You'll Understand When You're Older
This is an essay about growing up asexual. Some days being proud is easy, and other days it is not. Either way, aces deserve a space in the LGBTQIA+ community, and this essay is a realization of that.
Growing up, there were several times I found myself horror stricken in the bathroom, surrounded by a small group of friends asking if I had a crush, or if I absolutely had to choose a boy from our class, who would it be? I most likely looked like a deer in the headlights, trying not to sweat while I quickly ran through the list of boys, struggling to decide which one was the least appalling. Really, it was a Catch 22. If I said no to having a crush, my friends would insist I was lying, and anybody I chose would elicit a sneering “That guy?” as if any one of them were somehow less horrifying a prospect than the other.
It never occurred to me to ask the same questions back to them. After all, nobody feels those things. Not yet. We’re too young. That’s something that happens later. But even though it never occurred to me that anyone actually had a crush, I still knew eventually that time would come. That’s what I was told, anyway.
In fifth grade, the teacher started separating us by gender and teaching boys and girls about - gasp - puberty. The girls would learn about our changing bodies, wearing deodorant, etc., etc., and I assume the boys would learn much the same thing. At the times we were taught together, we wrote down questions anonymously. I don’t remember at all what other people wrote down, although I assume they were far more relevant to the lesson than my question. I wrote down, “Why are boys so much sweatier than girls?” To be honest, it was a mystery that plagued my mind. I would wear pants all the time, run around all recess, and yet look far more put together than the boys who came back looking as though they just got out of a very hot shower. The teacher stumbled through the question (whether from my scribbly excuse for handwriting or from disbelief over a student having asked that of all things, I can’t be sure) and gave the best answer she could. You’d think for remembering the question so well, I would remember what the answer was, but all that I see when looking back is ten-year-old me trying not to look too suspicious, lest anyone figure out it was I who wrote down such a silly question.
Funnily enough, despite many occurrences such as these, it is only when looking back that I really put the pieces together. Hindsight is 20/20, I suppose. Apparently, although it’s still difficult for me to believe, my friends who were asking if I had a crush probably did have crushes of their own. Although I can’t decide if I’m more shocked by crushes in general, or just the fact that nearly every boy in my class was an asshole, and to have a crush on them, you must really be daft. But alas, this is an essay, not the memoir of some rando, and recounting every “WAIT A SECOND” moment of childhood is not the point. However, before I end this paragraph, it occurs to me that perhaps my friends had crushes on celebrities like Zac Efron, and not necessarily boys in my class, so I guess that’s a little better.
The thing is, despite moments like these, or the time my mom gave “the talk” to me and I mostly just felt like hurling myself into the sun, I never thought about sexuality. I never staunchly asserted myself as hetero, only to find out later that wasn’t the case. I never pretended to actually have a crush just to appease my friends. Sure, I could see when people were cute or handsome or whatever the lingo is, but I never really knew what all the fuss beyond that was about, and I never bothered to think on it.
Relationships and all that came with it was always something in the future. Eventually it would happen. Perhaps a lot of it has to do with my inability to think about anything but the present, but that also is something for another story. In many ways, I’m lucky. My parents very rarely pushed about when I would date, my new friends in high school weren’t always talking about relationships, and of course I never brought any of it up myself. It wasn’t until 11th grade that suddenly I realized I wasn’t doing what I was “supposed” to be doing.
Just like how I won’t recount every “WAIT A SECOND” moment of my childhood, I’ll spare you from every last “um, I don’t know, haha… anyways…” moment of my teenage years. But one moment in particular that stands out to me is a teacher of mine declaring in front of the class, “High school is like grocery shopping, you’re supposed to pick different things off the shelves to learn what you do and don’t like.” I’m not positive what exactly lead to this statement. It might have been that we were reading Romeo and Juliet, and remarking on how these two horny teens thought their love was the end all be all without ever having experienced anything else. At any rate, the ‘things’ in this case meant romantic partners, and I was certainly not shopping. I didn’t even realize there was a store. In fact, I mostly thought of that kind of stuff as the things that happen in movies. Another time, when talking to a friend of mine over the phone, she casually wondered when we’d call each other to talk about our firsts - kissing, dates, etc. It made me uncomfortable and seemed, well, icky, and I changed the subject after I quick “who knows.”
