Ag cuardú na bealaí

[This is a poem I wrote in Irish reflecting on where I am now–that is, trying to find my way in the world, and moving on from what might have been with someone who didn’t love me back.]

Ar strae liom féin ar chosán casta
gan d’fhuaim ach an ghaoth,
an rothar, is m’anáil féin,
i measc na garraithe ag dul
i nglac an dúlra, iad gléasta
i nglas neantóg is feochadán fiáin,
is ann a fhaighim suáilceas suaimhneach.

Dá bhfanfainn anseo, anois nó go deo,
an dtiocfá chugam trasna na tonnta?
nach olc a stór a d’imigh tú,
is mé fágtha gan slí, gan treoir, gan chomhar.

Ach maithim don fharraige teacht eadrainn,
mar táim tógtha lena damhsa,
máinneáil mealltach na maoimeanna
a mheileann aolchloch dhaingean na haillte.

Is tá a fhios agam go maith nach dtiocfá go brách–
is liom féin a chuardóidh mé an bhealach.

The Lives of Others: Nonamory and Everyday Concern-Trolling

I discovered this morning that undisclosed third parties have been pestering my mother about why neither I nor my sister are dating. At the respective ages of 23 and 19, so the logic goes, we MUST surely desire romantic relationships (and by extension, sex). And since these people are seeing no evidence that we’ve pursued such relationships, they feel inclined–even duty bound–to find out what’s wrong.

There are a number of things wrong in this situation, and none of them have to do with my own and my sister’s choices not to date at this time. First, there’s the presumption that everyone should or would know about our relationship statuses, which strikes me as a bit invasive, not to mention heteronormative. (I believe that some of these questions are from extended family members whose only information comes from our answers to the “met any nice boys lately?” question, which doesn’t necessarily rule out us dating non-boys.) But more to the point, it’s incredibly amatonormative. What exactly is wrong with a nonamorous lifestyle? Why should anyone be that concerned about whether or not I date? Yet the mere thought that I might simply choose not to date anyone throws people into a tizzy.

My mother assures us that she tells people “It’s not that they’re not interested, they’re just too busy with their education.” She’s trying to be kind with that. I suspect she’s also protecting herself from the too-bizarre possibility that maybe we just don’t want to. I’ve said that I’m not that interested, but I still don’t think she gets it–she thinks I just don’t want the difficulty and the drama. Which, I suppose, is true, and a perfectly valid reason for nonamory. But it’s conversations like these that remind me that one of these days I’ll have to have a second coming-out if I don’t want to be hounded to death about my lack of relationship prospects. My parents know I’m bi. My mother still expects me to date men. They don’t know that I’m on the aro and ace spectra, or even what those things are. And that conversation will be hard enough without distant relatives and family friends concern-trolling my parents about my life choices.

Have you had trouble with people’s reactions to your relationship status and history? How do you prefer to deal with them? Tell me about it in the comments!

Update on life and gender

Aside

Wow, it’s hard to believe it’s been a month since my last post! I’ve been keeping busy with a number of different things. For one, I’m planning my educational future–I’ll be heading off to Ireland to do a Masters degree in a few months, and there’s a lot of preparation to be done for an international move. I’ve also been reading quite a bit. I’m hoping to have time to post some reviews to some of the better books I’ve read lately, but in the meantime, I highly recommend both Laura Lam’s Shadowplay (sequel to last year’s Pantomime) and Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife.

Trigger warning for gender dysphoria, body negativity, and eating disorder below the cut

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On (A)romance

I find romance confusing. In the abstract, some aspects of it appeal to me: emotional intimacy and support, companionship, having a stable partnership. I enjoy well-developed, true-to-character romantic storylines, and I’m as much of a shipper as the next person. But for myself, I can’t quite understand how it would work. I spent a long time wondering how other people made the seemingly arbitrary decision of who to date. Did they just pick someone good-looking and go for it? That seemed unlikely to be pleasant. Someone they wanted to get to know, then? It still didn’t make sense. I couldn’t imagine acting in such an intimate way (and I’m not even talking sex) with anyone I wasn’t already close to–and in that case, why risk ruining a friendship?

