“But I’m not gay:” Being visibly queer and invisibly asexual

Coming out is always hard, but it's even harder when your identity isn't as visible as others. (x)

Coming out is always hard, but it’s even harder when your identity isn’t as visible as others. (x)

Editor’s Note: This essay submitted by Queenie for the May 2014 Carnival of Aces. Originally published on Asexual Agenda.

“But dating’s easier for you, you know? ‘Cause you’re gay.”
– a friend I had already come out to twice

In the past 6 weeks, I’ve had four people refer to me as either “gay” or “a lesbian.” To be fair to them, three of them called me gay in the context of congratulating me for having a girlfriend.* On the other hand, of those three, I was out to two as both queer and ace. In each and every case, I’ve been unsure whether to completely derail the conversation by pointing out that, hey, I’m actually not gay (and some of them should know this ‘cause I’ve only told them multiple times). In each and every case I’ve stayed quiet, because it hasn’t seemed worth it to get into a fight over semantics.

To head off the inevitable commenters who will want to paint me as the homophobic ace: I find people assuming that I’m gay approximately as offensive as people assuming I work for Google,** which is to say not offensive at all. The problem is one of accuracy, not offense. If you’re trying to very poorly approximate my romantic orientation by means of sexual orientation, saying I’m gay is probably more accurate than saying I’m straight, but saying I’m bi is more accurate than saying I’m gay. If I were a homoromantic ace, I would probably be okay with people referring to me as gay, but when people say I’m gay, they’re erasing not only my sexual orientation but also my romantic orientation. Yes, I seem to have a slight statistical bias for women, but I’m also occasionally attracted to people who aren’t women. I’ve even dated people who aren’t women.

Every time someone says something like the quote I featured at the top of the post,*** I am faced with a dilemma. Do I correct them, and say, “Look, no, I’m not gay; I’m asexual and occasionally romantically attracted to people of genders, not just women”? Do I derail the conversation in order to do Asexuality 101? Or do I focus on the part where my friend is apparently under the impression that dating is easier for me than it is for him, a cis het man? Will my coming out jeopardize my position in their community—or will they pat me on the arm and say, “Well, you’re an honorary gay person!”? Will they—for all my attempts to communicate my identity as clearly as I can—still consider it more convenient to stick me in either a “gay” or “straight” box? Oh, hey, it’s our old friend, the Quantum Queer Effect—my girlfriend’s existence has teleported me into the “gay” box. (Wow, I didn’t realize I was dating someone with super powers! NEAT.)

Never mind that a little over a year ago, when I wrote about wishing people referred to my then-partner as my partner, not my boyfriend, some upstanding individual on tumblr reblogged my post and tagged it #straight people and #how very DARE you call my straight relationship STRAIGHT? Amazing how gay you can turn in a single year!

At what point does a label become “close enough” for me to feel comfortable having other people apply it to me? Well, that question’s complicated, since there’s no single state of “being out.” If I were to categorize my states of outness from least out to most out, they would look something like: straight-passing,**** not straight, ambiguously queer,***** queer, queer ace. Thus, having people who don’t know me particularly well—who I probably wouldn’t be out to anyway—assume that I’m a lesbian doesn’t bother me as much as having friends—who I am almost certainly out to—assume I’m a lesbian.

There have been two really good pieces on coming out recently, but both of them focus on being a lesbian. As I wrote an age ago, it’s fairly easy to mention “my girlfriend” or “my wife” and have people go, “Oh, okay, she must be gay,” but it’s much harder to casually drop that you’re asexual, especially if you’re dating. If I mention my girlfriend, people go, “Oh, okay, she must be gay then.” If I mention my past dating experiences and the person I’m talking to already knows I have a girlfriend, best case scenario they go, “Oh, okay, she must be bi then,” and worst case scenario they go, “Oh, well, she must have realized she was gay, so her past dating experiences don’t count.” This is assuming that they don’t immediately label me as “confused” or “greedy.” Ah, the joys of monosexism (monoromanticism?). There is literally no way to casually out myself as asexual, and there is no Asexual Characteristic that I can wave around in people’s faces until they get it.

In fact, in some ways, mentioning my girlfriend can make it harder for people to accept that I’m actually ace. Remember the acephobic sentiment that ace folks are just “gay folks in denial” and the asexual community is a great place to hide from one’s sexuality? (This is uncomfortably close to the biphobic sentiment that bi folks are just “gay folks in denial.” It’s almost like bi erasure and asexual erasure have something in common!) Well, if I mention my girlfriend but then say that I’m not a gay, a lot of people will probably go, “Aha, a classic case of internalized heterosexism!” I’m not going to say that I haven’t internalized any heterosexism—I’m pretty sure it’s hard not to, living in this society—but given my spectacular lack of interest in having sex with my girlfriend (but my definite interest in kissing her face), I somehow don’t think that’s actually what’s happening here.

But if arguing with people until they accept that, yes, I am asexual, and yes, I have a girlfriend, and yes, I have dated people who weren’t women in the past, and, yes, I actually know what my own orientation is, thank you very much, is so exhausting and frustrating and occasionally futile, isn’t it better for me to just accept the lesbian label since it’s “close enough?” After all, to the extent that there’s any sort of gendered trend in my romantic attraction, there’s a slight bias toward women, and nobody needs to know anything about my sex life (or lack thereof). And, hey, it’s better than people thinking I’m straight, right?

Sometimes I am tempted to just sigh and accept that people can’t deal with polyromanticism (or polysexuality) and definitely can’t deal with asexuality. But on the other hand, giving up is not exactly in my nature. Having spent far too long floundering, trying to figure out why I didn’t experience the same things other people did, failing to find words that fit me for years and years, I’m not particularly thrilled by the idea of just rolling over and letting go of those words and concepts that helped a very confused teenage me feel a little less alone and a little less broken.

When I stay quiet and let people think I’m a lesbian, I’m contributing (albeit passively) to that culture of silence surrounding identities that go beyond “gay” and “straight,” and I’m allowing people to erase my identity for the sake of their comfort. It’s not that I want to make people uncomfortable; I want to make them aware that there are more than two options here. I want to make it easier for the next person they know who comes out as ace. I want to make it easier for the next person they know who comes out as queer. I want to make it easier for them to question their own sexual orientation, romantic orientation, whatever they want, by presenting another option. We need more visible aces, and if I can be visible, so much the better.

*For anyone who has been reading my blog over the past six months, this is not the girl of “Use Your Words.” That didn’t wind up working out. Word-using has featured quite prominently in this relationship, though!
**This happens a weirdly large amount, since my roommate gave me a Google backpack.
***It’s worth noting that the folks who have referred to me as gay and are confused by my discomfort with the term are all monosexual. My bi friends have had zero issues remembering that, hey, you can be attracted to more than one gender, and hey, asexuality exists! Yay, bi friends! We should start a coalition of People Who Get Erased A Lot (Please Stop Erasing Us).
****At this point, I only really try to pass as straight in Japan. Speaking of, I’m sure this summer will be a bundle of laughs as I attempt to not lie about my girlfriend’s existence but also keep deflecting questions so that they don’t suspect anything. Passing as straight: I am actually spectacularly bad at it.
*****”Ambiguously queer” seems to be my sweet spot for dealing with classmates I don’t know particularly well as well as professors. It gets a somewhat amusing “I suspect you’re some flavor of GSRM, but I don’t know what flavor exactly so I’m going to be incredibly careful about my word choice” reaction.

The short URL of the present article is: http://lgbteen.org/VvUfB

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