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This article came about through a wonderful and productive conversation with the Lambda Literary editorial staff. I reached out to Lambda Literary because I was disappointed in some of Lambda’s recent coverage concerning the asexual experience and we ended up having a good conversation, about the importance of visibility for queer asexual community. I’m grateful to Lambda for recognizing that they can and must do better and for giving this space for queer writers to talk about visibility and the importance of writing asexual characters.
Several years ago, when I stopped being interested in having sex, I worried that there wasn’t going to continue to be space for me in queer culture. Coming out as being on the asexual spectrum as a public queer writer was met with more support than I anticipated, but also a lot of confusion. Yes, I’m still part of Leather/BDSM community. Yes, I’m in a long-term committed relationship; it’s just not (and never has been) built around sexual relationships. My novella A Little Queermas Carol (2017 Lambda Literary Finalist) was the first time I had written an explicitly asexual or ace character into one of my books–though I had flirted with ace characters in shorter fiction projects. Before embracing my own ace-spectrum identity I hadn’t ever seen out asexual characters in fiction–thankfully that has changed; there are so many wonderful queer asexual stories being published.
If you are curious about learning more about asexuality, I would encourage you to do more research. The Asexual Visibility and Education Network is one source of information, but to help us have a clearer conversation about queer ace writing here are a few definitions:
- Asexual – A person who does not have interest in sexual relationships. Also, sometimes used as an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of ace identities/experiences. Some but not all asexual people consider themselves to be queer. Some ace people identify as heterosexual, while others identify as homoromantic, biromantic, panromantic etc.
- Allosexual – Someone who experiences sexual attractions
- Aromantic – or aro people who experience little or no romantic attraction
- Demisexual – people who generally only experience sexual attraction after a strong emotional connection has been established
- Grey-Ace – people who identify somewhere between a binary of allosexual and asexual.
As with any identity each of these terms are open to individual identity interpretation. These are my definitions, but others may define their ace-spectrum identities differently. The best way to understand an individual’s specific ace or ace-spectrum identity is to ask or pick up a book!
From Aro/ace writer Cit Callahan:
There’s just a lot of misunderstanding in general about what being ‘asexual’ means. When you walk up to someone and say, ‘That’s not how this works,” they tend to react by getting defensive and saying, “I have this one friend who…” But when people read, they let their guard down. They don’t realize that every word is trying to convey “something” with real-world relevance, even if it’s unintentional. Writing ace characters means I’m adding to that signal, helping to counteract all the subliminal messages they’re getting daily telling them that ace people aren’t real or aren’t healthy, and asking them to think otherwise.
This was echoed by openly ace author Andrew Wilmot:
I could try and hide it and get called out for not putting more sex in my books, or I could put it front and center and say, “Hey, maybe not every book needs a romance subplot. And if it has one, maybe it doesn’t need consummation for it to still be valid.” It’s important in that sense—to widen the scope of people’s expectations re: sex and romance (and the idea that romance leads to sex) in fiction. Also, it’s important for anyone who might be reading who’s desperate to see even a piece of them reflected in the world in a way they don’t usually see. It’s an oft-used phrase but it still hasn’t lost its punch: representation matters.
Author Jasmine Hong, who identifies as asexual/demisexual, agender/demigir, spoke about the way bun’s (Jasmine uses bun/bunself pronouns) work has been received in LGBTQIA literary communities:
I think asexuality is kind of contentious, in part because there are some asexual people who are also hetero and some people feel they should not be included under the queer umbrella. So that’s one issue. I also find a lot of times that asexual writing is kind of quiet, or less celebrated, because asexuality is the prescribed lack of something (sexual desire) rather than the presence of something, which is usually altogether more difficult to portray, and asexuality often gets conflated or lumped in with aromantic works, which works to neither’s advantage. All of this makes it difficult to really get a feel for the community’s opinions one way or the other because things get so muddled, and it’s hard to get a handle on which aspect exactly that people are reacting to, but honestly, I feel like asexual works are mostly ignored. A lot of this is a result of most LGBTQ works being romance, and romance being conflated with sex/sexual desire. That works against asexual works because when we highlight the relationships, some readers get disappointed at the lack of sex (if it does lack sexual content, which is not actually always the case) or it makes it hard to market the book because we can’t highlight its eroticism (if it does lack sex/eroticism which, again, is not necessarily true) in a genre that’s got such a heavy emphasis on it. It’s kind of a difficult place to navigate.
