(in)Visibility Activist

I’m still afraid.

Every day, I wear a black-gray-white-purple bracelet.  I have an ace flag bumper sticker on my car.  I have a magnetic black ring on my cabinet at work. I have a little asexuality lapel pin that I keep on my camera lanyard. I like to consider myself openly asexual.

Hell, I literally wrote the book on asexuality.

But I’m afraid.

I’m worried that one day, someone will ask me about one of those things.  “What’s that bracelet about?”  “What’s that ring for?”  “What’s the flag mean?” The bracelet typically gets hidden by my watch, so it’s not very prominent.  The flag pin on my camera lanyard is only seen when I’m using my camera, and I typically only use my camera when I’m on vacation a thousand miles from anyone I know.  On the rare day that I’ve actually worn the ring, I end up hiding it.  It’s like everyone is staring at it.  I know they aren’t, that no one even notices, but that doesn’t help.  I fidget with it, I hide it, I start using my left hand to point at things.  It feels like I’m wearing a giant flashing neon sign on my finger.

I met a new coworker the other day as I was leaving the office.  We made small talk about the company as we took the elevator down to the parking garage.  She got off on the same floor as I did.  She walked the same direction as I did.  She kept the casual conversation going as we walked.  It quickly became clear that she had parked near me and would see my car.  I became filled with dread.

“What if she asks about the flag?”

I feel like I’m a visibility activist in the witness protection program.

Mostly, I guess I just feel that it isn’t anybody’s business but my own.  I’m a natural recluse and don’t really like sharing personal details with others.  I don’t even talk to people about the music I like, so why on earth would I want to talk to them about my sexual orientation?  Asexuality has very little to do with my day job as a software engineer.  It’s just not relevant, so why should I bring it up?

But what would I say, anyway?  If someone asks about my bracelet or my bumper sticker, they’re probably just making casual small talk.  Talking about my sexual orientation isn’t idle chit-chat with a stranger in the elevator, that’s a thermonuclear TMI bomb.  How am I supposed to explain what it’s about in less than ten seconds, without confusing the person or making them feel uncomfortable?  What’s the best way to approach asexuality education and outreach in a context where that education is unexpected and potentially unwanted?

Maybe I’m simply not suited to one-on-one outreach.  I’m much more comfortable when I have hours, if not days, to think about what I want to say and have the opportunity to edit, tweak, and fine tune my message for as long as I feel is necessary.

None of you know who I am.  I never use my name, I rarely give any kind of personal details.  I’ve been completely unable to form any kind of meaningful connection with any of you.  I prefer to be anonymous.  I prefer to do my work behind the scenes.  All of the posts on this site are attributed to the website itself.  So’s my book.  There’s no me here.  Just a nameless, faceless website.

And that’s a problem.

Someone wrote to me about my book once and remarked that their parents are skeptical of asexuality because everyone who talks about it seems “unofficial”.  We mostly hide behind Internet handles and anonymous 60 pixel square images.  There are only a handful of asexuality activists who use names, and it’s a good bet that some of them are pseudonyms.  Reporters ask if you’ll go on the record with your real name.  If you don’t, you’re ashamed of who you are.  If you do, you’re relentlessly attacked by the Internet Troll Machine.

It feels like many of us are trying to spread visibility while staying invisible.  I don’t think it works that way.  How do we fix that?

9 thoughts on “(in)Visibility Activist

  1. For what it’s worth, I have talked to a lot of people involved in asexual activism to various degrees who experience very similar feelings. I try to do a lot of offline activism; in fact I do more offline more than I do online these days. I’ve raised my hand in classrooms to talk about asexual perspectives, written essays on asexuality for relevant courses, and quite happily sat on (and chaired!) panels and chatted to total strangers about my asexual experiences. I actually quite like that kind of offline education. And I still get major anxiety at being asked whether I’m asexual when I’m not expecting it. (To the point of once having an embarrassingly panicky moment when a coworker did ask about the flag pin on my bag–nothing you describe is outside of my range of reactions.)

    I actually do all of my offline activism under my full name and have given permission to a local gender and sexuality center to hand my name and contact information out to anyone who wants resources on asexuality. Part of the reason I still use “Sciatrix” online is that “Sciatrix” has a lot more history with the asexual community than “Erin” does. On the other hand, my full name is unusual enough that I’ve been the first result on Google searches for it since I was about nineteen, and I’m not sure I want asexuality to pop up on Google searches of me just yet. Which comes right back to your original point. :/

    I don’t have any answers for you, but I thought I’d comment and tell you that at least in my limited experience, you are not the only person who experiences that kind of anxiety. I don’t know why talking about asexuality when I’m not prepared for it is so scary when I’m quite happy to put on my Education Hat and open myself for questions or lecture for hours when I am prepared. What about that unexpectedness makes everything so much scarier?

    • The search result thing is definitely something I’ve thought about. I’ve got a fairly unusal name, too. (Although there’s apparently a few other mes out there. I should friend one on Facebook and carry on a conversation with him in order to confuse other people…) I don’t mind people that I know knowing that I’m ace. After all, I’m out. And I don’t mind complete strangers knowing, because I’ll never see them again. Where I have a concern is the people in the middle. The people I don’t really know that well, the people I’ve just met, maybe even potential employers. If they search my name and the first thing they see is me talking about how I don’t care about sex, that’s going to skew their impression of me. That’s how rumors and misconceptions start. I may be out, but I want to be out on my terms. I want them to come to me if they want to know about it.
      I probably could do panel discussion type visibility work. For some reason, group talks don’t really bother me, but talking one-on-one with someone I don’t know really well does.

