It hurts when even my sisters look at me in the street with cold and silent eyes. I am defined as other in every group I’m a part of. The outsider, both strength and weakness. Yet without community there is certainly no liberation, no future, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between me and my oppression.
~Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals
You can choose to exist: you can choose not to be a ghost.
~Kazim Ali, Silver Road: Essays, Maps & Calligraphies
…But [Bechdel’s] story is not everyone’s story. That’s why it is important that the queer archive become vast—enormous, swelling with new stories, ringing out with new voices, brimming with influences both radical and infinite…We have the power to be archivists, to imbue something with historical weight.
~Genevieve Hudson, A Little in Love with Everyone
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lieutenant Commander Data, the first android to be admitted into Starfleet, is put on trial. Commander Maddox, who sees Data as only a machine and property of Starfleet, wants to disassemble him to learn how to create more like him. Even though this procedure could cost Data his memory, function, or even life, the Commander will not take Data’s “no” for an answer. And so, Captain Picard must prove Data is a sentient being with the right to determine his own fate.
As an aromantic, asexual, and agender (all part of the “A” in LGBTQIA) person in the literary world, I often feel like Data—on trial. I must prove I have a right to exist in my field and literary community, where many place sex and desire at the center of their work and worldview and see my existence as a threat to both. I must prove that I comply with the rules of literary sentience. My inclusion, employment, and publication depend on it.
In the mirror, I’m adjusting the knot on my new tie, swaying back and forth to alleviate some of the nerves that come with being at AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), especially so as a gender non-conforming person. This is my first year expressing my gender identity at the conference. I’m nervous about what to expect or how to navigate the literary world—a world I’ve been a part of for years—in my true skin. At 33, I’m done passing.
I have given considerable thought to my hair and my outfits, as probably most people do at AWP, especially marginalized people. There’s a lot at stake here. If you want to exist in the literary world, you can find a job, a publisher, and a place by impressing the right gatekeepers. You can also ruin all those things. And no matter how I would wish it otherwise, physical appearance—and bias—play a big part.
I’m trying not to think about gatekeepers who can harm me on a professional level. Instead, I’m trying to anticipate the potential harm people I pass may inflict, people who may read my curves as feminine and not like that my expression doesn’t match what they think a female is or should be. I wonder if the outfit I’ve chosen will be the last one I wear. I’m trying not to sweat through my new shirt.
The walk to the convention center is a good distance, and I’m getting a lot of glares from the people—both with and without AWP badges—I pass. A couple men give me that “I’d teach you a lesson if it weren’t for all these people” look.
It doesn’t get better at the book fair. I get glares and sneers from people I pass and from people at a few booths. When I try to buy books at one booth, I’m ignored, and when I ask to pay, I’m treated as an inconvenience. This casual hostility takes some of the bounce out of my step and makes me pause a moment before approaching people I work with as I move through each aisle.
Later, I’ll read The Disabled and Deaf Uprising’s “Behind the Scenes at AWP with members of The Disabled & Deaf Uprising,” an important essay not only about accessibility in the literary world but the lack of representation of and for writers with a disability, and I’ll know I’m not alone in finding the bookfair less than welcoming. But right now, I feel lost at sea.
When I tell my handsome, straight, male, cisgender colleague about my Tampa experience so far—including a couple mishaps with the hotel, which caused a financial emergency—I’m called a “curmudgeon.” He’s enjoying his experience, all of which has been smooth, so why can’t I? Maybe, protected by privileges of which he may be unaware, he’s never seen the small turn fatal.
In a recent essay, “Why I Can’t Have Coffee with You: Saying No to the Patriarchy,” Carley Moore writes eloquently about the small. She unpacks how the little things affect an individual’s health and survival and how they can be symptoms of large oppressive systems.
Each bathroom break, at least one person in the women’s restroom looks at me as if I don’t belong and might tell me why. The family bathroom is far away on the first floor and closed when I check. I wash my hands quickly and leave.
I’m called “ma’am” more than once, unnecessary gendering/misgendering that nags at me. At a work meeting, one of the speakers misgenders me and doesn’t apologize, doesn’t even notice. On a panel, another speaker misgenders me but apologizes after the panel is over.
Only once during the conference does someone ask me about or for my work. They cut through the crowd and encourage me to submit before disappearing. I don’t see them ask anyone around me for work. Was I asked because of my gender expression? Is this inclusion or tokenism?
