This is really hard to write about, and in fact this is my second attempt because I went off on a wild journey last time I tried. That post is unlikely to see the light of day.
A couple of weeks ago, I went round a friend's house and took a seat in her kitchen among some of her own friends. One of the first things that happened was that someone said "nice skirt", to which of course I made some kind of self-deprecating comment, as one generally does. One intention behind that comment is to put me at my ease, which I appreciated because the situation was potentially quite socially uncomfortable for reasons I don't want to go into. It was a positive stroke, as the jargon has it. Incidentally, it was this one:
Most people would probably not have just bunged it on the bathroom floor and taken a photo of it with a carrier bag in the corner, but clearly I did. It is a nice skirt of course, in my opinion. The days of deliberately wearing clothes I disliked all the time are gone.
When that happens, of course I appreciate the niceness and positive intentions involved, but it always presents me with a quandary because I don't know whether to return the compliment. Particularly when I first meet someone, I am like everyone else unclear about how I'm perceived. It varies from person to person in a way it previously didn't, although it did surely vary at least as much in different ways previously. To some people I am undoubtedly a bloke in a dress and they are unclear as to my motives for presenting myself in that way, or possibly suspicious of them. To others, I'm a transwoman.
To go off on a tangent for a moment, I used to feel I needed a practical excuse to visit people. We might both be in a pressure group and there could be a need to arrange something like a stall or a leaflet drop, so in spite of the fact that I just wanted to see them because I liked their company, I would only actually go to see them if I had that kind of excuse for doing so. Someone pointed out that this probably distorted my relationships with them. Similarly, I might leave a social event or not talk to people because I felt they wouldn't want to talk to me or have anything to do with me. I'm sure this is not unusual. Probably everyone goes through this at least occasionally. It's not good in itself and it can have the side-effect of making someone come across as stand-offish.
Yesterday I had a long conversation with someone I've previously only known vaguely but known for getting on for two decades. It surprised me when they said at one point that they were pleased how friendly I was because I'd always seemed quite aloof to them. This may be something fairly crucial but I'm going to miss it again if it is.
Back to the "nice skirt" compliment. I have in fact sometimes returned such compliments. Someone said she liked my dress a while back and I told her how much I also liked hers, and it was fine. Breezy is probably the word. Nonetheless there is some discomfort in my mind when I do this sort of thing which I feel the need to explain.
Say I meet someone for the first time and she tells me she likes my dress. At that point I may have no idea how she sees me. Am I a man in a dress to her? In that case she is may be trying to put me at my ease because it might be seen as quite nervewracking for me to do this, and it certainly can be sometimes. Or, am I a woman of some kind to her? In that case she's probably trying to do the same thing, but the situation is slightly different. The problem stems from the fact that I don't know if she's making any assumptions about my sexual orientation. I now have to digress again.
There is a tendency for people in some situations to think they are more aware of certain motives someone else has hidden from themselves, and this is doubtless often true, and as true of me as of anyone else, on occasion, and people sometimes correctly call me out on this. Another, related phenomenon is for people to look for traumatic past experiences to explain current behaviour, feelings and thoughts and of course this sometimes happens to me. Reading Janice Raymond's book would be a case in point there for me.
The reason I mention this is that I'm about to talk about sex. More than anything else, stuff around sex is used to attribute motives and it also tends to be connected to trauma by others to explain current feelings and behaviour. I am on this occasion going to ask you to trust me on this when I describe my sexuality, and I'm going to start with an analogy.
Suppose someone is, let's say, a gay man. Nowadays it would be considered completely inappropriate to say they were "just waiting for the right girl" or that they were "really" hetero but traumatised by a negative experience of women or something. That's insulting and fails to respect their sexual identity. Happily, that kind of thing rarely happens nowadays. Unfortunately, the same is not true of asexuality, at least yet. There is obviously something I'm not saying here but even I recognise boundaries occasionally, so the anomaly some of you will be aware of is just going to have to stay unexplained and I'll just say we've been happily married for twenty-one years and leave it at that. I haven't got the option to explain that, I'm afraid. Just trust me that there is one.
Therefore, when I announce that I'm asexual, people very often seem to assume it's the result of early trauma of some kind or perhaps a pessimistic or depressive reaction to my perception of life experiences. It really isn't, and you're just going to have to have faith in what I'm saying here. It just isn't there for me, seriously, and that's not because I've repressed it or anything similar to that. I'm treading a very thin line here, trying not to say too much or violate anyone's privacy. What I want you to finish this paragraph with is the conviction that I really am asexual and that I'm not repressing or sublimating anything relevant to sexual feelings for other people or that I'm wrong about this. When I look at someone I find attractive, I see them in the same way as I might see a sunset or a flower, and there is no category other than that in my mind which means I can look at someone and find their appearance arousing, which is what I assume being sexually attracted to someone must be like. Nor is this a lack for me. I think of sexual attraction and repulsion as like dangerous psychoactive drugs which distort people's judgements and feelings towards each other and I'm very happy I have very little of that.
OK, so are we clear? We've got that out of the way have we? Go ahead and believe what you want now, I've tried my best to convince you.
Once again, getting back to the "nice skirt"-type incident. When I get a compliment like that, I feel the urge to make a similar one back, and that's where I run into problems because of my ignorance of how the other person perceives me. If she thinks I'm a hetero man or a lesbian, in other words gynephilic, she may think that compliment is motivated by sexual rather than aesthetic attraction, in which case it won't be received well or in the way it was intended. Therefore I usually remain silent on the matter and don't return the compliment. I can guarantee, and you are just going to take this on faith, that there is and can be no sexual attraction for me and that there is unlikely ever to be that, and that I prefer it that way.
What I don't know is how this comes across to people - whether they notice that I don't compliment them back or not. I am of course aware of the whole issue of judging people on their appearance in any case but also that image is to some extent a controlled, deliberate and intentional project which people pursue to create an impression of some kind. It's very hard to interpret silence, so I'm giving you a helping hand here. The chances are that I am not just soaking up the compliment and self-centredly failing to return it. I'm much more likely to be restraining myself from complimenting you. At least you know what's going on now. I don't know what you make of it and to be truthful, that sometimes really disturbs me.
Don't even get me started on "nice tracksuit".