I realize now that I don’t experience romantic attraction in the same way as the average person. I occasionally get ambiguous maybe-romantic, maybe-platonic attraction to people I’m getting to know, but I very rarely have a true crush on anyone. The two major exceptions I can think of were both distinguished by some heavy-duty limerence. This was the main thing that convinced me my feelings were romantic; it was also deeply unpleasant. I’ve had a few other minor attractions that could probably be classified as romantic, but they’ve been fleeting.

As far as romantic love goes, I’m not sure how it would be qualitatively different from other forms of love, aside from the elusive attraction component. I have felt, and continue to feel, deep love for one of the people to whom I’ve been romantically attracted. We were already fairly good friends before the attraction began, and it took root during a period when we were building a good deal of trust and intellectual/emotional intimacy. But I perceive my love for her as an independent entity from my romantic attraction and limerence. Indeed, it acted in opposition to them in some ways. That love actually prevented me from acting on my romantic attraction, because I knew that any declaration would bring up stressful recent history for her, and probably damage our friendship. Now that I no longer feel attracted to her in the same way, I still love her deeply, companionately, and (I’m fairly certain) NOT romantically. I could still see us as partners, but more in a platonic way.

So I’m still not quite sure what romance is, or how it works in real life. But I feel a lot better about that confusion now that I know the aromantic spectrum exists. It’s good to know that I’m not somehow defective, that there are others who don’t “get it,” that some are interested in prioritizing platonic relationships. The idea of forming a (queer)platonic partnership feels so much more comfortable and less daunting than going through confusing romantic rituals over and over in order to find a relationship I may not even want. I will probably experience romantic attraction again. One of these times it might even lead to a romantic relationship. But for now, I’m ready to stop beating myself up for something I don’t feel, and start doing whatever makes me happy.

Why I won’t be changing my gender on Facebook (just yet)

I’m just as excited as everyone else on the (queer) internet that Facebook has added a bunch of new gender identity options, plus they/them/theirs pronouns! But unlike a lot of people, I’m not ready to dive in and change my settings just yet. If you’d asked me a year ago, or even a few months, I’d have been happy to label myself as a cis woman. Now? I’m not so sure.

I mentioned a few days ago that I’ve been going through some personal changes of late. One component of that has been allowing myself to acknowledge that I have some confusing feelings about my gender. On the one hand, I’m a DFAB* person who has always operated relatively well as a girl/woman. On the other…I feel like my grip on that identity has been slipping over the last few years. (Ironically, this happened after I chose to attend a women’s college.) Some days I still feel female, but I have the occasional day where I kind of feel like a guy. And a lot of the time, I don’t feel very gendered at all.

Even though I’m dealing with all this, I feel kind of guilty not labeling myself as cis. Because I’m not sure. And even though I know intellectually that having to be “sure” about being trans is a crock of cissexist bullshit, it’s hard not to buy into. I struggle to remind myself that it’s okay to question, to try things on for size. I can be far too hard on myself, especially when it comes to the difficult questions. I’m too attached to my need to be sure.

But for now, I’m trying to do what’s right for me. And that means having the same compassion for myself that I would offer anyone else struggling with the same things. It means being as honest as I can be by not explicitly labeling as cis, and guarding my safety by not coming out as gender questioning, either. I won’t be changing labels visible to people I know in real life, because I’m not ready. Not just yet.

*Designated female at birth

Ace Vocabulary: Attraction

When people talk about attraction, they rarely discuss the idea that you can be attracted to different people in different ways. If you say you’re attracted to someone, most people take that to mean combined romantic and sexual interest. And that, dear readers, is far from the whole story!

One of my biggest stumbling blocks in connecting my own experiences with the asexual and aromantic spectrums was a very limited understanding of attraction. If I enjoyed looking at visually appealing people, if I sometimes felt myself drawn to peoples’ personalities, if I wished for sex and romance, I had to be experiencing sexual and romantic attraction, right? Wrong!

