In the UK 2010 Equality Act, asexuality is not listed as a protected characteristic, part of the reason for this may be due to the lack of understanding of what asexuality is. Ignorance of asexuality can create several barriers for those who are ace and want to pursue STEM. In this conversation, Dr Craig Poku (he/they; @C_Poku93) will be joined by Dr Claudia Antolini (she/her; @CA_AstroComm) and Rob Husband (he/him; @NybbleLynx), who will be able to provide some insights into what asexuality is and what we can do as a community to be more inclusive.
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00:00:00 Craig Welcome to the Pride in STEM Podcast, a series centered around bringing forward the voices of those who face barriers within the LGBTQ+ community. I’m your host, Dr. Craig Poku, a Black British queer scientist who goes by he/they pronouns. We want to mark the International Day of LGBTQIA+ people in STEM with important conversations from different members of our rainbow community. that will provide insights, highlight barriers, and discuss solutions in the context of STEM, both within the United Kingdom and Ireland. In this episode, we will be focusing our discussion on asexuality. Under the UK 2010 Equality Act, asexuality is not listed as a protected characteristic, and part of the reason for this may be due to a lack of understanding of what asexuality is and how it can create barriers for those who are ace and want to pursue careers such as STEM. We hope that this discussion will be able to improve our understanding of what asexuality is and what we can do as a community to be more inclusive. Joining me today are the brilliant Rob and Claudia who are able to discuss with me some of these barriers. To begin, can you tell me a bit about yourselves?
00:01:04 Claudia Hi Craig. Well, first of all thank you so much for having me. It’s a great pleasure to be on the podcast. I have a PhD in astrophysics, I now work as a science communicator in the UK. I’ve lived here for four years now and I identify as an asexual. I’ve actually been closeted for close to fifteen years and I just came out this year—earlier this year so to share this side of my personality, but also to just reiterate on the fact that I didn’t want to live in shame anymore. I felt ashamed for a very, very long time and I didn’t know how to articulate it. And I just thought, “I have enough of this, you know? I don’t want to feel that way anymore.”
00:01:59 Craig No. That is a very brief but very to the point, introduction. And yeah, thank you for accepting our invite. Rob, would you like to give a bit of a background about yourself?
00:02:13 Rob Hi, I’m Rob. Yeah, thanks for having me on this podcast. You can find me online at my handle @NybbleLynx on Twitter, so if you want to contact me there that’s what I go by. So I am a demisexual software engineer working in the rail industry. I came out recently as well, but I also discovered that I’m demisexual about six months ago. And for similar reasons to Claudia where we just came out, “I can’t bear hiding myself.” And I’ve also had some struggles with mental health that I’m more open to now and that’s part of the reason I came out so quickly after discovering that I’m demisexual. I think I’ve always known but that wasn’t the word back when I was growing up.
00:02:59 Craig Again, thank you for the really brief introduction Rob. Before actually going into the questions that I wanted to ask, I just thought, could one of you explain what they mean demisexuality is for the audience who may be listening to this and don’t know that terminology?
00:03:15 Claudia So first of all, demisexuality is an identity that sits on the asexuality spectrum. The general definition of asexuality is having little to no sexual attraction. Demisexuality specifically is still, you know, sitting on that little to no sexual attraction, but if that appears it is usually, or most frequently, after an affection and—some affection. Some emotional connection with a person has appeared. This being said, the asexual spectrum is extremely colorful and composite and demisexuality is no different, so different people might experience it in slightly different ways. That’s pretty much how I experience it but I have experienced romantic attraction without sexual attraction, for example. It’s not a very clear-cut thing, but there are some commonalities to the asexual experience that people on the spectrum report.
00:04:30 Craig Yeah. And it’s actually really interesting that you bring up this point of it being a spectrum as opposed to it being a fixed definition. And the reason why I think this is quite interesting is because it shows that the asexuality spectrum is very wide. Everybody who is on the asexuality spectrum has different experiences. But just because they’re all different experiences, it doesn’t mean that any of them are any less valid. Rob, you mentioned that of course you also identify as demisexual. So, you also say that you work in software now in the train industry. I just want to know, I guess, what do you think are some of the key barriers that are faced by asexual people within your industry and STEM in general?
