Who gets to call themselves Queer? Where does Queerness begin, where does it end, and who gets to determine these boundaries? These are some of the questions that our special guest, Phiona Stanley, addressed in our 15th episode of Tales from the Tea Room. Drawing on personal experience and rich scholarship, she made of this a thought-provoking conversation!
In the last part of our conversation (starting at minute 48:02), Phiona introduces a section of a book she is writing about non-normative identity work, especially around gender, ‘spinsterhood’, and transnational mobilities. You can read the text below; she was happy to share it with us.
PRIDE… OR SHAME? Dr Phiona Stanley
A few years ago, I contacted a group of people I thought were like me, an Asexuality group. And while these were beautiful, wonderful people —Aces, they call themselves— I realized I wasn’t quite ready to proudly label myself and put brave words on a purple t-shirt. When I looked closely at my motivations for having romantic and sexual relationships, I realised that, to a large extent, everything I’d done had been about wanting to fit in and be approved of, using a relationship to confer on me the status of “acceptable”. Loveable. Grieveable (after Judith Butler). I did so much, for so long, for the sake of what I thought was right and proper. Then, I tried to be norma(l)tive, and now I’m trying not to do that anymore. Not unconnected, I haven’t had any type of sexual or romantic encounter for years. I just haven’t wanted to. Despite all this, I’m not sure whether asexuality is a label I want to claim. Unpartnered, unsexed, and also unchilded, I call myself queer, although I struggle with the semantic boundaries of the term and the in-or-out binary it implies.
In many ways, I wish I had a neat, homonormative label I could wear. I wish I fitted into some category, but I don’t. I’m not an Ace, not really. I’ve had plenty of sex and sometimes it’s been fun, although all too often it’s felt transactional: a means of earning intimacy, care, affection, and approval. There’s a demi-sexual category, too, within asexuality —sometimes called grey-sexual— and perhaps I’m that. But actually, I realise, I’m not looking for a label.
But I don’t fit in, and people judge me for that. Usually, I don’t suffer the hatred and violence that many queer people do. Instead, as a single, childfree woman, living alone with cats and now in my forties, I am more pitied and excluded. Sometimes I feel terrifyingly alone in the world. But among similarly queer people I mostly find community, and the vast majority of my friends tick the box marked “other”. All are queer, and/or childfree, and/or single or some combination thereof. They’re my chosen family. They get me.
But not everyone does. Even those whose own identities have for centuries been so harshly and harmfully judged don’t always get it. I recently watched a Mardi Gras/Pride parade with a bunch of gay men, vague friends, in Sydney, the gay capital of the world. Plenty of my close friends are gay –men and women– so this didn’t feel like an issue. If anything, I felt I was crashing their party, as Pride feels like is mainly about sex, and I continue to question where and whether I belong in that particular rainbow. But it was Saturday night and there we all were on Oxford Street, watching Pride. I’d gone along at the last minute to meet a guy I knew and a bunch of his friends. They were welcoming. Sweet. Funny.
I knew, of course, that other types of queer people —transgender folks, for instance— still suffer a lot of prejudice, even within the LGBTIQA++ alphabet soup. Trans has been called the gay of the gay world, and I was alert to any sense that these normative Priders —uncomplicatedly gay men— were being nasty. They weren’t at all. Dykes on bikes roared past, and the crowd clapped and cheered. Polyamorist throuples danced along and we all reached out for their hands, saying, “Happy Mardi Gras!” There were rainbow families, drag queens, drag kings, and bears. And everyone in the crowd cheered and clapped and waved.
And then a group of people —mainly women— walked along in purple t-shirts, and as people read their slogans, the mood changed, like clouds suddenly covering the sun. These were the Aces. The cheering stopped. The jeering began. “They just need a proper fuck,” a leather-clad biker near me said, and his mates laughed, as if they were braying, homophobic straight guys laughing at poofters.
“They don’t know what they’re missing,” someone else said, and, in my head, I transposed this, imagining someone telling a gay man he doesn’t know what he’s missing if he doesn’t have sex with women. I didn’t know how to arrange my face. I didn’t know where to look. Before, I’d been smiling broadly and now, over the pulsing music, I could hear my own pulse. The swirl of colours felt swirlier as I swallowed, my mouth dry.
“Who the fuck do they think they are?” my supposed friend said, to me, but also to his other friends. “This is about pride,” as if no one could be proudly asexual. As if asexuality was only something to be ashamed of. His friends murmured their agreement and I turned away. Five minutes later I said I’d drunk too much and had to go home. A lie.
That night, I sobbed for a long time into the furry flanks of my gentle black cat. Recounting the story the next day to a friend, I cried again. Writing it now, I’m choking on tears. I’m queer. I’m a queer form of queer. I’m here. And I’m invisible.
I’m not lonely. Or, I’m lonely less often than I was when I was last partnered, more than a dozen years ago, which is to say that sometimes I do feel lonely, and that this is part of what it means to be human. A handful of other close friends —all fellow weirdos, oddkin, after Donna Haraway— have become my de facto family. I may not be partnered or childed, but I’ve found other ways to love and be loved. This means that I’m not waiting for someone to come along and make me complete. I’m single, I haven’t had sex in years, and I live alone with two yin-yang cats (the gentle black cat has a feisty white sidekick). In the Middle Ages, here in Edinburgh, I’d have been tried for witchcraft by now, for sure. Even today, intolerance comes from some surprising quarters. But I no longer care so much about other people’s approval. I am who I am.