After many moments like that, I would call that same friend and talk to her about what I was - or more accurately, wasn’t - feeling, and that something must be wrong. She’d assure me that it wasn’t like she was throwing herself at every man she laid eyes on, and lots of people don’t do a ton of dating in their teen years. In one conversation, I remember telling her how I felt different about people. She asked if I were gay, but I knew that wasn’t right either, even though I would often wonder that myself. After all, my favorite band was (and still is) Tegan and Sara, my friend group was entirely women, and my outward style is decidedly masculine. But no, that didn’t quite fit. My friends may be girls, but I don’t want to kiss or date or have sex with them. Even now I shudder at the thought. I adore music, but I don’t “feel” the numerous songs about romance and relationships the way others seem to. But the weird thing is, I never thought I was straight either. During the times I cared enough to ruminate, I wasn’t anything.
It wasn’t until a drive back home with my brother (I think the summer before 12th grade) that he said “maybe you’re asexual.” Uncomfortable, I asked, “what’s that?” He told me it was someone who didn’t like anybody. Even more uncomfortable now, I said “maybe” and changed the subject. It felt right, but it also felt scary. We got home and went to our perspective bedrooms, and then came the late-night Google searches. I shakily looked up the term ‘asexual,’ a read from pages on AVEN or from asexual Tumblr blogs. This continued for many weeks, and I remember one quote I held onto was “Asexual people are still capable of love and being loved.”
I don’t know if I ever explicitly thought I was unlovable, but suddenly I needed that kind of reassurance because possibly-maybe-kind-of-sort-of being asexual answered one question, but opened up a thousand more. Suddenly there wasn't only sexual orientation, but romantic orientation, and suddenly the vague outline we’re all supposed to live (finding a life partner and starting a family) wasn’t on the table. Yes, I know not everyone wants to get married or wants to have kids, but there’s still TrUe LoVe, and, well, I don’t really know, but basically something that doesn’t include dying alone in a tiny, unfurnished apartment. (Don’t ask me why the apartment I die in is tiny and unfurnished, it just feels like the right amount of bleakness.) Couple that with the anxiety of graduating high school soon and needing to apply to colleges and figuring out what dumb job to do for the rest of your life that for some reason seventeen year old kids need to know, and you could say I was in what people call - to put it lightly - a pickle.
By sometime in senior year I had told all my friends I was asexual and everything went over quite uneventfully (mostly to the tune of “Proud of ya, want some chips?”), and although I never explicitly told my parents (Love, Simon, anyone? Not the owning a car and somehow affording coffee every single day part, just the questioning why coming out is even a thing part), I knew they’d be fine with it, and, years later, when I told them to listen to me being interviewed on our local NPR station, they were. However, despite the support, I still felt trapped in my briny caged. I would send in anonymous asks to the ace Tumblr blogs, and read through answers to questions from people with a similar plight. Gradually, the more I said it and read, the more I felt a little better. I was aromantic asexual, and that was that. Or, at least, I wanted it to be that was that.
What I care about most are my friendships. I guess with no romantic or sexual feelings to speak of, my platonic feelings take up that space. (Needless to say, not all ace and/or aro people are the same.) In high school, a lot of the stress derived from the whole “going off to college” thing was the fact that I wouldn’t be seeing my friends every day anymore. I worried about being able to stay connected and maintaining the friendships I cultivated, and felt incredibly angry at how our culture shrugs off friendships as things that ebb and flow. In time, I found out I was able to still see my friends frequently, and even make a few more along the way. I wish I could tell my younger self not to lose so much sleep over the whole thing, but the truth is, there are still nights I lay awake in wonder.
In some ways, things have turned out pretty good. I’ve graduated college, experienced several different jobs full of lovely people, and been able to keep those important friendships I mentioned before, even if I don’t see people as much as I would like. But in other ways, I’m still just as scared as ever. On most days, it hardly ever crosses my mind how I’m (this part’s cringey, but bear with me) different than most other people. However, on other days, it slaps me in the face.
