I had posted part of my Equality of Differences post here on my blog previously, but I wanted to post the full text here in case QRM ever needs to purge its old posts for space or something else happens that causes it to accidentally disappear.
While it’s still around, find it here: http://www.queerromancemonth.com/ais-lin-2015/
The Equality of Differences by Ais Lin
I have spent most of my life feeling like an alien on Earth. The main reason for this is because it has often felt like, at every step of the way, I was different than what society expected.
My earliest memory is of being at recess in elementary school and running up to a teacher to ask, “What’s a lesbian?” I know I asked that question because somebody called me one, but I don’t remember exactly what they said, nor what the teacher’s response was. All I know is whatever the teacher said gave me the impression it was something very bad, because I remember running back and yelling at the other kid that I wasn’t a lesbian at all.
I was too young back then to know I actually was a lesbian, and way too young to know I was asexual as well. Maybe if I’d known I wouldn’t have denied it to that kid, because later I would grow up to realize how important it is to be myself. Even when that means I feel like I don’t belong.
For anyone who’s interested, I wrote a blog post earlier this year called An Asexual’s View of Love which talks about how, to me, romance can seem like a fetishization of love. I don’t want to be repetitive so I focus on different topics in this post than I did in that one.
The topic of having romance be accessible to everyone is something very dear to me, as a woman who is definitely a romantic at heart but who also happens to be both asexual and a lesbian. I’ve often felt that the things that are expected of human beings, and especially female human beings in the US, are things that are utterly foreign to me.
There are different ways of feeling alienated or consistently “not normal.” For me, it’s always been a whole lot of little things that added up to me feeling like a freak of nature as far as mainstream is concerned. Stereotypes shouldn’t be expectations, but in aggregate they are.
Women are overtly sexualized in the US (which creeps me out as an asexual), with the expectation that men should get the most out of her and have some control of, or accessibility to, her beauty (which creeps me out as a lesbian), and with the further assumption that her end goal in life must be to have children, marry and settle down (which creeps me out as someone who didn’t like kids as a kid and doesn’t want to be around them any more as an adult).
In short, if you imagine what is assumed to be “normal,” I was almost always the opposite.
One of the most pervasive differences in my life has been related to what are expected to be basic experiences of all American youth. Unlike most people I knew growing up in high school, college, and beyond: I didn’t drink, smoke, use drugs, or party. To this day I’ve never smoked cigarettes nor tried anything even as low level as pot, and I have zero interest in doing so. I didn’t have my first full drink of alcohol until I was probably twenty-three, didn’t own a single wine glass until I was thirty, and generally could happily live my life without alcohol.
In a country that seems obsessed with religion, I was raised without religion but surrounded by various denominations of Christianity (some more hardcore than others). Yet, when I chose my own religion at age 14, I became Wiccan (Pagan) which, at the time, was very misunderstood and resulted in some religious persecution, mostly for my friend. Later, in college, the first time I found a group of people who understood the feeling of Otherness from not drinking/partying, was when I spoke to Sunni young Muslim women who struggled with the same issues. I came to have a lot of respect for Islam, and to day this naturally feel more comfortable around Muslims because they were the first group of people who both welcomed and understood that feeling.
At 14 I also became vegetarian, at a time and place when it was very uncommon to be so (and not entirely accepted). I became a Reiki Level I practitioner at 16, way before alternative healing was acknowledged in the US and I had to drive hours to find someone who could teach me. And when kids got in trouble for sneaking out, I got in trouble for staying up too late reading books.
There are more examples, but that’s a basic overview.
I was very fortunate to have a great family who told me to be myself, and a handful of close friends who didn’t question me being me. For that reason, I had some stability. But in the greater scheme of things, I always felt like I was damaged goods. Broken. In greater society, I felt a lot of pressure because I knew I was inherently wrong. I knew it would be easier if I conformed, but that was something I couldn’t do, even if I wanted to.
I’m proud of being different even though that also means I have often felt suffocated by it, and at times I wished to the depths of my soul that for once in my fucking life I could just be normal. For fucking once, I could fit in with mainstream.