Writer Claudie Arseneault is the founder and organizer of the Aromantic and Asexual Characters in Fiction Database, a free public resource for finding ace-spectrum characters in fiction. Claudie describes the database as a “collection of every asexual and/or aromantic character in prose fiction that I have heard about, with details such as their gender, whether they’re in a relationship, what is their role in the story (MC, side character, etc.). The goal of it isn’t to recommend books; it’s to compile information on what’s out there.”
She created the database to counteract the misinformation that there just weren’t ace characters being published (often ignoring the existence of ace characters in small press books) “I was also very frustrated with my attempts to find aromantic characters. People kept recommending me asexual characters, often asexual characters with a very clear alloromantic orientation.”
One of my favorite queer authors, Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children Series wrote the first mainstream portrayal of a asexual character that I’d ever seen in a book. In talking about the series Seanan explained that “the central character of my multi-award-winning novella, Nancy, is ace. I have a few other characters in other world settings that I, personally, view as ace, but as their sexuality has not yet been confirmed in the actual canon, I don’t view that as representation. No credit without confirmation, if that makes sense.” Seanan explained. “I have a lot of ace readers. I wrote Nancy originally because an ace friend said she never got to see herself in fiction; she never got to be the one going out and having the amazing adventures. So, I gave those adventures to her. She cried. A lot of people have cried. And that makes it all the more essential. People deserve to see themselves in story, always.”
When asked about the asexual response to her work, Seanan confessed that the response has been “kind of upsettingly grateful. I say ‘upsettingly’ because I believe, very firmly, that everyone should have their choice of stories told about someone they can fully identify with, and when there’s so little out there that people literally burst into tears when they see me, that’s not fair. They deserve better. We all deserve better.”
As ace writers, many of us are writing the kind of representation we craved and were unable to find. Asexual writer E.S. Yu stated, “I personally crave more asexual representation, especially because the spectrum of experiences is so diverse that it’s impossible for even a handful of books to be able to offer something for everyone on the ace spectrum. When I began writing my first novel, it was especially difficult for me to find positive depictions of sex-averse asexuals, so I wrote the representation that I wanted to see.” Yu also spoke about the need for more diversity not just in LGBTQIA Literature but within ace representations “As an ace person of color, I’d love to see more ace characters of color, especially written by authors of color!”
Other authors have received negative or dismissive responses to their work. Claudie explained that “many readers will outright complain about a lack of romance or sex in your stories, if you choose to focus elsewhere, or they’re rename your queerplatonic story a romance.” She continued with the very appropriate concern that for ace writers “Awards like the Lammys don’t even have a category for you–you have to submit under the general LGBTQ ones, if you want to submit, and the last time I checked, neither asexual nor aromantic was even mentioned in the guidelines.” This is something that I thought a lot about when I was submitting my novella A Little Queermas Carol to the Lammys, it was a Finalist, but I had large concerns about how it would be received in a general LGBTQ category (science fiction, fantasy, horror).
Claudie continued that she’s experienced people treating “asexuality and aromanticism as a sort of lesser queerness, like the lack of attraction doesn’t impact a life as much as same-gender attraction or a trans identity, but really they have no idea. Asexuality and aromanticism have shaped who I am from the very first day, with all the good and bad it brought, and that seeps into every word I write. Asexual books deserve the same love and space as every other queer identity, and it’s exhausting to always be the forgotten, dismissible ones, the letter you can replace by ally, the communities you can hand wave away because who cares, really? It’s disheartening, especially since so much of the support for ace characters goes to those written by allosexual writers. People have no idea the glorious stories they’re missing out on. “
There is a lot of work to be done to make queer literary communities more inclusive of asexual writers and asexual stories as publishers and as readers. “I’d also love to have more conversations in the community on how we can make the literary space accepting of a diversity of ace stories.” E.S. offered. There can be challenges to writing ace characters but finding a place in larger literary communities isn’t all negative.
“Honestly, it’s been very welcoming and open. People are hungry for stories that aren’t exactly like their own. People want to understand.” Seanan shared. For the most part my own experience echoes her perspective. I’ve received push back on some of my ace characters, in the way that I have my genderqueer or leather characters but for the most part the response has been welcoming.
Are you a writer? Have you ever thought of including asexual characters in your work or has our conversation inspired to think about doing so? Representation matters a lot. Seanan’s advice to writers considering including asexual characters is “It’s important. It’s not that hard to do, and it’s not that hard to get a few sensitivity readers to look at things and make sure you’re not accidentally being a jerk. Everyone who can try, should try. It’s kind. We need to be kinder.”
What are your favorite queer asexual books? Let us know in the comments