The first thing to remember here is that drive is not the same as attraction. I could’ve had a sex drive so active I wanted it three times a day, and that still wouldn’t have meant I experienced sexual attraction. Attraction is directed at someone; it’s a specific desire to have sex with this person, to go on a date with that person. Drive is just…there. And while I liked the idea of sex and romance in the abstract–part of my drive towards both, in combination with societal expectations–in reality, I had an ongoing history of not feeling the right way about anyone to actually pursue either one.

So, drive =/= attraction. That’s all well and good. But what about my habit of being drawn to peoples’ looks and personality? Well, I have more news for you, friends: there are different kinds of attraction!

  • Aesthetic attraction is a pull toward looking at certain people you find visually appealing. A lot of people mistake this for sexual attraction, because hey! You’re looking at someone and thinking they’re attractive! But while aesthetic attraction can occur in tandem with sexual attraction, by itself, it is not sexual in nature. A lot of people describe it like the desire to look at a beautiful painting; for me, it’s more form-driven, and closer to my appreciation of good-looking animals, for instance. I don’t say this to dehumanize people–I just know that the way I appreciate human beauty has a lot to do with bone structure, muscle, and carriage, all things I can enjoy just as much in looking at, for example, a horse. (I do get a little extra enjoyment out of imagining what peoples’ lives might be like, but other than that, the feeling is pretty similar.)
  • Platonic attraction is sometimes used to describe a strong desire to form a friendship with a specific person. It’s easily mistaken for romantic attraction, because society tells us that if we really want to spend time with someone, it must be romantic, right? Platonic attraction is sometimes acknowledged as a thing between two people of the same gender (because heteronormativity!), but it’s generally described in demeaning terms like “girl crush” and considered the province of adolescents. In reality, a lot of people of varying backgrounds can (and do) experience platonic attraction. The term for a strong platonic attraction to someone is a squish.
  • Romantic attraction plays a big role in most forms of media, and in how people structure their relationships. In brief, it’s the desire to be in a romantic relationship with a specific person or to act in romantic ways toward that person. That might include going on dates, giving gifts, kissing*, holding hands, or whatever else the individual in question codes as “romantic.”Romantic attraction is usually assumed to occur in tandem with sexual attraction. It’s “supposed” to lead people to form society’s prized Relationship To Rule Them All, the romantic-sexual partnership. (Never mind that not everybody wants that kind of relationship, or wants to value it above other kinds!)
  • Sensual attraction is the desire to touch someone in a non-sexual way. This could include hand-holding, hugging, kissing*, cuddling, massage, hair-stroking, or any number of other behaviors. Because so many people experience sensual attraction as linked to sexual attraction, it can be difficult to express a desire to engage in these behaviors without others assuming they’ll lead to sexual contact, which is a big problem for many people, especially aces.**
  • Sexual attraction is the biggie, the one that most people use to label their orientations, for instance. Basically, sexual attraction is the desire to engage in sexual activity with a specific person. This could include behaviors such as kissing*, strip teases, mutual masturbation, oral sex, intercourse, all kinds of kink***…basically, whatever is sexual for you. Many people experience sexual attraction. in tandem with other forms of attraction, which is part of why it’s difficult for those who don’t experience sexual attraction to realize it. There’s a tendency to believe, if the other bits are there, the sexual component must be, even if you don’t feel it. This ignores the more likely explanation, that if you don’t feel something, it’s probably not there.

So, to conclude, attraction is complicated. Some people might feel all these types of attraction, some might feel none of them, and lots of people are in between. They can occur separately or in combination, which makes things even more interesting! Also, as noted above, you can have a drive toward any of these behaviors without being attracted to anyone, or vice versa. And you can engage in the behaviors without the attraction, for a variety of reasons–including “because it feels good.” That is, in fact, a valid reason. So, gentle readers, go forth and act in ways that make you happy and healthy, with the knowledge that your feelings are real and valid.

