June is Pride Month, a celebration of the history and contributions of the some nine million lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and generally queer people in America. Celebrations like this matter, as they raise awareness for minority communities. But for too long, activists say, one segment of the LGBTQ population has gone unrecognized: asexuals.
While groups like nonbinary people and pansexuals have received ample news coverage recently, some communities have yet to get their due. Asexuals — or those who sexually identify as not experiencing sexual attraction — say there are still barriers to their acceptance, not only in the mainstream but also within the LGBTQ community, where they feel they belong. Asexuals see themselves under the umbrella of sexual queerness but say they are often met with exclusion by members of the LGBTQ community, who may question their status as an oppressed group.
Sara Beth Brooks (pictured above) has an idea of why this gap in acceptance occurs. Brooks identifies as "ace" — a shorthand description for asexuals — and is an ace activist. She founded Asexual Awareness Week in 2010 as a yearly means to highlight her community; it occurs in late October. "Asexuality is an expansion of our understanding of sexuality rather than a limit," she explained. "We get a lot of pushback from the queer community on folks thinking that we're trying to set queer rights back by engaging in conversations about what it's like to not have sex in a relationship."
Despite years of work, activists like Brooks have been met with hesitance by organizations and the LGBTQ community. Stacey Long Simmons, director of advocacy and action at the National LGBTQ Task Force, sees this as a recurring theme in advocacy. "There's a tension between those who believe in conformity and those who embrace nonconformity," Simmons said. "That is something that happens in many movements, whether it's a women's movement or a civil rights movement or a racial justice movement."
Asexuals say they often experience isolation and stereotyping. A main assumption about asexuals is that there is something physically wrong with them. "Many people assume that not being interested in sexual attraction or experiencing sexual activity is a function of 'broken' genitalia, which isn't the case," Brooks explained. Recent studies have backed up the idea that asexuality is neither a symptom of sexual dysfunction, the product of low libido, nor a mental disorder. Asexual people simply lack sexual attraction.
Widespread misunderstanding often leads to attempts to correct or "teach" asexuals how to enjoy sex. The consequences can be serious. "This sometimes takes the form of, 'Have you seen a doctor about that?' or 'Couldn't you just take a pill to correct it?'" Brooks said. "This can go as far as corrective rape . . . [which] leads to a conversation about sexual violence and the way that sex is used as a form or tool of power to attempt to fix someone."
As Brooks explains, her work and Asexual Awareness Week were started specifically to lobby national LGBTQ organizations for inclusion. They've been successful, too, as the Task Force, GLAAD, and The Trevor Project have adopted their cause to help prevent their erasure — a problem that occurs when identities are left out of conversations and activism, and therefore forgotten.
Mary Beth Maxwell, the Human Rights Campaign's senior vice president for programs, research, and training, stressed the legitimacy of the group in an interview with POPSUGAR. "The asexual community — including those on the asexual spectrum — are members of the LGBTQ community and face many of the same struggles, including experiencing discrimination at home, school, and work," Maxwell shared. "The asexual community is also often misrepresented, underrepresented, or erased. That's unacceptable, and all of us in the broader community should recommit to speaking up in support and helping to change that."
This attitude represents the growing momentum for asexual people. Simmons says the Task Force has seen an increase in asexual identification: at its annual Creating Change conference, asexual representation has risen from 0.8 percent of attendees in 2015 to 1.2 percent in 2017. Paired with news of asexual politicians and media coverage (and criticism) of The CW's Riverdale, society is discussing ace lives more and more.
Yet Brooks says true success, in her eyes, will only be achieved when there's a mainstream, basic understanding of what it really means to be ace. "There are groups of people who identify as asexual who don't have access to information," she said. "It's a matter of having access to good information about sex and sexuality that leads us back to a conversation about better education in high school and in college."
"When you say the word 'gay' out loud, everyone knows that you're talking about a sexual orientation," Brooks said. "Everyone knows that you're talking about people who are attracted to the same gender. When you say the word 'asexual' out loud, people think you're talking about biology."
As activism goes, Brooks realizes these efforts take time but is hopeful asexual people will eventually get their due in the LGBTQ Pride Month spectrum. "This is an age-old conversation that won't go away," Simmons said. "When it's not the ace community, it will be another set of communities of people. It's probably something we will grapple with as long as we are a part of the human race."