asexuality

Coda: Asexual Awareness Week and the Future of Queer Theory

Last week, I completed the Safer People, Safer Spaces training my university offers to learn better ways to be an ally, whether you’re a member or a supporter of the queer community. One of the activities we did involved matching vocabulary words (like lesbian, heteronormativity, drag, M2F) to their definitions and then discussing what we learned and what confused us. One of the words was asexuality, and to my surprise, no one had any questions about it!

In most settings, this is definitely not the norm. Even though, as one blogger pointed out, the US is home to more asexuals (or, as some prefer to be called, aces) than it is to Muslims, breast-cancer survivors, and Yale graduates, asexuality is not on most people’s radars. Even those within the LGBT community are sometimes unaware of asexuality as an orientation — indeed, the “A” in LGBTQIA+ more often stands for “ally” than “ace.” Thus, Asexual Awareness Week (this year, October 26–November 1) occurs at the end of LGBT History Month. Today, I’m going to sketch out the ways the conversations I see happening inside the asexual community might shape the queer theory of the future.

Only a handful of scholars in the humanities are doing research on asexuality studies.1 Nevertheless, the language of asexuality as it exists in the everyday praxis of aces has been invaluable to helping me reconsider the ways we think about desire and relationships in texts. Because asexuality — that is, the absence of sexual attraction — does not preclude the formation of other attractions, aces have developed a vocabulary set to describe those experiences. They distinguish between sexual, romantic, affective (“friendly”), and aesthetic attraction, and the different conditions under which these occur and the objects that these take. For instance, “homoromantic” describes someone who falls in love with those of their same sex or gender; a “demiromantic” is someone who falls in love only after a long friendship; an “aromantic” doesn’t fall in love, but might desire intense friendship.2

These desires are not new, and certainly aren’t limited to aces: John Henry Newman’s romantic friendships look very much like the intimate relationships of a homoromantic ace, but the chaste “seraphick love” that John Evelyn and Mary Godolphin shared in the seventeenth century could be conceived of as a queerplatonic relationship of two otherwise sexual people. What is new is the way these words examine phenomena whose existence and uniformity have been taken for granted.

Sometimes, the impulse to name certain desires can overwhelm the desires themselves, but what I think these concepts highlight is the plurality of ways in which people form attractions and desires, and that their objects need not be so neatly aligned. For instance, considering the ways in which Doyle’s John Watson might be simultaneously heterosexual (marrying and having a child by Mary Morstan) and homoromantic (in romantic love with Sherlock Holmes) helps us to grasp how a person can desire two objects in different, non-competing ways. In a way, asexuality has done for romance and sexuality what Judith Butler has done for gender and sex, by uncoupling one from the other (pun intended).

But the asexual community, of course, is not without its controversies. Some people don’t think that asexuality should be lumped into the LGBTQ+ “alphabet soup” because it’s technically not a sexual orientation but rather a not-sexual orientation. This, I think, ignores the great potential for intersectional solidarity, as homoromantic and trans* aces face oppressions that are very similar to those faced by their allosexual counterparts, and heteronormativity limits the experiences of sexual nonconformists indiscriminately.

Some have also criticized how white the movement is, with writers of color like Alok Vaid-Menon describing how to claim asexuality as an identity feels like a betrayal of their race. Some identity communities have long been de-sexualized as a means of discipline and disenfranchisement. Thus, self-describing as asexual plays into these enduring stereotypes, which certainly need dismantling. The asexuality leadership has been surprisingly self-reflexive about how race and gender authorizes (or fails to authorize) the perceived legitimacy of certain sexual orientations. At the same time, however, it’s no less important for us to question those structures that make sexuality compulsory, while we remain sex-positive.

I think the definition that we had to match at training put it best: “Each asexual person experiences things like relationships, attraction, and arousal somewhat differently.” Just delete “asexual” and you’ll have described everyone. As queer studies develops, we’re thinking more plurally to account for the many and colorful ways that our experiences and identities intersect, shaping our selfhoods and our positions in our communities.


Notes

  1. NWSA’s Asexuality Studies Interest Group and the conference panels it has coordinated has been my primary source for asexuality studies in the humanities.
  2. The Huffington Post put together a handy simplified infographic to depict this.

Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”

 

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Queering LGBT History: The Case of Sherlock Holmes Fanfic

This summer, I fell for BBC’s “Sherlock” hard1 — hard enough to drive me back to fanfic. Fanfic has grown up in the past decade: it now has activists, “aca-fans” (academic fans), and copyright lawyers, and a nonprofit defending artists’ rights to disseminate transformative works, including fiction. My casual intention to fill the wait till next season with fanfic rapidly developed into academic fascination, especially because I discovered that its writers are challenging traditional notions of sexuality and narrative in ways that mass media and even academia aren’t.

In fact, I’d like to suggest that some of the problems about LGBT historiography I discussed last week could be mitigated by our adopting a transformative fiction philosophy. Allow me to map the landscape of queer fanfic, using Sherlock as an example, before I argue that point.

Sherlock fans have been writing fanfic ever since Arthur Conan Doyle (or ACD, as fanfic writers call him) was still writing. Anne Jamison, an English and fan-culture scholar, has described the output of the Sherlock fandom over the past century as essentially transformative works. This includes not just unpublished fanfic but also myriad films, novels, and TV programs, because they all transform the canonical ACD stories, in form and content, with a fan’s devotion to “writing that continues, interrupts, reimagines, or just riffs on stories and characters other people have already written about.”2

The genealogy of fanfic for BBC’s Sherlock is particularly rich for my interest in transformative fiction, because it’s a nesting doll of referentiality. BBC Sherlock fic riffs on Moffat and Gatiss’s twenty-first century reincarnation of Sherlock, which itself riffs on ACD’s Victorian Sherlock and the many twentieth-century reincarnations which the program’s creators have declared canonized.3 Fic writer A.J. Hall, as Jamison points out, can make reference to BBC’s Sherlock, ACD’s Sherlock, and a 1950’s “fan-authored pastiche” Sherlock all in one fic4 — yet no one would mistake that fic for any of its source texts.

This is the difference between “canon” and what fans call “headcanon.” Canon is the Ur-text, a status to which fan writers make no claim of aspiring. There is a certain playful value attached to incorporating elements from canon (Sherlock’s affinity for bees shows up in many fics, as well as the TV program), but these nods exist within “headcanon” — a fan’s personal parallel world(s). “Headcanon” exists alongside “canon,” depending upon the source for basic inspiration (usually its characters) but freely recreating the source in a conscious departure from it.

Fans use these parallel worlds to explore what could have been or might be, especially as regards sexualities that have not found mainstream representation. There is no conclusive literary evidence that ACD conceived of his Sherlock and John as “homosexual”; their relationship presents as a romantic friendship, although those were going out of fashion when he was writing. Likewise, despite queerbaiting, Moffat insists that his Sherlock is not gay, let alone ace. In fanfic, however, literally any interpretation goes.

Myriad fanfic categorizing tags allow readers to find what version of Sherlock’s sexuality appeals to them: gay “Johnlock” and asexual!Sherlock/bisexual!John cover some of the more popular ones, in addition to “OT3s” (One True Threesomes) and a plethora of kinks (the usual varieties, along with furries, fauns, and male pregnancy). While these labels can flatten the contours of the actual uniquely queer praxis within individual works (in the same way that LGBT labels can elide sexual and gender complexities), word-of-mouth reviews of the ways in which a writer imagines two characters negotiating an unprecedented relationship reminds me to keep an open mind about my expectations when see a fic’s tags.

Although authors and readers both have pet theories about what Sherlock’s sexuality “really” is, the fan writer’s explicit self-distancing from “canon” means that a plurality of “headcanons” co-exist on the periphery of the source text. My friend can ship gay Johnlock, I can ship bisexual!John/straight!Mary/asexual!Sherlock, and fanfic satisfies both our preferences without (much) argument between us.

In this way, we might think of historical LGBT icons as personal role models without needing or intending to make claims about their “canonical” sexuality. In my parallel narrative, Joan of Arc is patron of trans* rights and John Henry Newman is patron of asexuality. Neither of these is true in historical reality, and I would never write an essay to “prove” it, but that’s my “headcanon,” and (if I may abuse a neologism) — I’m shipping it!

Next week: a coda in honor of Asexuality Awareness Week


Notes

  1. Apologies for the Reichenfeels.
  2. Anne Jamison, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World (Dallas: BenBella, 2013), 17.
  3. Ibid. 11.
  4. Ibid. 9.

Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”