00:05:14 Rob Well, I think a common thing, and Claudia might agree here, a common thing in STEM generally is it’s very male dominated and what comes with that tends to be a lot of talk about relationships and sex, which can be very off-putting to someone who’s asexual, or even just sex repulsed and not asexual. That anyone who falls on the ace spec—asexual spectrum will most of the time make up an answer or feel left out or just—it kind of alienates you. At least for where I work at Siemens it’s—I think I’m the only ace person in my business—
00:05:56 Craig Oh, wow!
00:05:56 Rob —who is openly out at work. They’d heard the terms before, LGBTIA—the LGBTQIA+ community at work knows about ace and aro identities, but I’m the only person they’ve met who is ace. I’m also aro as well which kind of coming to terms with that stuff so I’m not too open about that. That’s another thing.
00:06:26 Craig Yeah, no. So for those who were also listening I also came aro earlier this year, but I don’t consider myself on the asexuality spectrum. And what was really interesting about my kind of re-coming out again is the fact that there is this confusion I guess about the fact that not many people have met people in the asexual/aromantic spectrum, and so in a way, visibility is quite needed. And Claudia, I assume that you probably mirror or complement some of Rob’s comments that he’s made so far?
00:07:01 Claudia So yeah. I do feel that what Rob said is true. Being a woman in physics, being asexual is—it’s quite tricky really because it’s kind of a double-edged sword. Because I have heard a quite annoying amount of times, you know, things like referring to formulas as sexy. Why do—literally, why do you need to do that? I find it a form of just laziness in language. That’s clearly not what you mean. Why are you describing something with sexual language? And this is something that clearly will make lots of women in the audience uncomfortable, or, I mean, by lots of woman I mean the few women who sit in a physics classroom in the first place. And as an asexual woman, it makes me feel doubly as bad, because I feel like I am supposed to be described by that. 00:08:05 I’m supposed to be a sexual object. And not only, I’m not necessarily willing to accept those—that kind of interest in me, but I just honestly don’t get it because it’s just not something that speaks to me. And this kind of barrier is a quite insidious one. The other thing that really—I—it just didn’t click for me what asexuality was, because Rob was mentioning, you know, the time when I grew up as well, no one knew what asexuality was. There were no asexual characters on TV, let alone in science. There’s no real strong role model. We don’t have an Alan Turing; it is just not there. 00:09:01 So that’s something that I find really strange. And the other thing is—which is very widespread in society anyway, but the ignorance around the asexual identities and the stigma around asexuality. I remember more than one conversation with friends in which I was trying to hint that maybe I felt like something was happening or not happening. And I remember receiving these reactions of, “Oh, but you are in a relationship,” or, “But are you sure? You know, you—maybe you should get yourself checked.” And I’m like, “Maybe I’m just telling you something and I would just like someone to listen to me instead of trying to look for something that is wrong with me.” And I didn’t really have the ability to find the words for it until very, very recently in my life and I find that just the denial of your identity is a really big thing. Like why would my idea of who I am not be okay?
00:10:25 Craig It’s interesting that you talk about the idea of your identity coming off as I guess broken in a way. Because—so there’s a TV show called Sex Education and without giving out too many spoilers, they actually talk about asexuality within one of their seasons. And one of the things that I remember from that season, which has kind of allowed me to come to where I am in my own head, is the fact that one of the characters felt because they weren’t interested in sex that made them a broken person. And the counselor was like, “Actually, it does not make you a broken person,” and I think that’s something that’s really interesting. What’s also interesting that you’ve kind of both touched upon is the fact that within STEM, there is still a very heteronormative way of being able to sort of function. So whether that’s describing language as sexy, whether that’s the fact that in a lot of networking events they will ask you about your partners. And so you end up in the situation where you feel as though you’re pretending to be something that you’re not and you can’t be your true, authentic self. 00:11:28 Which, we all know that in order for you to be able to do your best work, you have to be your true, authentic self, because otherwise you’re doing yourself disjustice. So which I think leads onto my next question because you’ve both touched upon it. How do you think the lack of representation has affected your journey in STEM? Rob, I’m actually really interested to hear your thoughts on this.
00:11:52 Rob Well, that’s kind of interesting because I—like I said, I didn’t even know I was demisexual until recently. So, it almost hasn’t affected me in terms of my journey to get to where I am currently as a software engineer. But if I look back at it sort of in a weird way affected my university life without knowing, and I was also in a relationship—a long-term relationship, but it was the only one I’ve ever had which is odd to a lot of university students. Most people have had two or three relationships during school and never, never had that. And also being in an engineering class, there’s only two girls, so [chuckles] you’ve got, yeah, that as well. So I haven’t really been affected, but now I know I am asexual, it kind of is affecting me more because there’s no one like me, none of my colleagues are like me. Actually, most of them are heterosexual and allosexual as well as far as they know.
