(Note – It was challenging to find an appropriate cover photo for this story, so instead I decided to use this image depicting urban poverty and pollution in downtown Kolkata).
As I write this, I have a large white canker sore embedded into the skin on the left side of my mouth. Sometimes I bite it. I know it will hurt. But I do so anyway.
This masochistic indulgence in self-annoyance has an intellectual counterpart. From time to time, I like to read opinions that I know will really irritate. Opinions that I’m sure are just wrong and awful and a tarnish to the process of reasoned debate in the public sphere. Thanks to the asexual community, I have discovered a new source for self-abuse. That source is Tumblr’s Ace Discourse tag.
I didn’t really know what Tumblr was until I joined the asexual community. Tumblr makes me feel old, because it is one of the first times where I’ve had a sense that this is something new which the kids are into that I don’t understand. Foraying into the world of Tumblr places me in the position of some sort of hopelessly ill-equipped anthropologist clueless as to the practices of the local inhabitants. But for those readers born before 1995, I will try to at least provide a sense of how this culture operates. Tumblr is what is known as a microblogging service. It enables members to post pictures and short (say 25-75 word) clips expressing whatever happens to be on their mind at the moment. These clips are organized by topic under tags. Each tag serves as a running scroll of pictures and written clips, arranged vertically and horizontally across the page. This allows the viewer (“viewer” is more accurate than “reader”) to quickly scroll through hundreds of posts.
My choice of the word “enables” is also deliberate. It used to be that in order to disseminate one’s thoughts in writing, one needed the approval of an official publisher, whether of books, magazines, or newspapers. Then the Internet meant that anyone willing to write a blog could decide for themselves their worthiness for publication. But the blog format still imposed a certain limitation, for generally one had to compose a structured and substantive piece of written work in order to satisfy the requirements of the medium. Thanks to Tumblr and the microblog, this final limitation has been removed. We’re now treated to what is essentially a direct stream of consciousness style record of whatever thoughts happen to appear in the minds of the citizenry at any given moment. The results are not pretty.
Tumblr’s Ace Discourse tag records pictorial and verbal exchanges between inclusionists and exclusionists. Inclusionists believe that asexuals and aromantics are LGBTQ+ and should be welcomed into LGBTQ+ spaces. Exclusionists object to this notion, usually on the grounds that asexuals and aromantics are not sufficiently oppressed to merit entry into the club. I have included below a selection of quotations to provide the reader with a flavour of the Discourse. I have left intact for posterity all spelling and grammar errors.
On the exclusionist side of the fence, simple disbelief is expressed by the likes of this sarcastic gem from goodgoomy:
“proof aphobia is real:
1. the fact that i can’t surgically replace my nipples with fidget spinners
2. people can legally put ketchup on mac and cheese
3. i told my mom i’m aromantic and she immediately pulled down her pants and took a shit on the floor right in front of me
feel free to add on”
Gayflaaffy moves from disbelief to righteous indignation:
“anyways, if you fucking DARE try to even remotely compare the struggles of ace/aro-spec people to the struggles of trans women i swear to god”
While zolnks frames the issue in sensationalistic brush strokes:
“Honestly I’m ready to leave discourse like it’s just a circle jerk of violent homophobia and transphobia from the inclusionists and exclusionists are all just exhausted at this point
Cishet aces and aros will never be lgbtq. That’s it. Y’all can invade our spaces all you want but all you’re doing is taking from us and exposing every day how vile and worthless cishets are, especially when they fully believe something belongs to them
Cishet aces and aros are violent homophobes by mere virtue of trying to enter lgbtq spaces where they don’t belong. Y’all are making us feel unsafe. You are taking our few spaces and resources away from us. You are quite literally killing us when you do this. You can think and claim it’s all about love and acceptance and uwu u r validvalidvalid all you want. You are KILLING lgbtq people when you take resources from them. And y’all seem to be completely fine with that, but then again who is really surprised that cishets are totally okay with killing lgbtq people to get what they want??”
There is something incredibly validating about the experience of identifying with a small group of oppressed people – not validating in the sense of knowing one’s gender identity or knowing one’s sexual orientation – but validating in the sense of knowing that one is an important and special person that the rest of society must apologize to and cater to. This sentiment underlies much of the exclusionist participation in the Discourse, and it is reflected in the profligate use of Tumblr’s favourite portmanteau, the word “cishet”. For those of you born before 1995, “cishet” is an abbreviation of “cisgender” and “heterosexual”. Essentially, if you’re a cishet, and especially if you’re – God forbid – a white male cishet, then not only are you unable to claim any sort of oppression for which society owes you recompense, but you are necessarily the oppressor against which all marginalized groups have a claim. Or, in Tumblr parlance, you have what is known as “privilege”, and privileged people are toxic people who must be shunned. This is why the Discourse pays very little attention to actual asexual/aromantic issues, and instead focuses on whether or not they’re “cishets”. Exclusionists worry that if they admit cishets into the community, the effect will be a de facto invalidation of their own identities.
In response, inclusionists such as movingbacktoleeds make a plea for cishet tolerance:
“a radical thought: ace and aro ppl are lgbt. yes even cis heteroromantic ace ppl. yes even cis heterosexual aro ppl. all ace and aro ppl are lgbt and deserve love and respect”
While sirjakethemage is less diplomatic:
“Straight people on Asexuals: “They’re sick and need to be cured!”
