understand it to be a popular and useful concept to others.

Resource: video on intersectional feminism

What I’ve learned…

What I especially appreciated was the section comparing regular feminism to intersectional feminism. The latter paints issues such as the wage gap more starkly because it takes into account how women from different backgrounds may have to deal with a different wage gap.

And though I know I have privileges, sometimes I scarcely realise what impact they have.

On an interrelated note, they mention asexual women!

After diving into a few more resources, I realise intersectionality’s also a concept created to tackle not just normativities and prejudices as singular concepts, but also to study the impact certain attitudes and discourses have as the big interwoven Gordian knots that they are. Intersectionality crosses e.g. class, gender, race and sees what happen when they, well, intersect.

Further reading

  1. Sheer awesomeness: intersectionality explained through pizzas (video)
  2. Intersectionality in sociological research (article)
  3. TED talk about modern (intersectional) feminism

“They” as a Singular Pronoun, a Cisgender Perspective

bridge at sunset

Bit of a disclaimer: in this post I discuss two different uses of the pronouns. The re-introduction of “they” as gender-neutral pronoun for general use and the use of different pronouns by people with non-binary gender identities. These are NOT the same, but I hope to show that the former can serve as a stepping stone for understanding the latter for cisgender people who’ve never thought about pronouns before. Later in this post, I reject “zie/hir” as viable gender-neutral pronoun for general use. It is my personal opinion that “they” fits this role better. On the other hand, it and other lesser-used pronouns can be very useful tools for expressing that you gender identity does not match that of other people, I think. I do not want to dive too much into that side however, because I know too little. That said, enjoy (hopefully)!

Imagine a bridge, silhouetted against the sun. From either end, two indistinct shadows approach. That they raise their arms and embrace in the middle, you can just about make out. After a few moments, they walk on. One turns back, raises their arm again and waves. The other never notices, their head bowed and deep in thought.

Later you’ll recount this story to a friend, how happy and fleeting a moment it seemed. Since you never saw the figures’ features due to how the light fell and the distance, you use “their” as a gender-neutral possessive pronoun. You scarcely give it a thought, seeing how often it’s used these days. It’s simply useful that you don’t have to guess whether to call them “he” or “she”.

Even less on your mind is how crucial pronouns are for people not strictly male or female, or how, when you read Shakespeare in high-school, you never stumbled over the gender-neutral pronoun either. It’s so normal. Grammar’s just boring facts. Right?

Preferred pronoun?

When I first registered on the asexual and demisexual forums I was puzzled by the need to specify a preferred pronoun. Other languages have two second person singular pronouns, formal and informal. Dutch has “u”, German has “Sie”, French has “vous”… In addressing “you” in English politely, I have to bust out the modal verbs and the honorifics. I filled out what I’d say in my own language when asked what my preferred pronoun is. “Zeg maar jij.” You’re allowed to use my first name and address me informally. In one latinate word, to tutoyate, use “tu” and “toi”.

In English it’s about gender identity, probably the most quantifiable characteristic of it to show up in the asexual community. Your preferred third person singular pronoun. He, she, they, or something else. “They” in particular interests me, because it’s making a come-back as a gender-neutral pronoun in general.

pronouns including they singular

The reader, they…

Gender’s pervasiveness can be a bother when I’m speaking or writing. I may want to address a reader neutrally. It’s easier, in a Germanic language such as English, but I can’t avoid pronouns forever.

These days, business letters often leave off honorifics. Readers are as likely to be men as women, and both are to be respected equally. In speaking or speculating about a hypothetical person it’s good to be able to leave gender open to the imagination…

I’ve seen “zie” and “hir” proposed for use in these contexts, but they feel a little like Esperanto. Good in theory, not viable in practice. Traditionally, “he” is used when a person’s gender is unclear, and “she” in a feminist response to that, to even the playing field.

I’m glad I’m now able to speak of “them” instead being forced to pick  “he” or “she” when addressing an unfamiliar person in the third person. A few years ago, it still felt ungrammatical, but now it’s almost natural.

So even in a cisgender world, a gender-neutral pronoun is a wonderful thing. Let’s hope the Powers Who Guard The English Language will allow it to dwell once again within their hallowed halls and grammar books in the future.

See, the use of “they” is a revival of sixteenth-century practice according to the Oxford Dictionary’s website that debates the use of “they” as third person singular. It got changed to “he” in cases where people spoke of a person with an unclear gender around 1850.

Yes, when people complain about using “they” for a gender-neutral pronoun, you can legitimately say “but Shakespeare could do it. Why can’t you?” and be speaking the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you Shakespeare. So did Jane Austen, Louis Carroll, Walt Whitman and the King James Bible.

The boxes they cannot tick…

male female boxes on forms

I cannot imagine how crucial the choice of pronouns is when your gender isn’t simply masculine or feminine… Then it’s less the polite “Stranger, I respect I do not know your gender” and more the humane “I recognise this basic fact about your identity.” I get that much, but I think that scarcely covers how much of an impact it has.

Language, naming what we are and where we’ve been, is powerful. Being able to name what I am has helped me immensely in my sexuality. If gender identity, how it really works, not just male-or-female, can be expressed more accurately in language, in pronouns, it goes a small way towards being accepted.

It’s already a smaller mental step, I think, to go from “use they for strangers” to “use they for people who prefer it” than from “third person singular is he or she” to “we need to add a new pronoun (e.g. zie/hir)”.

Conceptions of gender trickle down to institutions, such as in countries with forms with more than two options for gender, “male” and “female”. Or like social media sites who have more than two radio buttons (sometimes after a big kick in the butt). Or like Amsterdam, who’s done away with the need for gender registration at a local level altogether as of last week. Thus declaring gender less of a clear-cut and crucial fact of identity, and allowing for a shades-of-grey type situation that’s closer to reality, much like a gender-neutral pronoun does.

New-old language

I was at first confused, and still strangely tickled by the question “what’s your preferred pronoun?” (and yes, I’m keeping “Zeg maar jij” because I hope someday someone will ask and we get to be dorky about language together). Now, I like the concept’s logic, how it fits in with a bigger change in language, the revival of the gender-neutral pronoun “they”. I like how a little bit of useful pre-Victorian grammar is returning in our Internet-era English. I also like how it offers some openness in the language, a measure of politeness, when gender identity matters. That even in English, I can offer respect by way of pronoun choice, even if it’s in third person instead of second.

So, what’s your preferred pronoun?

Further Reading

Images

http://cdn.c.photoshelter.com/img-get2/I00007GiP8L.KqVY/fit=1000×750/pont-du-change-bridge-seine-river-sunset-paris-france-084.jpg
http://images.watoday.com.au/2013/02/10/4020850/men-women-form-620×349.jpg
http://classroomsze.wikispaces.com/file/view/PERSPRONS.jpg/145946741/674×701/PERSPRONS.jpg

Aut of Spoons

A Self Advocate Fights Oppression

Controlled Abandon

an apartment full of books, a heart full of dancing, a mind full of math, a life full of queerness

Asexual, Aromantic, Agender

Ace Film Reviews

Asexuality goes to the movies

Prismatic Entanglements

dew-covered spider web of condensed thoughts

Genderweird

An autistic, asexual, gender neutral person exploring life beyond the gender binary.

Reflective Ace

Reflections on identity and other stuff