In her essay, “White People Love Me: Dispatches From The Token,” Morgan Parker says, “Here is the curse of the token: the tokenizer (see: white supremacy, see: white men, see: oppressor, see: majority) thinks they are doing the token a favor, giving a gift. The gift is isolation, is limitation, is submission.” In another essay, “Tokenism May Cause the Following Side Effects,” Parker elaborates on the cost of tokenism for writers of color, especially the psychological toll of having your complexity and worth narrowed into a single dimension to fill a specific quota: “You will start to forget you are an individual. You will start to forget what your poems are and can be.”
As an agender writer, should I feel grateful the person asked for my work, even if the person may have simply wanted to drop me in their diversity bank (nonbinary writer? Check!) without doing the work—asking my name, finding out if I’m even a writer, getting to know what I write or have written—or should I feel one-dimensional? Did this person hurry off to spend time on their “real” writers—the ones their journal will spend the most time and perhaps money promoting and listening to? Should I feel like an afterthought? A bow tied on at the end?
My colleagues and I share which offsite events we’re interested in. They don’t align. Most of the events aren’t close to the hotel or convention center. I don’t know how to tell my white, male, straight, cisgender colleagues, who may see my fears as paranoia because they walk in their shoes and not mine, that Tampa is not a safe place for me and I’ll be at risk going to and from the conference and especially to and from offsite events. I wonder if the AWP organizers even consider the safety of marginalized people when choosing conference locations. I decide to stay in at night.
This is not the first time I’ve decided not to attend a literary event because I didn’t feel safe or welcome, and it certainly won’t be the last. Bars are especially complicated for me. In a place where people often go to hook up and feel comfortable chatting about their love lives, it’s hard to not out myself. And if I out myself, it’s often among people who’ve never heard or don’t approve of my orientation. Backs turn, people become awkward, silence falls. Or, the invasive questions start, and I become an object of curiosity.
During the trial, the prosecutor asks Data, “Commander, what are you?”
The trial is not the first or last time Data will face prejudice, discrimination, and hostility for being an android, though it is the first attempt to take away his rights on an official level. Dr. Pulaski, chief medical officer on the Enterprise, takes every opportunity to point out Data’s nonhuman shortcomings. Pulaski seems determined to label Data as “less than,” even though he’s superior to humans in almost every way. She insists on calling Data “it” no matter who corrects her.
As an agender person, I exist outside the gender binary, and so my existence, for some, is in question. People who can’t think outside the binary demand, “Are you a man or are you a woman?” When my answer is neither, I become nothing to them.
In an interview with Claire Schwartz for the Los Angeles Review of Books, jayy dodd talks about facing this same question, “…whenever someone asks, my response is, ‘I am your question.’ It is yours. I don’t have a question. You do. And your question, that is who I am.”
If you look at the books my small press community has and continues to put out, you’d never know asexual writers, and especially poets, exist. I sometimes wonder if they do myself. In the ever-growing queer archive, I find work I love and work that touches on my gender orientation, but rarely do I find myself.
Dodie Bellamy writes in Academonia, “Wherever we looked, nothing reflected us, defined us.” This is mostly how I feel in the literary world. I look around and I’m absent. Not even a ghost because I never existed to begin with.
To prove Data isn’t just a machine during the hearing, that he has human qualities and is important to those around him, Picard presents Data’s belongings: mementos that signify friendships, his service medals for excellence and valor, and his hologram image of Yar, his one-time lover. With these, Picard convinces Maddox and the JAG officer that Data is indeed sentient. The JAG officer rules that Data is not property and can refuse the unwanted procedure.
Aromantic and asexual people are often called robots. We are dehumanized aggressively by those who cannot fathom our existence and who require proof of romantic and/or sexual attraction and action in order to see us as human.
But, just as Data adds immeasurable value to his crew, we have so much to offer the literary world. We may even now be making your organizations more inclusive, more in touch, and more successful. We want the rights and protections our colleagues enjoy. We want what you want: we want to belong.
The first AWP I cried at was in Washington, DC.
I had just escaped from a fundraiser where one reader made cliché jokes about people who don’t have sex or don’t live a life of desire. The reader had drawn the “us vs. them” line, putting me firmly on the outside with religious fanatics and Trump supporters. Almost everyone in the room laughed at the prude jokes, shared knowing and flirty glances, united against those they saw as repressed or undesirable. I left, feeling I had been made enemy to their sexual liberation.
I cried in a hot bath in the quiet of a hotel room I could seldom afford. All the while telling myself you don’t belong here, these people will never accept you or people like you, just shut up and go away already while also telling myself you belong because there’s not a place for you, you have to face a mountain of bias and ignorance and make space for people like you, you must insist on existing. Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, which I’d read on the flight to AWP to calm my nerves, kept returning to me, pushing against the negative voice that wanted me to run away.
