Frameworks of Visibility vs. Acceptance

As a followup to my previous post on “visibility,” this (crossposted) post features what I should have started with in the first place: diagrams.

There are four diagrams in this post. One presents three general approaches to community goals. From there, one depicts three broadstrokes ideological forces (which are the cause for those goals), one frames those forces in terms of a dialogue, and the latter circles back around to a disconnect between two of the aforementioned approaches to community goals.

The first set of diagrams concerns visibility, since people in the ace and aro communities talk about that one a lot, so that’s what I’m going to start with first. Note that I’m using “visibility” here to mean something like “awareness,” “getting the word out there,” or acknowledgement/nominal recognition, even though other people may be using it differently. Others are invited to respond with their own diagrams if they like. Just to get the ball rolling, here are some diagrams depicting three very general frameworks for approaching the question of visibility — visibility as a goal, visibility as a first step toward acceptance, and acceptance as its own axis.

Under “Visibility as a Goal,” the thinking goes that the community/identity is “invisible,” and what needs to happen is for it to become “more visible.” I’ve represented this with a circle for invisibility, a sideways arrow, and a circle for visibility, representing a shift from one to the other.

Under “Visibility as a First Step to Acceptance,” the thinking goes that, while visibility is not the end goal, it’s something you need in order to get to acceptance. I’ve represented this with (from left to right) a circle for invisibility/violence, a circle for visibility, and a circle for acceptance, with arrows flowing between them from left to right.

Under “Acceptance as its Own Axis,” the thinking goes that (in)visibility and acceptance/rejection are two different axes, rather than related in a sequential chain. I’ve represented this loosely with a kind of grid. Acceptance overlaps with visibility in the form of explicit acceptance, and it overlaps with invisibility in the form of implicit acceptance. Violence/rejection overlaps with visibility in the form of explicit violence, and it overlaps with invisibility in the form of implicit violence.

But this is a complete oversimplification in many respects. For instance, what is “acceptance”? What is “rejection” or “violence”? What are we looking at here? It might be easier to start with the latter category, rejection and violence. In the case of aros and aces, I think some general names for the forces opposing us are heteronormativity, amatonormativity, and sexnormativity.

As depicted in this venn diagram here, heteronormativity, amatonormativity, and sex normativity are theoretically separable but also overlap with one another. I’ve included a brief sentence for each concept — not as a definition, but more as an example of what might fall under that category. Heteronormativity may include “If you have romantic/sexual experiences, they need to be hetero.” Amatonormativity may include “You need to perform romance.” Sexnormativity may include “You need to perform sexuality.”

As names for general patterns & ideological-material societal forces, these take forms of violence/rejection that may have particular salience for aces and aros. Promoting acceptance of the ace and aro umbrellas would mean advocating against these forces.

This is still a vast oversimplification, of course. How do these things actually work? I won’t get very detailed here, but here’s another diagram, showing how you can think of the above forces not just as “messages,” but also as dynamics. The following two flowcharts to represent some extremely general dynamics. The first fits more comfortably with the (in)visibility paradigm, and the second one does not.

In the first flowchart, Nonrecognition, the sequence begins with “Do you fit the expectation?” Insert whatever expectation here. The two (oversimplified) options are “yes” and “no.” If “no,” then the response is “That’s not the truth.” This may mean obscuring other possibilities or it may take the form of a direct response in dialogue. For example, in the case of sexnormativity and aces, some examples of direct responses would include “you’re not asexual, you’re just [young/old/depressed/attention-seeking/sexually-repressed/immature].”

In the second flowchart, Violation and Coercion, the sequence begins with “Do you fit the ideal?” Insert whatever ideal here. The two (oversimplified) options are “yes” and “no.” If “no,” then the response is “You need to change.” Depending on the circumstances, this part of the sequence can trigger a range of violating responses or coercive methods, scaling from dismissive verbal remarks to the enaction of forcible/coercive medical testing and treatment (just to give an example). From here, the sequence has the potential to loop. Note the “You need to change” response may or may not include effective persuasion of the individual of such, disciplining them to feel shame and seek out/pursue changes themselves. I also consider a more general “That’s bad” response to amount to a more indirect form of “You need to change,” in that it disciplines the individual toward a view of change as desirable.

I’ve set up the two sequences as two separate flowcharts in order to make a point, but really, I don’t think they’re that easily separable in practice. The pressure to view oneself in line with a given expectation is not all that distinct from the forces telling you that you’d be worse off if you didn’t. If anything, I think “that’s not the truth” can be classified as a kind of rejection response, which pressures and disciplines people to think less of themselves and try to change somehow — if only in how they outwardly self-describe.

