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16 September 2020

Reconnecting Disability and Asexuality (repost)

This article originally appeared in Disability Intersections on 29 January 2014. Here is the Internet Archive version of the original page. 

Reconnecting Disability and Asexuality

Lydia X. Z. Brown

Note: This post contains a brief mention of rape.


[
Photo of people marching with mylar balloons that spell out "ASEXY"; photo by Marilyn Roxie on Flickr (used under a Creative Commons license).]

On many standard demographic questions, you may be asked to select your sexual orientation from a drop-down menu or a checklist. Most questions allow you to choose among heterosexual/straight, homosexual/gay/lesbian, and bisexual. (Many mistakenly list “transgender” as a sexual orientation.) More inclusive options may also allow you to choose among pansexual, polysexual, androsexual, gynosexual, or skollosexual. 

But for many of us, none of these terms seem to fit.

Asexuality, which can be broadly defined as a lack of sexual attraction or desire toward other people regardless of gender, remains little discussed both in theoretical literature and in mainstream activist circles, perhaps largely due to its defining rejection of sexual contact or desire as a necessary, fundamental, or innate component of romance or human experience.

Foucault’s claims in “Friendship as a Way of Life” trouble conventional notions of sexual intimacy as predicative of “homosexuality” or even, perhaps, of “heterosexuality.” In questioning the conflation of homosexuality with conventionally explicit sexual acts, Foucault asserts that intimacy might occupy a multiplicity of experiences, interactions, exchanges, and gestures, perhaps opening the door for a more nuanced understanding of asexuality as queer embodiment. Asexuality itself as an orientation—or lack of oriented sexual desire, as the asexual does not desire any subject—troubles notions of sexuality that predicate the sexual with the romantic, yet simultaneously offers avenues for challenging a dichotomy of sexuality and romance.

In challenging recent trends and models of sexuality in the mainstream LGBT movement, Michael Warner’s caution against normativity simultaneously concerns both the insistence of many conventional LGBT activists that to be gay does not mean to be hypersexual and unabashedly promiscuous, and the “acceptability” of the non-sexually active gay as non-threatening (“a gay movement they can take home to Mom”). This including the homophobic anxiety of homosexual practice that seeks to normalize and civilize the homosexual through celibacy, an anxiety articulated by the revolutionary Gay Liberation Front as attempts to psychiatrize the homosexual into “an asexual vegetable.” Yet in so doing, Warner’s critique also presumes sexuality as normative for gays. While he positions his theoretical work in opposition to respectability politics and heteronormativity, he still operates from within a framework that requires and presumes sexuality as a necessary component for what he terms “the gay and lesbian movement.” Is this in itself limiting?

Certainly there are many ways to experience sexual desire and orientation beyond heterosexuality, gayness or lesbianness. Yet further complication of friendship and love suggests transcending the boundaries imposed by a framework of sexuality as normative embodiment for bodies and desires. Asexuality transgresses the conventions of sexuality as a necessary precondition for full human agency.  Asexuality demands a reconceptualization of the boundaries of queer—does conventional queer theory predicate itself on the presumption that all humans experience sexual desire or themselves as sexual beings, thus creating its own normative sexual existence? Given such contentions, laying claim to asexuality complicates the boundaries of queerness by suggesting new ways for bodies and desires to orient themselves through destabilizing sexual normativity. Asexuality creates more space for new modes of conceptualizing desire and love, by interrogating sexuality as a necessary condition for romance and complicating the boundaries of friendship. As both Western and non-Western LGBT activists resist the urge to pathologize queer sexuality, so asexual activists struggle against the normativity of sexuality, whether homonormative or heteronormative embodiment. Can asexuality, then, be construed as queerness?

Few mainstream LGBT organizations recognize or acknowledge the existence of asexuality. (Some homonormative activists even insist that asexuals are actually repressed gays using asexuality as a more socially acceptable closet for homosexuality.) Elsewhere, asexuality is largely reduced to a pathological inhibition of normal human sexuality—and this even and only when asexuality is recognized as a separate experience from the (in)voluntary celibacy of an ordinarily sexual person. But if gay or lesbian can exist as identities or names for experiences in sexual embodiment, then it must also be possible to position asexuality as a locus of intimate experience and way of doing relationships.

