There is a sort of standard narrative for young LGBTQIA people that goes “I always knew I was different/I felt differently than my friends/I wasn’t like the other kids”. I had the opposite problem. I honestly believed that my feelings were the kind of feelings that straight people had. This was all well and good until I was about fourteen and suddenly all my friends started could talk about was sex. They talked about wanting it, they talked about having or not having it, they made jokes about it, they related every conceivable subject and a few totally inconceivable ones to it. It was bizarre.
This is a the part where a more self-aware, or possibly just better informed person might have taken a hint, but this was about six years before I would ever hear the word asexual, and I’d had five years of sex education which spent a lot of time emphasizing how to refuse sex, because there is still this pervasive idea that girls and women will inevitably be pressured into sex by men and that all teenagers will have to struggle to restrain their burgeoning sexual impulses. So I thought I was straight and it made me feel like a freak. Because everyone around me wanted sex, or as time went on, were having sex, and for everyone but me it was this fascinating, interesting, rewarding thing, that I didn’t get.
There isn’t really anyone to talk to when you’re a teenager who just plain isn’t interested in sex. There’s plenty of advice on how to refuse or resist having sex if you want to wait to have it, and on how to have it safely if you do, but it is taken as a fact, explicitly stated in sex education, and as an unspoken given in popular culture and daily life that as you grow up, you’ll have some urges, which make certain activities seem very interesting. So there is a dearth of advice for those of us who don’t. No one offers an explanation for what these feelings feel like, or why anyone might have them, that supposedly, comes pre-installed.
Some asexuals can keep up with the details of sexual culture, but I can’t. I struggle to pick up on sexual innuendo, I can identify ‘sexy’ poses by rote, but they just look silly, sex scenes look like two people rolling around on a bed naked, I first learned that there is some emotional significance to the choreography of these scenes beyond (what I assumed was) titillation less than a month ago (I’m twenty-three at time of writing). So when all my friends, my teachers, and, increasingly, my books and television shows started talking about sex as if I should know what was going on, I felt like everyone was talking over my head, and I hate not knowing things.
But, I didn’t have any way of describing my feelings apart from ‘different’, ‘not quite right’, and ‘kind of uncomfortable’, so, since I got crushes on boys, I figured, I was just a very weird straight person. I wasn’t, of course, I was, and always have been, a fairly ordinary asexual person, but I didn’t know any other asexuals, I didn’t see any asexuals in the media consumed. I didn’t even know the word.
Popular culture is not the best source of information and support about asexuality, but it was what I have always had. Eventually I would end up (at nineteen) finding real information from AVEN (via a link from tvtropes), which is where I found the first explicit reference to asexuality as a sexual orientation. But at fourteen, I had a set of Halo novels. This was lucky for me, because they remain one of the few sets of novels I have which have exactly what I needed at the time; an asexual character.
Video game novelizations with a target demographic of 15-24 year old men are not, as a rule, a good source of information about LGBTQIA issues, and true to form there are no overtly queer characters in the original three Halo novels or any discussion thereof. The Halo novels, are, in fact, something of a relationship free zone, with almost all the sex/romance content occurring as crude jokes or conversations between side characters. The reason for this is that they were all written from the apparently asexual perspective of Master Chief. This is not explicitly stated within the text. Master Chief isn’t, and will probably never be, an explicitly asexual character. But it didn’t matter to me, because he was the first character I saw who, sexually, looked and acted like I did.
Master Chief doesn’t have any sexual plot lines which was great, the closest he gets to romance is his low key and rather complex relationship with Cortana, which does not fit with any conventional romance narratives (now that I am older and better informed, I tend to describe their relationship as queerplatonic), and best of all, when people talk about sex (usually Marines making off colour jokes), he was as confused as I was.
This is not, to be clear, good representation of asexual people. It isn’t actually representation at all, but I felt better. Sure, everyone around me had fallen into a weird sex vortex and the fiction that I was the normal one was slowly slipping away. But if the biggest badass in the (admittedly fictional) galaxy still couldn’t understand the weird sex jokes, then it was probably okay that I was having trouble with them. Right?
This is the odd thing about queer representation (and representation in general). Representation doesn’t have to be representation to work. I do not believe for one second that the writers at Bungie wrote Master Chief as an asexual character, or considered the interpretation. Given how little known it is, I would not be surprised if most or all of them were not aware that asexuality was a sexual orientation. If I am represented by Master Chief, doesn’t he qualify as representation? Conversely, how can I be represented as an asexual by a character who isn’t technically asexual?
Master Chief finds people making sexual comments bemusing and so do I. I identify with this experience of (lack of) sexuality. When I later come to identify as asexual (remember that I wasn’t using the term at the time because I’d never heard it), I retroactively identify Master Chief as an asexual character on the basis of the commonality, although it is far from universal among asexuals. That is not good logic, but, once again, since identification is primarily based my feelings and experiences, that doesn’t matter, my emotional responses to video game characters do not need to be logical.
Queer (or other minority) representation has two purposes. The first is for queer people to be able to see people like themselves in the media they consume. Did I get this from my Halo novels… only sort of. As much as I valued them at the time, what I really needed was to hear the term Asexual in a positive setting. If I had had that, I wouldn’t have needed the relatively cold comfort I got from reading Halo novels in the first place. Instead of spending five years feeling confused and growing increasingly worried that I was defective somehow I would just have found out that I have a relatively rare sexual orientation. Identifying as asexual presents its own complications, but it is infinitely preferable to not having the words you need to describe yourself.
The second purpose of representation, is to expose other readers to the minority and provide visibility. To do this, a characters sexual orientation must be explicit. Characters who are asexual (or gay, or lesbian, or bisexual) only in subtext and implication are comforting to people who identify with them, but invisible to everyone else because they essentially rely on an internal sense of identification, like my realization that ‘hey, Master Chief doesn’t understand those jokes either’. A sexual person reading the Halo novels is unlikely to even realize that a bemusement at sexual innuendo could be a really significant character trait, let alone make the leap that it might signify an entire sexual orientation. A character who is openly asexual can communicate that that orientation exists, what it means, and even how it feels.
For asexual people who might be reading, watching or playing, this means a character can go from being a comfort to being helpful. Once I eventually found the term asexual (still in the context of popular culture) having the word meant I could go and find real world information about asexuality, support, and even other asexuals to talk to. Reading and playing video-games about an asexual space marine who was actually asexual would have been the perfect way to give me that basis.
This is how fictional superheroes save real people. We need asexual space marines, gay detectives, pansexual knights in shining armour, genderqueer superheroes and demi-romantic wizards. We need them to be common, unexceptional, obvious and referred to by name. Then maybe we can get rid of some of the secrecy and the unpleasant narratives we’ve been stuck with. Possibly with plasma grenades.