Trigger Warnings: mentions rape, depression, suicidal thoughts, negative stereotypes about asexuality, erasure of nonbinary genders, and homophobic slurs and murders.
When I moved to Maryland at seven, I picked up the nickname Tomboy. When I moved to Pennsylvania at eleven, I figured out that Tomboy was supposed to have been a bad thing, because people used the same tone and expression to say dyke.
I got through middle school dodging questions about my sexuality because I didn’t want to lie but had no idea what the right answer was, and wondering why everyone else seemed to think that we were old enough to like anyone yet when we clearly weren’t. That was for adults, like college students or something. I kept getting the feeling that there must be a reason that everyone else seemed to think they could be attracted to people already, but I blamed it on them imitating TV, and I didn’t figure out until eighth grade that the boy friend I’d had in fourth grade who bought me a teddy bear with a stuffed heart for Valentine’s Day and promised a necklace for my birthday before we had a fight and stopped talking might have thought he was more like a boyfriend.
During middle school I also started going to a week long summer camp, and became friends with Rachel. We found out that we both were writers at a workshop, and went back to my room afterward to share and critique poetry. We ended up talking about depression and prejudice, and she told me that she was bisexual, and about an older gay friend she’d had who was beaten to death sometime before we met while walking to the grocery store.
I still said nothing about my own sexuality until we were fifteen, the summer before tenth grade. We were roommates that year, and one day ended up talking about how we dealt with people asking about our sexuality. She said she either avoided questions or lied to stay safe, and avoided dating. I said I’d figured out how to mostly avoid questions or keep people from asking, which was convenient, because I didn’t know the answer. She jumped about a foot in the air, demanded to know how I could not know, then started asking questions; who I liked, who I dreamed about, who I fantasized about; had I ever been in love? I asked how I was supposed to know and what love was, and she told me if I’d ever been in love I’d know it. Then she told me she thought I was asexual, and she had to go find someone else to work on a project, and left. She spent the rest of that week and the next several years doing her best to never speak to me again, until eventually she just stopped coming.
Asexuality is not very well known, and was even less known in 2007. I’d never heard of it before, but I had an English teacher who loved word roots, and I’m a writer anyway. The prefix a- means not or no or nothing, and it matched perfectly with my never being attracted to anyone. As soon as I heard the word I knew I was it.
Since hardly anyone knew asexuality existed, I’d never heard any “all asexuals are–!” stereotypes, but I didn’t need to. I’d picked up the Hollywood standard “sex is love” assumption, and noticed that the only (adult) characters that weren’t attracted to someone were robots, lying, and particularly terrible serial killers. It took about two hours to get from “I’m asexual” through “I can’t love” to “I’m a sociopath and need to die soon so I don’t flip out and murder my friends for calling me the wrong nickname or something.” Simultaneous was “humans experience love; if I can’t love then I’m not human.”
I was worried that I’d fail, be caught, and people would be socially obligated to pretend they cared and waste time acting upset and watching me and prevent me from trying again, so I never dared actually attempt suicide, and I hated myself for being too much of a coward to do it. A couple times I got close, but the pocket knife I owned wasn’t sharp enough to cut skin, and it wasn’t like I had bought the lamp in my room, so breaking that to get something sharp would be stealing. Besides, my room was carpeted, and that would cost my parents money to replace if I stained it, and blood is known for staining things. In my better moods I would joke that for needing and wanting to die, I was awfully good at making up excuses to live.
It wasn’t simple. I knew that I was incapable of love (which was the part that I cared about; not being sexually attracted to anyone has never been more than an inconvenience), but at the same time I knew I loved my friends, and knew it couldn’t possibly be love since it was something I felt, and knew it must because I couldn’t imagine anything stronger existing. I’d call myself broken and subhuman and frigid bitch and pretend I believed in God just so I could demand why me. I smiled as much as I could and never said anything to anyone because it wasn’t the place of a monster like me to bother actual people because I was upset by what I was, especially since it ought to be upsetting. I wished I’d be attracted to someone someday and knew I wouldn’t, and tried to imagine having sex so I could figure out how to pretend to like it but I couldn’t so I imagined being raped instead. It wasn’t appealing but rape isn’t supposed to be so it was as close as I could get to believing I was normal. My high school got a new counselor who picked random people to talk to to get to know the school, and when I left she told me everyone else she’d talked to had academic problems or relationship drama, and it was nice to talk to someone well-adjusted for once. It was one of the very few times I laughed in high school.
Since middle school I’d been reading and eventually writing fanfiction, and during my senior year of high school someone reviewed one of my stories. I went to review one of theirs, we started talking, and we became friends. They liked a site called TVTropes–a wiki which categorizes patterns in media, creators and fans, and which is full of snark–and kept sending me links until after a few months I started reading them.
I had been avoiding any information on asexuality on the rare occasion I thought I might encounter some, because the last thing I wanted was to be reminded that I was inhuman. But I read quickly, and about a month after I graduated high school I clicked a link without knowing what it was. I saw the title Asexuality, closed the page, and caught the line “asexuals are not incapable of love,” before it disappeared. I found the page again and read it all.
I don’t have words for how I felt; for three years I’d been subhuman and broken and evil and obligated to accept and encourage people to hurt me because that was still better than I deserved, and then in two sentences all of that was gone and I was human again.