The call for inclusion and affirmation of asexuality and all its varied lived experiences and practices has given rise both to communities like AVEN (The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network) and smaller, local collectives of asexual-identified activists. Yet so prominent within asexual communities is the process of disability disavowal—a practice so familiar to those of us who identify as disabled, neuroatypical, or chronically ill, but never any less painful or exclusionary, never any less removed from the hegemonic ableism that pervades mainstream society and supposedly radical, transformative spaces alike.

Sexual normativity is intricately intertwined with the hegemony of disability, as well as the mainstream LGBTQ movement, which tends to privilege white, upper-class, cisgender, abled perspectives without acknowledging an intersectional queer politic. The typical body is presumed to be sexual, and sexuality conflated with health and wellbeing. While heteronormative standards uphold heterosexual encounters and experiences as ideal, noble, natural, and basic while exiling non-heteronormative experiences and encounters to the margins, sexual normativity upholds sexual experience itself as normative and fundamental to the human experience. (Simply consider how deeply embedded celebrations of sexuality as a core, innate component of womanhood and queerness have become to feminist and queer theory and culture.)

Asexuality has long been pathologized as evidence of disease or defect, or else reduced to psychiatric difficulties, much in the same vein as non-normative sexualities and gender expressions have also been de-legitimized and dismissed as mental health problems or other medical issues. Is it surprising at all, then, that much of the asexual community is riddled with disavowal of disability? For many asexuals, staking a claim in asexuality as a legitimate and valid identity and way of life requires the rejection of the idea that asexuality is evidence of weakness, debility, disease, deficit, or defect. The idea that there is nothing wrong with me so easily translates to there is nothing wrong with my body; there is nothing wrong with my brain, and these are profoundly ableist proclamations.

The equation of sexuality with wellbeing and the ideal body, combined with the rampant desexualization of disabled people, perpetuates a particularly vicious oppressive system that privileges those whose are abled in part by virtue of their presumed sexual competence and experience while contributing to the disablement of those whose selves diverge from ablenormativity, neuronormativity, or sexual normativity.

Where sexuality is upheld as an innate fact of human existence or a necessary precursor for complete wellbeing, people on the asexual spectrum are necessarily relegated to marginalized status by virtue of the assumption that a healthy, well person must be sexual. How does this apply to disability? When those whose bodies/minds are disabled are then presumed incompetent and nonsexual, this assumption serves both to disenfranchise the disabled by denying us agency and to further the oppression of sexual normativity against asexuals, both those otherwise considered non-disabled and in particular, those already considered disabled.

In the course of disabled oppression, disabled people have long been presumed incompetent and asexual as a product of prevailing notions of sexuality as the norm and as a requisite factor of humanity. Even in recent history, there have been many legally enforced and socially condoned practices for the purpose of controlling, surveilling, or eliminating disabled sexuality, from forced sterilizations to disability-selective abortions, from laws and policies prohibiting the marriage—and therefore, presumably, the sexual union—of the disabled to broad denials of sex education, particularly for the intellectually and developmentally disabled. Why? Service providers, caretakers, and other agents of the social structures that perpetuate ableism have long held that disabled people are either incapable of existing as sexual beings or do not possess the competence or agency required to make decisions about sexual experiences and encounters. Michel DesJardins, in an essay for Sex and Disability, notes that there are two prevailing trends in how disabled sexuality is conceptualized—we are presumed to be either entirely nonsexual, lacking desire toward others as well as desirability as sexual beings, or else, wildly, uncontrollably hypersexual, impulsive, reckless, and dangerous.

In attempting to assert ownership and agency over disabled sexuality, many disabled activists and scholars have likewise come to the realization that the push against ableism must rely upon the disavowal of asexuality. If disabled people are fully sexual, autonomous human beings, as human as abled (sexual) people, then the notion that disabled people are asexual is ridiculous and wrong. The move from disabled people can exist as sexual beings, desiring others and being desired to disabled people are not asexual; we are sexual just like everyone else is also subtle, but incredibly different, and, in its final form, rather oppressive toward asexuals. In centering disabled sexuality as normative, asexuality receives the short end of the stick.

For those who are both disabled and asexual, the dual, parallel mechanisms of disavowal are particularly powerful and particularly painful. Of course it’s wrong to assume that all disabled people are somehow innately incapable of existing as sexual beings. Of course it’s wrong to assume that asexuality is a pathological condition that can be fixed with the right therapy—or, in the most egregious (yet not uncommon) cases, corrective rape. But it is perhaps just as damaging (both on individual terms and in how our communities function) to continue the disavowal of disability as necessarily bad, negative, or undesirable, or the disavowal of asexuality as necessarily inhuman. The oppression of asexuals has often used the constructs of disability and madness as the vehicles for maintaining sexual normativity. And disability oppression has often used the idea of asexuality and the presumption of sexual normativity as vehicles for maintaining ablenormativity and the pathology paradigm of disabled existence.