Straight people on Aromantics: “That isn’t a real thing, don’t be ridiculous, everyone feels romance!”
Some of ya’ll fucks: “Aphobia isn’t real! Aros/aces are just those dirty Straights trying to come in and steal all our gold!!””
And shiphitsthefan moves straight to fuck off mode:
“if your definition of queer doesn’t include asexuals and aromantics, kindly fuck right the fuck off
if your definition of queer includes allies, what the fucking fuck
if your definition of queer relies solely on gatekeeping other queers, fuck you and the fuck you fucked in on
Inclusionist participation in the Discourse is motivated in part by a belief that asexuals and aromantics are oppressed too, and partly by simple indignation directed against the fact that LGBTQ+ groups would display exclusionary tendencies. But overall, inclusionists are less well represented and one gets the sense that they’re unable to match the exclusionists for dedication and persistence. Unlike exclusionists, their identities are not on the line. Either they don’t believe that asexuals and aromantics are cishets, or they accept that some cishets are sufficiently oppressed to be queer. Due to these beliefs, they don’t have to worry that admitting asexuals and aromantics into the community will transform their safe spaces into toxic spaces.
Meanwhile, since this is Tumblr, throughout the Discourse one encounters miscellaneous expressions of concern for mental health. On that account, I can’t tell whether goblincourse is trolling, or just stupid, when defending his concern for removing triggering content from the Discourse:
“@ all the inclusionists saying I’m being ridiculous for saying that saying “go shove a cactus up your ass” is wishing sexual violence on someone–some people have been abused and traumatized by people shoving things up their ass and instead of writing me off as absurd you could EASILY change your behavior to be safer to abuse victims ¯\_(ツ)_/ ¯ just let me know if you care”
And some content isn’t just triggering, but devolves into suicide-baiting, as aphobi-wan-kenobi warns:
this goes out to both sides: you are of value and so is your life. there is no shame in taking a break from the discourse and from social media in general if things get too much. if people are suicide baiting you, there is no shame in turning off anon. you need to prioritise yourself and ensure your own safety, and we also need to look out for eachother. if someone is known for suicide baiting then call them out to warn others. if you see someone who looks like they might be in distress then reach out to them.
a debate should not be causing anyone to cause harm to themselves in any way. sadly, this has not been the case and now more than ever we need to be kinder to one another. if you are planning on debating at this point in time then remember it’s never okay to suicide bait someone and remember to stick up for anyone on the receiving end of this behaviour, regardless of side.
UK HELPINE (Samaritans) 116-123
US HELPINE (National Suicide Prevention) 1-800-273-8255”
It’s hard to imagine that anyone would take the Discourse seriously enough to be driven to self-harm. Only I’m missing something here. When I read the Discourse, I take it as a spectacle, a display of collective silliness writ large. I don’t care about either side because, at the risk of sounding pretentious, I view myself as above the dispute. I’m unconcerned about whether or not asexuals and aromantics are LGBTQ+. In my view, we are substantially different both from heterosexuals and homosexuals, and in many ways heterosexuals and homosexuals have more in common with each other than they do with us. For questioning adolescents, on the other hand, high school LGBTQ+ club politics and the opinions they encounter on Tumblr may very well seem to delineate the confines of their experience and their reality. I get it. Back when I was 16 I didn’t have a bloody clue how the world worked either. I used to carry around copies of anti-establishment political books by Noam Chomsky to high school English class. I no longer believe any of that. But it seemed really important at the time.
There is an element, however, which I am missing. This is due to the fact that I was born before 1995 (I was born in 1988). I acquired my first laptop computer and my first cellphone the summer before I started undergrad in 2006. I was 17 at the time. Before that, my technological access was restricted to desktop computers and landline phones. When not in physical proximity to those fixtures or to other human beings, I was on my own. Members of the Tumblr generation, on the other hand, were never on their own. Equipped with a cellphone by their parents and a tablet computer by their elementary school, they grew up in a state of continuous contact, both with their family and friends and to that more nebulous sphere known as the Internet. The inverse of this state of continuous contact is a state of continuous attention. Whenever one encounters a moment of adversity or self-doubt, the natural reaction is to text a friend or to enter a Google search, for an immediate and instantly-gratifying response. And whatever one is doing through the day can be documented with status updates and photos uploaded to Facebook and other social media sites, in return for the instant gratification supplied by receiving “likes” and “shares”. The impression this encodes is that the whole world is attentive to me and that every detail of my life is a significant feature of that world which others should take note of. For those such as myself who are puzzled as to why members of the Tumblr generation turn slight variations on human sexuality and gender experience into new orientations and genders with immature-sounding titles, and then devote their time to fighting over these entitlements on microblogs, reflection on this technological culture of continuous contact and continuous attention provides cognitive respite. The answer is that for a generation raised to process every personal experience and action as worthy of notice and reward, there is an ingrained disposition towards assuming that their life must be unique and special, and that they can’t be a boring cishet. Now all that’s left for us to do is to sit back and enjoy the shitshow.