Asexual Love, by Holden Wright
This is not a love story.
My parents told us their love story as if it were a fairy tale. It is the story of a beautiful young woman (for the virtue of every woman of myth is her youth and her beauty) and a charming prince (for the virtue of every man of myth is his heritage). They met at an Institute dance. When my mother held my father as they danced, she says, she felt as if she had been holding her breath her entire life and had just now learned to inhale, to take in the sweetness and beauty of life. They married four months later, and the temple sealer told them their marriage was a special one, that they had been promised to each other in the pre-earth life, a la “Saturday’s Warrior.” (When I first watched “Saturday’s Warrior” as a teenager, my mother pointed at the screen as Julie and Todd sang “The Circle of Our Love” and said “That’s it. That’s what it felt like when I met your father.”)
I believed in their love the way I believed that Jesus rose from the tomb on the third day, or that Nephi crossed the ocean in a ship he built with his own hands, and that belief, more than anything else, is the reason I don’t have a wife or children of my own.
A few months after my mission, my 16-year-old sister gave me dating advice. We sat at the dining room table, eating scoops of frozen yogurt. “Just wait ‘till you have your first kiss,” she told me. “The whole world opens up to you. You’ll see.”
At that time, I didn’t yet have a word for what I was, did not, in fact, know I was different than anyone else sexually. My teen years I spent in a small town populated by the descendants of the Mormons who founded it. I had no examples of healthy teenage sexuality; everyone I knew hid their urges so well, I didn’t notice my difference. (When my teacher’s quorum advisor taught the Law of Chastity lesson, he sheepishly asked if any of us knew what masturbation was. I assumed by the class’ silence that none of us had ever heard the term, let alone participated in the practice. I’m still deeply unsettled by the fact that I first learned about masturbation from an adult neighbor rather than a peer or parent.) Coming home from my mission, however, I did have the impression that I would develop an interest in dating, that it would be easy to find someone I wanted a relationship with. But for me, that level of attraction didn’t seem natural, and I found my sister’s words neither comforting nor encouraging.
Dating as a teen was fun and easy: group events with friends that didn’t imply any sort of committment or attraction. When, as an adult, I began dating in earnest, I often wondered to myself how much I needed to like a girl in order to justify dating her.
My father offered advice too: “Don’t get into a relationship with a girl unless you could see yourself marrying her.” The fact was, I couldn’t see myself wanting so much as a second date from any of the girls (or boys for that matter) I knew. I wanted the kind of love my parents talked about, the fairy-tale love, strong enough to bind two otherwise incompatible strangers together. I determined not to settle for anything less.
I remember childhood crushes, kindergarten “aw shucks” infatuations that felt like the dime store version of the love my parents described. As I matured, my attractions did not. Through my teenage years I never went beyond the “aw shucks” phase. There were flashes of homosexual alarm, when I feared my orientation might be askew, but these feelings for other guys never hit hard or long enough to cause much concern. In all of high school, I can count having only one real crush-on a girl, strangely and mercifully enough-and I clung to this fact for years, citing it to myself as evidence of my straightness.
My first kiss came at twenty-two, lying in the living room of my girlfriend, Becca’s, BYUI-approved apartment, hoping her roommates wouldn’t walk in on us. Her thick lips slipped across mine, and I waited for the world to open. When we pulled back, I searched her green eyes, resisting the urge to wipe the kiss from my lips.I felt no different. Becca had previously kissed my neck with a tenderness that both shocked and embarrassed me, and I felt I’d better go in for a second kiss, sweeter this time, softer. Still, the fleshy secrets my teenage sister knew stayed out of my reach.
My relationship with Becca was doomed from the start; we played an on-again-off-again flirtation for the better part of a year before deciding to make a relationship of it. Even after we started dating it took me a month to actually kiss her. It just wasn’t a priority for me. This was also about the time I first heard the term asexual, and, after Becca and I accidentally broke up in the middle of watching “Arrested Development” together, I finally tried the label on, to see if it would fit.
One other experience proved my queerness to myself: I fell for a boy. I knew I had a sort of kindergarten crush on Riley, but I did not realize the extent of it until I sat behind him in our college YSA ward and watched him pass the tray of bread without taking any for himself. This hurt me more than I cared to examine. At the linger-longer luncheon after church, I wound up at Riley’s table, listening to him admit to the group of us that he needed a place to live, at least for a few weeks until his new lease kicked in. “I have a spare bed in my room,” I told him, and when I imagined Riley sharing my room, slipping out of his clothes at the end of the day and sleeping not six feet from me, I began to cry. Without ever meaning to, Riley introduced me to my own queerness, and allowed me to accept it. Though what I felt for him had no sexual context, it was as tangible as anything I’d ever felt, and I could feel, as my sister promised, the world opening up to me.