00:13:19 Craig So actually before you carry on, what do we mean by allosexual?
00:13:24 Rob So allosexual is someone who is not asexual or not within the asexual spectrum.
00:13:30 Craig Okay.
00:13:32 Rob And you also have alloromantic which is the same for the aromantic spectrum.
00:13:38 Craig Yeah. So given what you now know now, do you think that you being—identifying with the asexual spectrum, making sense of demisexuality will affect your journey in STEM going forward?
00:13:53 Rob Currently where I am probably no, but I think as I, you know, progress and get promoted to higher positions which tend to be more male dominated, especially in engineering, the conversations about partners will come up and at the moment, I’m not bothered. But—I don’t know, ten years down the line, if I’m not married with a kid as is usual, that’s going to raise a lot of eyebrows to a lot of my male colleagues and that’s going to be an awkward conversation for me.
00:14:26 Craig It’s interesting because for me what I find—like I was reading an article the other day which stated that they felt that society is kind of stiffened 00:14:37 to this more progressive way of thinking in the sense that there isn’t the expectation that you should be getting married, or you should be having kids. But I would argue that that is only a very small snippet of society and I’m actually finding is that from a lot of my friends who are outside of STEM, there is still this expectation that, “I need to have kids by this age. I need to be getting married by this age.” Which especially when you’re trying to go through your career is probably something that you have to be like, “If I don’t fall into that neat box that society has put me into, then how do I then navigate that space?” Claudia, how about you? Because I’ve seen some of the things that you’ve written on Twitter, I’m interested to know how you feel the lack of representation has affected your journey within STEM.
00:15:26 Claudia So I have kind of a fun anecdote on this. I went to university in the second half of the noughties. If you were a physicist studying physics in the second half of the noughties, there was only one show that you would have watched. And it is a show that now everyone loves to hate including myself. That show, we all know what I’m talking about, is The Big Bang Theory.
00:15:58 Craig Oh, I was going to say, “Does it rhyme with the brig brown reory?” [laughs] just somehow I was not able to get that.
00:16:34 Claudia And it does. Which besides the, you know, occasional racism, transphobia, the constant misogyny, I—and ableism. Like, we all know all the things that are wrong with that show. But I think that I noticed at the time, and probably no one else did, is at the beginning Sheldon was pretty much asexual and aromantic; he showed no interest whatsoever in any romantic or sexual relationship at all. And then as the seasons went on, there was this very obvious emphasis on, “We need to get Sheldon a girlfriend because otherwise, you know, he’s the only one that is not either paired up or wanting to pair up.” And clearly it had to be a girlfriend because, you know, heaven forbid that we get….
00:17:12 Craig A gay physicist? Nooo!
00:17:14 Claudia A homosexual relationship on prime time TV? Never, ever, ever could that happen. But also why was ‘no relationship’ not an option? And I remember feeling so peeved and that was my first time experiencing asexual rage. I didn’t know maybe at the time, but I have—because I knew then already that something may be up with me, I was starting to read here and there. AVEN was just literally just being born at the time so I was curious. Like clearly, I was trying to give a name with how I was feeling. And as I realized what they were doing to Sheldon, I felt upset that they were trying to change him. What I didn’t know then is that I was getting mad at witnessing erasure because Sheldon could have been the first pretty openly asexual and aromantic character that everyone—virtually everyone would have seen The Big Bang Theory, right?
00:18:29 Craig Yeah.