In early 2019 I went on a trip to Las Vegas with a group of five other friends. One of them had a stepbrother who was getting married, and it just seemed like a convenient excuse to go and have a fun weekend. While planning the details of the trip, I remember making a big fuss over not wanting it to be three couples and myself. Two of my friends were bringing their boyfriends, and the third one had a boyfriend who was on the fence. I didn’t want to be the seventh wheel, and chauffeuring a bunch of drunk couples around sounded like a horror story. The third boyfriend in question eventually decided not to go, and it ended up being a relatively nice weekend. However, it was painfully obvious how much my friend wished her boyfriend came along, which in turn made me think about how this would probably not be the only friend vacation in my future. Will people no longer invite me because I’ll be the odd one out? Will I go along and then feel awkward and unincluded? What hurts the most is that I don’t have an answer, and neither does anyone else. It’s just something I’ll have to live through and find out what happens when I get there.
I wonder about my living situation, and why groups of friends can’t operate as a family unit. I think about life balance, and how between friends, work, family, significant others, and personal time, friends seem to be the ones that get the short end of the stick. I notice how, even now, I struggle more than ever before to find friends to go to concerts, movies, and other events with. I think about how things seem so difficult now, but I haven’t even reached the point where friends get married and start to have kids, or even have full time jobs. I worry, and I question whether it’s my fault for not finding community support, for not trying hard enough to make or find a space for myself.
There are small pockets of ace-specific community, and more and more when I mention that I’m ace, people nod their heads rather than needing a PowerPoint presentation to explain such a mystifying concept. But I still struggle to feel 100% welcome and thought of in queer specific spaces, and I struggle even more to feel as though I have the right to insert myself. In a way, I feel like I am stealing other people’s representation when I imagine things as ace and/or aro. It’s hard to express how I see close female relationships in media when queer women everywhere are fighting against straight people who insist that two women who are all but married to each other are “just friends.” When trying to explain how I felt to a friend of mine, she said something along the lines of “well, what you feel is queer, too,” and such a simple answer blew my mind. Yet repeatedly I forget that I am part of the community at large. All the time my college Pride Center would have Latinx nights or trans coffee talks. Queer groups and non-profits recognize Lesbian Day of Visibility or Bi Visibility Day. Queer spaces around my city have meetups for people interested in polyamory or for QPOC. Queer celebrities, influencers, and organizations talk openly about queer issues. With how far we’ve come, there is still such a long way to go, and I feel guilty for wanting even the smallest thing.
During my last semester of college back in Fall 2018, the Pride Center finally had an ace meetup (laboriously christened An AROdynamic SpACE). Although a little bitter it was only happening now that I was leaving, I went in hopes of finding some new friends. Wanting to help, I volunteered to visit the Pride Center and talked with the organizers about how to make it the best space possible. I’m not sure what I expected when I walked into the room on the day of the event, but what ended up happening was a circle of about 20 people discussing their experiences, anxieties, and how to deal with ignorance. One girl wasn’t even in college. She was a young high school student who drove all the way up to Northridge with her mom in tow (seriously, shout out to that mom), and several times could barely control the anger and hurt in her voice when she spoke of how her high school peers questioned and bullied her about her identity. We offered the best reassurances a group of strangers could give, but her and other people’s struggles all seemed too much for a single night.
Although I have graduated and no longer attend, the Pride Center thankfully has more ace specific events than just a single annual meetup. I love the effort they are making, but I also know it’s a rarity. Repeatedly when I have asserted myself, I have been shot down. I am told the A stands for ally. I am told ace people have not struggled enough, as if it’s some sort of competition. I am told that ace characters in media would be boring. It is so hard to remember it isn’t true. Even now, after I have recounted moments of distress and discomfort that could have easily been avoided with some good ol’ representation and inclusion, I think, eh, maybe it’s not a big deal. Maybe I’m the only one who feels like an afterthought. Maybe I shouldn’t complain because others have it worse. Maybe everyone else somehow managed to find community and be proud and I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Whether or not that’s true, I am simply doing my best with the heart I was given. Sometimes it feels too little, sometimes too much. Sometimes when I reach out my fingers are stepped on, and sometimes my hand is firmly taken. Sometimes it feels like the blank slate of my future is a novel yet to be written, sometimes it feels like a post-it note doomed to fall underneath the fridge. Whatever the case, I don’t want to feel guilty about taking up space anymore. I don’t want to lose sleep over asking for the bare minimum anymore. My existence does not devalue anyone else's. I want to see some recognition from sources outside of a-spec organizations, and not just during Asexual or Aromantic Awareness Week. The reality of being a person in the world is messier than what off-handed acknowledgements can cover. We are not a footnote that should just be assumed as included for any queer event. We deserve to be on the list of who gets to be front and center. After all, what do we have if not each other?