I'm gay and asexual. Or, if I'm being precise, I'm between the two. In the asexual community, the word for people like me is "gray-A", though I generally avoid the term outside the community. That makes me a gay gray-A, which is cool because it rhymes.
Since this identity is somewhat unusual, even within the asexual community, people are always asking me to explain it, to give my personal experience. But in fact, explaining and giving my personal experience are two very different things. If I explained what gray-A meant, a lot of it would be correcting misconceptions, explaining what you don’t know about me. If I gave my personal experiences it could be misleading.
If I had to choose between explaining something and telling people the personal details of my life, I’d rather do the former. That’s why I often explain asexuality, identify as between gay and asexual, but rarely go beyond that. Asexuality 101 is difficult enough, so why should I go further, into territory that could be potentially confusing?
And yet, I still think it’s important to get my experience out there. So I’ll do it. But I'll intersperse it with a lot of explanation, because I don't want to mislead.
1. What you don’t know
Some people think it’s all about sex, sex drive, and libido. They think I identified as asexual because I had a low sex drive. They get the impression that I identified as gray-A because I tried sex with my first boyfriend and liked it. What a narrative! What an ill-informed narrative!
In fact, asexuality has nothing to do with sex drive. A fairly significant fraction of the asexual community has a sex drive. That doesn't mean they want to have sex with people they don't find sexually attractive (ie everyone). A lone man on a deserted island would still have a sex drive; that doesn't mean he is attracted to anyone.
Nor does asexuality have to do with disliking sex. There are many reasons people like sex, including sexual attraction, sex drive, wanting to please one’s partner, and so forth. Though many straight people find same-sex sex to be unappealing, I think it’s perfectly possible that some of them can and have enjoyed it. Likewise, some asexuals can enjoy sex. And non-asexuals can have negative experiences with sex.
By identifying as asexual and gray-A, I haven’t divulged any information about whether I have a sex drive, whether I tried sex, and whether I liked it. I’d rather keep it that way. I will say, however, that I knew all along that I had a sex drive. And I knew that this didn’t have anything to do with whether I was asexual or not. Therefore, the whole narrative is preposterous from the start.
2. Why my story is misleading
For me, it’s not about the sex at all. It’s more about the romance.
But before I go on, I must explain that asexuality is not about romance. Asexuality is about sexual attraction. Many asexuals experience some sort of romantic attraction to people which is decidedly nonsexual. They could be romantically attracted to one or more genders, or none at all. We call this romantic orientation, and it parallels sexual orientation.
Therefore, if I were to explain my experience with romance, you might get the impression that a romantic experience amounts to disproving asexuality. It doesn’t.
What’s going on here is that attraction is really complicated. Attraction is a single name for many things. Many people experience different kinds of attraction all at once, and so there is no point in distinguishing them. And when you tell someone else about your experience of attraction, it’s like trying to explain how something smells or taste. Our language just isn’t sufficient. So it’s really hard to tell whether you’re experiencing the same thing as everyone else or not. So we sort of lump all these experiences together under a single label, “attraction”.
In the asexual community, people spend a lot of time trying to tease apart different kinds of attraction. Romantic attraction and sexual attraction are just the most widely used labels. There’s also sensual attraction, aesthetic attraction, platonic attraction, primary and secondary attraction, and so on. I treat these categories like I treat the descriptions on the back of wine bottles. They’re rather subjective. And as far as my personal experience goes, some of the distinctions are meaningless.
In particular, the romantic/sexual distinction is meaningless. Sure, here’s romance, and there’s sex, and I can tell the difference. I just don’t see why I would want to have one without the other. I considered myself asexual because I didn’t experience romantic attraction, which as far as I’m concerned, is a prerequisite for sexual attraction. So when I experienced a little romantic attraction, it made more sense for me to shift to gray-A rather than merely gray-romantic asexual.
In general, it would be inappropriate to generalize my experience to anyone else. But you knew that already, right?
3. What it’s like to be me
I can’t scope out a room. I can’t go to a bar and say, hey, that guy looks cute. He’s just some guy. Maybe he’s well-dressed. Maybe his face reminds me of an old friend. Maybe he looks like he’s enjoying himself. But it doesn’t occur to me to think of people as attractive based on looks. You point out an attractive person to me, I’ll say, “Who? What?” And then I’ll think, “Oh, right, most people can tell if someone is attractive just by looking at them.” I’m still not entirely sure how that works.
And yet, I did spend many months looking at people passing by, to see if I had any feelings about how people look. At first I tried with women, with no success. Then I tried with men. So I found that seeing certain guys gives me a slight rush. Finally, I’ve figured out what people have been talking about my whole life, and it’s… it’s so weak and useless! It doesn’t actually make me like the guy or want to be with him or anything. It doesn't last any appreciable length of time either.
What I’m describing here is what’s known as aesthetic attraction, liking the way someone looks. I’m keenly aware that it is not necessarily related to sexual attraction. And though it does not constitute asexuality, it’s one of the most notable aspects of my own experience.
Some people say that they’re attracted to personality rather than looks, but that’s not the case for me either. There are certain personalities I like. I like serious, nerdy, honest, and eccentric people. And if I had a partner, it’s probably important that they have a personality I like. But just because someone has a likeable personality doesn’t mean I’m attracted to them in any sort of romantic or sexual way. It means I like them as a person, or as a friend.
In summary, I am never attracted to anyone under any ordinary social circumstances. Not when I look at them, not when I find that they have a great personality, not when I find that they are great people to be with. How is it that I’m ever attracted to anyone at all? I'm not entirely sure. I think reciprocation and physical touch are fairly important, but I might give a different answer tomorrow.
How did I ever end up dating anyone? I may like the idea of a long term relationship, but this is a rather emotionally distant motivator to dating. It doesn't actually carry any weight in ordinary social situations when I see a bunch of people, none of whom are attractive. Both times I've started dating, the other guy asked me out. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a better way to do it.
But once I started dating, I found that things proceeded almost normally. I’ve liked kissing, cuddling. I’ve wanted to hold their hands in public (despite the oppressive social conventions against it). I’ve wanted to just be with the person, to share moments with them. To lose track of time with them.
I’ve also had bouts of doubt. When, sometimes, my instinct is to treat them just as a friend. When, after a date, I sense that something was artificial. The worst is when I think that I have something to offer, but it just isn’t enough. See, it’s not the romantic/aromantic distinction that matters. What really matters is the distinction between being capable and incapable of functioning in a relationship.
But I’m cautiously optimistic about it. I’m careful about calling it "optimism" though, because I want to accept all possibilities. If it works out eventually with someone, that’s cool. If it just never works out, that’s cool too. They're very different options, but they both have their upsides.
4. What people say, but shouldn’t
Some people say my experiences just sound like they’re in the normal range. Well, yeah! Asexual and gray-A are as much part of the “normal range” as being gay.
I think what they mean, though is that they think there are a lot of gay people out there with the same experiences and who do not identify as gray-A or have to talk about it ever. If that’s true, then good for them! It doesn’t really bother me that two people can have similar experiences yet identify as half an orientation apart.
Other people say I should be open to new sexual and romantic experiences. For some reason, they never suggest being open to new asexual or aromantic experiences. In any case, of course I’m open to both! It’s practically a requirement of identifying as gray-A. I already have some experiences that I share with asexuals, and some I share with sexuals, and I accept both.
I also understand that, being in the gray zone, it doesn't take much to nudge me into one category or the other. I could be just a little wrong. Or my experiences could shift over time. Or I could just slightly shift the definition of asexual. I identify as gray-A because I don't like having to play this game of jumping back and forth over an invisible line.