Because a lot of stories are informed by mainstream expectations, I feel like it’s rare to find characters who represent me in any medium. The few times a character represents a piece of me, it often feels like their difference is dismissed or turned into a joke or sometimes even mocked.
Asexuality is a good example, because by and large people act like it isn’t even a thing, and when they do introduce someone who’s probably ace the ultimate conclusion is that any sexual person who “put up” with that ace for so long “deserves” sex out of them for all that otherwise unnecessary effort. Because, apparently, a person’s availability for sex is all that matters about them as a human being. At least, as a woman and an asexual I’ve felt like that’s the message our greater society repeatedly gives.
I could probably write an entire post on this alone, but the best example I’ve personally seen of that is Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. In short, Sheldon is incredibly intelligent and quirky, and those parts of him are often used for comedic effect, but he also seems very ace. He’s never had any interest in sex and (this part isn’t necessarily ace) hardly can stand people touching him. He ends up having a girlfriend (who I like as a character) who is a virgin who really wants to have sex. Sheldon’s ace tendencies are often made into a punchline, and honestly even as an ace I laugh at them in most cases. I still very much like this show. But as the years passed with their relationship, it became obvious that his girlfriend expected, almost demanded, sex from him. She felt that she “deserved” it for being “patient.” Especially as a virgin, who otherwise was “wasting effort” on him.
Disturbingly, the rest of the characters think she deserves it, too. Nobody cares that Sheldon has been incredibly forthright the entire time that he isn’t interested. The characters lament about how sad or pitiful it is for her that he hasn’t put out yet, and even laugh about situations where it seems like he will practically be forced into sex due to expectations. They all seem to think that the only way to truly validate their relationship is if they have sex; ignoring the years of witty and intelligent conversation they’ve had, or the times they’ve done something thoughtful for the other.
To be clear, I’m not saying she’s wrong for having her own desires and hopes for her own life nor am I saying the way people treat Sheldon is exempt from his abrasive personality. The issue is simply that these are two people who deserve happiness, who want completely different things in the relationship and therefore probably never should have been anything more than friends. The relationship is making it so her goal (of having sex) is seen as the “correct” one, expected at the expense of him as a person making choices for his own body. Which is not okay, not even making it gender role reversal from the way we normally see that happening. Then it becomes an extra level of insulting for men, reinforcing the stereotype that the only useful part of them is their dick.
As for lesbians, in the rare cases where they make it into mainstream, their relationship is often a side note to a story. I see this most commonly in police procedurals, where the main characters are searching for an alibi and stumble upon a lesbian situation. To be fair, I feel like having a lesbian alibi is better than many shows that don’t have lesbians at all, and at least that alibi is considered just as valid as a straight alibi is.
If lesbians come up in a different type of show, then they are often overly and overtly sexualized. Consider the most widely known lesbian TV show: the L Word, which was basically nonstop ways of making every woman have sex with every other woman in any way possible. I liked the L Word, don’t get me wrong; but it also felt like one long excuse to show lesbian sex, with the implication that it was all the women cared about.
I also love the Netflix series Sense8, but despite the fact that it has gay, lesbian, and straight couples, the LGBT couples have more onscreen sex scenes than others. In fact, the lesbian couple is shown having sex on screen more often than even the gay male couple. This, despite the fact that the lesbian couple is also arguably the most romantic, stable, mutually respectful relationship in the entire series; a couple that doesn’t need to rely on sex for their connection, and a relationship that would feel just as powerful even if they were never shown in bed. Considering that half of the couple is a transwoman, it’s also hard to say how much of it is exploiting her sexuality and gender identity as well. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with them having sex; I’m simply saying that it’s frustrating to see the show unnecessarily shove sex scenes of them in the middle of episodes, when the same isn’t done as often with the others.
Even though I’ve often received blank stares or dismissals when talking about my experiences because it’s so alien to most people, there have been times I’ve found unexpected understanding.
As I mentioned before, I’m not Muslim but Muslim women were the first ones who showed me they truly understood the feeling of alienation from social activities due to alcohol.