00:18:30 Claudia So I was—I mean, with all the issues that the show has, which I’m not denying, but to some degree, I feel like I was robbed of asexual representation. And I just remember—like the weird—the reason why I find this funny now is that, clearly I—there was something about it that was really annoying me and clearly no one else around me picked up on it [laughs] because clearly I was the only one that was sensitive to that kind of issue. And I had no idea at the time, I wasn’t sure whether I was a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Clearly now I know I am, but I didn’t know fifteen years ago or ten years ago. I wasn’t sure of that. I just didn’t know where to even sit with those feelings and what I didn’t know is I was mad about erasure. 00:19:32 And like, you know, you asked Rob earlier, “Will being demisexual affect your career?” Well, yes, it will for the simple reason that I no longer want to hide it, therefore my work will be inspired by the fact that I am visibly out, by the fact that I am living authentically this part of myself, of my identity. Because I will be raising awareness among my colleagues, I will be pointing out why certain things are an issue for myself. And as an ally for the rest of the LGBTQIA+ community, I will be talking about why it’s important to be open about asexuality. Why asexual people are not broken, why we don’t need to be cured. Why asexuality is different from being aromantic. Because there’s still have so much conflation about it and it’s unfair to asexual people and to aromantic people, and the intersection of all of them however it sits. 00:20:41 It’s unfair to the beauty and complexity of the healthy, satisfying relationships that aromantic and asexual people can have and do have. We need more depiction of healthy relationships, we need more good examples. Also the thing that I—I mean, it hasn’t affected me visibly, but in the UK, asexuality is not a protected characteristic. If you read the Equality Act, I mean, first of all, it’s incredibly binary, but also the sexual orientations who are recognized are very explicitly being homosexual, being heterosexual, being bisexual, that’s it.
00:21:36 Craig Yeah.
00:21:38 Claudia So there’s no mention of pansexuality and there’s no mention of asexuality. And when not even the law knows you are there, it’s pretty bad. [chuckles] That’s when you know things are bad. And asexuality is a bit of a weird one, because we have the stealth superpower. Like you don’t really see us and realize we are necessarily asexual.
00:22:07 Craig Yeah.
00:22:08 Claudia And which is something that unfortunately some members of the LGBTQIA+ community use against asexual people. Because they say, “Oh, you’ve never been beaten up. You know, you’re not oppressed just because you’re not interested in sex.” Which is… [sighs]
00:22:23 Craig Oh, that’s hit some feelings.
00:22:26 Rob [sighs]
00:22:27 Craig Oh! Rob, go first.
00:22:29 Rob That’s an ironic statement as well because we do get it and we get it mostly online usually, but we do get threats of violence. And unfortunately some of us do also get beaten up because we are homoromantic or panromantic or something and we are in a homosexual relationship. I’m panromantic and I’m terrified to date a guy for that reason. Not because of my asexuality, because I’m pan as well.
00:23:05 Craig Yeah. I think it’s—well, like so for those who are listening to this, I—you probably hear me talk about intersectionality quite a bit. And the way that I kind of define intersectionality is that we all have privileges and we all have disadvantages. So if I use myself as an example, I talk about the fact that I’m Black British, and I’m queer, but I’m a cis man and because of that, there are advantages that I’ll have in life that other people don’t have. Be aware of your privilege and know when to stop and listen, and just be quiet sometimes. Because the fact of the matter is that—this is something that you’ve both kind of alluded to, is the fact that, by you erasing somebody’s identity as—by erasure it literally means excluding somebody’s characteristic based on the information that they’ve told you—you’re not allowing them to be their true, authentic self. 00:24:02 Which not only will have an impact on people who are struggling with their own sexual identity or their own identity in the sense that maybe they could be asexual and then growing up and wanting to go into STEM, but more importantly, it then means that you then don’t get the best workforce. Because unfortunately, we live in a capitalist society and we’re still driven by this idea of work. If you’ve got people who are not allowing themselves to be themselves, they will not produce the work that they need to do. So let people just be people, okay? Rant over. [laughs] So like firstly, this has been a really interesting discussion because, I mean, one of the things that like—and you may have even noticed, is even within the acronym that is commonly used nowadays of LGBTQ+, a lot of people still don’t include the I and the A and I think that I sometimes unintentionally do that. I guess before I go into the last question, one of the things I’m really interested in is, why do you think it is critical to ensure that we include the full acronym? Do one of you want to go for that?
00:25:13 Claudia I’ll try to tackle this. So, I mean, to be fair, the acronym keeps growing so I wonder very often, “Am I doing a disservice to my pansexual siblings by not using the P?” You know? And I could be making loads more examples. For me personally because there are so many people who still don’t recognize that asexuality is an identity that sits under, you know, the LGBTQ+ umbrella. You know, if you want to use a shorter version of the acronym. I have very strong feelings towards the fact that we should definitely include the Q for queer and questioning and the A for asexuality, aromanticism, and agender in the full version of the acronym.
00:26:13 Craig Yeah.
00:26:13 Claudia Because those two identities are still very challenged as valid identities within the community.
00:26:27 Craig Yeah.