But if asexuality can lay claim to queerness, then we need to reimagine how disability and asexuality can constitute each other and question how ablenormativity and sexual normativity have been used to pit our communities against each other. We have such long histories of throwing each other under the bus in the rush to claim our stake in humanity. Intersectional social justice doesn’t work with single-identity politics. My humanity as a disabled person should not come at the expense of my humanity as an asexual.

16 May 2020

Gendervague: At the Intersection of Autistic and Trans Experiences (repost)

I originally wrote this post for the National LGBTQ Task Force Blog, and it was published there on 22 June 2016. Here is a link to the last Wayback Machine capture of it, taken on 11 April 2019.

Below is the original post in its entirety - please note that I am not the person who came up with the word "gendervague." I don't know who did, but I've seen sources around the internet attributing it to me, which is incorrect. The word was in wide use among other autistic people before I found out about it.

Also, since I wrote the post four years ago, it probably doesn't use all of the same language or way of thinking about this as I might use today. It reflects what I was thinking at the time.

***

Gendervague: At the Intersection of Autistic and Trans Experiences

JUNE 22, 2016

I’m an autistic activist deeply invested in queer politics, and I’ve managed to fumble my way around without ever developing a conventional understanding of gender. Growing up, everyone around me assumed I was a girl based on the genitals I was born with, but I always felt deeply uncomfortable with being labeled a “girl” or “woman.” I don’t feel like a woman, but I know I’m not a man either. I now identify as genderqueer or non-binary. It wasn’t until partway through college, though, before I began to question what gender might mean to me, my explorations largely kindled by developing important relationships with many openly trans autistic people through my activism.
Lydia picture for blog post Feb 2015
Lydia X. Z. Brown delivering keynote speech at the PEAK Parent Center’s Conference on Inclusive Education about “Achieving Disability Justice: Beyond Ableism and the Imagined Normal”  in Denver, CO, in February 2015. 
In fact, such a huge proportion of the autistic community identifies as trans, genderqueer, non-binary, or genderless that we’ve developed numerous in-jokes and in-group terminology to describe our particular intersection. More recently, I’ve started referring to myself as gendervague, a term coined within the autistic community to refer to a specifically neurodivergent experience of trans/gender identity. For many of us, gender mostly impacts our lives when projected onto us through other people’s assumptions, but holds little intrinsic meaning.

Click to learn more in the National LGBTQ Task Force’s joint statement on the rights of autistic transgender and gender non-conforming people!

Someone who is gendervague cannot separate their gender identity from their neurodivergence – being autistic doesn’t cause my gender identity, but it is inextricably related to how I understand and experience gender. Autistic people’s brains are fundamentally different from those of anyone who is assumed to be “normal” or “healthy.” For many (but certainly not all) autistic people, we can’t make heads or tails of either the widespread assumption that everyone fits neatly into categories of men and women or the nonsensical characteristics expected or assumed of womanhood and manhood. Recent research has shown that autistic people are more likely to identify as transgender or genderqueer than non-autistic people. That’s not surprising to me, because I’ve met far more trans or genderqueer people in autistic spaces than I have anywhere else.

Many of us are used to being outcasts for our atypical communication, sensory experiences, emotional expressions, and behavior. For some of us autistic people, that constant outsider status makes it easier to figure out that we fall somewhere along the transgender or genderqueer spectrum since we’re already used to not fitting in, or at least, it’s harder for us to hide outward gender non-conformity. The advent of social media has also been a welcome boon for those of us uncomfortable with or incapable of consistent face-to-face interaction, allowing us to safely explore new concepts and meet people with similar experiences.

Similar to how mainstream society often pathologizes transgender identity, the dominant narrative around autism and other mental disabilities is also that we are broken and there is something wrong with us that requires psychiatric intervention. Despite the common intersection of autistic and trans identity, however, much of the trans movement rejects neurodiversity and by extension, many disabled trans people. In the rush to affirm the validity of trans identities and experiences, trans movements frequently practice disavowal of neurodivergent and other disabled people. The common refrain, “Being transgender isn’t a mental illness, so there’s nothing wrong with us!” results in real harm to all people with mental disabilities, but especially those of us at this intersection. While being transgender is of course distinct from having a psych disability, the implicit assumption is that those who are really mentally ill should be subject to coercive treatment, paternalistic care models, and social stigma as broken or unstable.