In a classic case of queer scene-stealing, I came out to my parents when they called me to tell me about my uncle Marc’s infidelity and imminent divorce. In the fallout, Marc’s wife, Veronica, spilled a lot of tea, including the fact that nearly a decade ago Marc had been excommunicated and rebaptized, a secret the couple had kept from the rest of the family. “We just want to be more open as a family,” my parents explained. “More honest.”
As we spoke, I drove through a quiet Rexburg night, cruising up and down the long stretch of hill that led to the temple. “Well,” I said, “if we’re being honest, I have something to tell you…”
In the months after I began identifying as asexual, I didn’t have a great working definition of asexuality, so the first handful of times I came out to someone, I rarely stuck the landing. I spent the better part of a year trying to avoid the label, but when I understood asexuality as a spectrum, it resonated with me. Perhaps a more accurate definition of my sexuality would be homoromantic demisexual, but people had a hard enough time with the term ‘asexual.’ I didn’t want to overwhelm anyone.
My parents felt overwhelmed. For an infinitely long 30 seconds, the line went silent as I pulled into the temple parking lot and waited for them to respond to my coming out. “We’ll need some time to process this and get back to you,” my mother said.
As I came out to more people, I began to realize that few knew how to process my sexuality. Their responses ran the gambit, and I quickly acquired a list of “what not to say to someone who just came out as asexual.”
· “Were you abused as a child?” (A roommate who I knew to be more open-minded than the average BYU-Idaho student)
· “Do you masturbate?” (An acquaintance I met at BYU-Idaho’s branch of USGA, an off-campus club where queer students gathered for understanding and solidarity)
· “Are you sure you’re not just gay and repressed?” (A queer friend who had recently left the church)
And, of course, like every good queer Mormon, I came out to my bishop, a man who I felt I should trust solely because of his position. “How long have you been aware of this?” he asked. I had no answer for him: forever? A few years? Just recently? With his thick brows leaning into each other, he gave me the link to the “Mormon and Gay” website and sent me on my way. I had little interest or experience in teaching others about my sexuality, so I did nothing to set him straight, and spent the rest of the semester wilting under his pitying Sunday looks.
When I visited them next, my parents had had enough time to process my sexuality. My mother and I discussed it over lunch. “There are people who can help you with this. Professionals. You still want a family, don’t you?”
I did. A recent experience making friends with an unbearably sweet, young Mormon family had bolstered my own hopes for a wife and children. “Good,” mother said. “I have a doctor for you to see. Here, write down this number.”
Dr. O’Connor’s room was all warm colors: honey and carrot and umber. I sat on a low, brown couch and listened. A Mormon therapist specializing in sex and sexuality, O’Connor spoke with confidence and control. “Now I need to know we’re on the same page here,” he told me. “If your end goal is to have a wife and family, I can help you with that, but I need to be sure that’s what you want out of this.”
I told him it was. I told him I was asexual. He waved my confession away with his hand. “Your sexuality has been hijacked,” he said. “We need to create new pathways of attraction in your brain. You’ll need to find a girl you feel comfortable experimenting with. I’ll work with your bishop if you want, so you don’t have to worry about church discipline.” In the meantime, he verbally stimulated me with pornographic heterosexual stories.
I met with Dr. O’Connor two or three times before I understood his techniques weren’t getting me anywhere (not to mention that I would never date a woman solely so I could ‘experiment’ with her in an attempt to change my sexuality). In those few sessions he told me:
· Homosexuality isn’t real; it’s just an extension of male body envy. (at one point I was asked to physically describe a man whom I had feelings for)
· “If you weren’t Mormon, I would have you put an ad out on Craigslist, asking for an experienced woman to help you through your ‘first time.’”
· “You realize this is all in your head, right?”
My experience with Dr. O’Connor put me off dating more or less indefinitely. I made a sort of deal with myself, or with God, that if I ever felt something real for someone, as intense and tangible as I felt for Riley, I would go for it. I didn’t anticipate that happening anytime soon. And, indeed, it took years for me to meet Mike.
I am now better at describing asexuality, although it is difficult to describe a lack of sexuality when you do not understand sexuality in the first place (imagine asking a colorblind person to describe what the world looks like without color). I only know I have a gap in my experience. I use the following analogy: imagine you are hungry. You have a fridge full of food, but when you peer inside, none of it interests you. Maybe at some other time you would eat that leftover pad thai, but now, you are hungry for something you can’t quite identify, something you don’t have any access to. There might not be a single dish that could appeal to your hunger just now. This, I tell people, is my experience with asexuality. I wanted something that would satisfy my hunger, but I wasn’t sure it could happen. Well then, shut the fridge I tell myself. Worry about something else.