I’m not trans, but in a couple of coming out videos I’ve watched in particular, those specific transwomen talked about what it was like for them growing up; a constant struggle with expectations vs their reality, and wondering why things were so much easier for everyone else that seemed so difficult for them. That really resonated with me. We may have different struggles for different reasons, but damn do I get it. It was the first time I found anyone where I felt like they knew what it was like to spend every day feeling like something isn’t right, and not knowing if what’s wrong is you or your society.
But both those cases are groups of people who have an identity that is separate from me, and so they are part of a community I’m not. Which means that even in belonging, I don’t belong.
The point of this post isn’t to say, “Oh look at what a special snowflake I am! Aren’t I the specialest of all the special snowflakes?”
All I wanted to say was that there are people like me who exist outside of mainstream. Who don’t have one piece of them that’s different, but who are a collection of oddities that don’t form quite the same picture as their peers. It doesn’t mean anything good or bad about anyone, no matter where they land on that scale. I personally love the diversity of the world, and enjoy talking to people of all sorts of different viewpoints, experiences, and backgrounds because I feel like that’s the best way to get a more complete (and complex) view of the world.
But the problem is that a lot of stories are told from a similar vantage point. That’s the case anywhere but it becomes even more common, in my opinion, in romance. At that point it becomes all about the end game… the literal climax, most of the time. It’s about the conquest of another human being, to change them into being part of a couple; and sometimes it discounts all the complexity of those human beings along the way in favor of simplifying them into a set of boxes to check off until the characters can be maneuvered into bed.
People who don’t fit the mold in general society particularly don’t fit the mold there. What space is there for an asexual in that sort of story, if the entire point of the character is their sexual availability and the entire point of an asexual is everything else? If the sole focus of a character is their sexual interests, what space is there for all the other pieces of them that have nothing to do with the bedroom? Their religious beliefs or lack thereof? Their ongoing interaction with peer culture? Where does a teetotaler fit in with plots often designed around getting someone drunk to lower their inhibitions? If all that matters is the sex or a scripted love story, where does the rest of the character belong?
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with sex. There absolutely isn’t. I also don’t see a problem with characters who are very happy with their sexuality, who are very open to sex, because that’s who those characters are as people. They’re just as valid as any other type of character. The only problem I see is when every single character is treated the same way; where it presupposes that everyone had the same experience and therefore will have the same availability and desires. I really only see a problem when all characters become solely about their sex, because it discounts who they are as people.
Romance is possible without sex ever being involved. And sex is possible without romance. This, again, could be an entire post on its own– but consider for a moment the difference between someone who’s romantic (who can feel romantic attraction/feelings for another) and someone who’s aromantic (who doesn’t feel romantic attraction towards another). Then consider all the sexualities and gender identities that could come into play. This creates a massive spectrum of life experiences that can inform the way people respond to various circumstances. As such, placing value judgments on anyone’s availability to (or disinterest in) sex can quickly feel very limiting.
If you’re ever considering writing a character who doesn’t fit stereotypes or mainstream, please do so. Please question at every step of the way whether, in the making of the character or in the writing of them in the plot line, you’re taking the easy route by going with the expectations, or if the person maybe would be some other way. I would love to find a character like me now and then. Not exactly like me, of course. Just someone who’s different and it’s okay that they are, and it isn’t due to some tragic backstory with an elaborate tie in to the plot… it’s simply because that’s who they are. And who they are is perfectly acceptable, even in all their abnormalities.
For anyone interested in the general idea of diversifying the stories told, I highly recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.”
If you want to read more about me encouraging you to be yourself, you can read a post I wrote a few years ago called, “You are wonderful, you are not alone, and I want you to know that.” It’s about trying to feel right in your skin, even if you’re different.
And if there are any other aces out there, it may sound odd but I recommend the Japanese manga series One Piece by Eiichiro Oda. It’s my favorite series ever in any medium, partially because Oda is a phenomenal storyteller and partially because it gives validity to everyone based solely on who they are, no matter how weird or atypical that is, and it doesn’t tie judgment or expectations into anyone’s sexuality. I will write a One Piece manifesto exploring this and more in the future, at which point I will place it on my site.