Hello darlings! Today marks the beginning of this year’s Asexual Awareness Week! According to the organization’s website, the campaign has been running for seven years now, which is very exciting news. As a person who identifies as asexual, I care a lot about this particular week in October–in fact, last year I wrote a post all about asexuality and my experience with being ace.
Last year’s post was something of an “Asexuality 101” as experienced by Your Illustrious Author. Among the information I had to offer in that post was a tidbit of terminology: ‘allosexual’. In the asexual/LGBTQ+ community, the term ‘allosexual’ is used to describe someone who is not asexual. In my own words to friends, “there’s the asexuals–that’s me–and the allosexuals–which is all y’all”. It’s like using cisgender as an opposite to transgender, or allistic as an opposite to autistic. It’s a term that gets the point across without being a) already loaded with a hundred other semantic notions (like ‘sexual’) or b) exclusive and othering by nature (such as ‘non-asexual’). And I get to call my non-ace friends ‘allos’ for short. (Which sounds like ‘aloes’. Who’s the plant now?)
Seems simple enough…except. Except I’ve stumbled onto a debate that’s causing me to question whether it’s a good idea to use this term after all. It’s a debate that opposes two different but equally parts of my identity: the asexual…and the francophile.
The Problem(s) With ‘Allosexual’: A Québécois Loanword?
Upon researching the various objections to the term ‘allosexual’, it turns out there are more than one. They include:
- Confusion in academic work: turns out the original usage of ‘allosexual’ in academic journals was in relation to ‘allosexual behaviour’ and was contrast to ‘autosexual behaviour’. In layman’s terms, the word was used to describe whether you were participating in partnered sexual activity or masturbation. Not quite the association we want.
- Unintuitive: here meaning, nobody knows what ‘allosexual’ means without it being explained. It’s not a widely-used word, so it’s not well-known or well-established as a term and might be unintelligible to the average speaker.
- The most interesting issue by far:
The term “allosexual” already exists, or at least its French incarnation (allosexuel/le) does. It was coined in 2001 by the REJAQ, a Quebec organization for LGBTQ youth. In 2005, the term allosexuel was officially recognized by the Office québécois de la langue française (essentially, the people in charge of accepting and officializing neologisms in Quebec) as the only accepted French equivalent for the English term “queer”. (From this post!)
The rest of the post is dubious in my opinion (because in general I take everything from tumblr with a whole shaker of salt), but this little nugget is fact. And for anyone who doesn’t know, language politics in Quebec (and in Canada in general) are really serious and really complicated. French, as a language, does not have the same sort of linguistic freedom that English does. In English we can just coin new words on the go and–if they catch on–they become accepted into the dictionary later. It’s a very ground-up approach to language change. French is a lot more top-down, meaning unless a governing institution approves the word (seriously), it’s considered either a nonsense word or, more likely, a loanword/anglicisme.
Because of the MASSIVELY HIGH volume of vocabulary that is near-identical between English and French (you can thank the Norman conquest of 1066 for that: nearly 50% of English vocabulary comes from French), it does make sense for the average (non-linguist) speaker to look at the words ‘allosexual’ and ‘allosexuel/le’ side by side and assume one word had been loaned off the other language. And because of the way English has been stepping all over French in Canada for the past however long, it also makes sense for that same average speaker to assume the French loaned it from the English. From there, it’s only one logical step away to assume that ‘allosexuel/le’ means “allosexual” and not “queer”. And that poses a problem for the entire French Canadian LGBTQ+ community. It’s explained more in-depth in this article/interview:
Queer people, especially queer youth in quebec, don’t have the luxury of coining new terms and having them become accepted. Since English is everywhere it’s really easy for English usages of words to overtake Quebecois French usages, even within Quebec, and then you get messy language politics happening within francophone queer communities where people are using a label that used to apply to all queer people, including queer aces, to now mean all non-ace people including cishet ace people. So queer aces end up without a way to clearly id as queer, queer non-aces get lumped in with cishet non-aces as tho they are equally oppressive to aces. (Inadvertently, due to the global natural of the internet,) English speakers have the luxury of being able to just change how we speak and generally having it be accepted (instead of literally having to have words that we want to use to describe ourselves be approved by a governing body if we want to use them at all and have them be recognized – and that can be a huge issue in a province where there are restrictions on how non-French words can be used in published writing, signage, etc)
Even as an anglo-dominant bilingual, it’s weird for me to think about: so in one language I’d say I was ‘allosexuelle’ but in the other I’d be the opposite? How did that even manage to happen?
