This post has been cross-posted to Tumblr here. It was written for the March 2015 Carnival of Aces on Gender norms and asexuality.
Hold on tight because I got rambly (again). I’ve tried to shorten my sentences and paragraphs (and have possibly made my point less clear in doing so), but if the post is still inaccessible, or has lost all meaning, please throw me a message and I’ll try and edit it.
Before I came to university, I was already struggling with the concept of attraction — how we name it, why we name it, whether attraction is the important part of a relationship or identity — but coming to uni and getting a boyfriend have made that concept all the more difficult to grasp. All three main issues I have with the attraction model have become more relevant, but for this post I’ll just talk about the first one: how do we name our attraction?
Gendered attraction, as a nonbinary person, is… difficult to swallow. Hence why I’m glad I’m aro-spectrum and ace — the attraction is so nonexistent that I don’t have to quantify it as towards guys, girls, nb people, multiple genders, etc. Which is great, because I’d have no idea of where to start.
The first, and most important, issue I would meet as someone attracted to other people (and the one that causes me the most distress personally), is how do I quantify their genders to fit the orientation names given to me? If I’m attracted to people of all genders or many, I probably don’t have to try, but if there’s just one gender, what do I mean by gender?
I’ve seen the odd bit and bob of this in the few corners of the nonbinary community that I peek in to (not for lack of trying to get involved, mind), and there’s seemingly no general consensus on how you name your attraction.
If you’re attracted to girls, you might be basing this on presentation, which is wrong because not everyone who ‘looks’ like a girl is one and that’s just plain rude to assume. If you’re going off their own personal identity, well, you’re probably already attracted to them before you get close enough to know that. If you’re going off genitals, again you’re not going to know beforehand and are being pretty darn transphobic. If you go for ‘feminine presenting’, well, what counts as feminine? What if that person doesn’t see it as feminine? There’s also the issue that ‘feminine’ looks different on different people — trans women have their femininity policed, as do people of different races, and so ‘femininity’ is likely always going to be seen through a racist and transmisogynistic lens.
Basically, saying ‘I like girls’ is a lot more complicated – and impossible to talk about – than it might seem, and it’s my major reason for hating our current model of attraction-based-on-gender.
The second reason, while less important overall, is more imperative from a personal perspective.
Let’s say I like girls*, and this statement actually passes muster by some miraculous act of fate. That’s great, but how do I use it to inform my identity? I’m nonbinary, so I’m not a girl; does that mean my attraction is heterosexual? Technically, yes, but that’s not my lived experience — going out with a girl as someone who is generally ‘read’ as a girl does not feel heterosexual; the way we are treated together is not the way a straight couple would be treated, plus I have enough internalised homophobia to last me a lifetime and affect me for just as long. So, I guess I call myself a lesbian or gay then — but then I’m erasing my own gender in a way I don’t feel comfortable with. **
Similarly, let’s say (slightly less hypothetically since I have a boyfriend) that I like boys. We’re certainly of different genders (in identity, expression and assigned gender at birth), so I can’t say I’m gay or lesbian (although I understand that some people do and I totally get that). But the idea of calling myself heterosexual grates, as it denies my gender and just isn’t something that I feel I experience; being ‘read’ as a straight couple when with my boyfriend is a real pain and erasure. It’s different to internalised homophobia and external homophobia but that doesn’t mean it’s not real or doesn’t matter, so I refuse to endorse that it.
And, since I don’t want to write a binary post, let’s finally look at me liking other nonbinary people. I could call myself gay, but there are two problems with that. First of all, it might not feel that way if we have different expressions, possibly different identities, and have different agab or are ‘read’ differently. Secondly, calling myself gay for liking nonbinary people reinforces the binary, because it gives an extra ‘outlier’ option and that’s it — we’re all seen as the same, rather than a multitude of people with a multitude of identities that are not all the same. This then leads to three options. First, using a multiple-attracted term if I’m attracted to multiple nonbinary genders. Second, using ‘heterosexual’ (with all the issues and caveats discussed in the two paragraphs above) if I like a person of a different nonbinary gender to me. Or third, using gay if I like a person of the same nonbinary gender as me (which would be difficult to know since I don’t know what my own gender is, and would also bring up the same issues as discussed in the two paragraphs above).
Tl;dr: the gender-based model of orientation terms really fall down when taking into account nonbinary genders and related gender theory/terminology (this hypothetical scenario didn’t even take genderfluidity and people who identify as more than one gender into account and it still broke the system). Therefore, I’m really happy that I’m on the aro and ace spectrums, because it means that I don’t have to make a choice in this lose-lose game.
*Quick disclaimer that this paragraph is speaking about my own previous personal experiences, although there were a lot of confounding variables at the time so I’ve kept it as simple as possible and primarily hypothetical.
**Note that I’m aware of the other options of not giving it a name or using something vague like ‘queer’, but obviously these fall outside the gender-based orientation model and that’s what I’m criticising so I’ll leave those out.