When this back and forth dissolved into numbness I read Ari Banias’ then-new book, Anybody, remembering the first time I heard him read in a dim, artsy room in the Bay Area from a caved-in couch, hoping words that were a tether then would be a tether now. I read the whole book until the water was as cold as I was, thinking about all the people, marginalized or not, who may even now be crying in a bathtub at AWP.
In another episode, Data almost loses his life to Ira Graves, who inserts his consciousness into Data’s body when his own fails. Graves doesn’t consider this possession unethical or even a violation because to Graves, Data is just a machine. Graves sees Data’s lack of sexual desire not only as a tragedy but as specific proof that Data isn’t human, since Graves considers desire to be a basic component of humanity. Graves asks Data, “Do you know what desire is?” Data replies, “No. I do not suppose I will ever really know.” To which Graves replies, “I feel pity for you. Your existence must be a kind of walking purgatory. Neither dead nor alive. Never really feeling anything. Just existing. Just existing.”
At the end of the episode, Picard comes to Data’s defense, telling Graves, “He is different, yes. But that does not make him expendable, or any less significant.” Swayed by Picard’s words and the violence Graves inflicts by failing to control his new body, Graves decides to vacate the android and transfer his consciousness to the ship’s computer.
The second time I cried at AWP I was talking to my sister on my cell. I was telling her about the dinner I had just come from with a colleague and what I’ll call a top client. A work-related dinner where my colleague turned, and to my surprise, said, “Janice is an asexual.” This unexpected segue came on the heels of talking about mental illness and other challenges children may face, and even as I asked myself how this turn had happened, I wondered if mental illness and asexuality were connected in my colleague’s mind. This idea sexual orientation is a mental illness is something the LGBTQIA community has fought and keeps fighting against.
As I was trying to decide how best to handle this outing without hurting my job, causing a scene, or turning the dinner and mood as cold as the feeling in my stomach, my colleague proceeded to question my asexual experience and views. My answers, in the shock of all this, were clumsy.
In the end, I didn’t object to being outed or discussing my sexuality. How does one refuse in such a situation when there’s a power dynamic involved, when there are people depending on my income, when I don’t have an ally present, when my standing in the literary community might be affected?
One of the questions my colleague asked was if I would still be asexual if I didn’t have such a close relationship with my sister. I wish I could go back in time and ask him, would you still be straight if you did or didn’t have a close relationship with any member of your family or your friends? Anything to make him realize how invalidating his question was. But I didn’t say that. I was on escape mode, trying to get through the rest of the dinner quickly and away to safety.
When I did escape, my sister was the first person I called because she understands. After the call, I ran a bath and read Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, another tether, each line a falling star landing in the cold of my stomach, and I cried until the water went cold as well. Perhaps this will be an AWP tradition.
I don’t have Data’s patience. His quiet endurance of prejudice and injustice, his ability to maintain relationships with people who dehumanize and hurt him until he finally wins them over, is something I admire, but sometimes find impossible.
When someone attempts to dehumanize or invalidate me, I don’t go stomping around breathing fire. No, instead, I internalize the anger and pain until it blossoms into a flare up: joint pain, dermatitis, pleurisy, sinus infections.
This inflammation is a struggle that only my close friends and family ever see. To exist in the literary world as an aromantic, asexual, agender person, at least for me, is to be inflamed.
It’s to be invisible, disbelieved, invalidated, dismissed, ostracized.
It’s to be in a community without feeling like a part of that community.
I have literary friends, a job in the literary world, and literary connections, all of which I’m very grateful for, but all were formed before I came out. I often wonder if I’d have any of them if I’d been out from the start. I often wonder how being out will affect my future. I wonder about all the asexual and agender writers who might never have a place, whose voices will remain buried under a dominant and domineering narrative.
To be aromantic, asexual, and agender in the literary world is to exist on the edge of a knife.
JANICE WORTHEN received their MFA in Writing from the University of San Francisco. Their work has appeared in The Rectangle, Switchback, Your Impossible Voice, Bitterzoet Magazine, on shirts and totes for Backwords Press, and in bags of coffee for Nomadic Ground. They are the editor of Night Music Journal.
This piece is part of a series about the unique experiences in the literary world outside of the binary. As VIDA expands The VIDA Count to include marginalized genders that may not fit neatly into boxes, this series encourages writers to refuse to let our stories be left out as we fight against cispatriarchal discrimination and erasure and imagine what gender equity looks like for us.