Grey Weinstein (they/he)
I was fifteen when I first came across the word “asexual” on the internet and felt the world shift beneath my feet. So many things that had been bothering me— the way I felt repulsed by the mere mention of sex when all my classmates seemed fascinated by the topic, the way I couldn’t relate when I heard my friends talk about their crushes, the way I moved through the world feeling broken and damaged and too scared to tell anyone— suddenly clicked into place like pieces of a puzzle. If I hadn’t stumbled across that phrase, on Twitter of all places, I might have gone on hating myself for years.
Knowing virtually nothing about this new identity label, the internet quickly became my educator. And, as I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my discovery with anyone I knew offline, it also became my safe haven. Now, before I go any further, allow me to share a disclaimer: this is a personal essay. I’m here to share my experience, not to pass judgment on queer online spaces as a whole. Really, I don’t aim to make any larger point about what is commonly referred to as “internet discourse.” So if you just read the phrase “internet discourse” and felt your blood pressure immediately rise, I invite you to take a deep breath.
But yes, I did indeed find myself deeply embroiled in internet discourse, a phrase which in a queer context is usually used to describe intercommunity squabbling in LGBTQ+ digital spaces. The defining characteristics of “discourse” vary based on who you ask; more on that later.
Now, the more internet-savvy reader is probably beginning to suspect that I was on mid-2010s Tumblr, a social media site popular with left-leaning teenagers. (I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Tumblr has a reputation for arguments about queer culture between young people who completely lack any sense of context or education on gay history. For some people, that type of argument is the very definition of “internet discourse.”) If that’s what you thought, you’re close, but not quite. I was on Twitter, not Tumblr, but I specifically resided in whatever side of Twitter is populated by angsty queer teens like myself, littered with screenshots of Tumblr posts.
The internet landscape I found myself in was largely centered around the concept of “validity,” with arguments, commentary, and conversation raging about which opinions, queer identities, and above all, which people were “valid.” The sum of these debates could largely be labeled “validity discourse.” As I’m trying so hard to define terms, I wish I could sum up what my little queer Twitter community thought it meant to be “valid,” but I’m honestly not sure if even we knew. Suffice to say, validity was a sort of justification of one’s existence, infused with a sense of morality and righteousness.
The thing was, not everyone in my little circle of Internet Hell considered all people to be valid. The active Twitter posters I looked up to and admired as a confused ace fifteen year old drew a stark line between themselves and those who sought to invalidate others’ identities. Were lesbians allowed to use he/him pronouns? Could pansexual people have a preference for a specific gender? Was demiromanticism really a queer orientation, or just a bunch of cishets looking for attention? All of these debates were framed as questions of the validity of people who identified with these various labels (labels like “he/him lesbian,” “pansexual,” or “demiromantic”). My camp defined itself as the Inclusionists, those who opened the doors of the LGBTQ+ community to all, including to people who didn’t fit into traditional categories like “gay” and “straight.” It branded its opponents the Gatekeepers, those who sought to guard the doors of the queer community and exclude the people they didn’t like.
I haven’t been using the word “us” to describe the Inclusionists because I admittedly never posted or commented anything myself. I only observed the discourse and occasionally liked posts I agreed with, adding fuel to the fire from a distance. But I was wholeheartedly invested in this debate; specifically, I supported the inclusion of everyone into the queer community and, just like so many of the Inclusionists I admired, I detested the Gatekeepers for their elitism. More to the point, I completely bought into the existence of this divide between Inclusionists and Gatekeepers, a fight between good and evil that placed me firmly in a moral crusade against discrimination and hate.
And here’s the thing— asexual people, those who experience no sexual attraction to any gender, were at the center of the discourse. Could you really be said to be asexual if you had a sex drive? What about if you masterbated? Was asexuality a scale, or did people who claimed to be “gray ace” just want to be special? Most central and all-consuming was the question, Do asexuals belong in the LGBTQ community? Are aces queer? All these questions were just ways of reframing whether my identity was “valid,” and whenever I saw someone claim that it wasn’t, it really hurt. I was young and confused and still figuring my identity out, so to see some anonymous internet user invalidate my fragile sense of self cut me to the core every time. This was especially true because I had spent so long feeling broken as a result of my lack of sexual attraction. And that’s probably why it took me so long to realize that all of it— validity discourse, the Inclusionist vs. Gatekeeper dichotomy, all of it— was utter bullshit.
Because the truth was, being invalidated hurt my feelings. It was that simple. But somewhere along the line I had gotten it into my head that this hurt was akin to discrimination or oppression. That’s why championing inclusion seemed like such a dire and morally righteous fight. That’s why the idea of the Gatekeepers, mean queers who invalidated others, felt like such a compelling narrative, and why hating them gave me such a feeling of moral superiority. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way; no one seemed to believe in the Inclusionist/Gatekeeper dichotomy more than the Inclusionists themselves. But somehow we had allowed ourselves to be distracted from meaningful activism in the name of internet inclusion.
