A cautionary tale (with a hopeful message): Our shared pains may not be exclusively ours.

This post is for the February 2020 Carnival of Aros, on the subject of “Variation vs. Unity”

One of the things that communities of shared experience and identity often bond over is commiserating over our shared struggles, pains and frustrations. Whether we are looking for advice from someone has been throughout it, support in fighting to overcoming it together, or even just someone who understands that we can vent everything out to, shared pain is one of the big things that bring us together.

Another thing that drives us towards each other is the inability of many of those outside our group to understand or take seriously the problems we face, if they are not targeted by those same issues.

However, when dealing with our pain, we still have to be careful – because the fact that many people outside our group cannot relate to our problems, does not mean that all people outside our group are free from these problems – the forces of convention and normativity rarely restrict their pressures to one single group.

Therefore, we need to be careful when stating that “people who aren’t us can never understand this problem” or that “if a person claims this experience, they must be one of us – or its appropriation”. Because often, that’s not the case.

A Cautionary Tale: Is “Marriage Equality” really a uniquely gay issue?

As a common example of this fallacy, I want to refer to a sort of case example from a tumblr post I saw a few years ago (although unfortunately I no longer have a link to it). The post in question was responding to to a common statement from a lesbian or gay person that went something like this:

“Straight people will never understand what it’s like to be legally denied the right to marry the person you love”

At face value, this doesn’t seem that incorrect – after all, up until about 5 years ago, many same-sex lesbian, gay, and bi couples in the united states had no legal right to marry – and many couples abroad still do not have that right. And even now, it remains uncertain how strong this right is, and while the law now allows, the law often declines to protect people from being fired, harassed, evicted, denied service, or worse just because of that marriage.

And it’s true that straight people, as a general class, have not recently been denied that right solely for being straight.

However, as responses to the post in question pointed out, where this assumption falls apart is when you realize that straight vs. gay is not, in fact, the only axis of advantage and disadvantage along which society is divided, and that many straight people also have other identities that affect their experience, which may heavily affect how they have been treated with regards to the legal institution of marriage. For example”

  • First, and perhaps most immediate, is gender identity: many straight trans people (and many of their straight partners)were just as affected and just as involved in the struggle for marriage equality as cisgendered lesbian, gay, and bi people were, due to the way that judgements of who was “male and female” enough to marry were often based on cissexist assumptions and misgendering.
  • There is also the consideration of race: Many interracial couples weren’t allowed the right to marry in many US states until 1967 – and many of these couples (and especially their children) are still alive today. When my own grandparents got married, their relationship was still illegal in much of the country! And looking back a little further, there were centuries in the US where black slaves where not allowed access to any kind of legal marriage or relationship recognition, and would regularly be torn apart with no choice in the matter; a legacy that has left an impact on all their descendants.
  • While perhaps a less widespread, some states still disallow or even criminalize certain cousin marriages, no matter what the circumstances – some others require both participants to prove that they are sterile first.

Even in addition to de jure legal barriers, there are also many groups today who still face de facto barriers to marriage:

  • Many disabled people cannot marry without losing much of the limited financial support they already rely on just to stay alive – it doesn’t matter much whether you have the legal “right” to marriage if excercising it means immediately losing your ability to pay for the food and care and shelter you need to stay alive and enjoy it.
  • Widows or widowers  (often older) who are entirely reliant on social security spousal benefits (perhaps after years of being a stay-at-home parent to support their partners career) are similarly unable to access marriage without losing their sole source of income (although some of these laws are loosening), as are some low income people who rely on federal benefits that may be cut if they marry.
  • Also, because marriage in the US is restricted to binary couples, many poly people or others in relationships with 2 or more serious partners are denied the right to have their partners recognized and treated equally.

And that’s just in the United States, without going into the complications of international marriage situations – or in to the doubleor triple hurdles faced by people who face intersectional disadvantages and are affected by more than just one of these issues at once.

When people reduce the issue of marriage rights to “gay people face this struggle, straight people never have”, we erase all of these groups’s complex strugglies. And when we do that, we also lose the important chance to join forces is in coalition with them. Because that’s the flip side of all this – while acknowledging that the hurts that felt unique might be more common than you thought can be both difficult to work into your identity, and a bit depressing for our worldviews, the other side of it is that it also means there are many more potential allies out there who want to make the same changes we do.

Coalition Building: More people with shared pain means more allies in fighting to stop the pain.

The benefit of expanding our worldviews to recognize other groups that may face similar struggles, is recognizing that we can also connect with these groups in our fight to better our situations. Here again, the issue of marriage law has some relevant parallels:

Coalition building is important, because the more people you can find commonality with, the more allies you have who are deeply invested in your cause. And what several small groups fighting along may fail to achieve, a single unified coalition has a much better chance at.

What does this mean for Aromantic activists?

As aro people, when we are often surrounded by non-aros who do not seem to share our struggles, and when aro communities are the first places we find solace from those pressures, it’s easy to assume that we are the only ones in the world dealing with these problems – whether it’s the delegitimization or stigmatization  of relationships that don’t include the right amounts of romance, or pressure to engage in types of relationships that we don’t want, or people mocking us for having ‘unnatural’ desires/lacking the “proper” desires (or viewing us with pity and trying to “fix” us).

However, it’s important to realize that although it can seem like it we are alone in the world, we are not the only ones facing any of these problems – and we don’t need to be alone in fighting them.

Furthermore, while ace and aro allyship is one type of potential coalition building, we must not end there. We must also seek out parallels across all axes of identity, as the politics of love, sex, and romance and desire (and the lack thereof) are constantly affected by judgements based in sexism, cissexism, heterosexism/homophobia, racism, classism, and more. Just to get us started, here’s a few examples of areas where I see potential for reaching out to similarly affected groups:

  • Coalitions between aromantic people seeking to destigmatize non-romantic sexual relationships, and other sex-positive, queer, and feminist activists seeking to negate the stigma of sex outside of traditional romantic partnerships.
  • Coalitions between aros who like alternative living arrangements with non-married housemates, and other single, low income, queer, younger, and also senior housing advocates looking to promote alternative living styles, including better models and paths to co-ownership for non-married co-owners.
  • Coalitions between aro folks and POC in breaking down racist assumptions around desexualization, hypersexualization, being shut out of sex, dating or relationship consideration and more.
  • Coalitions between aros in nontraditional partnerships with poly folks looking for alternative ways to access legal rights and recognition for important people in your life even without traditional marriage.
  • Coalitions with poly and queer advocates to break up the assumption that everyone needs to be in a monogamous, romantic, sexual, long-term relationship, and that any other types of relationship is pointless and not worthy of legal recognition

And that’s just what I could come up with in the last 10 minutes.

Readers, do you have any other experiences of discovering shared points of struggle with other groups? Or do you have suggestions for additional coalition building?

 

One thought on “A cautionary tale (with a hopeful message): Our shared pains may not be exclusively ours.

  1. Another coalition point for aros could be people raising children or intending to raise children in non-traditional family designs, such as single parents, non-romantic coparents, etc.

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