This post was written for the September 2021 Carnival of Aces, where the theme is “The ‘We’ of Me.”
In minority communities, we tend to use language like, “the asexual community” or “the trans community” to refer to the set of people in a particular identity group. And while my queer and neurodivergent identities do give me a sense of community and solidarity with other people like me, I find labeling identity groups as “communities” to be somewhat disingenuous, as these groups are so large and diverse that it’s impossible to make generalizations about them. Even when I do find myself talking about concepts like “the asexual community,” what I’m really referring to is the set of specific asexual communities I regularly interact with, like the ace blogosphere, the ace communities on sites like Reddit and Tumblr, and asexual people I personally know. It would be unfair of me to assume that these specific communities are representative of the global asexual population, so when I talk about “the ace community,” what I really mean is my ace community.
I often use language like “we” or “us” to refer to the groups I’m a part of as a way of signaling my membership in those groups. But what exactly I mean by “we” in these cases can be complicated and context-dependent, particularly when I’m talking to people outside those communities. When I signal my group membership to someone outside that group, I am implicitly nominating myself as an ambassador to that community and electing to carrying the burden of representing it. This is a challenging prospect, because I can only speak for my ace community, but the person I’m talking to is likely to assume I’m speaking for all ace communities. In my experience, people who aren’t a member of a minority community often have a bad habit of assuming that we’re a hive mind—that we all share the same thoughts, opinions, and perspectives. A consequence of this is that when I’m acting as an ambassador to one of my communities, who I include in my “we” influences how outsiders see and understand it.
Being an ambassador means representing the vast diversity of opinions and perspectives held by people within your community, some of which you are likely to personally disagree with. For example, there are some autistic people who have different perspectives about advocacy than I do, polyamorous people who practice polyamory in different ways than I do, and aspec people who use different conceptualization schemes than I do. While I might think differently than these people, they have as much a right to an opinion as I do. What should I do in these cases? Is it fair of me to only represent the perspectives I personally agree with? What should I do in the case of an opinion that I don’t just respectfully disagree with, but consider harmful? Does my responsibility change when I hold a minority opinion compared to the rest of the community? While I can always explain that I don’t agree with a particular opinion, do I have a responsibility to at least acknowledge it? Is it irresponsible to allow someone outside my community to assume my opinions are shared universally?
Oftentimes, when I use “we” to refer to one of my identity groups, I’m really only referring to the subset of that group that feels the same way I do. This subset might be a majority within the communities I’m a member of, but it would be selection bias to assume that it’s representative of the identity group as a whole. I think sometimes there can be social pressure to actively dissociate yourself from the members of your identity group that you disagree with on important issues—an aversion to identifying with those people, the “bad” ones. However, in doing this, I think it’s easy to end up committing a No True Scotsman fallacy: “They’re not really a member of the neurodiversity community if they support Autism Speaks” or “They’re not really polyamorous if they practice Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” I often wonder if I’m justified in disidentifying with certain subsets of my communities like this, particularly when acting as an ambassador. Do I have a responsibility to represent perspectives I disagree with? Is dissociating myself from parts of my communities destroying the cohesiveness of the communities as a whole?
I think there are certain inherent dangers in distancing yourself from certain subsets of your communities, one of which is succumbing to respectability politics as a mechanism for gaining social acceptance. A great example of this is the relationship between the trans community and the otherkin community. Many trans people—non-binary people in particular—really dislike the otherkin community and make a concerted effort to ensure cis people don’t associate the two. Otherkin folks draw a lot of ire from the trans community for eroding the credibility of the trans rights movement; what trans person hasn’t been called an attack helicopter by some transphobic asshole? We’ve worked hard for decades to be taken seriously and have our gender identities respected, and in the minds of many trans people, the otherkin community is undoing all that hard work. The problem with this attitude is that it’s an example of respectability politics—the idea that the only way to gain social acceptance is to prove that we’re not so different from the rest of society. This means conforming to patriarchal norms to make ourselves palatable to cis people, which isn’t the right way of going about gaining rights.
I’ve talked in the past about how I often have to misrepresent my identity or my communities to make coming out to people easier, and I think this concept applies not just to the definitions I give or the labels I use when explaining my identity, but also to how I represent the attitudes and perspectives held by the communities I’m a part of. When my personal perspectives differ from the prevailing attitudes of my communities, I’m sometimes stuck between accurately representing myself and accurately representing my community. For example, the conceptualization schemes that are most commonly used in the aspec communities I’m originally from and in aspec educational material aren’t the conceptualization schemes that I personally find most useful. Most aro people in my communities explain their identity in terms of differentiating between romantic and platonic attraction, but this dichotomy—and even the nebulous concept of “attraction” as a whole—isn’t how I understand my identity. So when I’m tasked with explaining my orientation to people outside the community, I have to decide whether to explain my identity in the way I personally understand it or to use the language they are more likely to see when interacting with other aspec people. As I explained in another essay, I typically just avoid this problem by labeling myself as “asexual” and leaving it at that. This is a great example of how deciding who is included in my “we” can be complicated when I’m acting as an ambassador to one of my communities.
I don’t believe that I—or any member of a minority group—have a responsibility to educate people about my communities; people have a responsibility to be respectful towards others, even towards groups they don’t understand. However, when I do choose to educate someone about one of my communities, I do feel like I have a responsibility to represent my community fairly, because that person may assume that I speak for all people in my community, and I may be their only exposure to it. This isn’t a responsibility to the person I’m educating, but a responsibility to my community. But who exactly is included in “my community” and whose opinions and perspectives I choose to represent can be complicated. When my perspectives differ from those of other members of my communities—which can range from understanding my identity in a slightly different way to actively dissociating with those whose opinions I find harmful—how far this responsibility extends isn’t always clear. Maybe I have no responsibility to represent anyone but myself; after all, all of our experiences are unique.
Let me know what you feel your responsibility is to your community when it comes to representing dissenting opinions.