Saturday, July 26, 2008

Thoughts on coming out part II: words

Before identifying as asexual, I sometimes felt that I wanted to come out of the closet but didn’t know what closet I was in. If only I knew, if only I had a word for it, I could come out. Now that I have a word, things do not appear so simple. For one thing, I don’t really like the word.

Within asexual discourse, there is a lot of discussion about the tern 'asexual.' Two primary definitions exist: “a person who does not experience sexual attraction,” and “a person who calls themself asexual.” One is a sexual orientation, the other an identity. Many are uncomfortable with the word because of its negative definition. Because it is a matter of what people don’t feel, what people aren’t interested in, many of our critics assume an asexual self-identification is an act of shutting down our sexuality, making ourselves blind to possibilities, dooming our lives to be sexless, intimacyless, joyless drudgery, and that we are giving up on trying to understand ourselves, hiding from our problems rather than trying to deal with them. As a preemptive response, AVEN’s introduction to asexuality says of the term ‘asexual,’ is “just a word that people use to help figure themselves out. If at any point someone finds the word asexual useful to describe themselves, we encourage them to use it for as long as it makes sense to do so.”

I disagree with this. ‘Asexual’ is word, and like other words, the primary purpose is not self-understanding, but communication. If I had, before identifying as asexual, come up with a word to describe what I now call asexuality—whether I independently coined the term “asexual” or made up something totally random—I would have understood nothing more about myself than I did before. Because the term ‘asexual’ has come to be used by a group of people identifying as such—and by others as well—to enable conversation about what was previously ineffable, communication is made possible. Through this communication, people are able to create a framework for understanding their own experiences. Undoubtably, “asexual” is a word that people use to understand themselves, but only because its primary purpose is the same as any other word—communication. This enables people to find each other and discuss their experiences. But it goes far beyond mere self-understanding. It enables self-revelation; it enables education; it enables visibility.

Yet it is a word that many feel uncomfortable with. Even many who identify as asexual don’t really like the term. Alternatives have been proposed, but none has taken hold, except, generally, as inside jokes. Looking at a list of the most recognized ones—'A,' 'amoeba,' 'ace' (or a variant spelling 'ase')—one notices that we don’t venture far from the start of the alphabet.

Among those up on our lingo, using the word ‘asexual’ simply makes life easier. We have a concept and a single word to describe it with. Since we all
understand what the word means, more or less, it is extraordinarily useful for communication. If we explain asexuality to others, it helps to have a word for it.

The problem is that most people don’t our meaning of asexual. If I tell them, “I’m asexual,” they probably won’t understand me. What’s worse, they could easily misunderstand. The word simultaneously has two possible etymologies. The first, and most obvious, it is the opposite of ‘sexual.’ Asexuals are people who are not sexual. The other is in opposition to hetero/homo/bisexual. If ‘heterosexuals’ are sexually attracted to the ‘other’ sex/gender, homosexuals to the ‘same’ sex/gender, and bisexuals to ‘both’ males and females, ‘asexual’ seems to be the most logical term to refer to those sexually attracted to neither. I think of ‘asexual’ in terms of the latter of these. Unfortunately, when most people hear it, they think of the former and whatever that might mean to them. It can leave people with a lot of wrong impressions. I don’t want to tell people that I’m asexual if my expectation is that they will misunderstand what I’m saying. I want to speak such that I will be understood, not misunderstood.

I realize that coming out to people provides opportunity for visibility and a chance to explain what asexuality is, but I don’t really want to give mini-lectures on what asexuality is in my everyday conversations. Of course, there is this method of explaining things, but it may be better suited for explaining things to strangers than to friends.

Much of my coming out has been done via writing. In coming out to my mom, I spent good amount of time talking to her about it, but to explain a lot of my feelings, I emailed her a copy of a short-story that I had written. For about half of the people I’m out to, sending them a copy of an essay-like thing I had written on the subject was involved (or overhearing discussion of such.) It explained a good amount about asexuality, so they could get their questions answered and I didn’t have to talk about it. I feel that there are many times where I can express myself better in writing than is speech, especially when I want to express my own feelings and experiences, or when there is simply a lot I want to say.

Some people don’t want to come out for fear of rejection, often based on bad experiences of trying to do so in the past. For me this hasn’t really been an issue. I haven’t gotten any negative reactions so far. Several of the people already had some knowledge of asexuality; some had already suspected I was asexual. Generally, it’s just not something I go out of my way to bring up and it doesn’t come up otherwise. As time goes by, I expect more people will know. I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with my (a)sexuality and more open to talking about it, hinting at it and even joking about it.

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