Sunday, August 2, 2009

Overcoming Asexualization

I decided to start this journal to channel my thoughts and feelings about one particular aspect of my life--my homosexuality--and try to make sense of it all.

I don't suppose it's ever easy to satisfy a sexual or romantic orientation. Even heterosexuals, who have nearly half the world’s population to work with, have difficulty finding their nook in another’s caring arms. Sometimes we never find that satisfaction when society finds some way of asexualizing some of its members. For some, it’s a race against time. For others, time is never on their side.

There are various reasons why people are asexualized, and it’s most commonly associated with our own first judgments that we use to assign meaning, or value, to a person when confronted with their physical presence. One of the first things we notice about a person is, of course, their gender—it defines for us how we should relate to each other (under our own cultural norms). If the individual possesses a gender that is attractive to us, we start judging other aspects of their presence, in particular, age, weight, race/ethnicity, and many other physical (real or imagined) characteristics. Even in the most platonic of interactions, it is difficult not to engage these initial judgments. The judgments and assumptions of others thus affect almost everything we do, including our careers and our love lives.

Obviously, while making these judgments, certain attributes are valued over others. In North American culture, being young, attractive, and slim (or muscular), or distinctly beautiful or handsome are all positive attributes. If we possess all of these traits, we are ensured to get much of what we want out of the people around us : affection, caring, and love. In such a case, our physical human needs are nearly always acknowledged and reciprocated by others. However, lacking any one of these characteristics may be damaging or even fatal to romance. To not be young enough, attractive enough, or slim (or muscular) enough may decisively cut us off from our own universal goals as human beings—seeking love and wholeness.

The judgmental society determines what are our ‘flaws.’ To overcome them we must flaunt more abstract attractive qualities associated with secondary impressions, such as intelligence and personality. But in the matters of romance, these qualities rarely overcome chemistry. In turn, our physical characteristics and imperfections become limitations to our own capacity to effectuate our romantic desires, as ultimately we depend on other people (and their judgments) to reciprocate them. In addition, the positive attributes we do possess are often ephemeral, and as most people age they increasingly lack them (as defined by the North American cult of youth). When the entire society values certain attributes, those that possess them are sexualized and those without are sometimes thoroughly asexualized.

But my question is, is it possible for us to be additionally asexualized by our own sexual orientation? It is relatively well known that biphobia in both the heterosexual and homosexual communities leads unjustly to the asexualization of those who identify as bisexual (and thus a potentially vast number of people may be avoiding the label for its double stigma). Does it also stand to reason that a combination of heterosexism and internalized homophobia in both the homosexual and heterosexual worlds leads to the asexualization of gays as well?

I am thinking in particular of my own experience, an encounter today I had with a man sitting outside my building. Like most people, the first thing I noticed were his masculine qualities—his beard, built upper body, and other sex characteristics. Then, as his eyes followed me as I walked by, I realized that his face was actually rather handsome. With our eyes locking, I began to entertain the thought that perhaps he felt the same way toward me. As far as weight and age were concerned (two physical characteristics that seem to always and unnecessarily haunt our consciousness), this stranger and I were virtually matched. However, the invisible barrier that separated us was an unbreakable combination of social norms, personality, and my sexual orientation.

I could have said something to him, but what would the outcome be? Admittedly, I am a reserved individual, and in a city, society directs us to be islands indifferent toward the masses around us, the deepest caring confined to our own closed circle of friends and family (and their circles too, of course). In the city, new people are constantly fluxing into and out of our lives through these networks and often become the focus of our romantic attentions. In addition, as a gay man, I’ve become very good at asexualizing my interactions with the people around me—women, because I don’t want them to have any non-platonic expectations, and men, because I assume them to be heterosexual and don’t wish to offend them. I go through life treating everyone asexually, addressing them in a strictly professional manner or guardedly demonstrating only platonic interest, for fear of offending. As a result, I rarely connect with people on a more intimate level. In the case of the man sitting outside my building, his eyes following me might not mean anything, or it could mean everything (and yet it seems almost too subtle to risk self-exposure).

