by Teresa Santos

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman must be in want of a husband.

Except when they’re in want of a wife. Or a partner. Everyone wants somebody, right? Mm, maybe not.

If you have been paying attention to Asexual Awareness Week, chances are that you have come to realise that that isn’t always the case. There are those who don’t want a sexual partner. Those who don’t want a romantic partner. Those who simply don’t care for a traditional relationship. Sadly though, there are plenty of people who remain adamant that a life bereft of sex and/or romance is not a “real” life. Like with everything else, every thought is more predominant in some countries than others.

As someone who has lived in two European countries (Portugal and England), trust me when I say that the difference can be striking.

I was still living in Portugal when I found out asexuality existed. That I wasn’t a one-time freak. It was early 2011. For weeks, months, I kept quiet. Nobody else had heard of it – if they had, they’d have mentioned it in Sex Ed, Biology or in some other conversation. To my knowledge, anyone who didn’t have a romantic partner or showed interest in “love” would immediately be pitied, mocked or deemed a closeted homosexual. I was nineteen and knew for a fact that many were certain I was a lesbian. But still, there must be someone out there I could talk to face to face, right? Someone who got it.

Well, it figures that no, not really. The only out LGBT+ person I knew in my university told me it was a phase. When I turned to the Portuguese LGBT+ forums, I found a single thread on asexuality. It was brimming with derogatory posts. Asexuals were called closeted, prudes, sick, and viler things still. Despite this, I naively told a few colleagues of mine I got along with. They asked if I was an amoeba and laughed awkwardly.

If the queer Portuguese community – the one who should know what it’s like to be erased and set aside – , if my fellow biologists to be – who ought to show interest in the world’s diversity – did not accept or try to understand me, what was the point in coming out? To be laughed at further?

So you can imagine my surprise when I went on an Erasmus program to the UK and found that the university I went to not only had an LGBTQ+ society but they mentioned asexuals in their website. Not as an after-thought, but right there. In the middle of all other orientations. I wasn’t being ignored or laughed at. I was being included and celebrated.

Still, this did not mean that they would like asexuals. Maybe it was just politeness. Who knows? But when I walked up to two members of the society who were handing flyers, when I stammered that I was ace, they grinned. They told me there were others like me. They handed me a flyer and told me to go to their next meeting. Then, they introduced me to the others. And suddenly there we were, asexuals of all kinds, discussing our experiences along with trans men, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, … everyone. Heck, there were even informal talks on asexuality open to the student body.

Slowly, they gave me the courage not to be quiet but to tell my lab colleagues about my sexuality. Not all at once, but slowly. Whenever romance or sexuality came up, I’d let it naturally flow into the conversation. Some had heard of it. Others had not. They’d cock their heads, say “really? I’d never heard of it. What’s it like?” I’d explain and, because we’re all biologists, we’d delve into a conversation about genetics, neuroscience and ecology. Not in a “your brain needs to be fixed” way. In a curious, let’s understand the world way.

It was not perfect. The “what is it?” was still there, as was confusion. But there was no dismissal. Only understanding and simple curiosity.

In both countries, I am half inside the closet, half outside it. Anxiety always wraps its fingers around my heart when it comes to uttering those words. But if you ask me where I’ll admit to being ace with less fear, the answer is easily given. The UK.

Now, don’t get me wrong, a lot has changed in Portugal the past two years. A couple of articles have been published on the biggest magazines and newspapers. It came up on national news once. There’s finally a Facebook page and group for asexuals in Portugal. There were a handful of people waving the asexual flag on the last LGBTQ+ march in Lisbon. Asexuals are popping out their heads from their hide-outs and waving hello.

But it’s in the small things that you can see change. Just the other day, I was sitting on a lab bench next to a Portuguese colleague of mine. We were chatting about what we’d do after work and I mentioned I would be writing a blog post about asexuality. His answer? “That’s cool! (pause) Oh, did you finish labelling the tubes yet?” No condescension, no nothing. It gave me hope. The tides might finally be changing.

There is still a lot to be done in both countries. But maybe, just maybe, we might be close to being acknowledged. That by itself deserves a big slice of chocolate cake to celebrate. Would anyone like to join in?

Teresa Santos is a biologist, a writer in the making, and an aromantic asexual. When she isn’t busy eating chocolate or trying to catch up on reading, she can be found prowling Twitter @tessalsantos or babbling about books, photography and whatever tickles her fancy at Approach with caution to avoid second-hand embarrassment for she is prone to geeking out and singing in the middle of the street.