Following on from International Asexuality Day, Tina Bhartwas, the UK’s second openly asexual politician, shares her experience of being asexual as a young person involved in politics, and discusses difficulties faced by asexual people across the world.
I first came out as asexual in August last year and I almost didn't. In light of International Asexuality Day and conversations currently happening within the LGBTQIA+ community, I wanted to put together this article.
So, what is asexuality? ‘Ace’ is an umbrella term used specifically to describe a lack of, varying, or occasional experiences of sexual attraction. This encompasses asexual people as well as those who identify as demisexual, grey ace, and other ace-spec identities. Asexual people who experience romantic attraction might also use terms such as gay, bi, lesbian, straight and queer in conjunction with asexual to describe the direction of their romantic attraction. (Stonewall definition)
I went through a rollercoaster of emotions to accept myself and a fear of lack of acceptance from others. Growing up I felt weird or broken because I didn't have crushes and when others started having sex I had yet to even feel sexual attraction. It turns out asexuals often internalise the idea that we are 'broken' or incapable of feeling or/ being loved. I also didn't know there was a term and others who felt the way I did. Much of my fear was rooted not just in my cultural heritage but in the way in which we are all in society taught to see the world and our place within it.
The reality is asexual identities like other LGBTQIA+ identities are complex. The experiences of asexual people vary greatly, for example due to hyper-sexualisation of women of colour. This is something I've experienced as a young Asian woman. In India for example asexual women are seen as disrupting the traditional family unit. I have been very lucky to have a supportive partner (who is also asexual) and friends who are keen to learn more about asexuality. I also want to give a shout out to Luke Pollard MP who I recently spoke to about being LGBTQIA+ and active in politics for his support and advice. Luke’s top tip: be your authentic self!
Through the Young Fabians LGBTQIA+ Advocacy Group I have had the opportunity to take part in a panel on asexuality as part of ace week alongside Daniel Walker (SliceOfAce on YouTube) and Founder of the #ThisIsWhatAsexualityLooksLike Campaign, and Model Yasmin Benoit which was put together by former Ace Officer of the LGBTQIA+ Group, Owen Michael. This was an important space to share experiences, learn together and put forward policy suggestions to increase inclusivity.
As only the 2nd openly asexual politician in the country it's been tough to face not only a lack of support but criticism when sharing my experiences within politics as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and specifically as an openly asexual politician. When I spoke at an LGBT+ history month event on arts and culture about my experiences as an asexual person and even taught fellow panellist Peter Kyle MP something!
Important resources for the ace community include the power of online activism and ace forums to foster a supportive community. Also links with fashion, digital art and literature as the arts have been important to many parts of the LGBTQIA+ community as a way of expression showcasing the spectrum of asexual identities and raising awareness of the struggles we face.
Writing on this topic has weighed heavy on my mind recently as the Government excludes some aspects of the LGBTQIA + community from the ban on conversion therapy unfortunately including asexuals just days before #InternationalAsexualityDay. Asexual people are at a 10% higher risk of conversion therapy. As well as this in law asexuals are not protected from acephobia. Then there is the issue of 'corrective rape with lots of stories of abuse, manipulation and emotional blackmail from friends, family and partners of ace people. There is a huge lack of recognition of the breadth of ace identities, unconscious discrimination within different environments and through use of language.
Recently I received a pile on for my support of trans rights as human rights. During this time many commented on my own identity as a asexual and bi woman. According to Stonewall at least 40% of ace people identify as bi. This is stereotyped within society as contradicting identities when they are not. The experience has highlighted to me the need for more education, awareness and how much further we have to go to tackle biphobia, nevermind acephobia which isn’t even illegal!
All too often the experiences of asexual people and our history within the LGBTQIA+ movement are erased and ignored. But we have always been here. And we're queer too.
Tina Bhartwas is a Labour & Co-operative county councillor in Hertfordshire, where she is Labour’s environmental spokesperson. She is Chair of the East of England Young Fabians, as well as Feminist Foreign Policy Officer for the YF International Network. She tweets at @TinaBhartwas.