The point of these flowcharts is to explain that I think community goals should make sure to include attention to the latter sequence — by 1) identifying and 2) figuring out how to counteract those coercive methods & the ideological basis which supports them. For example, I think it makes sense for the asexual community to challenge certain psychological sexual dysfunction categories in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. I also think that “coercive methods” can take indirect forms, such as the amatonormative privileging of marriage in my country’s tax code. Those are some examples of very large-scale problems to tackle. In more general terms, attention to the second sequence means specifically affirming that a given group does not need to change and does not deserve to be pressured to assimilate. This may mean, for instance, affirming that aromanticism is morally-neutral, not immoral, and that people don’t need to date if they don’t want to — i.e. advocating acceptance.

These ideas have implications for reflecting back on the (in)visibility paradigm, which I will try to represent with another diagram.

In this visualization, “Visibility as a First Step to Acceptance” is now represented as a rising staircase, with three levels in the form of Invisibility, Visibility, and finally, Acceptance.

To the right of that, I’ve represented “Messages and Forces” with an assortment of word bubbles, each representing a kind of message (with, implicitly, some potential for that message to be “enforced,” as in the Violence and Coercion flowchart above). For these bubbles I’ve used two different colors to distinguish between two different kinds of messages: rejection (teal) and acceptance (purple). The teal messages include “All people are X, which is good,” “All people are X, unless they’re sick,” “All people are X, unless they’re repressed,” “All people are X, unless they’re bad,” “People who aren’t X deserve to be attacked,” “X is the most important part of life,” “People who aren’t X need to be fixed,” and “X is morally good.” The purple messages include “It’s okay not to be X,” “It’s not okay to attack people in order to make them X,” and “X does not need to be important to everyone.”

What I’ve realized, in mulling over the (in)visibility paradigm (and in particular “Visibility as a First Step”), is that I’ve been trying to mentally “translate” that paradigm into an acceptance/rejection paradigm. So, I have tried to represent that here. Underneath the First Step staircase, three arrows point downward to what each step can “translate” to in terms of forces and messages. The first step, Invisibility, translates to the message of “All people are X,” a teal bubble. The third step, Acceptance, translates to the message of “It’s okay not to be X,” a purple bubble.

What does “Visibility” by itself translate to? I’m sure the answer will seem obvious to some of you, but let me walk you through my thought process. For now, I don’t know what to put there, so I’ve represented it with a gray bubble with a question mark. The reason why I haven’t filled in the obvious answer — “Not everyone is X” — is because of the structure of Visibility as a First Step. Visibility as a First Step, as I understand it, describes “visibility” as something that comes first, before acceptance. Therefore visibility-by-itself cannot translate into a purple bubble according to the symbolism I’m using for messages.

There are only two other possibilities that occur to me for now. I’ve decided against going with a teal bubble, because what people are thinking of with the “step” of “visibility” is (presumably) somehow distinct from (or improving on) the existing status-quo messages of “Some people aren’t X and that’s bad.” In my understanding, that is not what people are asking for more of.

The third possibility that remains is that Visibility involves a “neutral” message. But here’s the hangup — simply presenting the idea of “Not everyone is X,” and presenting that recognition as neutral, or not a problem, is itself a message of acceptance. It is itself disruptive to the punitive messages which present exceptions to the rule of X as sick, bad, or wrong. “Visibility” without the hierarchy is visibility that takes the form of acceptance. This might not be the case when what you fill in for “X” is something without any ideological weight to it, but that cannot be said of the subjects I’m thinking of here. On planes of ideology such as sex and romance, there is far too much going on for any discursive-landscape-altering message to be just ideologically “neutral” in the same way as “there’s a shoe over there” is just “neutral.” To me, that kind of neutrality on these subjects is an incoherent proposal.

That, I think, might be my hangup in understanding what people mean by “visibility as a first step to acceptance.”

15 responses to “Frameworks of Visibility vs. Acceptance

  • Vesper

    …this is not at all what i was expecting when you said that you were working on diagrams (and don’t ask me what i was expecting, because i really can’t even tell you), but regardless. i really don’t have anything to say other than wanting to comment on how much your writing has evolved since going to grad school and how this particular post has left me speechless because… wow?

  • luvtheheaven

    So imagine 19 year old me, a decade ago, an aro-spec asexual with asexuality still a 100% invisible concept to me, aromanticism spectrum identities too. I needed the steps of finding out about asexuality between the ages of 20 and 22 before I could shift my expectations of myself, of my future, of what I’d feel eventually going forward in my life. I didn’t have “acceptance” that I was asexual until I was 23, and that aromanticism might be a helpful concept to me until even older.

