I asked my team to switch the day we posted this, so it’d be around Valentine’s Day, which I think is hilarious. (Of course, they agreed – both to the change and that it’s funny.) It’s nice to laugh about something that used to stress me the eff out.
On this blog, we try to find the intersection where a topic overlaps with trans/nonbinary communities and healing/surviving/trauma. Beyond a coming out post (hey, hi, I’m aro, and like some kinda ace that I don’t feel like getting super specific about), this is also about how cool it is to do introspection, how learning about different identities can benefit almost everyone, and how healing knowing stuff about ourselves can be (and being okay with that stuff over time).
One of the first people I made out with was my best friend. I was back in town briefly, we hooked up for a week, and I left again. Then a bunch of my friends got mad at me and said I had used this person. We were all just teenagers trying to figure stuff out. It’s all very foggy now, and was honestly foggy then, because I had no idea what they were talking about. I cared about this person. We had consensual kisses. Everyone knew I was leaving town. I knew this friend was in love with me, and I realize now that I had no idea what that means, and how different it was from the love that I felt. It sucked. It sucked to hurt someone. It sucked to have no idea what I had done wrong and not understand any possible explanation of it.
It’s just one story, one blurry story. In a long line of stories that so many of us have, ones where we learned to think that we’re broken, we’re wrong, we’re dangerous, and more, for the ways we do and do not love or have sex.
Life went on. I’d date. Then another break-up. Another round of thinking that I was letting someone down because I didn’t meet expectations that I didn’t understand. I took feedback. I changed how I talked to people. I explained myself. I shared my feelings. I set boundaries. It didn’t work, not in the way I was told it would. Something was different about what I wanted, from what other people wanted, but I couldn’t express what it was.
Years later, I was putting together a vocabulary list for an LGBTQ training I was doing. One long list included WTFromantic. I laughed. That’s me I texted my friend. That’s me. WTF is romance? Why will no one explain it to me. Then I didn’t think about it again for a while. Eventually, I’d have an identity for myself. That helped me to better express what I did and did not want in some ways. In others, it didn’t. Because what are words anyway? People use like and love so differently – we each have our own meanings for these words, our own expectations or lack of expectations that come with using them.
I always hated romance in fiction. Partly it was boring and partly it felt so fake. Because it felt fake to me, I just assumed it was fiction. No one actually felt that way, it’s just a thing that writers made up. And it took decades before I thought to fact-check this assumption I had made as a kid (fact – apparently some people do feel romance feelings?!?!).
Two years ago, after watching season two of Bridgerton, I asked, “wait, do people really feel like that?” Like, can you actually be so attracted to them that you’ll risk touching them at the most inopportune times?! Turns out that yes, some people do experience strong physical attraction to others (the inopportune time is not about consent, no amount of physical attraction justifies touching without consent).
Now my heart breaks open over and over again at the scene in Heartstoppers where Isaac asks Charlie, “How did you know you liked Nick?” What a cool thing to ask. We make so many assumptions, and those that do like like people, rarely get asked how they know. It’s just assumed that you know. But it’s so beautiful to ask each other. I ask my friends all the time what romance feels like.
What does romance feel like to you? Think about it. How does it feel different than love for a friend, if it does feel different?
To me, it’s all funny now. Being so oblivious for so long. Or maybe I just tell it as funny to avoid the hurt. The years of thinking I was broken. The ways I still think that. The constant separation between me and others. The constant feeling of letting people down. And that’s the easy stuff.
Experiencing trauma can impact our connection to others and to ourselves. Being trans can impact our connections with others and ourselves. There are so many things in our lives that influence how we feel about our bodies, our selves, sex, relationships, and more. And it can be hard to sort out what comes from what. For me at least, and for many people I know, there is this pressure to figure out what is caused by trauma or harm, this idea of “what needs healing,” and that those things are separate and less valid ways of feelings than the things that are intrinsic to who we are. Like does my aro-ness need a cure? No, it doesn’t. And I don’t need to know why I’m aro to know that.
