I first realized I might be asexual in early 2011, when I was 18. Later that year, I went to an event hosted by the Asexuals of the Mid-Atlantic. AMA is a meet up group for asexual-spectrum people (aces) who want to meet other people like them. Attending this event introduced me to the concept of aromanticism, and I realized that I might also be aromantic (aro). This forced me to actually think about my potential future relationships in a way I never had before. After my first event with AMA, I didn’t go to another one for six months. It freaked me out to actually be surrounded by people who could relate to feelings I had always thought made me an anomaly.
Once I accepted my identity enough to be comfortable around other aces and aros, I not only became a regular at AMA events, I also started hosting events myself. The monthly book club I host is now in its sixth year. About a year ago, a few members of AMA, including myself, started an asexual advocacy organization called The Asexual Awareness Project (TAAP).
Over the past seven years, I’ve had more than six different jobs, I’ve completed college, and I’ve stabilized from suicidal to emotionally healthy. But one of the most significant changes I’ve experienced is my acceptance of my asexual and aromantic identities. Now most of my social circle is made up of other aces and aros. One question I frequently hear when explaining my group of friends to people who aren’t ace or aro is “Why?” Why do you need to have a meet up group for aces? Why do you need an advocacy group? Why is an identity that defines itself by negatives important?
Well, why does a group for any other queer identity exist? Most of them exist for some combination of three reasons: dating, advocacy, and social support. Ace and aro groups exist for the same reasons.
One reason many queer groups exist is to help people find partners who are interested in dating someone of the same gender, or other queer partners in general.. As far as aces go, many are aromantic, but some certainly are not, and they might prefer to date others who also do not want sex. Some aces and aros may want to form strong relationships that fall outside of the traditional partner dynamic, and it may be easier to explain those preferences to other people in your community. While I don’t want to form any kind of romantic relationship, it is gratifying to be around people who do not consider friendship to be beneath romance.
Other groups exist for advocacy. Unlike TAAP, those groups did and do fight well-known cultural and legal battles for acceptance. Those advocacy groups have been extremely successful in promoting queer equality, although there is certainly a long way to go. But asexuality and aromanticism aren’t illegal, and the social stigmas attached to being ace or aro aren’t obvious to many people. In fact, many of us practice a lifestyle that many social conservatives wish all queer people would adopt – to simply refrain from any sex life at all.
However, invisibility is its own struggle, and aces and aros face the difficulty of many people not knowing what those orientations are — most aces and aros themselves go years before they even know that it is a possibility. We must convince our families, friends, acquaintances, and even medical professionals that there isn’t anything wrong with us. We constantly have to justify our existence. It is important that aces and aros can find resources that will actually be able to help them without invalidating their identity.
While both of these reasons are important, the principle reason aces and aros come together is to find common ground, and to find other people who make them feel that they aren’t alone in this world and that their experiences aren’t unique. That is why TAAP’s acronym includes the word “awareness”: that is what we’re fighting for. We simply want to be seen, to be acknowledged as legitimate and deserving of respect.
This is the point many people ignore when they dismiss aces, or say that they are limiting themselves by putting a label on their experiences. The labels I adopt are not stifling, but grant me a sense of freedom. They remind me that I belong to a community, and that I am not alone.
Isabel Nathan is a board member of The Asexual Awareness Project.