The thing is, gatekeepers do exist, and they aren’t Cool Internet Gays who tell you that being ace doesn’t make you queer enough. Gatekeepers are institutions with power that operate to keep queer and trans people from power or access to resources. For instance, many trans people are unable to access gender affirming healthcare. Their clinic might require a psychological diagnosis of gender dysphoria before prescribing hormone replacement therapy, a psychologist’s letter which is infamously difficult to get. Or, trans patients might be required to present as the gender they were not assigned at birth for six months before they are allowed to take hormone therapy. This can be dangerous or even life threatening, especially for trans women of color who are at a high risk for gender based violence. (Even University Health Services at my own college, the University of Michigan, still follows the outdated and gatekeeping WPATH Standards of Care. They require two psychiatrists’ letters detailing a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, from two separate mental health professionals, before they allow students to access hormone therapy.) Although the term “gatekeeping” is most often associated with trans healthcare outside the context of online discourse, queer and trans people are regularly gatekept from housing, jobs, food, stable income, and HIV/AIDS treatment, to name just a few.
While I was focusing my energy on retweeting statements that dunked on online Gatekeepers, I didn’t even think about the systems of power that affected me in the real world as a young asexual person. In the so-called Oppression Olympics us aces wouldn’t even win bronze, but there are still some challenges facing the asexual community, chief among them conversion therapy and corrective rape. The DSM-5 still lists “persistently or recurrently deficient (or absent) sexual/erotic thoughts or fantasies and desire for sexual activity” as a mental disorder, making it easy for asexual people to be sent to conversion therapy. In fact, one 2018 study found that among cisgender respondents, asexuals were the most likely group by sexuality to have been pressured to attend conversion therapy. Although it’s harder to find statistics on, the phenomenon of corrective rape— that is, sexual assault on asexuals (or other sexual minorities) in order to “fix” them— also remains a prevalent threat. Yet as a teenager I was so concerned with my “validity” and whether strangers on the internet perceived me to be “invalid” that activism around these institutionalized injustices never would have occurred to me.
Now, I can imagine many readers protesting, “Wait! Are you saying that we shouldn’t try to build inclusive and safe communities where all queer and trans people feel supported?” And to those readers, I respond, “Hey, hey, hey! Didn’t you read the disclaimer at the beginning? I’m not here to make any comments about the internet or the queer community as a whole! I’m here to talk about myself!”
But then I take a deep breath and tell those readers that yeah, they’re right. Inclusive community is important. In my personal experience, however, the online spaces that fostered validity discourse weren’t really building any kind of community. Even the Inclusionists weren’t really creating something constructive. The real inclusive communities that I’ve encountered online have been built around material needs, not the concept of who is or isn’t valid; they raise funds for rent and gender affirming healthcare, swap recommendations for gender affirming surgeons, share coming out stories and tips for exploring gender identity. Hell, half of the reliable information I’ve received on gender affirming healthcare has been through these online groups, seeing as the cisgender medical field is so reliably incompetent on the subject of transgender health. These online mutual aid networks and support groups are extremely valuable, precisely because they focus on meeting the needs of queer communities in the face of systemic adversity.
As you can tell, I eventually made my way out of my dark, twisted little corner of the internet. A large part of that was due to the realization that validity simply wasn’t a viable framework for me to assess my needs. Luckily, I had a queer community to help me understand that I wasn’t just “valid,” whatever that may mean. I was— and still am— worthy of love, worthy of support, worthy of life in a body that feels like home. That helped me leave a relationship with a partner who regularly guilted me for my asexuality. It helped me come out to my family as transgender. It even helped me pursue hormone replacement therapy for myself in spite of the real life gatekeepers. The community that helped me come to these realizations wasn’t a bunch of strangers online posting, “Asexuality is VALID,” although that was nice to hear occasionally. It was the trans friends I made through writing for this publication, a gender therapist who is themself trans and who gave me a list of transgender healthcare providers, a competent endocrinologist who prescribed me hormone replacement therapy without making me jump through hoops, and friends of all sexualities who listened to me vent about my ace identity. (Oh, and some online friends who gave me advice via Discord while I sobbed about my family’s lukewarm reception to my newfound trans identity. Constructive online communities are great! I do not hate the entire internet.)
I am incredibly lucky and privileged to have access to all these resources that made coming out as ace and then as trans much easier for me, but I shouldn’t be the exception to the rule. Working to make these resources available to more LGBTQ+ teens is exactly where I want to spend my energy in the future as I move away from pointless online debates. And that’s a goal that is, in my opinion, “so incredibly valid.”