00:26:28 Claudia That being said, I often just use LGBT+ or LGBTQ+ for the sake of brevity. And I know it’s not perfect, but maybe in the future, we will another way to describe the community that doesn’t have to rely on a very, very long sequence of letters. Just because I have a feeling that some people are starting to get really—I don’t want to say peeved, but that it’s tricky to keep track of the whole thing. So maybe we are in a moment that we can start looking for a redefinition. Not to pander to the heterosexual gaze, because I couldn’t care less, but—
00:27:13 Craig [laughs] Yes.
00:27:16 Claudia —as a way to, you know, redefine ourselves… and also recognize the fact that labels are just labels. A label is not my true self. I use a label to describe myself, but I am more than that label.
00:27:32 Craig Exactly. I think—
00:27:33 Claudia So….
00:27:35 Craig —for me because I—of course, we’ve got people who are queer and so I consider myself queer because like my sexuality is changing all the time, but I generally know what I like, but that’s why I use it. You know, we’ve then also got people who are intersex within the acronym who are usually excluded, and as you said people who are asexual, aromantic. People who are under that umbrella, they’re usually kind of excluded. And so I think until we’re at a point where everybody within the community is seeing everybody as valid, because we’re aware that within the LGBTQIA+ community there is still a lot of erasure. Until we’re at a point where that erasure is no longer thing, use the full acronym. We’ve kind of alluded to some of the solutions that we’ve spoken about in this chat, but if both of you could provide one solution to improve the awareness of asexuality within STEM, what would it be? So Rob, would you like to go first?
00:28:29 Rob The biggest one for me is, listen to your ace colleagues and your aro colleagues. They have a unique experience on LGBTQIA+ issues, but they have some knowledge that you might not know about and which I’m not going to get into now because we don’t have time, but I’ll just mention that the split attraction model, which we’ve vaguely touched on. Which not a lot—00:29:03 it doesn’t just apply to ace-specs, it applies to everyone. But yeah, listen to your ace and aro colleagues.
00:29:13 Craig And Claudia, how about you?
00:29:16 Claudia I am going to complement that by telling allies to challenge the status quo. If someone is, you know, trying to ask the question, “Oh, and how’s your partner?” or, “How’s your husband?” Or whatever, shift the focus away. Remind people that a traditional, romantic relationship isn’t everything. Because, you know, the problem is, you know, I am out, Rob is out. I know that lots of other people still aren’t, how do we create an environment where people feel safe and accepted?
00:29:56 Craig Yeah, exactly.
00:29:57 Claudia By challenging these attitudes.
00:30:00 Craig Yeah.
00:30:00 Claudia So clearly, once someone feels able to be out, which is a completely individual choice, and I don’t think that we should expect people to be out because there’s plenty of good reasons not to be. So I think that’s an extremely individual and delicate choice. For me it’s rather more about the fact, how do we deconstruct the traditional paradigm of allo, heterosexual relationships?
00:30:30 Craig Exactly.
00:30:31 Claudia How do we dismantle the expectation of a cisgendered white patriarchy? For me that is what matters more. So it’s not just about… centering the people who are out, which is extremely important, but enabling the people that still aren’t to feel safe. And how do you do that?
00:30:55 Craig Exactly.
00:30:56 Claudia By creating an ace inclusive community. Many people may not have or may not be aware that they have a transgender colleague at work, but we are still going to talk about pronouns, we are still going to talk about the specific things—
00:31:10 Craig Exactly.
00:31:11 Claudia —that the trans community faces because we want those people to feel safe, to feel like we have their backs. So if they ever decide—if someone ever decides to come to me and disclose that to me, they will feel like I’m going to have their back.
00:31:31 Craig Exactly. And I think that one of the things I’m just going to also complement on that as well is, for some people, and I realize this quite often, is that there’s this weird thing of people feeling, “Oh, I need to try and change the entire world on one go.” Start small, start with your friends and family. If you’re hearing that your friends and family are being—erasing people who are ace and aro, just question it. And you don’t need to be confrontational, just literally do it in a way where you’re having a friendly conversation. And through that, eventually like we have this weird exponential change, and hopefully we’ll have a difference. But that is my ideal way of trying to deal with this 00:32:08. And with that said, we have come to the end of this episode. So again, I would just like to thank Pride in STEM for providing us the platform for me to be able to talk [chuckles] to really interesting people within the LGBTQIA+ community. Again, I would also like to thank both Claudia and Rob for joining me to do this discussion. And this has been Craig Poku, and I will see you on the other side. So thank you and bye.