Every week is a good week to celebrate your asexual friends and family (or self!), but this week is especially exciting. Ace Week happens every year in October, and it’s meant to spread asexual education and awareness. Last year, I had a few suggestions for you to check out at the library, and this year, I have three more. From Native cultures and mythologies to genderqueer explorations of self, these books aren’t just about being ace — they’re about embracing all your complexities and contradictions, every facet of what makes you you.
Understanding our sexualities can be difficult, especially when also having to navigate gender. The graphic memoir Gender Queer puts into question the boxes we so often relegate to each. It also offers an honest account of the obstacles faced when embracing one’s gender identity, not just from others, but from society at large — and sometimes, from our own fears and uncertainties.
Gender Queer recounts Maia Kobabe’s experience with eir gender identity, from childhood to young adulthood, including eir first period, eir pap smears, and eir interactions with other queer individuals. Early on, e acknowledges feeling confused by gendered conventions and expectations. Assigned female at birth, e preferred not wearing shirts and often fantasized about having a penis. However, e didn’t necessarily want to be male, nor did e feel e already was male. For em, gender was and is not a this-or-that issue. It’s more complex, yet also, simpler. As e says, “I don’t want to be a girl. I don’t want to be a boy either. I just want to be myself” (72).
In the beginning of the memoir, e compared eir gender to a scale, saying that “A huge weight had been placed on one side, without my permission. I was constantly trying to weigh down the other side. But the end goal wasn’t masculinity — the goal was balance” (121). However, when e starts using Spivak pronouns, e changes the metaphor, realizing that it’s not quite true:
I began to think of gender less as a scale and more of a landscape. Some people are born in the mountains while others are born by the sea. Some people are happy to live in the place they were born, while others must make a journey to reach the climate in which they can flourish and grow. Between the oceans and the mountains is a wild forest. That is where I want to make my home (192).
Beautifully drawn and touchingly honest, Kobabe’s memoir faces the complexities of gender and sexuality head on. Both concepts are handled with sensitivity and thoughtfulness, especially in terms of their connection. As e says, “I’m not sure if I ever want to have sex… does that mean I’m asexual? If I’m asexual, does my gender even matter?” (71) Later on, e shares that “I found the concepts of dating and relationships deeply confusing. What, exactly, did people get out of them?” (113) Ultimately, e shifts between different labels — bisexual, lesbian, asexual, and many in between — all in the quest to determine which label is truest, as e begin to embrace eir other truths.
Gender Queer is just as much bildungsroman as it is an identity narrative. More than that, the memoir is attempting to offer the representation that Kobabe emselves had such trouble finding. In that respect, the memoir does more than deliver: it is a strikingly real representation of the complicated nature of sexuality and gender identity, with all the messiness, uncertainty, and joy that entails. As Gender Queer shows, identity is not some set, unchanging rule — it is ours to discover, evolve, and name.
Imagine a world in which cultural myths are reality. Now, imagine a girl with the power to summon the dead, and all the responsibilities that come with it. Add in a murder, a dog-ghost, and a powerful exploration of privilege, and you have the brilliant novel Elatsoe. Elatsoe follows its titular character — nicknamed Ellie — as she tries to understand (and avenge) her cousin’s murder. In this world, cultural myths are real and treated as a normal part of life. For instance, Ellie’s dead dog can be summoned by sheer will alone, and her best friend’s sister is dating a vampire. These magical and cultural norms are the backdrop of Ellie’s story; family, friendship, and righting wrongs are at its center.
Racism and historical injustices play a large role in Elatsoe, both in Ellie’s need to avenge her cousin and in her larger experience as a member of the Lipan Apache tribe. For instance, when at a store, Ellie is hyperaware of how others perceive her:
“As she leaned over the case, admiring each sample, Ellie wondered if her posture was too threatening. Maybe she should fold her hands behind her back to prove that she wouldn’t smash the display case…” (69).
She also understands that her cousin’s death is dismissed as an accident in part because of his race. As she says, “the justice system was imperfect. Many crimes remained unsolved, especially violence against Natives” (29). However, the inclusion of Ellie’s culture does more than just highlight these injustices — it also celebrates the practices of her people. The book offers detailed accounts of Apache burial rites, mourning, and language. Additionally, it focuses on storytelling, mythos, and history, all while posing the question of who owns Kunétai soil, and providing the answer, unflinchingly: The Apache (154).
Relationships are another pivotal focus of Elatsoe, but Ellie expresses no romantic or sexual interests. She makes no secret about her orientations — ace and aro — and refreshingly, those around her are accepting. Rather than pursue romantic relationships, Ellie is happy to spend time with her family, her friend Jay, and her ghost-dog, Kirby. In reference to Kirby, Ellie says, “I’m never lonely… That’s my favorite part of the ghost secret. My best friend is always nearby” (140). Ancestral relationships are also examined via stories of Ellie’s Six-Great-Grandmother, the relative with whom Ellie shares a name. Six-Great-Grandmother’s experiences with both oppression and power are interwoven throughout the book; Ellie’s relationship with her not only amplifies the importance of family, but also the harm done to Native Americans, which began long ago, continues still, and cannot be separated from historical wrongs.