Alas, the asexualization of our interaction lead us to part ways without ever realizing our potential interest in each other, or beginning a relationship that could have truly satisfying on both an emotional and physical level. If the man I speak of was indeed homosexual, as I am, I would say he was much bolder than me in his unphased, interested stare. But not even he could break down that crucial barrier, the one in which indifferent strangers, through their interest in each other, forge a mutual connaissance. And I could never exclude the possibility that I was inventing the whole connection between us; after all, I did find him attractive and would have been flattered to be seen in the same light by him.

Breaking through the barrier of asexual interactions is easier for some people than others. Some may try to add additional sexual interest by working hard to emphasize their secondary sex characteristics (ex., hypermasculinity) in order to generate interest in their bodies. Many simply find it easiest to wear their orientation like a badge, and undoubtedly their efforts to demonstrate their sexual identity alleviate the stigma of asexualization. But the fear of other serious stigmas, including backlash against their sexual orientation or simply awkward, uncomfortable moments generated by their openness in the presence of other heterosexuals, leads a good number of gay men to fear showing their real feelings outside of the safe environments that comprise gay events or establishments. Even in these safe spaces, the stigma that heterosexuals deal with in finding mates, the first judgments, still rule the day and can force an unwilling asexuality.

Having identified the likely causes of asexualization, there seems to be a few solutions to tackle the issue, although none are easily realized. In order to address the asexualization conjured by our discomfort interacting with the world as the love-seeking humans that we are, society must become more open to the idea of diversity in sexual identity. In other words, a world must exist in which gays can comfortably talk about and pursue their lives, desires, and dreams openly within the broader heterosexual society. However, it seems like the day when most people would become flattered rather than weirded out by someone of the same sex being interested in them is a long time coming.

Fortunately, there is hope in addressing the asexualization associated with first judgments, although changing the status quo requires a thorough revolution of the spirit. One might ask, is it really possible to overcome what we think of as ‘chemistry'? That is, can we overcome our initial judgments made primarily on the appearances of others, which prevent us from getting to know them? How do we skip our first impressions/judgments on physical characteristics and proceed directly to our secondary impressions based on personality and other factors? I said earlier that the first thing we notice about a person is their gender. However, more fundamentally, it seems that the first thing we really notice is that they are a person. In other words, we first recognize their humanity. In our initial glance, we sense them as the passionate, complex beings as we ourselves are, engaging us on the same quest of life within a mutual social existence. Understanding and appreciating that fact about those surrounding us, and focusing on it rather than basing our lives on our own first judgments (which are, in fact, in the order presented really come as third judgments) seems to me to be the key to breaking down our own barriers and embracing humanity’s diversity. Recognizing that our humanity itself is what is most beautiful about us opens up doors to new relationships of all kinds. And having broken through our judgment barriers, we connect with others, form intimate bonds, and eventually break down our asexual stigma.

I would like to provide one last closing analogy connecting the physical world to my abstract argument above. I’ve noticed that people in romantic relationships often find themselves attracted to their partner’s eyes. Yet one sex does not have eye structure that is particularly distinct compared to another’s, so why would they become an object of romantic interest to heterosexuals and homosexuals alike? What is distinct about our eyes is that they are human. They are windows to our souls, to our humanity, if I may roughly reference an analogy credited to Leonardo da Vinci. This helps to explain why eye contact, the direction of our gaze, is so powerful and penetrating to those who receive it. If we could only see the eyes of this world, how beautiful all the people in it would seem. While the ponderings presented here are rather idealistic, and the world will never stop succumbing to their asexualizing judgments, I like to think that I will try to look into people’s eyes and try to really understand them as fellow souls before rushing to judgment, on romantic or other grounds. In fact, the eyes of gay men are probably what I find most attractive about them—they betray a distinct piercing strength , byproducts of a very human struggle involving overcoming great odds in the face of trials and hardship.

No comments:

Post a Comment