Who among us doesn’t have a complicated relationship with the idea and the act of coming out? Though the term ‘coming out,’ particularly when associated with the idea of ‘the closet,’ makes it sound like a one-time thing, coming out is really a never ending process. We stop coming out only when we stop learning about ourselves and we stop meeting new people.
First, we have to come out to ourselves. It took me at least six years to figure out my sexuality and then when I got that squared away, I began to rethink my gender identity and wonder about my romantic orientation (though that is a different coming out story). Next, we officially come out to the people we care about most by telling them directly about the labels we have found that fit us. I did most of my ‘official’ coming out when I was 19 and 20, the year after I discovered my identity existed. Then we spend the rest of our lives trying to ‘be’ out so people know without having to be told, occasionally telling new people directly, and sometimes having to go through the whole process again when we discover new things about ourselves.
For a long time, I considered myself ‘questioning.’ I thought that was what the Q in LGBTQ stood for. I don’t remember when I began to think of myself like that. I do know I read my first sexually explicit book the summer before seventh grade. Tami Hoag, Dark Horse. I thought the sex was gross but something I’d grow to be interested in. I thought I was a late bloomer, though that wasn’t the case hormonally. I was developing secondary sex characteristics by the time I was twelve. In eighth grade, the popular kids started dating and I wondered how it happened. I figured it was a social thing: status points for acting older.
Freshman and sophomore years of high school before and after gym class, when I wasn’t rushing to get out of the locker rooms, I furtively studied the bodies in various stages of undress around me. I was testing myself for same-sex attraction, but also just trying to figure out the answers to some basic, though not simple, questions: What is attractive? What is beautiful? What draws eyes? What makes someone want someone else? The bodies did nothing for me, which was almost disappointing because at least I would have had some measure of certainty about my sexuality if I had been attracted to them. I never could answer any of those questions.
I occasionally walked the block and a half home for lunch during high school. Heading back to campus early to go visit the library once during junior year, I discovered a car tucked behind our garage, out of sight of the house. It was bobbing up and down and the windows were literally fogged over. I knew what that implied. I looked away and walked around it as fast as possible. I was shocked, horrified, mortified. It was the first time I could not escape the realization that people my age were having sex and that sex wasn’t just something that happened in books and movies.
My first semester of college, I attended a university-sponsored lecture on sex. The presenter asked, “How many of you are wondering: how do I identify?” The question was an engine roaring into my mind at the head of a train of related questions: How do I determine my orientation? What does sexual attraction feel like? How long do I need to wait to figure it out? Surprised that he would ask such a personal question but too interested in the answer to hesitate long, I put up my hand, but so did everybody else. I was surprised, but then I recalled the ambiguity with which he had been referring to his own significant other. The other audience members were answering a different question. I lowered my hand. I didn’t care what gender his partner was.
One Wednesday night in mid-October during my second fall semester, my older sister called. She was giggling and girly, not the logical, political sister I’m used to. She wanted to talk about a boy. Once she had told me everything there was to say, she turned the tables on me and asked if there was anyone I was interested in.
What I said in response was, “I don’t like people the way you do. Sometimes I think I might be asexual, nonsexual. The word has already been taken, but occasionally it seems like the best way to describe myself.”
“There is information online about asexuality,” she remarked. She’s always been interested in sexuality in general, so she would know. That was the first time I heard anyone use the term asexuality in relation to humans.
The following Monday I went on a night hike up to the massive cement “M” on the hillside above my town with a friend, the person I have come closest to having a crush on. We lay on our backs at the top of the cement slab and watched for shooting stars. We were close but not touching, not even close to touching. I thought about kissing him, though I couldn’t imagine what would tell two people to trade stars for the other’s eyes. I wanted him to kiss me. I’d never wanted that before. I wanted him to kiss me, but I wasn’t interested in the actual kiss. I was interested in what a kiss could mean. I wanted to be in love. I didn’t want to always be alone. We didn’t kiss of course (luckily actually because lip to lip kissing is just as bafflingly unappealing as intercourse to me), I tried to point out a shooting star, and we headed back down the trail.
I finally googled asexuality when I got back to my dorm that night, read the article on Wikipedia, and found AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. I discovered that asexual people are people whose place on the spectrum of sexuality is in the range of not interested. They are not sexually attracted to other people. They are people seeking relationships without sex: love, marriage, friendship, community, engagement in some area of study. They are people like me.
A brief internet search was all it took. I wasn’t questioning any longer, I was asexual. I had been waiting for my sexuality to emerge, but finding out that I wasn’t the only one who had never experienced sexual attraction was the permission I needed to stop waiting. I called my sister back the next day and came out for the first time, though it was rather anticlimactic because she essentially already knew. I think I said, “You know what we were talking about last night? Well, I am asexual.” And she told me, “I figured.”