    I wrote about this here:

    I wrote in that, “I certainly, therefore, felt no relief to find a name for what I’d been experiencing my whole life. No, I started to learn about asexuality out of curiosity” and essentially needed some steps between invisibility and acceptance on a personal scale of… Time to interpret the new “thing” in my “line of sight”. To integrate what I’m seeing into my concept of the many ways humans can be diverse. It was a step of figuring out if people claiming to be asexuals were indeed sick or confused like the more mainstream societal narrative proposed or if indeed asexual people were just one type of human being who didn’t need to be cured, who were actually *less* confused after figuring out asexuality. It could be the middle circle in a ven diagram overlapping with rejecting the people as sick or “full acceptance” but. Really it’s that messy, agnostic, “I don’t know” source instead of being sure asexuals are a people with a different sexual orientation and that’s ok, or feeling sure asexuals can’t possibly exist. It’s when that confidence of feeling sure asexuals can’t exist fades but the new confidence hasn’t taken over yet.

    Ok these were just my off the cuff thoughts immediately after reading this.

  • demiandproud

    Yes. All of the yes. Because here’s how it goes in an Evangelical or Orthodox-protestant church: LGBTQ people exist, they know. LGBTQ people are welcome to come to church, they say. LGBTQ people will then be ‘gentle guided’ to see how ‘wrong’ they are. LGBTQ people who ‘fail to see the truth’ cannot be ‘real’ Christians. So. The problem really isn’t visibility. The problem is acceptance. Funnily enough they’d even claim to accept LGBTQ people… at first. So all of the yes.

  • Carmilla DeWinter

    I still have to think about all this, given how my group has “visibility” in its name, but it actually does visibility (such as pride marching groups), education, networking with LGBTwhatever groups, other ace groups _and_ providing resources for aces. Because otherwise visibility doesn’t make sense. So, way too much on any given plate. But we actually declare to the state that we’re just doing education for the masses, because all the other stuff is legally not something you can get a “non-profit” stamp for in Germany.
    Apart from that, your diagram about Nonrecognition/Violation and Coercion — that seems kinda a two step thing. “You’re not x? That’s not possible. But if you insist, here’s the measures we’re gonna take to make you either x or at least shut up about not being x.”

    • Coyote

      Could be sequential, yeah, although that “first” step isn’t always there.

      Anyway, interesting note about non-profit status. I hadn’t thought about that kind of stuff.

  • epochryphal

    i hope this doesn’t come across as uncharitable or nitpicky because i am absolutely genuine when i say i find it delightful how “oversimplication” is an example of itself that just occurs naturally because “oversimplification” is just so long and they scan the same anyway.

  • Blue Ice-Tea

    Homeostasis(1) -> Disruption -> Feedback -> Homeostasis(2)

    Homeostasis(1): You start with heteronormativity, amatonormativity, and erotonormativity (or “sexnormativity”). These “norms” both enforce and are supported by asexual/aromantic invisibility.

    Disruption: You do ace/aro visibility. Ace/aro visibility disrupts these norms. It takes implicit hetero/amato/erotonormativity and makes them explicit. It invites people to question these norms and whether they are really worth upholding.

    Feedback can be either positive or negative.

    Positive feedback: People accept asexuality and aromanticism. They accept social critiques from the asexual/aromantic community. They reject hetero/amato/erotonormativity. Norms change.

    Negative feedback: People reject asexuality and aromanticism. They respond with hostility to asexuals and aromantics. They reaffirm hetero/amato/erotonormativity. Norms stay the same.

    Homeostasis(2): We get to a new normal. That new normal may be defined by continued or increased hetero/amato/erotonormativity. Or it may be a more welcoming, ace/aro-friendly place where people aren’t all assumed to have or want sexual/romantic relationships.

    Visibility is necessary to disrupt homeostasis(1). Without it, things will simply stay the same. But by itself, it won’t necessarily get you to the homeostasis(2) that you want. You have to work to promote positive feedback and resist negative feedback. I think that needs to be the focus of ace/aro activism right now. It’s never (for me) been simply a matter of saying “Hey, we exist!” It hasn’t even been a matter of saying, “Hey, we exist and deserve acceptance!” or even “Hey, we exist and deserve not to be subjected to violence!” It’s a matter of saying, “Hey, we need to change our fundamental assumptions about relationships in order to make aces and aros safe while simultaneously improving the lives of people who are neither!”

    Disruption itself is not the goal. Disruption is scary. Disruption is dangerous. But without it, we’re stuck with the status quo. And, for many people, that makes disruption worthwhile.

    Apologies if that was incoherent. I’m very tired. But I had thoughts and figured I’d throw them out there.

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