Notes:

*Kissing is variously coded as romantic, sensual, or sexual by individual people. Personally, I’ve only tried it a couple of times and haven’t liked it much, but I haven’t had the chance to give it a go with one of the very few people I’ve been romantically or sexually attracted to.

**Ace=person on the asexual spectrum. I’ll talk more about specific identities in my next post.

***Some people describe their kink as non-sexual. Again, it’s a personal thing.

Ace Vocabulary: Introduction

In my last post, I mentioned going through a period of personal discovery this year. In this new series, Ace Vocabulary, I’ll write about the ways in which my finding the asexual community has influenced that discovery. More specifically, I’m interested in writing about how specific terms in use in asexual (ace, for short) spaces have helped me to understand myself better. This blog is premised on the idea that language is vital to the way we understand the world, and I can think of no better illustration than the invention of new terms to describe emotions and relationships, a process that is even now taking place in the ace blogosphere. These are words I didn’t even know I was missing until I found them and suddenly felt more complete. I envision this as a three or four part series, with posts on attraction, sexual and romantic identities, and relationships, although that could change as I delve into the topic. I’ll add links to posts in the series as they go up!

Part 1: Attraction

A personal turn

I started a blog with the intent of using writing to find a sense of purpose and direction–or rather, to hang on to my academic identity–while taking a break from formal study. That obviously did not go as planned. I realized, as my post-undergrad gap year progressed, that academic aspects of my life were not what needed attention. Literary commentary is a task I enjoy, but for now, there was more important work at hand: examining my personal values and desires outside of intellectualism.

Now, writing can have just as much of a role in personal discovery as in professional development, but I’ve never been particularly comfortable doing personal writing for public consumption. So instead of writing more blog posts, I journaled. In the months since graduation, I’ve filled hundreds of pages with the musings and ramblings that I suddenly have time for. And in so doing, I’ve learned things about myself and what I want, things that I hope to share here. This blog is taking a personal turn.

Of course, all that introspection has its downsides. I have at times dissected my emotions to the point where they didn’t feel real anymore, or worked myself into an unwarranted frenzy of anxiety. I’ve read obsessively on aspects of my identity that I’m trying to figure out. But this has all been necessary work.

I told myself when this “year off” began that I would use the time to learn to be alone again. To be not only separated from my friends, but without the constant hum of busyness that allows me to avoid my own thoughts while in school. I believe I am learning to live with myself, in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I know much more about what I want from work, from relationships, and from my daily life. I’m by no means perfectly happy, and I’ve wasted plenty of time, but each day I’m making progress in figuring out how to live my life–and how to write about it.

On writing and obsession

I find it ironic that, for all my talk of experience embodied in literature, my thoughts often seem to elude expression. Why do I so frequently feel that I cannot write what I’m thinking? Perhaps because, remaining unsaid, an idea exist only in its potential form. The nebulous is always, in a sense, beautiful; the sharply defined is open to criticism. Or maybe I’m simply acknowledging the struggle we all have to match internal to external–and to find words that feel like our own when it seems it’s all been said.

In my more grandiose moments, I liken this struggle to the strivings of Faustus or Frankenstein. The obsession with understanding and creation that goes into writing of any kind, and especially the personal and/or creative, seems to me to spring from the same impulse of which those two characters are extreme examples. We all wish for mastery, sometimes to the point of (self-)destruction. It’s easy to see the lure of such deep investment; it simplifies and gives a sense of purpose.

Contrary to the evidence of my infrequent writing on this blog, I have found myself obsessively absorbed in certain projects, especially my undergraduate thesis on Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. And in the words of Supernatural‘s Dean Winchester, it felt pure. (For the record, Dean was referring to Purgatory, which may be indicative of my belief that a certain amount of masochism is inherent in intense devotion to any project.) In those times of deeply engaged research and writing, I felt justified in shedding other concerns–like Frankenstein, “I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection [or inadequacy, anxiety, etc.] until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed.” Of course, it was never quite that easy–life has a way of asserting itself, and even “impersonal” writing inevitably becomes very personal indeed if you keep at it long enough. What happens when I acknowledge that I am both writing to get away from myself and writing as myself?