When I stopped dating, a weight lifted from my shoulders. I now had no problem enduring the endless marriage talks in my YSA ward; I knew it simply didn’t apply to me. I was truly content to be single, until one morning I practically leapt out of sleep with this thought in my mind: “Could I really know what I was giving up if I’d never tried dating men?” In a moment of lightning clarity, I downloaded Tinder and began swiping.
I went in assuming that dating men would be no different than dating women--uneventful and exhausting--but a tiny flame crept to life inside me that wanted to prove me wrong. I went on exactly two Tinder dates that proved to be just as uneventful and exhausting as I’d thought. And then something changed.
Mike and I had crossed paths a few times due to mutual friends--I attended a party at his house once, he attended one at mine--but we didn’t really get to know each other until my best friend Paul invited us both to his birthday party, an all day romp through dive bars and hiking trails that ended in a downtown hotel room Paul had rented for out-of-towners. I didn’t remember Mike, but he remembered me. “The writer,” he said. “What are you working on now?” We proved to be the only out-of-towners, and stayed up talking hours after the party ended and Paul had passed out on one of the beds. I learned Mike was gay, was socially Mormon but theologically agnostic. I learned that he made pizza, and I understood, for one of the first times in my life, what it felt like to want to date someone.
I deleted Tinder and began texting Mike. We spent time together at the movies, or else making dinner at each other’s houses, long weekend evenings I considered dates, but that he always seemed to invite one of his roommates to. At an LDS-LGBTQ conference, I watched him tell nine different friends that he wanted to find time to connect with them, but would have to wait until his dissertation deadlines had passed. That same night he told me he wanted to see me again as soon as possible. I went home and laughed and cried and knew I was falling in love and didn’t care.
This is not a love story, but it is about love.
I am one of the lucky ones who never felt broken or lost or unworthy because of my sexuality. It crept up on me slowly, until I found myself ready to reach out and accept it. When Mikey strode into my life, he entered as natural as any prince charming; it simply made sense. And although I am asexual and he is gay, what we feel for each other is uncomplicated and true. It is the kind of love my parents modelled for me; it is everything I’m told I should want from a relationship.
The night Mikey came over to watch “Moonlight,” we held hands for the first time. We sat stiffly, having never yet bridged those final few inches that stood in the way of us loving each other through touch. The story unfurled on the screen before us, until the third act, when my fingers climbed onto his bicep and gently took hold. We turned to each other “This okay?” I asked.
“This is better,” he said. He plucked my hand like a fruit off the vine of his body, and guided his fingers between mine. We stayed like that the rest of the movie, our bodies leaning slowly closer, until my head landed on his shoulder.
When Chiron said to Kevin, “You the only man that’s ever touched me,” Mike turned his face to repeat the words in my ear: “the only one...and I like it.” At that moment, we were about ten minutes from the start of our relationship.
Mike was, I think, the first person to ever ask me point blank if I was gay. We stood 50 feet above the ground, atop an elaborate rope climbing structure at the park, hugging the tethers and watching a storm come in. I didn’t know an honest response that wouldn’t scare him. After knowing Mike only a few weeks, I already felt an insistent craving for him, and, based on the looks he gave me (loaded, half-lidded smirks and brilliant, high-beam smiles) I felt he reciprocated at least a portion of that longing. He agreed to let me make him dinner, and as I drove him to my place, he pointed out my car window to the local park’s gargantuan spider-web centerpiece in the park and asked, “Can we climb that?”
An hour later, at the top of the climb, I didn’t know how to tell Mike I was asexual. I thought of the various questions I’d received in response to my sexuality, effectively asking me to prove my asexuality. But Mike didn’t seem to mind; he simply trusted me.
After “Moonlight,” we sat through the credits silently, uncertain how to explore the uncharted physical territory we’d found for ourselves. He gripped my hand in one of his and stroked my fingers with the other and told me that he wanted to be my boyfriend. We leaned into each other then, drawn into our first kiss by a force strong as gravity and real as our bodies.
I have always been frustrated by the invisibility of asexuality. You cannot dress or do your hair or makeup to look like an asexual. There have been times in my life when I leaned into that invisibility and hid behind labels that were easier for others to understand. Now that I am in a homosexual-presenting relationship, I have the ultimate cover for my asexuality. But I don’t want to hide it. I want people to know that I exist, and that I am not afraid to say so. And I hope that people will trust that I understand my own experience well enough to know what label fits me best.