Welcome to the wild world of false cognates, or as we call them en français, “faux amis”. (Yeah. Literally ‘fake friends’.) In short, the words actually developed entirely separate from each other–they haven’t had any contact up until someone noticed they were both in circulation. It’s the same as any other homonyms (words that sound the same but have different semantic meaning), such as English ’embarrassed’ VS Spanish ’embarazada’ (which actually means pregnant.)
So the term ‘allosexual’ is not a loanword from the Canadian French. But does it still cause problems for francophone queers when members of the anglophone queer community use it? And should anglophones still reconsider using it?
Why It Matters to Me: Language and Identity
You know, there’s a whole field of study that would jump on a case study like this. It’s called sociolinguistics. Its focus is the myriad ways we manipulate language to express, reinforce, or subvert our standing in society; sub-fields include language and race, language and class, language and gender/orientation, issues in multilingualism, and more. For those of you who know the women and gender studies jargon, sociolinguistics is sort of the intersectionality studies of the linguistics umbrella.
It just so happens to be my favourite field of linguistics–in fact, despite the fact that this debate caused me to question whether my choice of words was harming the Québécois French-speaking LGBTQ+ community, despite the fact that I had to sit down and reconcile these two parts of my identity, I was nothing but thrilled the whole time. Here’s why:
How often does an issue pop up that involves all three of these major passions of mine? How often do I get to apply my expertise in not one, not two, but three totally different topics? (As a self-confessed multipotentialite, it was a boon from the Renaissance gods.) Being able to apply my knowledge to this issue from so many different angles and perspectives is a real challenge-accepted moment.
Why It Matters to You: 5 Things to Take Away
- This is a very fine-tuned example, but it still demonstrates the broader best-practice: be conscious of how you use your language(s). Different words mean different things to different people. Consider your different social groups, and consider the language you use in each. If you try to take into account not just how you will understand a word but also how your audience will understand it, you will become a far more effective communicator.
- Small things have large histories. The world is interconnected and vastly complicated, and chasing down something as simple as the origin of one troublesome word can teach you volumes of valuable information.
- No minority should silence another minority in order to uplift is own voice. That’s called ‘lateral violence’, and it’s one of the worst enemies of social innovation and true equality. Consider the areas in your own life where you quietly step on others–individually or systemically–in order to get ahead. How can you behave with more compassion instead?
- Asexuality awareness, obviously. The fact that we need to have an ‘awareness week’ at all sort of points out how much of the general population is ignorant or misinformed about this particular manifestation of sexuality. If you want to explore the subject further (and in my opinion, everyone could use a good study session on human sexuality), head on over to the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), or any of the other links on my Ace 101 post.
- It’s okay to examine issues without arriving at a solution. After all this reading and researching about the debate, I still don’t know whether I’m going to give up using the term ‘allosexual’, or what I would use in its place. It’s something I need to ponder for a while longer. You don’t always have to ‘fix’ whatever you’re working on–sometimes just leaving it open-ended is the most powerful (and responsible) way to go. Sometimes “I don’t know” really is the best answer.
I’m still trying to figure out my thoughts on the matter–if anybody has sources or viewpoints, please, come share! (And if you’re curious to read up yourself, there are links to further discussion below.)
Happy 7th Asexual Awareness Week: go forth and be aware of me!
With love and golf carts,