This is my submission for the January 2020 Carnival of Aces, for the theme of “Conscious and Unconscious Difference“.
While we’re talking about difference, I wanted to take a bit of time to talk about what it means to be a part of a diverse community – like the ace or aro communities – that can contain a huge number of different experiences, with people of all different sexualities, genders, racial identities, ages, coming together to discuss the one or two shared aspects of their experiences that they do have in common. However, even within those shared experiences of asexuality or aromanticism, there can still be considerable variation.
For example, among asexuals, some come to the identity because they don’t feel sexual attraction; others don’t like sex itself, others prefer not to pursue sexual relationships (regardless of whatever other internal feelings they have, some just find it hard to figure out any answer to “what gender of people are you attracted to” other than just, “none?”. There’s also huge variation when it comes to whether people feel averse/indifferent/favorable or just confused when it comes to sexual acts, what kinds of relationships people prefer, and more.
The same goes for the aro community, which brings together both asexual and allosexual aros and also those who don’t quite fit into either end of that spectrum. It brings together some people who have never felt romantic attraction in their life, with others who don’t even know what romantic attraction is supposed to mean. Some choose to pursue sexual relationships, some pursue non-romantic, non-sexual platonic relationships, some prefer not to define their relationships in such terms.
Also within both spectrums are people who identify in the “grey areas” around the fuzzy edges of each group – maybe not quite close enough to feel comfortable using the label without amendment, but close enough to still find it’s concepts useful with a few modifiers.
In effect, it can be helpful to think of these groups as “coalitions” – comprised not of a single group of people with a single identifiable shared experience, but as constellations of related experiences that are just similar enough to find it useful to develop new shared concepts, terminology, and support spaces. (For comparison, consider LGBTQ or queer communities – despite covering a hugely diverse range of experiences, from gay cis-men to bisexual transwomen to queer-identified nonbinary people and more, these groups still find it useful at times to all come together at times under one umbrella and one shared identity.)
However, the thing about diverse, coalitional spaces is that they can also be uncomfortable – because meeting a diverse array of people includes meeting people who’s ways of thinking and expressing themselves might be fundamentally different from yours, and who might force you to reconsider some of your previous assumptions, which can be an inherently uncomfortable process. It can definitely be an uncomfortable feeling when you start encountering perspectives from other community members and find yourself struggling to understand or relate to them. However, I want to challenges the idea that this discomfort is always a bad thing to be avoided. Sometimes, a little discomfort is a healthy and necessary part of growing into a new community and an ever-changing world.
After all, realizing that some aspect of your experience is different from someone else doesn’t mean that either one of you is any less “valid” as a member of the community – it just means that you have another ally to help hold up the umbrella.
Re-thinking Discomfort in Diverse Spaces
Instead of thinking of discomfort as inherently being a sign that something is wrong and it must be someone else’s fault, I think we need to flip the script and embrace the idea that discomfort can be a kind of growing pain – a necessary part of growing to embrace new angles of your community. When you encounter someone whose experience you have trouble relating to, instead of worrying about whether you or they “really” belong, think of it instead as a learning opportunity, a chance to gain perspective about the vast and wonderful diversity we have in our communities.
In this way, feeling that discomfort now and then can be a good thing, because it means that your community is making space for diverse experiences. And I want to be a part of a community that can make room for people who are not like me, whether it’s people with different sexual or gender identities, people with different racial or economic backgrounds, people with different attitudes towards sex or relationships, or people who prefer different terminology, different models, or different ways of thinking about their experiences. That’s because the more of us that can come together, the stronger our coalition is. If I tried to create a community where I kicked out everyone who was a little too different and a little too hard to relate to, I’d eventually end up with just myself – and I can’t get much done alone.
See, that’s the the thing about diverse, coalition spaces – their very strength comes from the fact that they can bring in people from a wide array of backgrounds to join together and to accomplish things that smaller groups never could, in terms of creating more active community spaces, collaborating on larger projects, sustaining more complex conversations, gathering together more resources, having more volunteers able to provide support and special skills, etc – all of which are necessary for creating the kind of thriving communities that can raise awareness, make sweeping social changes, and provide support to hundreds or thousands of new faces that come to them year after year. And much of that ability goes away when you try to narrow that umbrella.
However, I think it’s also important to recognize that large, diverse spaces aren’t the only name in the game – and they aren’t the right fit for all purposes. Often, there is also a parallel need for smaller, more niche communities, where people do have more in common – but the important thing is that these communities need to be in addition to the larger coalition umbrella spaces, not instead of them.
Trying to kick other people out of an umbrella community until it better fits your needs won’t work and will only cause more hurt to everyone involved, but creating new, additional support spaces can and does work, and I’d argue that it’s actually one of the biggest spaces where activists and leaders are needed in our communities today.
Diverse, Coalitional Spaces vs. Niche, Exclusive Spaces
While large, coalition “umbrella” type communities serve an important purpose in making sure that everyone in the group has at least some space call home, in fostering connection and empathy between diverse populations, and in mobilizing mass resources towards specific goals, that’s not the only thing people come to community for.
Another thing that people come to communities for is support and validation, to know that they aren’t always the odd one out, or to have a brief escape from having to warily navigate the feelings and needs of people they struggle to relate to, or who may even have conflicting needs. And these particular needs aren’t necessarily best met by large diverse groups – validation and escaping the reality of being a numerical minority in particular can be harder to find in coalitional groups, which often have such a wide variety of conflicting experiences that everyone ends up feeling a little underrepresented.
In this case, there may be a need for additional niche groups, which are more attuned to meet the needs of a specific, smaller populations, whether it’s sub-communities for ace survivors, or aces of color, or aces and aros in a specific geographic area, or aros who also identify as allosexual, etc.
In general, though, if you are finding that a specific coalition group is leaving you feeling “uncomfortable” or “alienated”, it may just mean that you haven’t found a group with the right level of specificity for you. And there can be varying levels of specificity: for example, the LGBTQIA+ is more inclusive and diverse than the asexual community alone, which is more inclusive and diverse that my limited local meetup group, which is still larger and more diverse than the small handful of individuals I know, like, and find I agree with on most things who I might reach out directly too when I need particularly like-minded support – because community can come in all sizes.
All Things in Balance
In general, whether you prefer to lean towards communities that are more inclusive and diverse, or towards ones that are more exclusive and validating, the key is to try and find a good mix. If you only participate in communities that are too large and diverse, you can find yourself stretched too thin, starting to burn out, and generally feeling a little alienated. On the other hand, if you only participate with communities that are too niche and exclusive, it’s all too easy to fall into an echo-chamber and lose touch, getting stuck on misconceptions or false beliefs that a slightly more diverse community could have easily cleared up, or with too little support from a small group that just doesn’t have enough resources to serve as your only source of community support.
TL;DR: If there’s only one thing you take away from this piece, I want it to be these two things:
First, When you feel discomfort from having trouble relating to other people in your community, try to instead embrace it as a chance to learn something new about someone with a different perspective.
Second, when you do find you just need a break to validate your own experience with likeminded people, don’t be afraid to form additional, separate support spaces as well – this kind of niche community building is one of the biggest unmet needs in both aro and ace communities right now.