While there is growing media depiction of the queer reality, these may have inadvertently left out those who do not experience the same kind of romantic and sexual attraction that we do
It’s refreshing to see the recent season of Heartstopper finally exploring Isaac’s asexuality — the way that he tries to navigate through romance and attraction the same way as his friends do, only to realize after kissing James (a boy who has been pursuing him) that he isn’t exactly like his friends.
This introduction of the aro-ace (aromantic and asexual) experience to millions of queer and non-queer people through a hit young adult Netflix series is a crucial representation of a minority within the queer community. (It’s estimated that aro-ace people are only 1% of the global population; meanwhile, nearly 10% of the world is believed to be LGBT+.)
As a queer person who identifies as alloromantic and allosexual (meaning, I experience romantic and sexual attraction), I acknowledge that I’d been more receptive to depictions of sexual desire and romantic love in books, TV & online shows, and movies.
For better or worse, I’ve seen how popular media has shifted from depicting gay relationships as tragic, closeted, and destructive (Brokeback Mountain, Happy Together) to happy, open, and even empowering in its corniness (I mean: Red, White, and Royal Blue, anyone?) I welcomed queer slogans such as “Love is Love” and “All Love is Equal”, which assumed that the desire to couple up was a universal experience and, thus, the best way to tip public opinion toward greater queer acceptance.
However, I now realize the problem with this assumption is that it alienates people within the queer community who do not desire either romance or sex.
“Ako, wala talaga ako sa conversation na ‘yun,” 39-year-old designer and illustrator Andrea Cervantes, who identifies as ace, shared with me. She blames her belated realization of her identity on the lack of representation –– and also, a resistance to the concept itself: “Nababasa ko lang siya minsan sa Tumblr, na minsan nirefuse ko pa siya, na –– ano ba naman ito, ang arte naman ng mga taong ito.”
While she didn’t have the words to articulate her experience, she questioned early on the concept of relationships as depicted in mainstream culture:
“In elementary school, yung tipong may papagawa sila sayo, ‘What is your dream family?’ –– magdo-drawing ka ng dream family, and I always drew yung family ko ngayon, yung nanay ko, tatay ko. I don’t think I understood the assignment, pero apparently yung mga kaklase ko, ‘I want this kind of husband, we’ll have so many kids, we’ll have a dog and car,’ parang ako, hindi ko alam kung immature lang ako or wala talaga akong balak.
“Nung teen ako, pumili na lang ako ng crush ko, si Jonathan Brandis, kasi yun yung crush ng bayan, so parang nakiki-bandwagon ako para hindi ako different.”
25-year-old writer and editor Ally Ravago, who is one of the advocacy leads of Aromantic and Asexual Support Philippines, had a similar early awakening:
“Back in fourth grade, I knew I was different. Everybody kept having crushes; everybody was asking me, ‘Who is your crush?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t have any.’ And they kept calling me abnormal about it. I couldn’t understand what was abnormal about it. I just want to study, we have homework. It was like that throughout the years: through high school, people were asking, ‘Why don’t you have a boyfriend?’ I didn’t know, I just didn’t find anyone romantically or sexually attractive.
“Enter third-year high school, I first encountered the word ‘asexual.’ Then, after a little while, I encountered the word ‘aromantic’. And that’s how it all began. Everything was clear to me. I finally had the words to describe what I was experiencing, and it was honestly very liberating.”
Without the proper words to articulate our experiences, we often try to rally the ones we already know or tap into the ones we can understand to explain who we are and try to see the world as others do.
Ally told me: “Before ko ma-encounter yung term (aromantic and asexual), wala akong alam na ibang term, sinasabi ko na lang na, ‘I’m straight but different’…Iniisip ko rin sa sarili ko na maybe I’m gay but just repressed, kasi I studied in a Catholic school for thirteen years.”
Andrea explained how her single friends would often comment about how good-looking some people are, and her artistic eye served as a substitute for primal sexual attraction: “Yung mga kaklase ko dati na regarded as gwapo na sila ngayon –– I’m like, ‘what?‘ Tapos nakita ko yung growth nung faces nila, and I’m like, ‘ah kasi naging proportional na yung facial features nila.’ So that’s how I see people.”
Most people struggle to grasp this aesthetic attraction, according to Ally. “Hindi naiintindihan ng mga hindi aromantic or asexual, kasi sa kanila, ‘pag gwapo, ibig sabihin, gusto mong i-date. Para sa kanila it’s the same thing na attraction. Sa amin, it’s totally different. Kapag nakakita ka ng painting na maganda naman, hindi naman ibig sabihin you want to have it.”
I asked Andrea how she sees asexuality affecting relationships – specifically, her relationship with writer Noel Pascual (who is behind the comic book “Crime-Fighting Call Center Agents” and the movie “Citizen Jake.”)
“Nung sinabi ko sa kanya yun, I felt understood, and he also respects my being asexual, and I also respect what he wants. At least napag-uusapan namin, and we got to set boundaries and limits, yung ganun…Yung mga people who expect na they need to have children, kasi syempre that involves sex, but if you’re asexual and you don’t want children, tatanungin niyo at the start pa lang, what is the point of this relationship?”
As lead of the leading aro-ace online community in the Philippines, Ally has seen members discuss consent and non-negotiables. “Usually they really like to be very clear about their boundaries, very clear with consent. Minsan nga, parang mas relatable at mas madali sa aming maintindihan pag nagse-set ka ng boundaries dahil nasa aro-ace spectrum ka. Para sa mga hindi aromantic o asexual, hindi nila nage-gets, parang – ‘ha, karelasyon mo s’ya, dapat ginagawa n’yo yung mga ganito’, sa amin hindi, parang hindi dahil mag-jowa tayo, maghahalikan tayo.
“Meron sa amin na before na nagsabi na merong sexual needs yung kasama n’ya, and early on na n’ya sinabi, kaso lang yung partner n’ya parang, naisip na magbabago pa siya. In-advise namin (sa kanya) na, ‘Yung standards mo, gusto mo bang i-breach n’ya yung boundaries mo?’“
A misconception people often have about aro-ace people is that they are antisocial or misanthropic. “May mga nagtatanong sa amin, ‘So how do you make friends?‘ How is that related? They think ayaw lang namin sa tao, which is not necessarily true. Ako, I’m a big fan of friendships, I really like my friends. Malakas yung platonic attraction ko.”
Ally hated how mainstream culture and media would depict aro-ace people as unfeeling and unemotional. “Nafu-fuel yung misconception na hindi kami tao –– robot kami, alien kami, halaman kami.”
Considering how we’re bombarded by messages that sex and romance must be the raison d’etre of all our relationships (and even existence), the aromantics and asexuals are carving for everyone a safe space – relieving us from the pressure that we can only actualize ourselves as people either sexually or romantically. The A of LGBTQIA+ offers the queers priceless insights, and it could help us thrive better socially if we listened closely to what they have to say.
Share your queer joys and sorrows by writing to the author at writerinmanila (at) gmail (dot) com.