Coming Home: Queer representation in science fiction and fantasy

The tagline of this blog speaks of the past, “embodied in language,” as that which shapes our lives. In my mind, however, language can embody not only our past, but also our present, our future, our possible and impossible. Narratives provide frames through which we can see ourselves as we might be.

Of course, part of that vision of possibility is being able to insert ourselves into the narratives we are offered—not so easy for those of us who don’t quite fit the “norm” (white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, etc.) in one way or another. If you belong to a marked identity category, chances are you will have more difficulty finding characters who resemble you. That’s not to say that we can’t connect to characters unlike us; people empathize across differences all the time! The problem is, most of that empathy goes one way, from “minority” to “majority”. As a queer woman, I can tell you that I am generally expected to content myself with overwhelmingly (and disproportionately) straight, male-dominated cultural productions. How exactly do you navigate an identity when there are so few variations to try on for size?

It’s no surprise, given this view, that I should love fantasy and science fiction. As Holly L. Derr recently wrote for Ms. Magazine, “In a made-up world, anything is possible. Speculative fiction exists to show not just who we are but also who we can be.” Creating new and different worlds means that we don’t have to live with prejudice and invisibility; we can build this world (or any other) as we would like to see it.

Fantasy is the first place that I came home to queerness. Although I now see the extent to which he plays into media stereotypes of gay men, Mercedes Lackey’s Vanyel Ashkevron provided an important queer role model in my early adolescence. I empathized with him deeply, and despite not yet having identified my own sexuality, there was something about him that made me feel less alone. Vanyel may not have been a great character on which to base my identity development—the guy had a major martyr complex and was in many ways Too Good for This World—but he was eminently relatable. On some level, I think that most teenagers go through phases of wishing their lives measured up to their internal sense of drama. I certainly spent a lot of time thinking that my feelings would be easier to handle if I had some sort of existential justification. Vanyel had that in spades: doomed love, unbelievable power, and the responsibility to save people.

Flawed as they may have been, Vanyel and the other non-straight denizens of Lackey’s Velgarth provided some of my only clear representations of queerness for many years. (For the record, I started reading the Valdemar series at age 11, which was really too young for some aspects of the books, especially their representation of violence and abuse. I don’t regret it, even though a few passages bother me more now that I fully understand what’s going on.) It wasn’t until my mid-to-late teens that I began to find characters such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Willow, and I think I hit twenty before discovering the existence of YA fantasy with LGBT characters. Many of the latter novels have only come out in the last few years. I can still enjoy them, but what a world of different they might have made if I had had them as a young teen! In the interim, it took me a while longer to suss out my own identity, and my potential role models came increasingly from television rather than books. By the time I got around to watching Willow come out on Buffy, I knew why I was excited, although I hadn’t come out to anyone but myself. Once again, the sci-fi/fantasy world made Buffy into a realm where anything was possible. As recent essays on The Toast and Autostraddle note, Buffy is largely about constantly redefining your identity, something that I’ve done a lot of in the past few years.

My desire to see more of who I might become eventually led me away from my home territory of speculative fiction for a while as I came to terms with my bisexuality. I tried on so many narratives—The L Word, Glee, Sarah Waters novels, massive quantities of fanfiction—and in many ways that foray was good for me, because it taught me to find the representation that I needed in a much broader array of media. Recently, however, I’ve been returning to my old favorite genres, and I have been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve found. Even Jeanette Winterson writes science fiction these days, and authors like Malinda Lo and Lynn Flewelling are building fantasy worlds where queer sexualities are open and accepted. I am so excited to see the emergence of speculative fiction that not only includes queer people, but posits realities where we are truly free to be ourselves. I can’t wait to see what new worlds I’ll discover next!