Coming out as genderqueer and trans changed how I dated and had sex. It helped me to connect with myself and other people in new ways. Most of those ways were wonderful, and some were not (the intense and constant transphobia and invasive questioning that is being trans in the world). I felt freed from biphobia and queer stereotypes (like butches don’t date butches). But I didn’t need to be genderqueer for all my relationships to be queer – I just needed to be queer.
Throughout all of this, there are a million other things going on in my life and my emotions. There’s a lot of mediocre therapy, and eventually one great therapist. There’s time without therapy. There’s a lot of learning about myself and unpacking the ways that I judged myself. There were medications. There are amazing friendships. There’s loss.
I have always loved introspection. I love thinking about how things make people feel, about feelings in general, about thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and the connection between all of that.
I value the introspection that comes from learning about identities and different ways that people experience the world and have relationships with others. You don’t have to be aro/ace/questioning to get something out of learning about Ace folks. Asexuality opens up possibilities for each of us. Sex doesn’t have to be a part of our lives. Sex doesn’t have to be tied to romance. Or it can be. We can make choices about how we structure relationships, and we can realize that other people’s experiences could be very very different from our own.
I think figuring out things like love and commitment and dating all mean different things to different people was a huge help to me. It’s also helped me reframe my past, to better understand the choices I was making. I have been able to understand that I wasn’t actually failing; I was different and wanted different things. I started to understand that everyone involved had made choices and that mine weren’t less valid.
Books have always been a major part of my life, so I present this also with three books about aro and ace lives and identities. To be honest, these are the only three nonfiction books on these topics I’ve read or found at my libraries. And I’ve read very few fiction books with fully developed aro/ace characters.
Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture by Sherronda Brown.
This is such a pivotal and formative text for me. I’ve been looking through for quotes just now and want to quote the whole thing.
Some key ideas and questions I think about:
- We live in a world that demands sex and equates sex with normality and punishes those who aren’t “normal.”
- Racism uses sexual violence and stereotypes to further perpetuate control over groups of people.
- What does it mean when we define ourselves by the oppression we experience or what we are not? How does that limit our view of liberation?
- How do we all participate in forcing sexuality onto people, even those who refuse it?
The book Refusing Compulsory Sexuality goes into much more depth about the harm that a culture of compulsory sexuality has and the way it is weaponized, particularly examining how it’s used against Black people. (This book is one of my top reading recommendations.)
ACE: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen
This book is much more available and well-known. In many respects, ACE tries to mainstream asexuality – to make it more normal, more palatable to both asexual and allosexual people (people who do experience sexual attraction). At times I found this frustrating because many of us are not just like everyone else. However, I do know many people who have found this an excellent entry point to sorting through different layers of desire and attraction and to seeing themselves.
Ace and Aro Journeys: A Guide to Embracing Your Asexual or Aromantic Identity by the Ace and Aro Advocacy Project
I really liked this book. Structured around identity development models, this guide is for those who may be wondering if they are ace or aro. It’s inclusive and validating of a wide range of experiences. One page that I took a screenshot of discusses myths around trauma and asexuality – that there are many options for how experiencing and healing from trauma may impact your sexuality and that’s okay.
This book also recognizes that our identities may change over our lifetimes, and that’s something I want more acknowledgment of.
I really love thinking about how we all change and grow throughout our lives. Our physical bodies aren’t the same as they were when we were born. Our hearts and minds change. Our knowledge of ourselves changes. For some of us, our identities change – maybe because we have new language for our identity or because sometimes our identities do change. Where I am right now is valid. Where I was ten years ago was valid and where I’ll be ten years from now will be valid.
As I think about that and what I’ve learned about myself from reading about ace and aro identities, I leave this with some questions for all of us to think about:
What assumptions have you made about attraction and desire, yours or other people’s?
Have there been times when you’ve felt differently than other people?
How have you been affected by the cultural assumption that everyone feels romantic love and sexual desire?
What would your life look like if there was no pressure to have any specific types of relationships?
How can you explore your own desires in ways that feel positive to you? Where can you get support for this?