I think about aromanticism a lot. I think about how being aromantic influences my behavior, how it informs my perspectives on media, how it affects where I fit in the world. The question I don’t think about as often is where aromanticism fits in the world, especially when it comes to where other people place it (or more specifically, where they don’t). Here are two cases where the answer left me wishing for something better, and two possible solutions.
The American Psychological Association’s style guide is great. I recently found out that the APA endorses using singular they, which was super exciting because it gives singular they more legitimacy and lets me point to an established authority when someone says that singular they isn’t proper English. But when I looked more into their style guide, I came across a familiar disappointment: comprehensive guidelines on gender and sexual orientation in writing, but no dedicated page for aromanticism or romantic orientation.
Digging a little deeper, the style guide says:
Sexual orientation is a part of individual identity that includes “a person’s sexual and emotional attraction to another person and the behavior and/or social affiliation that may result from this attraction” (APA, 2015a, p. 862) … Some examples of sexual orientation are lesbian, gay, heterosexual, straight, asexual, bisexual, queer, polysexual, and pansexual (also called multisexual and omnisexual).
It’s great to see so many different identities acknowledged, but what about aromanticism? Should it be mentioned here? My gut reaction is to say no, because aromanticism is a romantic orientation and it could be confusing or misleading to list it on a page about sexual orientation. (That is, unless you have a section that does some aromanticism 101 and provides enough context, but in that case, why not make a whole separate page?)
On the other hand, aromanticism is an orientation, so if the passage was amended to “Some examples of orientation are…”, I think most people would say aromanticism belongs in that list. It’s also worth considering that most people use “sexual orientation” to mean “orientation” in a broader sense, and that some aros see their aromanticism as their primary label and/or see aromantic as their sexual orientation. Finally, while “emotional attraction” isn’t a particularly common phrase, it could be interpreted to mean “romantic attraction”, which would be grounds for including aromanticism on a page about sexual orientation.
Admittedly, whether aromanticism is mentioned or not in the APA style guide is a fairly low-stakes issue in the grand scheme of things. The style guide can be released in a new edition that mentions us the way we want, and the APA already puts a big emphasis on bias free language. But at the same time, how we think and talk about where aromanticism fits in this example can help inform our opinion when it comes to more impactful writing.
The Equality Act
The Equality Act is a piece of currently pending U.S. legislation “[to] prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation, and for other purposes.” Anti-discrimination legislation like this is important, and it would wonderful if this was made into law, but its wording leaves a lot to be desired. See, the Equality Act says that “‘[the] term ‘sexual orientation’ means homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality.” (Sec. 1101(a)(5), Definitions and Rules). In addition to erasing a number of identities, that definition is quite a bit narrower than you might expect for something that’s supposed to completely prohibit discrimination.
To reiterate, I’d love to see this turned into a law, and this wording probably does protect against discrimination on the basis of being aromantic. But while the argument that such discrimination would still be legal because the text doesn’t explicitly mention romantic orientation or aromanticism (or even emotional attraction like the APA does) feels flimsy, I don’t know for certain what would happen if someone used such an argument in court. It would be nice to have a stronger guarantee that legislation that’s been billed as “[providing] consistent and explicit non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people across key areas of life” would consistently and explicitly provide those protections to everyone, aros included, or at the very least have some acknowledgement that the legislation has some potential holes. If we’re drafting legislation that moves people from the legal gray area of maybe-having-rights to definitely-having-rights, we don’t want to inadvertently leave anyone behind.
And if you zoom out and look at the question of what terms like LGBTQ and queer encompass, you’ll find lots of discussions and definitions having to do with gender identity and sexual orientation, but very rarely romantic orientation or orientation in a broader sense. Combine that with how lots of organizations have almost no resources on aromanticism, and you end up with this weird mixture of erasure and othering from the things that should be on your side, that should be able to at least acknowledge your existence.
Solutions and a Wishlist
How can we stop aromanticism from being left out from these and other places? I see two options. We can shift the language other people use from “sexual orientation” to just “orientation”, or we can start talking about aromanticism as a sexual orientation. I think the best solution is to talk more generally about orientation instead of specifically sexual orientation, in no small part because my gut says that asking for aromanticism to be folded in as another sexual orientation would be a mistake. But honestly? I think that the latter would be easier to accomplish than the former, especially on a wide scale, because we can change how we talk about aromanticism, but we can’t force other people to change how they talk about orientations.
At the end of the day, there are two things on my wishlist. First, I’d love to see some discussion in the community about what to do about all this. I know that I’d rather have people talk about orientation in more general terms than have people talk about aromanticism as a sexual orientation, but I’d like to hear what other people think. It’s also entirely possible that there’s one or more solutions that I’ve missed. Secondly, for anyone who wants to be a good ally to aromantics? Contact us. Listen to us. Raise our voices. Make resources with us. Work with us on the issues we care about. We’re as real and important as any other identity, and we deserve to be mentioned.