I made an appointment with my own parents for ten o’clock Friday morning, the same week I discovered asexuality was a thing. I wanted to tell my parents right away because they had always made it clear they would love and support me and my siblings no matter what our orientation. I believed they would be completely supportive, but I was still nervous.
We all sat down in the living room and I plunged right in. “I don’t know how to say this. I don’t know what to say. I’m asexual. I am not sexually attracted to other people.”
Mom let out her breath, “We were afraid you had been raped or were pregnant.”
“I guess we don’t have to worry about you getting pregnant anymore,” Dad joked, dispelling some of my tension.
I showed them the AVEN site.
“What about relationships?” Mom asked.
“There are romantic and aromantic asexuals. Some asexuals even marry. I am probably a heteroromantic asexual, if you want to get technical with the labeling.”
“Maybe you should try having sex before you make up your mind on this,” Mom said right before she had to leave. After she had gone, Dad came over and sat next to me, putting an arm around my shoulder. We didn’t say anything.
I was still at home when Mom came back. She tried to express her love and support, but couldn’t keep the doubt out of what she said. She didn’t mean I should have sex. She was frustrated that she couldn’t find the right thing to say. Her relationship with Dad is so important; she was scared my asexuality meant I won’t find something similar. She loved me, she wanted me to be happy the way she is, the only way she knows.
Under all the things I knew she was feeling, I heard, “Just wait, just keep waiting, and someday you’ll bloom into that full and beautiful person I know is in there.” I had expected complete and instant acceptance, which maybe wasn’t fair of me. It hurt more than I realized was possible that she doubted my identity. The only simile I could come up with to help sexuals understand how I felt is that it was like telling a parent that you are a person who, as a deep part of your identity, isn’t interested in playing Russian roulette and having that parent tell you maybe you should try playing before making a statement like that.
When I talked to my sister later, she joked that, despite how liberal she was, it seemed that I had found the one identity that Mom wasn’t prepared to accept unconditionally.
I didn’t really talk to Mom about anything serious for the next few months, though I’ve always told my parents almost everything. It felt too risky to be open with her about things that mattered.
At some point, maybe a month after coming out to my parents, sitting across from each other at the dining room table, I came out to my brother. “Just so you know, I’m asexual.” He said one of two things in response, “Okay” or “Fine,” and that was that.
After the first few months, Mom and I started talking about more and more things again and my whole family began talking about sexuality and gender, mostly because my sister brought it up. Through talking about it and having it be part of our lives, Mom has come around over the last three years and now accepts my asexuality. She actually came out for me to most of my dad’s side of the family last year. Time and understanding on both our sides have healed the distance between us, though the memory of the pain of her doubt hasn’t gone away.
Over the next year I came out in person to all my closest friends. No one was really surprised and it didn’t change anything.
So ended my ‘official’ attempts to come out.
For a while, I felt strongly that I wanted and needed to be more generally and visibly out so other people could learn about asexuality. The more other people knew, the less likely anyone was to have to deal with either questioning their own identity for six years or having other people doubt that their identity was real. If Mom had known about asexuality before I came out, she wouldn’t have said anything about me trying sex. I wouldn’t have had to go through all that pain. I slipped the word ‘asexual’ into a few posts on Facebook and wore a purple, white, gray and black bracelet, the colors of the asexuality flag.
That’s not much in terms of being visibly out, but on the other hand, my relationship history and the way I (don’t) talk about attraction would (should?) probably be enough to out me if asexuality were even an alternative to the straight/gay paradigm in people’s minds. I don’t describe anyone as ‘hot,’ I’ve never pretended to be interested in anyone, I’ve never faked having a crush, I have never dated, as far as I can tell I don’t act sexual. I’m holding hands with the nonperson I’m not dating as publicly as possible.
After a while, being out became less of a priority. Asexuality had become old news to me and I lost interest in explaining it to other people. I stopped wearing the bracelet. No one had ever asked me about it. No one seemed to notice it or my Facebook posts at all. No one responded to my small attempts to be out. I was still worried about bad reactions and I was tired of pointlessly worrying about something no one outside of my family talked about with me.
Being out and raising awareness about asexuality are again starting to feel important. I know coming out isn’t the solution to lack of awareness and invisibility, but it is a start. I could wear a shirt that reads “This is what an asexual looks like” and leave nothing to doubt, but that isn’t really my style. Anyway, my favorite asexuality shirt reads: “Unscrewed but still illuminating” even though I doubt I’d ever feel comfortable wearing it. I applied and was accepted to write for Queereka and that is a big step. Maybe I’ll put my bracelet back on too.
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