      Maybe what I need is a cheat sheet of sorts… A series of prepared answers to common questions that I could practice, so that I wouldn’t feel completely blindsided if the topic comes up.

  2. Simple answer: You don’t. You have to choose one. Being a visibility activist is like being a firefighter, medic, or police officer in that respect: It needs to get done and someone has to do it. You can’t be a cop if you are a total pacifist. You can’t be a firefighter if you are Arsonphobic. You can’t be a medic if you can’t stand the sight of blood. And you can’t bring asexuality to the spotlight if you can’t stand the spotlight yourself. These are harsh truths, but they are truths nonetheless.

    • But isn’t there room for different types of visibility work? Why does one have to be in the spotlight? Isn’t there a place for the writers and the artists and the organizers and the groupies? Maybe the problem isn’t so much one of anonymity, but rather that there isn’t a structure in place that would allow the anonymous to fully contribute? Right now, if you want to help asexuality awareness, you’re largely on your own. If you’re good at writing, you have to write on your own site. If you’re a poster maker, you have to put them up on your own account. If you’re a riveting speaker, you’re speaking for yourself on YouTube. You can’t really write stuff or make stuff or do stuff for someone else. I can’t write on behalf of the Puget Sound chapter of the Asexual Society of North America, because there isn’t anything like that. If there were a coordinated and organized group, then maybe I’d feel less anxious about visibilty, because they’re what’s visible, and I’m just a proud member.

      • so, I read this sentence, “I can’t write on behalf of the Puget Sound chapter of the Asexual Society of North America, because there isn’t anything like that.” And my first thought/reaction/impulse was “Well there should be. i guess i’ll make that too.” Why is that MY first thought? I dunno… it’s who i am. :)

        so, i have an idea, it’s not entirely my own (i’m borrowing from LTBCoin <- google-bait, explanation would be too long)…

        it could be a way to generate a bit of visibility and interaction in a more decentralised way… i described this idea quite thoroughly in a word processor, then realised it was much to long to leave here… however, i'll be happy to describe it more thoroughly if you're up for helping me with the website content… or you're just curious about my idea.

        but i'm also neck-deep in a particularly convoluted, larger-than-life project that i have to complete… so here is my question to you…

        were i to start an Asexual Society of North America, would you be up for writing some of the primary web content?

        it'll be more than just a website of course, but an informative site is essential to the idea (and just about any other idea these days it seems…) and you're far more versed in this particular topic than i am. in fact, it was this blog that gave me my ah-ha moment… nothing fancy… i read a few pages and thought, "oh, well that explains everything" then kept reading out of the fascintion that i was reading some of my most personal thoughts on what was seemingly a random blog… and i don't even recall how i got here… it may have started with John Oliver's recent interview with Pepe Julian Onziema… but i've severly digressed…

        i'd rather someone that has already writtin about it, write about it… if that makes any sense.

        i also noticed this post is little over a year old, so whether or not you'll even see, or have time for, this is probably a coin toss… but if you do… do you still think an Asexual Society of North America would be a nice thing to have? Or does AVEN do well to serve this purpose? (i only stumbled across that site and this blog a few days ago). I also wouldn't mind hearing your current opinion on the idea (creating an Asexual Society of North America) in general, as a lot can happen in a year… is it still something that doesn't exist? …that might be necessary? …that you would want to write for?

        If, at the very least, it needs to exist… i'm on it. :)

        Thanks,
        Adia

  3. A really good read on the Day of Silence! I wish I knew how to help. All I know is my own experience, which is in an environment that is much more concerned with sexuality and lack thereof than yours (college.) When people ask me what the ring is about, why I’m not interested in joining them for the evening or why I’m hanging out with the queer visibility group on campus, I tell them the same thing: “I’m asexual.” Ideally no one would care to know our most private lives, but part of having an open world is being freer with information and trusting people we share with not to be dicks. And if you’d give it a shot, you’d be surprised how often that trust pays off.

    Wearing any symbol is an invitation to a conversation. If we were to only dress for our own enjoyment, many of us wouldn’t even wear pants. If you’re genuinely afraid of conversations about asexuality, or even just saying, “Oh, that’s for asexual awareness,” you should strongly consider not using them anymore. What good is pride, after all, if you’re afraid of it?

  4. To bounce off those secondary commenters–dude, I’m faking it till I make it. One of the reasons I personally pull out the symbols is to get myself out of my comfort zone and make the anxiety step back, one inch at a time. This kind of thing isn’t an all-or-nothing, balls-to-the-wall-walking-Visibility-and-Pride-Unit or ashamed-silent-and-closeted-forever-person dichotomy. I’m not sure I agree with the idea that anyone who isn’t always immediately comfortable answering questions about a given symbol should stop wearing it.

  5. I have an ace flag on my schoolbag. I leave home with small ace info cards in my wallet. I have the AVEN triangle and ace flag on my locker. I’ve considered wearing a black ring (doesn’t fit my No Accessories policy). Yes, I’m afraid someone will ask what it all means (like when one of the cards accidentally fell out of my pocket), but I feel like I’m spreading awareness in the loudest and silent way.
    Funny enough, I was going to write something like this. But you have it better.

  6. I think that you may have to just get over it, or else be happy with what you can comfortably do. I’m horrible in all social situations and even cried once when having to call someone for a job interview. I’m constantly afraid that other people judge me by my voice, appearance, or something else. I have anime buttons on my bags and when one classmate commented on them I mentally freaked out that now he’ll label me as a dork and loser, also when I was reading manga once in high school.
    My point is this: People need to either step up to the plate or stay in the stands. It’s not fair for those of us who hate that spotlight and isolation and being put on the spot, but it’s the reality I face every day.

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