In this sense, Elatsoe is less about asexuality and aromantism and more about historical oppression and current injustices. This is by no means a bad thing, as these topics are also important and in need of more representation. Plus, the book does, in a way, touch upon asexuality and aromanticism by showing that they aren’t always the biggest components of a person’s identity, nor are these labels always met with denial or bigotry. So often, lack of acceptance and feelings of “brokenness” are the main markers of an asexual journey — seeing someone so unabashedly and fully themselves, in every way, is just as important as understanding these harsher sides of the narrative.
Elatsoe’s focus on friendship, family, and culture highlights the importance of close, platonic relationships. Ellie’s love for her parents, cousin, friend, and of course, her dog, are driving forces of her journey. And when she finally comes face to face with the enemy who killed her cousin, it’s hard not to see the larger cultural enemy — the elite white hegemony. I won’t say anything more because we’re getting close to spoilers, but Elatsoe manages to be just as fun as it is moving, bringing mythical creatures and abilities to life while shining a light on the monsters in our own reality.
Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen
There is no singular ace experience. There is no singular ace journey. Asexuals are as varied as all other people, and acknowledging these differences is key in creating an inclusive community — not just for aces, but for everyone. This essential truth takes centerstage in Angela Chen’s Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex. By positioning her own experiences alongside those of nearly 100 other asexual and aromantic individuals, Chen’s book explores the varied nature of ace experiences. Simultaneously, it examines some of our common enemies — stereotyping, hermeneutical injustice, and compulsory sexuality — alongside several reasons to join together as a community.
Chen’s book is divided into three sections: Self, Variations on a Theme, and Others. In each section, she utilizes personal stories alongside accounts of other ace/aro individuals to explore asexuality via several societal lenses, including race and disability. She also examines “nontypical” accounts of asexuality regarding kink, masturbation, and sex life. In reference to herself, Chen says,
“The notion that I might be asexual seemed laughable. I found Adrien Brody attractive and Channing Tatum less so and had a vulgar sense of humor… I spoke of longing and listened intently to stories of sexual adventures, and never did it occur to me that my friends and I might be using the language of desire differently” (15–16).
Once Chen realized that she didn’t really desire sex, nor feel sexual attraction, she began using the term asexual. But even then, reconciling who she was became an uphill battle, in part due to the weight played by her racial identity and societal assumptions. As she said,
“for people who come from more vulnerable communities and are weighed down by extra layers of social conditioning, figuring out whether one’s asexuality is human variation or externally imposed is fraught with cultural and historical baggage” (80).
Race and disability are two identity markers that intersect with asexuality. When it comes to disability, “doctors encourage aces to ask ourselves if we’re sick and doctors also diagnose and make declarations without caring at all what an ace person might think…while aces have been fighting the idea that we’re sick, disabled people have been trying to prove they’re not asexual” (99, 104). Similarly, people of marginalized races must constantly question whether they’re “really” asexual, in part because “it looks so much like the product of sexism, racism, ableism, and other forms of violence” (80). However, asexuality can be related to race, disability, etc. just as easily as it can be related to anything else. The same is true for people of all orientations — it’s nature and nurture, not one or the other. Here, Chen raises an interesting point: asexuality is something that you can be born with, but it’s also something you can develop over time. As she says,
“You can be asexual if your disability caused your asexuality, and you can be asexual if sexual trauma caused your asexuality, and you can be asexual if you lose your sexual desire later in life. The asexual community should be there to help in all these cases” (119).
Chen continuously states the need for an accepting asexual community. This community would be fundamental in taking down compulsory sexuality and hermeneutical injustice, two things that cause harm not just to asexuals, but allosexuals as well. As Chen puts it, “Compulsory sexuality is a set of assumptions and behaviors that support the idea that every normal person is sexual… and that people who don’t care about sexuality are missing out on an utterly necessary experience” (43). Relatedly, “Hermeneutical injustice… is about marginalized groups lacking access to information essential to their understanding of themselves and their role in society” (148). Combined, compulsory sexuality and hermeneutical injustice create a system in which people believe that sex is important, or perhaps even necessary, without realizing that not everyone wants, needs, or even enjoys it. By lacking access to essential terms, such as asexual, people are left with no understanding of options beyond the norm. For this reason, someone might consent to sex without wanting it, thus leaving them in a state where they feel violated, othered, or broken. Similarly, allosexuals might consent to sex because they think it’s expected of them, even when they don’t want it.
Chen’s book covers a range of other topics, including differences (or lack of differences) between types of love, nontypical ways of raising a family, and the ways in which masculinity and sexual culture intertwine. But perhaps her main message is that asexuality need not be limiting; if anything, asexuality is freeing. Aces have a power to reinvent social norms as we known them. As Chen says,
“When people stop viewing sex as the end-all be-all of an encounter, when sex loses its dominance as the most important and intimate thing that could happen, when it becomes feasible to ask directly for what is desired, more ways of relating and connecting become clear” (176).
And when we come together as a single, united community, we can start loving not just what connects us, but also, the ways in which we differ. Our identities are not formed in spite of our complicated and unique experiences; our identities are formed because of them.
This Ace Week, we can’t celebrate in person, but we can still celebrate together. We can still cheer each other on as we learn more about who we are and where we fit on the spectrum. So, cut yourself a slice of cake, crack open a book, and celebrate loudly, quietly, however you’re comfortable — because this is your journey, and this is your identity. And whatever label you choose — whatever understanding you reach — it’s the right one. You’re uniquely you; that’s the best you to be.