That pattern of disavowal directly contributes to erasure of autistic and other neurodivergent trans people. In classrooms, group homes, and our parents’ houses, we are told that our gender identities are fake because we’re autistic. If placed under guardianship – common for many adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities – we can be legally prevented from even going to LGBTQ meet-ups by an anti-trans caregiver. Autistic trans people of color face high risk of criminalization, police violence, and incarceration. Trans autistic children are especially vulnerable to behavior plans that include cisgender normalization alongside forced suppression of autistic traits, while gender-affirming expressions or explorations risk harsh compliance-based punishment in schools.

With a trans movement that often rejects neurodivergent people in its fight for acceptance and validation, autistic trans people are left in the lurch. In the fight to legitimize our existence as worthy and valuable, we need to reject the refrain that there’s nothing wrong with us while there is something wrong with them. We deserve movements that recognize and affirm experiences that cannot be easily separated into trans or autistic issues only, especially given the commonalities of the oppression we face. It’s okay to be autistic and trans, and it’s okay for those things to be related and overlap. I’m excited to be working for the National LGBTQ Task Force this summer, where I have been encouraged and supported in working on all issues from an intersectional framework, without having to silo aspects of my identities. Effective activism for trans rights, let alone trans liberation, requires not only a recognition of the parallels and connections in our issues and experiences, but active commitment to intersectionality with neurodiverse communities.

Click to learn more in the Task Force’s joint statement on the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming autistic people!

by National LGBTQ Task Force Holley Law Fellow Lydia XZ Brown

26 March 2020

What I do know about COVID-19

I don't know much about virology, epidemiology, or pharmacology. But I do know that the vast majority of my friends, colleagues, and community members, are scared for their lives. Because just like always, government and corporations are showing how little they value disabled people. 

I know that at the end of this there's a very big possibility that literally half the people I know or more might be dead. This year.

I'm 27.

And I've already lived through deaths of dozens of my peers, due to institutional abuse, medical ableism, filicide, or police violence.

It's not even just that huge numbers of us are at significantly higher risk for severe infections and death. It's that literally right now states and hospitals are writing and updating "medical rationing" plans that would will deny care to many of us. Or forcibly take disabled people's existing ventilators.

We already know how deeply ableist the medical profession is. How disabled people are routinely denied eligibility for organ transplants, have newborn infants removed solely based on parents' disabilities, face forced sterilization, and are denied other lifesaving care. Disabled kids paraded naked in front of medical students as examples. Dental students practicing extractions by removing developmentally disabled people's healthy teeth. The fact that it took until THIS MONTH for the FDA to ban electric shock punishment on disabled people. The "bioethicist" who had a 13 year old disabled kid moved to his hospital so he could deny the kid necessary antibiotics for pneumonia, remove him from intravenous nutrition and hydration, then give him some morphine and watch him die instead. (The doctor is Norman Fost, by the way.)

All that before you even factor that for disabled people of color, disabled queer and trans people, disabled rural people, disabled workers, disabled people in jails and prisons... 
It's a million times worse than for moneyed degreed cishet white disabled citizens. Who are also terrified.

I know that so many people I know are scared shitless. Because they know we'll be left on the chopping block. 
And I know that too many people I know are also ambivalent about it all. Because they know we never had much of a chance in this violent, fucked up world anyway.

For instance, did you know that before including other factors like race and gender, autistic people die on average 30 years before non-autistic people
I am almost certain that a major causal factor in that statistic is denial of adequate health care plus medical ableism.

About the enormous numbers of disabled people in prisons? Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities (HEARD) estimates that probably over 80% of people in jails and prisons are disabled in one or more ways - in large part because disability is both a cause and consequence of incarceration, as Talila Lewis repeatedly points out. The fact that prisons largely cage Black, Native, and Brown disabled people is no accident, but by design and deliberate intent. And the fact that COVID-19 is spreading and will continue to spread rapidly and uncontrolled throughout jails and prisons is also no accident. 

Prisons are ripe grounds for genocide. Prisons are a product of eugenics. Prisons are rooted in ableism, white supremacy, and capitalism, at a minimum. Prisons are violence.

Ableism is both necessary for and dependent on white supremacy, imperialism and colonialism, capitalism, queermisia and transmisia, and misogyny. Disabled people at the margins of the margins will absolutely be treated as expendable and disposable. We already always have been.