Learning that didn’t solve my depression. I’d been depressed for years before I heard of asexuality, and depression is common in my family; I likely would have been depressed no matter what happened. But learning it helped a lot, and I’ve only rarely been suicidal since learning that I was okay. I was allowed to want to be happy, instead of having to feel guilty every time I did. (I should also note that it’s not that easy for many people; I’d been fighting the whole time between knowing I couldn’t love and knowing that I could, so finding outside confirmation just kind of tipped the balance. Many asexuals don’t have that issue to begin with, and many others still feel inferior anyway. I was too happy about not being evil to mind not being normal.)
I was happy just to know what asexuality was for a while. I did try to tell several people that I was asexual, and got a variety of reactions; one of my friends took months to believe me because “asexuality isn’t evolutionarily beneficial,” some accepted it, my brother worried that it meant I’d always be single, my cousin told me I was too hot to not be straight and anyway he couldn’t imagine being asexual so it must not exist. The friend who linked me to TVTropes already knew what asexuality was; everyone else I had to explain it to.
After about a year I started looking for some sort of asexual community. They’re not common; one has developed on Tumblr and there are some small forums drifting around, but the first one I found and by far the biggest dedicated site is AVEN: Asexual Visibility and Education Network. It has some pages with basic information on asexuality, and an attached forum.
I didn’t stay around the forum for long; it had a pretty standard internet culture of using insults to argue and tolerated some people that were just assholes, and I didn’t make friends with anyone immediately, so I wandered off in a few months. First though, I found two things.
Romantic orientation refers to the love parallel of sexual orientation; if sexual orientation is who a person is physically, sexually attracted to, then romantic orientation is who a person is emotionally, romantically attracted to. The words parallel sexuality as well: heteroromantic, homoromantic, biromantic, panromantic, demiromantic, and aromantic are the most common, though many more exist. (I don’t recall seeing gyneromantic and androromantic used then, but they’re becoming much more common now.) Everyone has a romantic orientation, though for most people it matches or overlaps with their sexual orientation and so isn’t obvious. It’s also entirely possible for someone who is allosexual (sexually attracted to others/not asexual) to be aromantic. I am demi-panromantic; gender is irrelevant to me (pan-), but I only develop romantic feelings for people that I already know very well (demi-), though I can often predict who I’ll develop feelings for much earlier.
AVEN also had a forum dedicated to gender, which contained an information/definitions thread, and introduced me to the concept of non-binary genders. Since figuring out what asexuality was I had been sort of idly wondering about gender on occasion, because why not be sure? But I never figured out an answer; I couldn’t figure out what gender was, so I would mostly just get frustrated, demand haven’t I had enough identity crises already? and then ignore it for a while again. I noted the existence of nonbinary genders, and in particular of the three which AVEN listed at the time for not being any gender; agender, genderless, and neutrois. Then I mostly went back to trying to figure out how to make sure everyone in the world knew what asexuality was so that no one would have to believe the same things about themselves that I did. I haven’t really done much for that, but several of my friends have determined that they are asexual, demisexual or gray-a, or else talked to me when someone else they knew was considering it.
I’m 22 now. I’m not very involved in any communities at this point, online or in real life, but my friends cover an increasing list of genders and sexualities, and I think of myself as at least linked to LGBT*+ communities. I still haven’t figured out what gender actually is, though I’ve asked several people. My conclusion at this point is that I’m probably agender or genderless, but I rarely say so since agender and genderless fall under nonbinary gender identities, which falls under transgender, and claiming to be a part of a group on the basis of not comprehending the entire point of the group seems more than slightly appropriative.
My sexuality has adapted slightly as well. I still am not attracted to anyone, so I am still asexual, but I can now imagine myself having sex. (I have not actually done so yet, but probably will eventually.) Partly this is because I just have a better idea of what sex is than I did when I was fifteen. The other factor is that while I have a sex drive, it’s very low; if I’m unhappy it shuts off completely, and since for years any thought about sexuality immediately led me to panic and self loathing, it was always off until I stopped hating myself for not having it. Now that I know being asexual doesn’t make me a sociopath I am capable of sex and masturbation (although still likely to be completely distracted from either by just about anything). This is not how all asexuals work; some have much higher sex drives than me and some never have any; some asexuals greatly enjoy and pursue sex and some couldn’t care less and some think it’s revolting.
I have had a professor use bisexuality and asexuality as examples of “how freaky sexuality can be.” He apologized when I pointed out to him that I’d rather not be held up as a prime example of incomprehensible bizarrity. Another professor said that only binary genders (men and women) exist, and started mocking what agender might be. I told her I am agender and I don’t fit the caricature stereotypes she was inventing, and she told me that being agender is impossible. Another professor, who already knew I was asexual, taught my class that “all humans desire sex” and not desiring sex is a disorder, and when I objected, told me that science had proven it was true. She also claimed that asexuality is a totally different thing and what she’d said wasn’t about it at all, and it was my fault that she’d said anything because I challenged her in class. Yet another professor said that sexual love is the best kind of love, real love can only come from sexual attraction, and people can only become morally good by sexually loving another.
The good result of the three years that I thought I was evil is that my confidence in who I am is now strong enough that these things don’t hurt me like they could, because I know they’re incorrect. They still make me angry, and conscious of how much I’m an outsider no matter where I go, and they make me worry about everyone else who’s asexual and hasn’t had the chance to develop the belief in myself that I have.